Persian Fire

Persian Fire

by Tom Holland

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A "fresh...thrilling" (The Guardian) account of the Graeco-Persian Wars. In the fifth century B.C., a global superpower was determined to bring truth and order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia, incomparably rich in ambition, gold, and men. The terrorist states were Athens and Sparta, eccentric cities in a poor and mountainous backwater: Greece.

The story of how their citizens took on the Great King of Persia, and thereby saved not only themselves but Western civilization as well, is as heart-stopping and fateful as any episode in history. Tom Holland’s brilliant study of these critical Persian Wars skillfully examines a conflict of critical importance to both ancient and modern history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307386984
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 185,008
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Tom Holland is a historian of the ancient world and a translator. His books include Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman RepublicPersian FireIn the Shadow of the Sword and The Forge of Christendom. He has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC. In 2007, he was the winner of the Classical Association prize, awarded to “the individual who has done most to promote the study of the language, literature and civilization of Ancient Greece and Rome.” He lives in London with his family.
Visit the author's website at

Read an Excerpt

Persian Fire

By Tom Holland

Random House

Tom Holland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385513119

Chapter One


The Khorasan Highway

Woe to the Bloody City

The gods, having scorned to mold a world that was level, had preferred instead to divide it into two. So it seemed to those who lived in the Zagros, the great chain of peaks which separates the Fertile Crescent from the upland plateau of Iran. Yet these mountains, though savage, were not impassable. One road did snake across them: the most famous in the world, the Khorasan Highway, which led from the limits of the East to the West, and joined the rising to the setting of the sun. In places, as it climbed through the Zagros Mountains, winding along river beds, or threading between jagged pinnacles and ravines, it might be little more than a footpath-but even that, to those who used it, was a miracle enough. Only a beneficent deity, it was assumed, could ever have fashioned such a wonder. Who, and when, no one really knew for sure,* but it was certainly very ancient-perhaps, some said, as old as time itself. Over the millennia, the Khorasan Highway had been followed by any number of travelers: nomads, caravans-and the armies of conquering kings.

One empire, in particular, for centuries synonymous with cruel and remorseless invincibility, had sent repeated expeditions into the mountains, dyeing the peaks, in its own ferocious vaunt, "like wool, crimson withblood."(1) The Assyrians, inhabitants of what is now northern Iraq, were city-dwellers, a people of the flat, alluvial plains; but to their kings, warlords who had spread terror and extermination as far as Egypt, the Zagros was less a barrier than a challenge. Themselves the patrons of a proud and brilliant civilization, sumptuous with palaces, gardens and canals, the kings of Assyria had always seen it as their duty to flatten resistance in the wilds beyond their frontiers. This, the wilds being what they were, had proved a calling without limit. Not even with their incomparable war machine could the Assyrians pacify all the mountain tribes-for there were some living in the Zagros who clung to the peaks like birds, or lurked in the depths of thick forests, so backward that they subsisted entirely on acorns, savages hardly worthy of the royal attention. These too, however, with regular incursions, could be taught to dread the name of Assyria, and provide her with the human plunder on which her greatness had come increasingly to depend. Again and again, punitive expeditions would return from the mountains to their native plains, to the sacred cities of Ashur, Nimrud and Nineveh, while in their wake, naked and tethered, followed stumbling lines of captives. Increasingly, the Assyrians had fallen into the habit of moving entire populations, shunting them around their empire, transplanting one defeated enemy into the lands of another, there to live in the houses of the similarly transported, to clear weeds from the rubble, or cultivate the abandoned, smoke-blackened fields.

These tactics had in the end had due effect. By the late eighth century BC, the reaches of the Khorasan Highway had been formally absorbed into the empire and placed under the rule of an Assyrian governor. "Grovelling they came to me, for the protection of their lives," boasted Assyria's greatest king, Sargon II. "Knowing that otherwise I would destroy their walls, they fell and kissed my feet."(2)

Not that captives were the only source of wealth to be found in the Zagros. Wild and forested though the mountains were, and often bitter the climate, the valleys were famous for their clover-rich pasture. Over the centuries, and in increasing numbers, these had been attracting tribes who called themselves "Arya"-"Aryans": horse-taming nomads from the plateau to the east.(3) Even once settled, these immigrants had preserved many of their ancestors' instincts, filling the valleys of their new homeland with great herds of long-horned cattle, and preferring, wherever possible, to live in the saddle. The Assyrians, no horse-breeders themselves, would speak in wondering terms of the stud farms of the Zagros, with their "numberless steeds."(4) It was relatively easy for the Assyrian army to cherry-pick these as tribute, for the finest horses, by universal consent, were those bred by the Medes, a loose confederation of Aryan tribes settled conveniently along the Khorasan Highway itself. No wonder the Assyrians came to prize the region. Their mastery of Media,(5) as well as enabling them to control the world's most important trade route, permitted their armies to develop a new and lethal quality of speed. By the eighth century BC, cavalry had become vital to the ability of Assyria to maintain her military supremacy. The tribute of horses from the mountains had become the lifeblood of her greatness. The richest silver mine could not have been more precious to her than the stud farms of the Zagros.

And yet, in Assyria's supremacy lay the seeds of its own downfall. The mountains were a mishmash of different peoples, Aryans and aboriginals alike, with even the Medes themselves ruled by a quarrelsome multitude of petty chieftains. Foreign occupation, however, by imposing a unitary authority upon the region, had begun to encourage the fractious tribes to cohere. By the 670s BC, menaced by the shadowy leader of a formal Median union, the Assyrians' hold on the Zagros started to slip alarmingly. Tribute dried up as its collection became ever more challenging. Open revolts blazed and spread. Over the following decades, the scribes of the Assyrian kings, employed to keep a record of the victories of their masters, ceased to make mention of Media at all.

This silence veiled an ominous development. In 615 BC, a king who claimed sovereignty over all the clan chiefs of the Medes, Cyaxares by name, joined an alliance of the empire's other rebellious subjects and led his troops from their fastnesses against the Assyrians' eastern flank. The effect of this sudden eruption of the mountain men was devastating. After only three years of campaigning, the inconceivable occurred: Nineveh, greatest of all the strongholds of Assyrian might, was stormed and razed. To the amazement-and joy-of the empire's subject peoples, "the bloody city" was pulverized beneath the hooves of the Median cavalry. "Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end-they stumble over the bodies!"(6)

Four years later, and all traces of the Assyrian colossus, which for so long had kept the Near East in its shadow, lay obliterated. To the victors, naturally, had fallen the spoils. Media, precipitately elevated to the rank of great power, seized a huge northern swath of the defeated empire. Her kings, no longer small-time chieftains, could now indulge themselves in the occupations proper to their newly won status-throwing their weight around and scrapping with other great powers. In 610 BC, the Medes swept into northern Syria, burning and looting as they went. In 585, they went to war with the Lydians, a people based in the west of what is now Turkey, and only a solar eclipse, manifesting itself over the battlefield, finally persuaded the two sides to draw back. By the terms of a hurriedly patched-up treaty, the Halys, a river flowing midway between Media and Lydia, was established as the boundary between the rival empires, and for the next thirty years, throughout the Near East, peace, and the balance of power, were maintained.(7)

Not that the new king of Media, Astyages, had any intention of hanging up his saddle. Undistracted now by war with other major empires, he turned his attention instead to the wilds north and east of his kingdom, far distant from the cockpit of the Fertile Crescent. Leading an expedition into the badlands of Armenia and what is now Azerbaijan, he was following in the footsteps of the Assyrian kings, teaching the savages beyond his frontiers to fear his royal name.(8) In other ways, too, the traditions of the great monarchies of the Near East, so alien to those of his own people, still semi-tribal and nomadic as they were, appear to have whetted the ambitions of the Median king. After all, a ruler of Astyages' stature, no less powerful than the King of Lydia or the Pharaoh of Egypt, could hardly be expected to rule his empire from a tent. What the monarchs of more ancient lands had always taken for granted-a palace, a treasury, a mighty capital-Astyages, naturally, had to have as well: proofs of his magnificence raised in gold and blocks of stone.

Travelers who made the final ascent through the mountains along the Khorasan Highway would see, guarding the approaches to the Iranian plateau ahead of them, a vision which could have been conjured from some fabulous epic: a palace set within seven gleaming walls, each one painted a different color, and on the two innermost circuits, bolted to their battlements, plates of silver and gold. This was Ecbatana, stronghold of the kings of Media, and already, barely a century after its foundation, the crossroads of the world.(9) Commanding the trade of East and West, it also opened up to its master the whole range of the Zagros, and beyond. Here, for the Median clan chiefs, in particular, was a thoroughly alarming development. The surest guarantee of their freedom from royal meddling, and of the continued factionalism of the kingdom itself, had always been the inaccessibility of their private fiefdoms-but increasingly they found themselves subordinated to the reach of Astyages' court. At one time, before the building of the polychrome palace walls, Ecbatana had been an open field, a free meeting place for the tribes, a function preserved in the meaning of its name: "assembly point." But now those days were gone, and the Medes, who had fought so long to liberate themselves from the despots of Nineveh, found themselves the subjects of a despot nearer to home.

No wonder that later generations would preserve a memory of Astyages as an ogre. No wonder, either, that when they sought to explain their loss of freedom, the Medes would identify Ecbatana as both a symbol of their slavery, and a cause.(10)

King of the World

Astyages, it was said, even amid all the proofs of his greatness, was haunted by prophecies of doom: strange dreams tormented him, warning him of his downfall and the ruin of his kingdom. Such was the value ascribed by the Medes to visions of this kind that a whole class, the Magi, existed to divine what their meaning might be. Skilled in all the arts of keeping darkness at bay, these ritual experts provided vital reassurance to their countrymen, for it was a principle of the Medes, a devout and ethical people, that there was shadow lurking beyond even the brightest light. All the world, it seemed to the Magi, bore witness to this truth. A fire might be tended so that it burned eternally, but there was nowhere, not beside the coolest spring, nor even on the highest mountain peak, where the purity of its flame might not be menaced by pollution. Creation bred darkness as well as the daylight. Scorpions and spiders, lizards, snakes and ants, all crept and seethed, the visible excrescences of a universal shadow. Just as it was the duty of a Magus to kill such creatures wherever he found them, so shadows had to be guarded against when they darkened people's dreams-and especially the nightmares of a king. "For they say that the air is full of spectres, which flow by exhalation, and penetrate into the sight of those with piercing vision."(11) Greatness, like fire, had to be tended with care.

That a kingdom as powerful as Media, less than a century after its first rise to independence and greatness, might once again be prostrated and subjected to foreign domination must, to many, have seemed implausible. But this, as the Medes themselves had good cause to know, had always been the baneful rhythm of the region's power play: great empires rising, great empires falling. No one kingdom, not even Assyria, had ever crushed all who might wish to see it destroyed. In the Near East, predators lurked everywhere, sniffing the air for weakness, awaiting their opportunity to strike. Ancient states would vanish, new ones take their place, and the chroniclers, in recording the ruin of celebrated kingdoms, might find themselves describing strange and previously unknown peoples.

Many of these, just like the Medes themselves, were Aryans-nomads who had left little trace of their migrations upon the records of the time. In 843 BC, for instance, the Assyrians had campaigned in the mountains north of their kingdom against a tribe they called the "Parsua"; two centuries later, a people with a very similar name had established themselves far to the south, on the ruins of the venerable kingdom of Anshan, between the lower reaches of the Zagros and the sweltering coastlands of the Gulf. No chronicler, however, could know for sure if they were one and the same.(12) Only by putting down roots, and by absorbing something of the culture of the people they had displaced, had the newcomers finally been able to intrude upon the consciousness of their more sedentary neighbors. These, reluctant to change the habit of centuries, had continued to refer to the region as they had always done; but the invaders, when they spoke of their new homeland, had naturally preferred to call it after themselves. So it was that what had once been Anshan came gradually to be known by a quite different name: Paarsa, Persia, the land of the Persians.(13)

In 559 bc, while Astyages still ruled in Media, a young man came to the throne of this upstart kingdom. His name was Cyrus, and his attributes included a hook nose, immense ambition and quite limitless ability. From even before his birth, it appeared, he had been marked out for greatness; for it was he-if the stories are to be believed-who had been prophesied as the bane of Median greatness. Astyages was supposed to have seen it all in a dream: a vision of his daughter, Mandane, urinating, the golden stream flowing without cease, until at last the whole of Media had been drowned. When the king had reported this the next morning, his Magian dream-readers had turned pale and warned him that any son of Mandane would be destined to imperil the Median throne. Hurriedly, Astyages had married off his daughter to a vassal, a Persian, the prince of a backward and inconsequential kingdom, hoping in that way to defeat the omen's malice. But after Mandane had fallen pregnant, Astyages had dreamed a second time: now he saw a vine emerging from between his daughter's legs, nor did it stop growing until all Asia was in its shade. Panic-stricken, Astyages had waited for his grandson to be born, and then immediately given orders that the boy be put to death. As invariably happens in such stories, the orders had been defied.


Excerpted from Persian Fire by Tom Holland Excerpted by permission.
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“Ambitious....a sweeping popular account that seems destined to become a classic.” —The Seattle Times“Excellent. . . . There is an even-handedness in Holland’s treatment of both Greek and Persian cultural riches that is rare in popular accounts of these wars.” —Sunday Times“Holland has a rare eye for detail, drama, and the telling anecdote. . . . A book as spirited and engaging as Persian Fire deserves to last.” —The Telegraph

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Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This fine book tells the story of an earlier war between East and West. In the fifth century BC, a global superpower was determined to bring order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia, the terrorist states Athens and Sparta. As Holland points out, ¿even the mightiest empires can suffer from overstretch.¿ He mordantly notes, with a passing hit at the British state¿s `special relationship¿ with the declining USA, ¿There was no greater source of self-contentment for a subject-nation, after all, and no surer badge of its continued servitude, than to imagine that it might have been graced with a special relationship with the king.¿
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be wonderfully readable and compelling, describing the Greeks and Persians of the 500 BC time period in terms that make them come to life 2500 years later. Herein lies the story of ancient sources of tension and differences between the West and Iran and the rest of the Middle East today, how great the struggle has always been, providing a clarification of how long the sides have been resisting the influence and dominance of the others. For our culture that seems to view 100 years ago as 'old' and wants to forget its transgressions against others from last year, here is a wake up call describing the basis of the point of view from 'the other side'. For good measure as well, the author describes the original development of democracy and wipes away any illusions of altruism or true equality mixed up in its origins. In general Tom Holland turns ancient history into a story readable and outlines its direct influences on our world today.
furriebarry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enthralling and relevant history of the Persian/Greek war focusing on the Persian Emperor and the Athenian contribution.
moncur_d on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
interesting approach, good on persian context and not in awe of the Greeks' later cultural legacy
miketheriley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this after I read Rubicon (by the same author). It began with Persia, but ended up being a book about the conflict between Greece and Persia. It was interesting looking at the narative from a different angle. I found it a bit hard going in places, but that may just have been my unfamiliarity with the peoples names. The final third was more familiar as it dealt with the war with Greece.
hmessing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Most ancient history books about the Persian wars of Greece are colored by the viewpoint of the victors, the Greeks. This author tries (and succeeds) to present more of what it would have looked like to the Persians. Historians might not like the amount of unverified speculation indulged in, it makes for a good read. It once again demonstrates to me just how absolutely remarkable the Greeks were in coming up with democracy, flawed as it may have been.
wildbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of the Greco-Persian wars is one of the great tales from history. At the time they were fought the Persian Empire comprised a large majority of the civilized world in the West. The city-states of Greece would have been a rather small province of the Empire if they had been conquered. Western Civilization would have been much different if the Greeks had been conquered and lost their freedom. The story has been told many times but this author by telling the tale from the Persian point of view brings a new perspective to well known people and events. The book is full of interesting details which help to bring the people and events of that time alive for the reader. The author plays no favorites and shows the reader the warts and all of the heroes on both sides. The violence and cruelty that were the daily fare of the dealings between the people of those times provide good reasons for the author's sometime cynical attitude toward humanity.The book begins with the conquests of Cyrus and the establishment of the Persian Empire. A vast area from India to Egypt to Asia Minor was consolidated under Persian rule in a short period of time. Ancient kingdoms such as Egypt and Babylonia were made part of the new empire. Reading this section I learned a lot about what I don't know about the people and places that made up the Persian Empire. At the same time I got a start on a topic that merits further reading. I found the description of the Persian religion particularly fascinating. Xerxes saw himself as the embodiment of the Truth set on earth to eliminate the people of the Lie, including the Greeks.The author's discussion of the development of Sparta and Athens adds some new insight to those topics. The life of the Spartans at all times sacrificed the individual for the group. They ruled conquered tribes who provided the Spartans with the necessities of life. The Spartan men spent their life either in training or in battle. The male rite of passage was to use a dagger to sneak up on and murder one of the serfs or helots. Athens had Solon the lawgiver. After a long period of tyranny democracy was developed by Cleisthenes to make good his victory over Isagoras for political power in Athens. These Greek politicians were much less idealistic than the Founding Fathers.Xerxes assembled a massive army composed of troops from all over his empire. This army crossed the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges and began the conquest of Greece. Athens and Sparta had executed ambassadors sent to them by the Persians and were to be slaughtered if they surrendered.The politics amongst the city-states was chaotic. Themistocles rose to power in Athens and pushed the city to build a large fleet. The Spartans were defeated and massacred at Thermopylae but their story lived on and was the basis for a recent popular movie. The Battles of Salamis and Plataea drove the Persians from Greece and ended their attempts to conquer Greece.The book is well written and the actions and emotions of the parties are conveyed with impact. The fear of the Greeks as the awaited the attack of the Persians was palpable. The ferocity of the combat is very real. The joy of the Greeks in victory deteriorates into squabbling and Themistocles dies in exile a subject of the Great King. It was left to a Macedonian youth born in 356 bc to write the final chapter in the struggle with Persia.
santhony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked up this novel after reading Holland¿s Rubicon, due partly to my preference for the author¿s narrative style of presenting history, and partly due to the intriguing subject matter.Much has been written of the Greco-Persian War, but almost exclusively from the Greek perspective. While this may be partially due to a pro-Western bias, it is at least partly due to the fact that there are virtually no Persian sources from the period. Almost everything we know of the early Persians comes from the writings of their enemies, most especially Greek historian Herodotus. Imagine the Nazis winning World War II and writing its history. The Allies might not come off looking so good.In any event, Holland has tried to write a more balanced history, while still being hamstrung by the lack of primary sources. He has probably done as good a job as could be expected, though there comes a point where educated opinion devolves into mere conjecture. To his credit, Holland does a good job pointing out where many of these instances occur.The history begins with a brief recap of Mesopotamian empires, beginning with Sargon, through Akkad, the Assyrians and into the brief ascendancy of the Medes. The Persians are then identified as they burst onto the scene through the brilliant career of Cyrus in the sixth century B.C.Once the story turns to the Greeks, primarily Sparta and Athens, Holland enters well trodden ground. However, despite having read numerous accounts of the period and its events, Holland has a way of presenting well known history in a new and interesting light. He succeeded in doing so with respect to the end of the Roman Republic in Rubicon and he does so here when presenting the Greco-Persian conflicts.Whether you are a well read student of the era, or a newcomer, I can highly recommend Persian Fire and other historical works by this author.
whjensen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Recently read this after finishing Herodotus' Histories. Read in conjunction with Herodotus, I feel this is a solid 4 star book, adding flavor as well as a historical check to some of Herodotus' eccentricities. However, I feel that some times, Holland goes astray and people who have not had the pleasure of reading the Histories or the Salamis by Strauss may not get an accurate picture but rather a twentieth-century person looking back. Except at key moments (such as the Battle of Plataea), Holland tends to gloss over the spiritual aspect of the Greek side while focusing on the Persian spiritual battle. Is his intent political commentary about overreach by the United States? Most likely, but he does injustice to the source by ignoring the gods of Greece.Again, read it immediately following Herodotus or or (for those with better recall) if you have a good basis for Greek history and it will be thoroughly enjoyable. Otherwise, I would give it 2 stars.
Garp83 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In February 2006, I read the Iliad for the first time as an adult, for no other reason than my own entertainment. I was at once bitten by the ancient Greek bug and set out to obtain the classical education I somehow missed in high school and college. I pursued this by taking a few Teaching Company audio courses, reading primary sources of the ancients -- Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides -- as well as the best popular and scholarly books I could find to elucidate the various eras of ancient Greek civilization. One of the latter certainly is Tom Holland's Persian Fire. I came to Persian Fire with a decent background in the overall theme, and I read Herodotus in tandem with it through much of the book, but Holland's treatment enhanced everything I had absorbed prior because he approached the subject with a regional theme. It would be difficult to comprehend the foreign policy of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century without a fairly comprehensive background in the history of the Soviet Union; yet most historians of early fifth century Greece provide scant attention to the foe that most defined their political culture, the Persians they referred to sometimes pejoratively as "the Mede." Holland's work is superior from the get-go because he takes the regional approach most period treatments gloss over. For those who want to delve right in to the Greco-Persian conflict, patience is in order as Holland sets the stage with an extremely well written background history not only of chief Hellenic city-states Athens and Sparta, but most importantly the origins of Persian rule -- and all of that takes us -- sometimes breathlessly with the gusto of a great author in love with his subject -- to an account of Mediterranean geo-politics on the eve of the conflict. I got more of the sense of the ancient world at the time from Holland than any other single work I had read previously. Unlike many contemporary historians of the ancient world like Kagan, Holland deliberately avoids trying to fit the themes and the conflicts of 2500 years ago into today's foreign policies, but -- remarkably so -- he does manage to interpret the actions of the key players into the sometimes Machiavellian power politics characteristic of states throughout recorded history. No other work I have encountered brings marble figures like Themistocles and Aristides to flesh-and-blood life, warts and all, the way Holland does in this book. A great read, in every way. Lots of material and not a boring spot in the story. I'll probably re-read it again someday. If you have any interest at all in the ancient Greek world, don't miss this one!
DrRex on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fictionalized but accurate account of the Persian attack on Greece and the battle between the forces of Xerexes and the Greeks, including the Spartans.
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Robert Mchugh More than 1 year ago
Time spent reading this book is like stepping into a time machine. Well worth the price of admission.
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Midwestbob More than 1 year ago
Love the subject of the book. Fills in a lot of details adding meaning to the conflict. Can tell author loves the subject as well, maybe too much. Problem with the book is being verbose, could use some editing. Not an easy read.
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