Persian fact and fiction

I’ve been fascinated by ancient history ever since schooldays, when Brother Chrysostom, my science teacher, once moonlighted as an ancient history teacher and blew me away with a thrilling account of Hannibal crossing the Alps, miles better than his plodding account of the Periodic Table or the components of rock salt. So I sat down to read Tom Holland’s Greek Fire (Random, 2005) with some pleasurable expectations.


Which were replaced with puzzlement, which increased as I read on. Writing on ancient history topics is extremely difficult as ancient authors had little idea of what history was, and archaeologists and numismatists can only supply the information we least need to know. Holland has written both fiction and non fiction set in the past, and translated Herodotus. He is concerned with the political role of Islam in the modern world. All that makes him well qualified to write about the war between Persia and Athens 500-450 BC. Or perhaps it doesn’t.


As I read, I seemed to be reading two books. The first was contained in the Preface, where lay warnings about old fashioned, more insular accounts of these wars, which drew parallels between Persia and the Nazis. There was reference to the radical difference between what Holland calls ‘The East’ and ‘The West’, and their irreconcilable values and traditions, which leads to a comparison of the ancient conflict with modern ones between Iran and the USA. And the book started well with a masterly account of the history of the Fertile Crescent and the rise of the Medes and Persians, and the careers of Cyrus and Darius.


Holland has some interesting things to say on geography. On how the irrigable desert fostered co-operative effort and unified control to build cities and harvest crops in Mesopotamia; of how the harsh mountainsides of the Greek mainland fostered competitive hostility among settlements; and he might have added but didn’t need to, that the god given Nile flood fostered the religious nature of Egyptian civilisation.

His account read at times though like a warning of a coming world war. I went back and noticed Holland’s sub-title: “The First World Empire and the Battle for the West”. Well, I thought, maybe this is macro history and perhaps he has a vision of trends over millennia. Perhaps this is not as chauvinistic as it sounds.

(Anyway, the scene has changed. Pundits like John Pilger say China will be the next enemy, in a coming nuclear war. Korea and Vietnam didn’t work, Russia backed down but left a lot of nuclear warheads lying about, and Iraq and Libya were too easy, but China should justify a few billion spent on armaments.)


It was in Chapter Four I noticed a sudden change in Holland’s account. What had been an attempt at a balanced view of the conflict became a biased one. Chapters one and two were on Cyrus and Darius, based closely on Herodotus’ account and chiefly consisting of gossip about court intrigues over the succession of the Persian Kings. Chapter three was on the Spartan constitution, and chapter four on the Athenian one, based on Plutarch and Aristotle I presume. All of these topics had been treated in Holland’s novelistic style and made for exciting reading if at times a little simplified in expounding motive or giving background.


Then came an account of Marathon and Salamis. The book changed character completely. Here I was in a Lord of the Rings-like account of a battle between good and evil. Holland suddenly lost interest in the Persians entirely. They became simply the enemy, and he gave an account of Athens’ heroic resistance that sounded remarkably like propaganda. Both the Athenians’ and Holland’s.


The trouble with Holland’s account was it took ancient terms, like ‘tyrannos’, and ‘demos’ and ‘democracy’ and gave them modern meanings which they at first didn’t have. Holland himself disarmingly warns us not to do this, explaining the difference of ancient and modern meanings. Then he proceeds to do precisely what he warns us about.

Athens was ruled 560-530 BC by a man called Peisistratos. He was a tyrant. This was then a term for a politician who took power during a constitutional crisis or civil war (similar to the Roman ‘dictator’, elected during a crisis to deal with it but expected to stand down once the issue was settled). Peisistratos ruled for 30 years and was much esteemed and highly popular. He did much to stabilise the Athenian state. Holland explains all this, but suddenly makes reference to Peisistratos’ “reign of terror” and gives accounts of people hauled off at night and never seen again. These accounts are not in any surviving record. They come from a novel about the period, not a history.

Peisistratos formed a popular party for the first time, but it was his kinsman Kleisthenes who made it the basis for a radical rewrite of the constitution that established a theoretical democracy, introduced during the troubled reign of Peisistratos’ sons. Holland explains all this, giving a cynical account of Kleisthenes’ motives unknown to history. And then shifts to a laudatory account of the fledging democracy and its fostering of an ill defined ‘liberty’ Holland doesn’t explain.


In Persia the motive that drives everyone is ‘fanaticism’, something that is peculiarly ‘Eastern’. In Persia everyone is a slave, there is no ‘liberty’, whole populations (including the Jews) are transplanted, and gulags are set up to punish the guilty.

Holland gives no account of the three quarters of the population of Athens who were slaves, or otherwise not represented by the new constitution, groups such as women and children, or ‘foreigners’, those whose ancestors were not Athenian. No mention is made that the newly empowered citizens were largely rural farmers whose livelihood depended on their being on a farm miles away from the newly organised assemblies in the city and whose voice was rarely heard. Power in the democracy still lay with the wealthy, as it always had.

In Sparta the militaristic regime resulted in serfdom for the neighbouring Messanians. Holland tells us that part of the training for both girls and boys involved submission to sodomy (not known from any source material), a sign of how dehumanised and controlled the Spartans had become in a fascist state. He obscures in his account the difference between the historical record and his imaginative inventions about the Spartan way of life.


Holland’s book ended up as a novelisation of Herodotus, a melodrama in which the doughty Bilbo of Athenian democracy laid low the mighty Sauron/Darius. All very exciting and even readable if you were expecting such an account. I found it startling because Holland’s Preface had indicated a completely different book.   


There is no definition in Holland’s book of the terms on which it claims to be based, ‘East’ and ‘West’. ‘The West’ usually means Christianised democracies such as the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, to which have been added countries of Britain’s ex-Empire, Canada, Australasia, and the USA. This group of countries, which includes most of the ex-Colonial powers(!), is contrasted with central European nations, Asian and African countries and South America. The countries of the West however see the differences, not the similarities, in their cultures. Western countries can be right or left wing in government, affluent or impoverished, imperialist or insular.

Past imperial exploitation and damage to other countries by the West, or present racism in the USA, is usually not criticised when considering global ‘threats’. But similar actions from Communist or Moslem countries is. What will the reaction be if ever the African nations combine and become militant? If you think about it, this is vested interests posing as moral arbiter.


‘The West’ is an emotional term, and can hardly be defined. Its main component, ‘Europe’, is usually defined as one of the continents, but isn’t. A continent is a large land mass usually surrounded by ocean. Europe is a small part of the extreme west of the Asian continent. But calling the Western nations ‘Asian’ usually gives rise to objections, often based on alleged mentality or cultural habits in the ‘East’. I noticed, incidentally, that Holland always calls Asians ‘Asiatics’, a bit like calling Afro-Americans ’niggers’.

So where does ‘East’ and ‘West’ begin and end? What is the longitude where one begins and the other ends?The pianist and humorist Victor Borge said once that the further he travelled west in the United States, the closer he got to the Far East. Peculiar. And how define the coming conflict between ’North’ and ’South’?

It seems strange to mention Greece and Rome as part of the West. Most of ancient Greece was in Asia Minor and the southern coast of the Black Sea. Herodotus himself was Asian, from Halicarnassus. Greek culture was largely based on ‘Middle Eastern’ ones. Rome was finally based in Constantinople, and was destroyed, not by its Arab allies, but by Crusaders from Italy.


Surely it wouldn’t hurt to de-demonise Islam? There are fanatical Republicans, fanatical anythings, all fanatics are not from within Islam, nor are they the only type of fundamentalist.


Nor is there need for alternative history. If Athens had not stood firm, if the USA had not entered WWII, if America had not shown Iraq a firm front, Europe would have been part of a restrictive Islamic Empire, with all kinds of dire results. How much ‘liberty’ did the Catholic church show the faithful during the bloody Inquisition, or the Anglican and Lutheran churches show women during the witchcraft trials?

Once you demonise the enemy you cease to think of comparisons like these. But the enemy is not so big a threat. The enemy has the same problems they have on the other side. Dealing with internal corruption and incompetent administration are the chief ones, and insoluble so far. It’s a relief to go to war and use the rhetoric of war. Makes some kind of politician look good. Children still die of drug overdoses, urban crime is on the rampant increase, poverty is affecting the middle classes for the first time, the rich are out of touch and education systems failing. But we know whom to blame. It’s them! It’s not our fault! And we do have all those nuclear warheads lying around unused.


I’m against conglomerates, big pictures, facile generalisations. ‘The West’, world poverty, the death of god. This appeals to the drama queen in us all. It suggests a futile answer, usually not a very appropriate one. Vote for a strongman, bomb the bastards, tighter censorship. I won’t believe in a ‘world empire’, of Islam or of western consumerism either. I don’t think faceless abstractions like ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ need to be defended by killing large numbers of men, women and children. I don’t think anyone can take away my freedom unless I let them, by not voting for instance.


We don’t need another Apocalypse. I don’t believe the rhetoric spoken by manipulative men after more money and more power for themselves. It’s hot air. And it kills people and damages the planet. I don’t believe Tom Holland’s sub-title “The First World Empire and the Battle for the West”.

And in Holland’s case it should be mentioned that Herodotus, who tells us about the great war between Athens and Persia, didn’t think in terms like ‘East’ and ‘West’. He saw Greeks and (without prejudice) non-Greeks. He admired the Persians. But he had no idea of the size of the Persian Empire, so the effects of a strategically mismanaged minor campaign on the fringes of that empire seemed miraculous to him. He knew no ‘world empire’ nor no ‘Europe’ to be defended, just some smart Greeks who outwitted some less clever Persian commanders. Pretty down to earth, was Herodotus.

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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