Review: Persian Fire, Tom Holland (or, awesome stories)

May I tell you a story about Athens? Please be aware that you can’t answer “no” to this question, because there is no chance at all of my not telling you this story about Athens. Once upon a time, there was an Athenian king called Pisistratus. Pisistratus was a pretty good king, but like many pretty good kings he had two not-so-goodish sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, who took charge of Athens after Pisistratus died. Hipparchus died (that’s a whole other story), and Hippias was an awful king, so this fellow Cleisthenes went trotting round to Sparta and asked them please to send some armies in order to overthrow the tyrant Hippias. Sparta sent scads of messengers to the Delphic oracles to inquire whether they should help, and every time any Spartan messenger asked the Delphic oracles anything, the oracles told them, “Athens must be set free”. (Cleisthenes had a lot of money, and connections to Delphi. Read into that what you will.) So Sparta sent help, and Hippias was overthrown, and it seemed that everything was coming up Cleisthenes.

However, there was another fellow, Isagoras, and he had (allegedly — Tom Holland raises an eyebrow at it, and Peter Green calls it a typical Cleisthenesish slander) offered his wife to the Spartan king for sex, in exchange for the king’s support of him after Hippias had been overthrown. (A very Chuck Bass move if true.) Cleisthenes still wanted to be in charge of Athens, but knew he could not do it all on his own if Sparta was going to be supporting Isagoras. So instead of trying to become the next tyrant, which he thought he probably would not succeed in doing, he came up with the idea of democracy. He suggested it to the people, who thought it was a damn good idea as it entailed their having a voice in the government. When Isagoras, backed by the Spartan king, exiled Cleisthenes and proposed returning Athens to the system of governance in use under Hippias, the Athenians ran riot all around the Acropolis under Isagoras apologized and went meekly away.

And that is the tale of the birth of democracy. It maybe is not quite as grand a tale of grandeur and thrilling heroics as you might have hoped, but that is what happened. Anyway the tale of the Persian War is quite enough thrilling heroics for one book. My little heart skips a beat when I think about the insane bravery of itty bitty Athens and Sparta refusing to bow to the incalculable might of the Persian empire. And yours probably does too. It is pretty grand.

I recently read two separate, unrelated articles that both said that rape victims were “raped and sodomized” (stay with me, I’m going somewhere). For reasons I cannot fully articulate to myself I was deeply annoyed about the use of the word “sodomized” in this context, and I was complaining to my sister about why don’t they say “vaginally and anally raped” if that’s what they mean, and anyway (I complained to my sister) that wasn’t even the sin of Sodom, and what “sodomized” actually should mean is “was a bad host/ess to”. And then I got a picture in my head of a bunch of Stepford wives sitting around gossiping to each other about someone other woman who didn’t know how to throw a good party and saying, “You really would think she was deliberately sodomizing us,” and I started laughing helplessly on the phone to my sister, and I laughed for about twenty minutes. There were tears streaming down my face and my stomach hurt and I really wanted to stop laughing at this new and improved use of “sodomize” because all the laughing was causing pain to my body, but it just wouldn’t stop being funny.

Persian Fire was like that, but with awesome instead of funny. The awesomeness of it all, and I mean awesome literally as well as slangily — that small, bickering rabble of Greeks hanging on like grim death against the monolith of the Persian Empire — was completely overloading my circuits. Instead of processing information my brain was just going “Wow. Oh wow. Wow.” I wanted a moment to pause, and breathe, and give due attention to what Holland was saying about the Persian Empire’s tactical use of religious tolerance, and the Persian love of gardening, and how there was slavery in Athens — but the story of the Persian Wars simply wouldn’t stop being awesome long enough for me to do it.

I really did spend the entire book with tears of delight in my eyes whispering “Stop it. Oh stop it” to Tom Holland. The man can tell a story, and the Persian Wars is a hell of a story. I mean all the moving parts (Athens as an emerging democracy, Persia’s development into the empire it became, Sparta’s frantic love of rules) are really interesting anyway. But put them all together all at once in great big epic world-defining battles? Shut up. Stop it. I cannot take it.

My one complaint with this otherwise absolute darling of a book is that sometimes Holland (who again is a wonderful storyteller and I have to read everything else he’s ever written) makes definitive-sounding statements and doesn’t explain that he’s making a case. I realize he’s writing a pop nonfiction book (a good one, by God!), and he’s generally really good about including qualifying endnotes, but sometimes he doesn’t make it clear that he’s putting forward an argument against which other evidence might be laid. But barely at all! Only just a little bit sometimes! I can scarcely bear to make this criticism because I loved Persian Fire so awfully awfully much.

Can’t take it! Have to tell you the story of the Battle of Thermopylae! It is a terribly good story and I’m concerned you may only know it rather fuzzily, and it’s worth knowing in a bit of detail. (Spoiler alert: Greece loses.)

Well, once upon a time, the Persian army came tromping into Greece for the purposes of taking it over. They were good at taking things over. If the Greeks had surrendered a few years ago, Persia would probably have been quite nice to them, and indeed the Persians were quite nice to the Greek states that did surrender (like Thessaly — I didn’t like Thessaly in Sandman, and I don’t like Thessaly the nasty Medising country). But now it was too late. Xerxes the Emperor was totally cross with Athens and Sparta, and he had come out with his own army to teach them what was what.

Now when Leonidas, a king of Sparta, went and talked to the Delphic oracle about this whole Persian Wars business in the first place, the oracle had told him, “The Laconian country will mourn for the loss of a king.” (Laconia was where he was from.) He thought “king” really probably meant him.

The confederacy of Greeks started talking about Thermopylae and whether it was a good hold point or whether they should retreat way way back and meet the Persians in battle someplace else. The Greeks were all, “Do we really have any hope of holding this pass?” And Leonidas said that he would take a smallish advance force to Thermopylae, recruiting some extra soldiers on the way (he was good at that). If the Persians attacked there, he would send word back to the Greek alliance, and they would send more soldiers, and he would hold the pass until they came. But he remembered what the oracle had said, and when he picked out 300 of his best Spartan soldiers to lead the Greeks at Thermopylae, he chose only soldiers who had living sons.

Leonidas led his forces to the narrow pass at Thermopylae. At a fairly conservative estimate, the Persian forces at Thermopylae outnumbered the Greeks eight to one. The Persians sent a message to Leonidas to tell him that he was being foolish and that if he would surrender they would be his ally and make him king of all Greece. “So put down your weapons!” they said; and Leonidas said, “So come take them.”

(He said that. Those words.)

(He was from Laconia. That’s why we call it “laconic”. True story.)

For four days the Persian army sat where they were and watched the Spartans, and the Spartans combed out their hair in preparation for battle. But Xerxes decided at last that there was no point in waiting around for the Greeks to run away, and he sent out some of his army to capture the Greeks and bring them before him in chains. The soldiers he sent (Medes) had absolutely no success whatsoever unless you measure success by dying in masses while inflicting very few casualties. So then Xerxes sent out 10,000 of his most ferocious fighters (the Immortals they were called), but again it was no use, and the Greeks took them to pieces.

The next day, Xerxes was sure he would win. He outnumbered the Greeks so very thoroughly, and yet they had beaten his best men so very soundly, that he was sure the Greeks must be at the end of their strength. Again he sent forward his best fighting forces, and again they were rebuffed. The Greek navy at Artemisium was preventing the Persian navy from advancing, and Xerxes began to think that his infantry were in just such a stalemate and if it was going to be a stalemate, the native Greeks on their home lands were in a much better position for a stalemate than the Persians-far-from-home with their terribly finite food supplies.

But then came a creeping, crawling, sniveling traitor from Trachis, a man called Ephialtes, and he crept and crawled and sniveled to Xerxes to tell him that there was another way through the mountain pass, another road by which to send the Persian forces, a way to come at the Greeks from both sides and outflank them. The Greeks found out what was going on, and some of them went away, but Leonidas knew that he must stay, and keep the Persians off as long as he could. And he stayed, with his 300 men and the Thespians, and the few soldiers-in-exile from the Persian-sympathizing Thebes.

A Trachinian (not the sniveling traitor Ephialtes, but someone else from Trachis) told the Spartans that the Persian army was so numerous, so impossibly vast, that their arrows would blot out the sun. The Spartan to whom he told this (oh stop it, I can’t take it) said, “So much the better. If the Medes blot out the sun, then we will have our fight in the shade.”

And the Greeks stayed at Thermopylae, caught between two lines of the Persian army, and they fought till the bitter end, clawing at the Persians with their hands and teeth when they had lost their swords. Leonidas died, and Xerxes — in an unusual display of disrespect for a fallen warrior — cut him up and crucified him. (Yuck.)

Only two of the 300 Spartans survived, one who had been sent away with a message for the Greek alliance (he later killed himself out of shame at missing the battle) and one who had been invalided out with pinkeye or something (he later unleashed his berserker rage on the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, and got himself hacked to bits, which made him feel better I guess about being such a wuss at Thermopylae).

Since you bring it up, a stanza from my dearest Cavafy on this very topic:

And even more honor they deserve
When it is predicted (and many predict)
That Ephialtes will appear in the end
And the Medes will finally pass through.

I am doing a frantic full-body gesture to convey to you how utterly undone I am by the badassery of the Greeks at Thermopylae.

Uh…so, yeah. Read Persian Fire. I guess that is the gist of this post. I now desperately yearn to own the Landmark Herodotus but can’t buy it for myself because I’m about to move and I mustn’t acquire any more books. Also I am reading another book about the Persian Wars (by Peter Green) because I am not yet ready to let them go. Next up, the altogether messier and less awesome Peloponnesian Wars. Or maybe the Punic. Or maybe the Alexander conquests. I haven’t decided yet.

P.S. The Phoenicians were the ones handling the Persian navy. They were the slaves of Persia. But this one time, Persia sent word to Phoenicia that they were to prepare themselves to go invade Carthage. And Phoenicia was like, “Yeah. But no. We don’t want to.” So they didn’t. Lucky Carthage got a reprieve until Scipio Aemilianus showed up a few hundred years later. That is how important Phoenicia was to Persia.

P.P.S. There were a number of reasons why Sparta went to war with Persia, but in reading the book I got the distinct impression it was because Persia had greatly hurt Sparta’s feelings many years before. Sparta had sent messengers to Persia to say hullo, and the messengers were all, “We are from Sparta!” and the Persian emperor said, “What’s Sparta?” And Sparta, as in Helen of, simply could not believe their ears. That’s probably why they went to war with Persia, in the end.

No other reviews? Nobody else? No?