Friday, July 26, 2013

Persian Fire by Tom Holland

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, 
by Tom Holland, Abacus, 2005, 418pp. 

And for my next trick I shall attempt to review a book that I finished reading in the summer of 2011. Why bother now? Well, since reading Tom Holland's Rubicon a few years ago it's been my habit to have one of his historical blockbusters on my summer hols reading list. I plan to take his Millennium with me when we head for the Portugal next week. Thinking about Millennium jolted my memory that I'd not posted a review of Persian Fire on the blog. A bit of an omission really, because I so enjoyed reading it.

I first became fascinated with the classical period in school, where I did a Classical Studies O Level. Mr. Hamlet's lessons were probably the only ones to which I especially looked forward. He was a brilliant teacher, bringing Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to life. Mr. Hamlet wielded his board ruler as if it were Achilles' spear. He could throw his board rubber with pinpoint accuracy at any pupil who failed to give him their full attention, leaving a wide chalky stripe on their blazer.  I was something of a schoolboy socialist and proudly sported a non-regulation CND badge on the lapel of my blazer. Mr. Hamlet was the only teacher who praised rather than scolded me for wearing it. 

Anyway, in Persian Fire Tom Holland, narrative historian par excellence gives an immersive account of the Persian invasion of Greece, led by the mighty Xerxes. With high frame rate clarity the author charts the build up of the invasion. He tells the story of the rise of successive middle eastern empires; Assyrian, Babylonian and Medio-Persian. We're introduced to a cast of ambitious, ruthless and bloodthirsty empire builders, including Cyrus, Darius, Nebuchadnezzar and, of course, Xerxes himself. 

Meanwhile, Holland takes us back to ancient Greece and the Millibandian sibling rivalry that existed between Sparta and Athens. The historian recounts renowned battles between Greek and Persian forces; the Athenian hoplites crushing their opponents at Marathon, the Spartan Immortals heroically holding the pass at Thermopylae, and the eventual defeat of the Persian invasion force at Eurymedon. All told with gripping, cinematic detail. 

All this is interesting enough in itself, but the period also forms the backdrop to Old Testament history. Holland occasionally gives a nod to the Scriptures, referencing Isaiah's prediction that Cyrus would give the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple after the Babylonian captivity, Isaiah 45:1-3, cf. Ezra 1:1-4.  Daniel, who served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar spoke of the coming of a kingdom that would never be destroyed, Daniel 2:44. The once mighty empires of old now lie in ruins, yet the kingdom of God still endures. It's only weapon is not a hoplite's spear or a revolutionary's Kalashnikov, but the 'sword of the Spirit', which is the word of God. The truth spoken in love. David Bentley Hart has deonstrated how the 'Christian Revolution' transformed the moral and spiritual values of the ancient world in his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which I read alongside Persian Fire. Reflecting on the latter title brings to mind the words of David Charles' (1762-1834) great hymn, translated from the Welsh by Edmund Tudor Owen,

Great providence of heaven--
What wonders shine
In its profound display
Of God's design:
It guards the dust of earth,
Commands the hosts above,
Fulfils the mighty plan
Of his great love

The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God's kingdom yet endures
From age to age

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