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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Review: The Forge of Christendom by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s latest book is about the slow recovery of Western Europe between 900 and 1100 AD, a period that he sees as the beginning of Western Europe’s transformation from a decaying and dilapidated backwater to the mastery of the world. Tom Holland clearly thinks Christianity had much to do with this rise and presents the violent elimination of paganism in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe as positive achievements of the age. This is mostly done not by direct editorializing; it is done by using the language of the invading Christians (not as quotes from ancient books but as the text of the book itself) to describe the pagans. What the pagans thought of this transformation is rarely mentioned or is explicitly presented as a quote, not as the author’s own text.

He sort of claims that this great transformation had something to do with rising apocalyptic expectations about the end of the first Christian Millennium, the disappointment of which was followed by the channelization of these energies into this-worldly revival and expansion. He does not really prove this hypothesis and it may be that it is mostly a device to frame the book and is not taken completely seriously by Tom Holland himself. Certainly I more or less ignored it while reading the book and you can get some value out of the book without paying this theory any mind either.

(The book’s Amazon.com intro presents this as the central thesis of the book: “At the approach of the first millennium, the Christians of Europe did not seem likely candidates for future greatness. Weak, fractured, and hemmed in by hostile nations, they saw no future beyond the widely anticipated Second Coming of Christ. But when the world did not end, the peoples of Western Europe suddenly found themselves with no choice but to begin the heroic task of building a Jerusalem on earth.” I did not find it convincing and I think you can ignore it too). That said, the book is still fun to read. Tom Holland always wants to make history fun, to tell stories, to quote contemporary accounts and to paint vivid pictures of life in those times. He is always interesting, but the reader will have to read other books to find out if the slant presented here is the most reasonable one or if Mr Holland is letting his storytelling side (or his Christian/English side) dictate how events and characters are presented.

There is definitely an element of subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) challenging the more “woke” interpretations of history that are currently popular in some elite Western universities. He wants the readers to see Christianity (specifically Catholicism) as an overall force for good (separation of church and state, suppression of elite violence, etc) and as an important source of cultural unity, growth and creativity in those troubled time. He is not necessarily wrong about this, but he rarely makes a solid evidence-based case case (with alternative views systematically evaluated and rejected) for his preferences, relying instead on eloquence and (selective?) presentation to convince the reader.

If you don’t mind (or already approve of) his Christian and “Eurocentric” viewpoint, this is the book for you. Even if you do mind, it is a very entertaining read, full of zany anecdotes and interesting factoids. A reasonably good overview of the age and worth a read. But it will be a good idea to read other books about the period before you decide that the trends were exactly as described in this book.

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