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on 13 August 2017
How did a relatively small band of Greeks halt the expansion of the mighty Persian empire and, subsequently, change the history of the western world forever?

This is the question to ponder on whilst you read this fascinating work.

Firstly, a quick note on the author, Holland has a brilliant knack for disseminating the classical past in an engaging way. From his descriptions of the brutal schooling of the Spartans, the fiercest warriors of Greece, to his portrayals of the political manipulation of Themistocles in the Athenian ecclesia – his beautiful prose makes for swift reading of complex procedures. Speaking as a history student, the past is not always as straightforward as we would like it to be. However, writers like Holland showcase classical history at its best by exercising scepticism alongside true representations of the myths, as they were supposed to be told, to give wonderfully coherent accounts.

For the first half of the book, Holland focuses on the origins of the Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta to assign a context to the battle for the west. Initially, Holland portrays the Medes as an insignificant, nomadic tribe on the fringes of established civilisation and then traces their rise to pre-eminence to the point of Eastern domination. The Persian story, both mystical and cynical, places the Great King in a semi-divine light with the purpose of annihilating the Lie in the name of Ahura Mazda, the omnipotent Persian god, and therefore gives the Great King an ideological, and undoubtedly pragmatic, motive for expansion. This background proves vital in setting the scene for the resulting conflicts and for luring the reader away from simplistic Greek perceptions of the Persians as effeminate, “trousered barbarians”.

The chapters on the development of Athens and Sparta demonstrate to the reader that the war was not just a matter of the Greeks versus the Persians. Classical Greece was, in fact, a very diverse place and the polis (city-state) next door could be a completely alien world; as a result, ‘Greekness’ was not fixed or defined. Holland reinforces this point with exemplary style as he handles the narrative of the precarious beginnings of Athenian democracy, whilst stage-managing the multitude historical actors, with ease and contrasts this with the austere and rustic development of Sparta. It soon becomes apparent throughout Persian Fire that the war was, perhaps, more about vested interests and demagoguery than it was about liberty or Hellenistic fervour.

Holland is in his element when describing the intense battle scenes towards the end of the book. The author creates vivid pictures in the imagination of disciplined Spartans taking comfort in their witticisms in the face of imminent death at Thermopylae. In addition to this the grim portrayals of the battle at Marathon, as a small Greek force first locked swords – or triremes – with the Persian invader, make for fascinating reading. However, the anticipation for these moments and the rich context provided are what make them truly satisfying to read.

However, with the positives aside, the reader should be prepared to find this work a challenging read. The study is obviously very well researched and can leave the reader feeling a tad overwhelmed at times. Anglicised versions of Greek names are not the easiest to read for someone in the infancy of their interest in the Greek world. But, as with all great works, if the reader perseveres and grasps the rudiments of the narrative they will be rewarded and will, most likely, build their vocabulary alongside enjoying a sensational story of the clash between east and west.

Eloquent and erudite, articulate and assiduous; Holland brings the classical past to life with sober judgment and novelistic flair. I would recommend this novel to anyone with an interest in classical Greece, but be prepared to find it challenging due to the prodigious amount of detail provided.
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on 17 June 2017
good book
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on 5 May 2017
I purchased this book because it was mentioned in a popular novel in a strange and intriguing list of must read histories.

I was delighted, therefore, that I found this history to be highly readable. Indeed I found it difficult to put down once it got into the drama of the battles for Greece. High praise for a factual book. I also enjoyed the contemporary vocabulary used in the judgements of the main characters. I felt that this popular style made the events and players vivid and accessible for the non specialist.

I was however a little disappointed that it did not keep its focus on the Persian world. I would have liked the story to continue its account of the empire through to Alexander and even beyond. In doing so it would have helped by shining light into the place I think best served by the promise at the beginning of the book.
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on 13 November 2016
This history of the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th-century BC is fundamentally misconceived, as becomes clear in its introduction, where the author reassures the reader of the topical relevance of his story by purportedly tracing back to it the present conflict between the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists. Herodotus, easily the most important source of our knowledge, is alleged to have been drawn to his tale through wondering why “the people of East and West find it so hard to live in peace.” This is simply not true: Herodotus said he was interested in “the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.” It has long been popular to claim historical legitimacy for that self-fulfilling concept, “western” culture, by tracing it back to the Greeks, but personally I think it greatly overdone. The Greeks would have considered Holland’s real forbears as at least as barbaric as the Persians and I suspect in most respects they would feel much more at home in the traditional Moslem countries of the Mediterranean, with their similarities of family structure, food, dress, beliefs about gender, fate, sex, hospitality etc. than in the US. This matters because Holland’s story is skewed throughout by his fundamental assumption.

Being based mostly on Herodotus, Greek Fire is eminently readable with lively character sketches and anecdotes and the most interesting facts well marshalled. Holland's frequently colloquial language will also appeal to many, though personally I found it gave the narrative a gratingly modern and anachronistic flavour. This is popular history and I would accept it on its own terms if only it did not misinform so often. Hundreds of examples could be listed, but to do so would be to bore most while wrongly suggesting to the seriously interested that this is a history whose conclusions are worth lengthy consideration. Two very different ones will suffice.

According to all the ancient sources, the Persian King Cambyses was succeeded by someone pretending to be his dead brother Bardiya, but, when the ruse was soon after discovered, the impostor was killed and his throne taken by Darius the Great. A few modern historians have speculated that perhaps the assassinated King was genuinely Bardiya and his impostorship was made up after the event to legitimise the rule of Darius, who might not have had the royal blood all the ancients believed he had. This revisionist view is that presented by Holland, though the grounds for it are extremely weak (anyone interested should read the scholarly and thorough demolition of it in the article on Darius in the Encyclopaedia Iranica). Holland is obviously entitled to believe and present any theory he likes, but to foist it as undisputed fact on unsuspecting readers hoping for historical truth is unforgivable.

Describing the upbringing of the Spartan boy, which he unsurprisingly milks for its sensational value, he asserts that “at the age of twelve, he became legal game for cruising” and being “sodomized”, that there were “fines for boys who refused to take a lover”, and the experience of submitting “must have been” traumatic for “most young Spartans.” Each of these phrases is a fine example of how Holland turns all that is known on its head and imposes on the ancient Greeks alien Anglophone assumptions. Actually, it was the men who were fined if they did not take up a boy. “Cruising” is a good example of why Holland’s use of current colloquial English also distorts. It surely suggests seeking out sex likely to be casual, the very opposite of the relationship between the Spartan boy and his lover, which was one of deep and lasting social and legal responsibility, and involved strictly no sex according to our most authoritative witnesses (eg. Xenophon), or very limited sex according to others. No one can possibly know that Spartan boys found being sodomized “traumatic”, since none are known to have been. If they had been, it is fairer to assume they would have experienced it as their other Greek counterparts did: Aristotle discusses the problem of boys liking it too much.

I don’t believe it is necessary for history books to be nearly this misleading to be widely popular, though I admit to thinking that in any case popularity could not justify the high cost in historical truth and understanding. If you want a lively account of these wars, why not simply read Herodotus himself, whose History is much better written and is the authentic voice of the ancient world?

Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander's Choice, a schoolboy’s story, amazon.co.uk/dp/1481222112
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on 25 September 2017
Tom Holland's thoroughly engaging style renewed my interest in Ancient History. Recommended particularly for Classics students like me, who feel their historical knowledge is far inferior to their literary knowledge, but find reading history in the original language tiresome.
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on 10 May 2007
In contrast to Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, which often lurches toward the more vicarious macho thrills afforded by blood-and-guts descriptive writing, this is well-written, thought-provoking history which is accessible for non-history buffs. It deals in equal measure with the origins of Persian expansion in the middle east, and how the nascent Greek societies were, in contrast to their foes, politically riven, frequently at war with each other, but brilliantly inventive when it came to military tactics.

Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea - the four major actions which put paid to the Persian plan to invade Europe - are described in major detail, and thankfully the Spartans' last stand only warrants a paragraph or so, giving the reader more scope to examine the wider Greek strategy for the entire 480/479 campaign. Great stuff.
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on 12 February 2010
One of history's great stories told fantastically by Holland. The background to the Greeks and the Persians is fascinating and the build up to the climax of the Thermopylae, Salamis and Passagae battles has you turning pages to find out "what happens next". Holland's candid admission of having to speculate about large elements is refreshing when you sit through the amount of conjecture and accepted wisdom in much popular history. Like "Rubicon", one that will end up a tattered, re-read tome on the bookshelf.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 10 September 2012
This is a superb piece of popular story-telling, where almost everything is done to reach out to the general reader, including pandering to what may "sell well" - sex, violence and gossip, in particular. The story is well-woven and the style is the usual, engaging journalistic Tom Holland style: easy to read, very accessible, occasionally witty and very entertaining.

First of all, the author cannot stop himself from "treating" us to his biases in his preface, with the worn and tired "clash of civilisations" theory brought to the rescue to justify a rather ridiculous parallel between modern times and what happened over 2500 years ago. Needless to say, there is simply nothing common between Ousama Bin Ladin, his bunch of terrorists, religious fundamentalists, regardless of which religion we are considering, and the United States, on the one hand, and the Empire of Persia, his rebellious Ionian Greek cities, and the hundreds of European Greek cities, on the other hand. Such a grossly superficial comparison is what is called an anachronism, and it is one of the worse mistakes that a historian can commit. Fortunately, Tom Holland only comes up with this in his preface

The second issue has already been mentioned (by Laura on Amazon.co.uk). Despite its title, this book is really about what Peter Green called "the Greco-Persian Wars". This is the title of his book, first published in 1971 I think, and which remains one, if not THE main reference on this topic, despite its age. Interestingly, someone comparing the two books will find numerous similarities between them. So, Tom Holland's book is NOT about the Persian Empire, which only gets a couple of chapters to set the scene, but about the struggle of a handful of Greek cities against what was the unrivalled superpower of the time. Those wanting to learn about the Persian Empire in more depth will simply have to read another book (there are quite a few).

More important, however, is the fact that this book is "story-telling" but NOT history, for a number of reasons. One is that Tom Holland picks and choses his interpretations, and sometimes even speculate, without justifying or even explaining his choices and how they may make sense. One reason for this is to "juice up" his story, to make it more appealing and alluring. This, however, is what an author writing historical fiction does, but you do not expect it from someone who portrays his book as history.

Moreover, Tom Holland sometimes behaves like an investigative journalist of the Sun, rather than the historian that he portrays himself to be. One example is that of Isagoras, who supposedly "pimped" his wife to Kleomenes, the King of Sparta. As Peter Green mentioned in his own book more than 40 years ago (and as Mr Holland knows perfectly well since he has read this book to write his own), this allegation reeks of the kind of slander and propaganda that Athenian politicians (and the pro-Persian Alcmaeonidae in particular) used against each other. Then there is the death of King Kleomenes himself, with Holland insinuating that his two brothers, one of which was the soon to become famous Leonidas, might have had a hand in his demise. This is both incredible and pure slander: there was no reason for the two brothers to "bump off" their elder sibling and, assuming that Leonidas was power hungry and eager to replace him as King, assassinating Kleomenes was not even necessary since he was thoroughly discredited already. Assuming he was killed, as opposed to the official "suicide version", it is much more plausible that this might have been instigated by the other Spartan royal family since Kleomenes had been responsible for discrediting and exiling Demaratos (who sided with Persia as a result).

Then there is the author's tendency to caricature in order to "improve" his story. So the Athenians get portrayed as a bunch of troublemakers, each of which believing that he is the smartest of all whereas the Spartans get caricatured as a pack of savage wolves trained to kill that only iron laws can keep in check. There is just about enough truth for them to be acceptable, but they are more the kind of portrays that you expect from George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones rather than from a historian. A fourth example is the allegation that Spartans' daughters were given by the fathers to other warriors to be sodomized. This, as Tom Holland admits in a footnote, comes from a much latter Roman source writing six or seven hundreds of years after the alleged events, and known to be very untrustworthy and fond of gossip and slander, something that Mr Holland fails to mention. Needless to say, this allegation is simply incredible.

You should be aware that there are numerous other cases where Tom Holland has essentially been writing a piece of historical fiction rather than a history of the Greco-Persian wars. For those wanting to spot them, a comparison between this book and that of Peter Green or of George Cawkwell (the Persian Wars) is rather edifying.
Having mentioned all this, the story telling is great. At times, it reminded me of something out of Pressfield, although this is not at all what a history book should be. The campaigns and battle were mostly both gripping and well told. There were, however, some problems, even there.

The most glaring example is that of the battle of Salamis. Tom Holland mentions the 200 strong Egyptian squadron that sails to block the western strait between the island of Salamis and the mainland, then he moves on to describe the Greeks' feints and then the battle. However, at no time does he mention what happened to this rather massive Egyptian squadron which was only a few miles away and which, if it had attacked, might have changed the outcome completely. So even there we have a bit of a problem...
To the extent that this book tells a superb story (much better than the Shadow and the Sword which I somewhat generously rated three stars!), it is worth four stars, but this is rather generous. As a history book, this is probably not worth more than two stars and I can therefore not recommend it.

For those wanting to read a real history book about these events, you might want to try one of the following:
- The Greco-Persian Wars, by Peter Green, which still remains my favourite and the bets I have come across up to now, despite its age
- The Greek Wars, by George Cawkwell - the failure of Persia, which tells a more balanced story from both the Greek and the Persian point of view and goes from the Persian conquest of Ionia to Alexander the Great and the end of the Achaemenids
- From Cyrus to Alexander: History of the Persian Empire, by Pierre Briant, which is a massive and very scholarly book centered on the Persian Empire, NOT on the Greeks, and which shows, in particular, to what extent Greek perceptions and propaganda (starting with Herodotus) have distorted the picture we have of the so-called "Barbarians" ruled by tyrants...
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VINE VOICEon 8 December 2012
Telling the story of a military campaign from the fifth century BC was always going to be a difficult assignment, given that there is a lack of primary sources and secondary sources are in conflict. However, going against popular consensus, Tom Holland has actually surpassed Rubicon for sheer narrative drive.

As with Rubicon, which invited parallels betwixt the collapse of the Roman empire and the potential implosion of the United States' empire, Persian Fire solicits another contemporary analogy, addressing as it does the attempt of a global superpower to crush two upstart "terrorist states." Regardless of whether that analogy can be sustained or not, Persian Fire is a dramatic read, taking us through the origins of the Persian empire and its clashes with the west, including the main battles and the tactics used therein.

The first third or so of the book was rather dry, dealing primarily with the internal politics and backstabbing that characterised the building of the Persian empire but once the scene changes to Sparta, the dramatic pace steps up. Certainly, anyone interested in the true story that inspired the graphic novel and film "300" (which mythologised the last stand of the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae), will find much of interest in this book.

Whilst Rubicon gave us a fresh perspective on familiar material, Tom Holland has taken on a much more demanding task with Persian Fire, masterfully illuminating an ancient war that could be argued to have set the stage for the next two and a half thousand years of European culture. The slow scene-setting in the first third of this book aside, Persian Fire is highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 November 2005
After two chapters describing how the Achaemenid Persian Empire grew until it stretched from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush, Holland focusses on the attempt in the 5th century BC of the Persians to add the small city-states of Greece to their Empire. It is one of the marvels of history how these city-states, rent by external and internal rivalries, managed in the end to preserve their independence, like so many Davids against one Goliath. The very different cultures and institutions of Persians, Spartans and Athenians are very well brought out, and Holland paints a vivid picture of this amazing struggle. His long set-piece descriptions of the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea are quite superb (though I wish the maps, to which one has to refer frequently, were fold-out end-papers instead of being scattered throughout the book). I would not have wishes these passages to be any shorter; but I cannot say the same about other passages, where descriptions, in a somewhat journalistic style, strike me as excessively wordy and repetitive - piling Pelion on Ossa, as it were. But this is a minor cavil about a book which tells a stirring story.
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