Monday, November 24, 2008

Persian Fire

Persian Fire

Tom Holland (Doubleday, 2005)

A bane to the existence of any Latin or Classics teacher is the movie 300. A fictional account cooked up based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, I found 6 solid errors in the first 30 minutes, which makes it useless in the classroom. Although visually effective, it shortchanges the viewer with regard to the real story. Persian Fire makes up for that.

The Battle of Thermopylae is inspiring, to be sure. The notion of a desperate last stand against overwhelming odds, dying like men, rarely fails to stir the heart. It does, however, bring to mind the words of George Patton: "No one ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other dumb son of a bitch die for his country." The crime lies in taking that battle out of its proper context: the wars between Greece and Persia.

Tom Holland has been justly praised for his previous work, Rubicon. In that history, he outlined the causes behind the collapse of the Republic, reaching as far back as the 2nd Punic War. In this book, he traces the Persian Wars to the Khorasian Highway, a stretch of road that has connected the alluvial plains of the Assyrians with the Zagros Mountains, home of the warlike mountain people, home of the unparalleled horses and horsemen. It was in these mountains that the Medes made their appearance, eventually sweeping forth to conquer from the Mediterranean eastward to Afghanistan.

In recounting the rise of the Medes, Holland introduces us to Cyrus, the first Great King, then Darius, and finally Xerxes, and he investigates the motive force for the Persian expansion. Holland identifies it with the religion of Zoroastrianism, a religion founded in the radical dualism of light and darkness. To be associated with the Light is to be grounded in the Truth, while the darkness is the abode of The Lie. Here Holland makes a connection seldom investigated: the religious motivations behind Persian conquest. The effort of Darius to expand the power of Persia to the ends of the earth was an expression of evangelical zeal, an effort to combat the Lie as it was found in false religions and establish the Truth.

Framed in the context of the present day, our conflict with Islamic radicalism doesn't seem so isolated. Zealotry like this has been seen before. Seen and opposed.

Opposing the Persian King of Kings were two cities: Athens and Sparta. To give us a clearer idea of the participants, Holland gives us a glimpse of the history of these two cities, and how their distinctive cultures developed. We see how the harsh code of the Spartans developed, and how it was fed by the system of slavery imposed on the Helots, the serfs living in the farmlands surrounding Sparta. Because Sparta was surrounded, and outnumbered, by the Helots, a cruel system of oppression was imposed, designed to keep the Helots from entertaining the thought that they might be men.

In Athens, we see the development of the radical experiment of democracy, although not as pure as has been touted. There was no universal suffrage: only Greek, property – owning men could vote. No women, slaves, none of the poor. But it was a radical experiment, and it did foster greatness. Suffrage came at a price: mandatory service as a Hoplite, an armored soldier in the Athenian infantry. It was such Hoplites as would strike the first blow at the battle of Marathon.

The significance of Marathon, in the words of Holland was that "humiliation at the hands of the superpower was not inevitable. The Athenians, as they would never tire of reminding everyone, had shown that the hordes of the Great King could be defeated. The colossus had feet of clay." The account of the battle is gripping, and the detail is so finely crafted that you feel yourself holding a spear, wearing the hoplon, the armor of the soldier, as you stride across the plain to the waiting enemy.

Likewise the battle of Thermopylae and its sister, Salamis. Thermopylae was little more than a holding action. Hence the small number of Spartans sent to fight. Leonidas had no illusion that he would succeed in driving the Persians back. He sought only to buy time for the rest of Greece, especially Athens, to prepare. He was accompanied by several thousand Thespians, who also died heroically.

This battle is less well-detailed, presumably because it is so well documented in other sources. The battle itself is given little more than three pages before the author turns to the naval battles and the other star of these wars: Themistocles.

Themistocles, as portrayed by Holland, is a consummate politician. He was slick; he planned far ahead, and was able to manipulate others to get what he wanted. But he was also a brilliant general, who knew how to play his enemy's weakness for all it was worth. Through a series of masterful deceptions, Themistocles maneuvered the Persian fleet into the narrow passage of Salamis, and there destroyed it. Although this did not end the Persian involvement in Greece, it weakened the Persian impetus significantly, and opened the door for rebellion by other subject peoples. After Xerxes moved back to Babylon to shore up his empire, his cousin commanded in his stead. His cousin was not the equal of the King of Kings, and was soundly defeated at the battle of Plataea.

The final chapter is "Nemesis", the goddess who punished hubris, that overweening pride of men that drives them to seek things that are not theirs by right. Nemesis comes swiftly and with finality. The hubris that drove Persia into Greece was ultimately punished by Nemesis, in the person of Alexander the Great. That same hubris destroyed Athens, when it stretched forth its own fingers for empire in the Aegean, before finally being toppled by Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta itself was toppled, at the hands of Theban farm boys led by Epimonandes, eventually becoming little better than a tourist attraction.

But for a brief moment, the fate of western culture rested in the hands of a few Greek cities and their armies, hastily cobbled together, facing an assembled force unseen until World War 2. In Persian Fire, the author, Tom Holland, lays out the root causes for this turning point, giving it the significance and weight that it truly deserves.

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