Persian Fire

In his preface to Persian Fire, Tom Holland notes that though the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, seemed almost unbelievable to Americans and Europeans, the animosity between East and West had its roots in ancient history. Long before Christ or Muhammad, the Greek historian Herodotus had speculated on the source of the enmity between East and West that had convulsed the civilized world for a century, ending only forty years before he began writing his history. Could it, he wondered, have had its roots in the Trojan War almost eight hundred years before? Or was its origin shrouded in some forgotten event or myth? Although, like Herodotus, Holland finds himself unable to account for the determination of the East to subdue the West, in Persian Fire he shows how close the East came to succeeding and makes it clear that the outcome was crucial in human history. By winning the battle of Marathon, the Greeks made it possible for nations to live in freedom and for their people to govern themselves.

Although the time line in Persian Fire begins with the approximate date of the Trojan War and includes references to the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonians, and the Medes, such events and civilizations, for Holland, were merely prologue. The Persian Empire began in 559 b.c.e. with the accession of Cyrus II to the throne of an obscure country called Persia. The following year, Cyrus defeated Media. Because the Medes were superb breeders of horses, Cyrus now had the basis of a fine cavalry. He proceeded to conquer Lydia and Babylonia, and his elder son and heir, Cambyses, added Egypt to the list of subject nations.

After the death of Cambyses, perhaps by accident, his brother Bardiya seized the throne, but a group of conspirators, led by a cousin of Cambyses named Darius, assassinated him and then justified their act by circulating a rumor that he was an imposter. Darius now ascended the throne of Persia. After putting down a number of rebellions in his empire, he invaded Scythia, conquered Thrace, soundly defeated the Ionians at the Battle of Lade, and in 491 b.c.e. sent his ambassadors to the various city-states in Greece, demanding that they be given earth and water as a symbol of the recognition of Persian sovereignty. Most complied. However, both Athens and Sparta refused and then proceeded to kill Darius’s representatives. Those two city-states would be primarily responsible for the defeat of Darius’s successor, Xerxes I, and the downfall of the Persian Empire.

No one could have predicted that outcome. Before the Battle of Marathon, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes had almost eight decades to make their empire seemingly invincible. They moved steadily and systematically, consolidating conquest, subjugating the conquered peoples, and building up one of the largest and most efficient war machines the world has ever known. Meanwhile, Athens and Sparta were busy quarreling with other city-states and with each other. In Athens, there was also internal dissension. As a military society, effectively governed by its elder statesmen, Sparta was not generally threatened by conspiracies, but Athens was periodically torn by conflicts between powerful families seeking control of the city and also between individual politicians vying for power and seeking the banishment of their rivals.

As an example, Holland tells the story of Pisistratus, a war hero, who in 560 b.c.e. cast himself as a populist, faked an assault on himself, and then used the bodyguards the state provided for him to stage a coup. With Pisistratus occupying the Acropolis, the two great rival families of Athens, the Alcmaeonids and the Boutads, decided to join in an alliance against the tyrant, and, wisely, he fled. Five years later, having realized that they hated the Boutads more than they disliked Pisistratus, the Alcmaeonids married the latter to one of their own clan and brought him back to the Acropolis in triumph.

However, in a move that was typical among Athenian...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)