Review: Persian Fire

This book is basically a fun read. It covers both the Persian and the Greek side of the Greco-Persian wars quite well but I have to take away one star for Tom Holland’s (sometime mischievous or even tongue-in-cheek) propagandist style. But still, he has done his research and is fun to read, with quotes and anecdotes that enliven this history and bring it to life.
He describes the rise of the Persians and the creation of the first great world empire by Cyrus. This empire proceeded to conquer most of Asia minor (modern Turkey east of Istanbul) including multiple Greek city states (the Ionians). Holland describes the rise of the various Greek city states, with most of the attention focused on Sparta and Athens.The revolt of some of these cities against their Persian overlords and the burning of the Persian regional capital of Sardis triggered the first Persian invasion of mainland Greece, which ended with Athens historic victory at Marathon. The Persians came back with a huge army under Xerxes and as you may expect, battles like Thermopylae and Salamis get the full Tom Holland treatment; drama, suspense, objective facts and light-hearted propaganda. The book ends with the final Persian defeat and a brief survey of the (short lived) peace, prosperity and cultural efflorescence that ensued.
The book is an excellent account of the Greco-Roman wars and their background and ends on a high note. In a way, this is a bit misleading because a far greater and far more devastating war (the Peloponesian war) would break out within a few decades, so this book can be criticized for exaggerating the significance of the Persian invasion in Greek (and by extension, later Western) history. But that is a question for another day. If you have vaguely heard of Marathon, Thermopylae, the 300 Spartans, Themistocles or Salamis, but don’t really know what happened, this is the book for you. If you are ancient history nerd then you probably know all this and more, but even those who know most of the story may enjoy this effervescent and light-hearted retelling of this famous story.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

16 thoughts on “Review: Persian Fire”

  1. I recall sitting in Waterstones (a British chain of bookshops) at Cambridge many years ago and reading the book in a few sittings without buying it 😉 Cheapskate student days….

    PS: the book is good fun!

    1. I have the book but never read it; why should I learn of my history from a Coloniser.

      Ironically the Waterstone you speak of is a stone’s throw away from my apartment (and store). Christ’s (opppsite) is V’s college and that Waterstones allows dogs, so it was also Lévy’s “first” coffee shop..

      1. You may want to read it based on the fact that many of the reviewers on Amazon think Tom Holland is far too focused on the Persian side of things.. and perhaps gives them better press than they deserve 🙂

  2. I have the book but never read it; why should I learn of my history from a Coloniser.

    what non-coloniser histories of persia should u read then? the arab colonizer seems to have burned all the works of the sassanids….

    1. Encyclopaedia Iranica is a pretty good place to start.. The late and great founder Ehsan Yarshater is from a Bahai family.

      The Arabs didn’t colonise Iran fwiw. I have private blogged my thoughts on this but this relates to the emasculation of Iran.

      It is why there is a phenomenon of “internet Hindu” but no “internet Persian.” The level of synthesis and syncretism in Iranian culture means that trying to “parse” our various elements is unnecessarily reductive.

      India was colonised by the British, Iran was conquered by the Arabs. There is a huge distinction between the two and India is still paying the price for it as we saw in last week’s episode.

      1. The Arabs didn’t colonise Iran fwiw. I have private blogged my thoughts on this but this relates to the emasculation of Iran.

        the arabs did colonize iran quite literally. they had military *colonies* in khorasan and around qom.

        iranians use arab names, worship a religion whose holy language is arabic, and now have a script whose origin is arabic. post-conquest farsi is larded with arab words.

        we know hardly anything about the literate tradition of preislamic iran despite the sassanian patronage of libraries and learning (the shah safeguarded and patronized late antique paganism and pagan centers when the byzantines threatened them). part of that is surely due to the fact that the arabs and the post-conquest iranians didn’t maintain these collections (though a great deal of iranian political thought was integrated into umayyad statecraft).

        iranians are thoroughly mentally colonized by the arabs, that’s why they detest them so much. ferdowsi even alludes explicitly to the shame of the conquest by the savage arab.

        1. To Razib’s point I would (cheekily) add that the acculturation of Persians is so total that even the most ardent Persian nationalists call themselves after (Anglicized) Greek/Roman versions of their kings names. Never met a chap called darayavāhuš, but plenty Dariuses (or its modern reborrowing into Farsi as dæriūsh).

          It is like some Indian naming his kid Ossokos instead of ashoka. Never happens because the tradition is v much alive (albeit bruised, and with a massive chip on the shoulder).


          Arabs did colonise Iran, but the interaction has been so deep and long that it is hard to unpick in any meaningful way. On that I will agree with Zach. Of the many layers of Persian identity, Islam is the newest and thickest layer.

          Maybe a podcast on Iran is due, perhaps with a historian like Ali Ansari or Khodadad Rezakhani. I would definitely be v interested to listen in.

          1. I need to stop private blogging my responses lol but I did that since I don’t see the point of continuing this conversation.

            Good luck with the Persian Pundit podcast..

        2. Actually Alexander’s conquest caused another break in their culture when much of Gatha literature – and priesthood- was lost. The later Sassanian ‘synthesis’ was different from old Zoroastrian traditions

      2. With Islam, obeisance and genuflection to 7th C Arabia is unavoidable. Can’t think of any other Islamic orientation. ‘Message’and culture are intertwined inseparably.

  3. i feel i agree with both Razib (Arabs colonized Iran) and Zack(They didn’t, at least not the way we would describe it in modern times). Is that weird? Definitely weird(I guess).

    I mean would it really be colonization if the colonized itself does not see it the same way? What;s true of Iran is also true of Pakistan as well to a large extent.(use arab names, worship a religion whose holy language is arabic). But for them it is a Persian/Pakistani religion. True of muslims in India as well.

    “It is like some Indian naming his kid Ossokos instead of ashoka. Never happens because the tradition is v much alive ”

    I think you give “tradition” too much credit. Traditions and culture can be molded and made something else entirely. Is “Fire worship” in Iranian culture? Once it was, today it isn’t. Many Indian Christians/Muslims have names which need not be of Subcontinental origin. So its not a stretch to consider that kids would be named “Ossokos instead of ashoka” had things been different.

    1. I am not giving tradition “too much credit”. My statement is not normative. Nor do I think conservatism is necessarily a good thing. If it were, we would still be living in caves.

      PS: I am talking about what is, not what ought to be.

    2. The point here is that it makes sense to question someone’s decrying of ‘coloniser mentality’ if they are themselves the result of a previous successful ‘colonisation’ by their own definition of the word.
      If Iran cannot be said to have been colonised, then the postcolonial critique falls apart. Or rather, it devolves into a critique of the coloniser for failing to do their job properly.

  4. “The point here is that it makes sense to question someone’s decrying of ‘coloniser mentality’ if they are themselves the result of a previous successful ‘colonisation’ by their own definition of the word.”

    I think this can be done over and over again, and we can sort of fit anything to “colonization” . Even though i agree with your broader point, i feel that finally the whole thing depends on agency. From what i see i dont think their is enough elements in the whole “Arab project in Iran” to say it was a colonial project and it had enough native Iranian elements in it. Perhaps its just a subjective view.

    “My statement is not normative. Nor do I think conservatism is necessarily a good thing.”

    Point taken

  5. I haven’t read the book but I watched his speech at Jaipur Literature Festival where he practically explained his book (video 55 min)

    There are so many remarks and objections I could make, it would be a whole new book. Starting from the cover page with – The First World Empire and the Battle for the West – simply two craps.

    Xerxes the 2nd is probably right, but maybe it is not the main point that Tom is a Coloniser but someone who was educated on Hollywood movies and western propaganda and who started to believe in own propaganda. I was misled by his title (historian&linguist) until I realised that was missing the attribute – ‘popular’. Well, this is a Disney version of history, very ‘non-alternative’ and ‘common’, Mitch (Hi!) would be there on his own ground.

    But, let’s imagine, for the sake of the story, what would an ‘alternative’ Mitch ask him:
    • Persia is not the first world empire, the first was empire built by first Aryan leader, stretching from India until Danube (I will write soon about the extension of this empire to British Isles). Here is again the first world crown of the first world empire:

    • When you see map of Europe at the time of Xerxes we can see that Greeks still did not reach the Mt Olympus but they already had mythology based on it??? How come?
    And the top 12 gods from their Pantheon were a replica of Serbian gods? It is pretty strange Tom!
    • Delphi – Who built the temple? Greeks did not maybe Serbs did?
    • Who lived in Asia Minor? Greeks did not (except in 1-2 places). Whose kingdoms were Lydia, Lycia, Phrygia? What was the name of the city of Xanthos (and the river Xanthos) the capitol of Lycia at the time of Xerxes? Historian Strabo wrote that the name of city was – Serb and river -Serbica. What about the city of Sard? Any similarity with the name of Sardinia? Who gave the name and which people settled on the island?

    • Obsession with Herodotus? OK. Herodotus wrote that Serbs were the biggest nation in the world after Indians? Much, much bigger than Greeks! What’s happened with them? Have they been involved in the wars? Where are they? Which language they spoke? Which language was spoken in Macedonia, Thracia, Asia Minor?

    • How come that Athens and Sparta had so-called Peloponnesian wars? How come they had different polity: so-called ‘democracy’ (actually tribal system) and oligarchy (i.e. meritory, caste-like system). Maybe because Spartans were Serbs? 300 people who stayed out of 5000 at Thermopile were Serbs. Serbs had dozen Thermopiles in their history. Greeks were not soldierly nation.
    • Iliad? – who lived in Troy? Greek did not.

    • Who gave the name to Greeks? This name has negative connotation because they try to name themselves Hellenes.
    • Darius – “the truth is the greatest virtue in the cosmic Universe” (TH) – How English are fascinated with this, such thing is incomprehensive for them!
    • Darius left Jews to go back to the promised land. True. They went to Jerusalem but they were not warmly accepted in overcrowded city, they went to Asia Minor where Serbs accepted them. Even Bibi recently praised Serbs for this.

    • Alexander the Great burned Persepolis to revenge the burning Acropolis by Persians 100+ years before? What a crap. Alexander (i.e. Lesander) was not a Greek, his father defeated Greeks 4 years before that in a battle at Chareonea. In a decisive battle against Persians (334BC) where Lesander defeated them at the river Granicus (=the border – in Serbian) close to the city of Troy what opened him a path to India and making a global empire. In Persian army, more than a half were Greeks while in Lesander’s army were Serbs. Btw. Tom, who founded the city of Tehran? Etc, etc…it is already too long…

    I can imagine what further an ‘alternative’ Mitch would ask Tom. But, all three of us agree (I am not sure for ‘non-alternative’ Mitch) what Tom said – “If you want to understand the future, read the ancient history”. Finally, for Xerxes the 2nd a 5 min video:

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