In 480 B.C., Xerxes, the King of Persia, led an invasion of mainland Greece. Its success should have been a formality. For seventy years, victory--rapid, spectacular victory--had seemed the birthright of the Persian Empire. In the space of a single generation, they had swept across the Near East, shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, putting together an empire which stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean. As a result of those conquests, Xerxes ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. Yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks of the mainland managed to hold out. The Persians were turned back. Greece remained free. Had the Greeks been defeated in the epochal naval battle at Salamis, not only would the West have lost its first struggle for independence and survival, but it is unlikely that there would ever have been such an entity as the West at all.
Tom Holland's brilliant new book describes the very first "clash of Empires" between East and West. As he did in the critically praised Rubicon, he has found extraordinary parallels between the ancient world and our own. There is no other popular history that takes in the entire sweep of the Persian Wars, and no other classical historian, academic or popular, who combines scholarly rigor with novelistic depth with a worldly irony in quite the fashion that Tom Holland does.
After chronicling the fall of the Roman Republic in Rubicon, historian Holland turns his attention further back in time to 480 B.C., when the Greeks defended their city-states against the invading Persian empire, led by Xerxes. Classicists will recall such battles as Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis, which raises the question: why do we need another account of this war, when we already have Herodotus? But just as Victor David Hanson and Donald Kagan have reframed our understanding of the Peloponnesian War by finding contemporary parallels, Holland recasts the Greek-Persian conflict as the first clash in a long-standing tension between East and West, echoing now in Osama bin Laden's pretensions to a Muslim caliphate. Holland doesn't impose a modern sensibility on the ancient civilizations he describes, and he delves into the background histories of both sides with equally fascinating detail. Though matters of Greek history like the brutal social structure of the Spartans are well known, the story of the Persian empire--like the usurper Darius's claim that every royal personage he assassinated was actually an imposter--should be fresh and surprising to many readers, while Holland's graceful, modern voice will captivate those intimidated by Herodotus. (May 2)
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 10, 2007
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Excerpt from Persian Fire by Tom Holland
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 with blood."(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.