books on the Achaemenid Empire, all aiming at the general audience. One
of them is just bad, the second one is unnecessary, the third explains
what everybody already knows. This is the wrong way to introduce people
to one of the most fertile branches of ancient history.
Holland, Persian Fire
Like Kaveh Farrokh, Tom Holland must be praised for trying to
break with the Greece-centeredness that is so customary in books of
ancient history. And Persian Fire. The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2005) is not bad. Still, it leaves too much to be desired.
The main problem is, again, ignorance of the achievements of modern
scholarship. Holland does mention the translation of Briant's Histoire (above)
in his bibliography, but he appears not to have read it. To name but
one example, Holland refers to a document known as the "Gadatas
Letter" as if it were genuine, which is not the case, as he would
have known if he had reached page xviii of the English translation of
the Histoire. Of course this is a trivial mistake, but it was avoidable.
Another book Holland claims to have consulted is Grayson's
Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. (1975, 1977²). Holland's
reading must have been superficial, because on pp.13-14, and in many
other places, he mentions Cyrus' Lydian campaign as taking place
in 547 BC, referring to the Nabonidus Chronicle, one of the most famous
texts from ancient Mesopotamia. Under the year that corresponds to our
547, this tablet does indeed record a campaign of Cyrus in an area
beyond the Tigris called "the land of Lu..." The text
breaks off after this first syllable. Holland says that its "applicability [...] to Lydia is almost certain; damage to the
inscription prevents it from being inconvertible". Quite the
opposite. In an appendix to his book, Grayson maintains that Lu...
cannot be read as "Lydia". Holland could have known
this even without consulting Grayson's book: Briant explains this
on p.34 of the English translation of the Histoire.
Like Farrokh, Holland is too easily convinced by Herodotus. For
example, there was no eclipse when Xerxes left Sardis (p.240):
Herodotus' statement in Histories 7.37 must refer to the eclipse of
April 481, when the great king left Susa. On p.7, Ecbatana is presented
as a city with seven walls, a fairy tale motive from Herodotus (1.98)
unconfirmed by archaeology. On p.14, Croesus again miraculously
survives the pyre. Holland's account of the last fight in Thermopylae
ignores the doubt that the Greek researcher himself expresses:
introducing the story with gnomê (his usual indication that what
is about to follow will be a personal opinion), Herodotus in fact
admits that we cannot know what happened at Thermopylae. The battle remains,
as Charles Hignett famously stated in his Xerxes' Invasion of Greece, "an unsolved riddle". Holland, who has read Herodotus and
Hignett, has ignored both warning signs.
The most impressive borrowing from Herodotus is the incompleteness of
Persian Fire, which corresponds to what is covered by Herodotus'
Histories. A historical description of the Persian War cannot end at
Plataea and Mycale, but must continue with the Greek expeditions to the
Bosphorus and Cyprus (478) and the fall of Eion (c.477). True, Plataea
and Mycale were decisive, but that does not mean that, having reached
the summer of 479, the historian can stop. Holland's book is like a
history of the Second World War that ends just after El Alamein,
Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad. Essentially, Holland makes his historical
judgment dependent on what happens to be covered in his incomplete
The book contains many unnecessary mistakes. Cyrus' tomb is not immense
and is not directed to the rising sun; its entrance faces the northwest
(p.20, 22). Hippias' brother Hipparchus was not a tyrant (passim).
Monotheism does not have its roots in the period of the Persian wars
(p.xxii): the author of the Deuteronomistic History lived long before
the conflict between Greece and Persia. The harems of Persia (p.168)
never existed outside Greek fantasies. The strait between
Artemisium and Magnesia has a width of "barely six miles" on p.255,
but has grown to ten miles on p.277. It was only in Islamic times
that Babylon became known as the "metropolis of sorcerers" (p.43). The
Behistun relief is not a radical departure from earlier self-promotion
(p.55): it is a creative copy of the four reliefs at Sar-e Pol-e Zahab. And
Holland maintains that Cyrus was, "no doubt by temperament", a mild
ruler (p.12), in spite of his often cruel behavior - apparently,
Holland is another victim of the propaganda of Mohammad Reza Shah, and
of Cyrus himself.
Often, it is Holland's effusive language that creates confusion. He
loves lines like "As the storm clouds of seeming Persian invincibility
loomed ever darker over Ionia, so strange shadows from the past
returned to haunt Athens, too" (p.163). Two metaphors in one sentence
is overdoing it a bit. This forced attempt to evoke something and get
the reader emotionally involved, becomes problematic when Holland
writes that people deported by the Assyrians were "naked" (p.4) - very
moving, of course, but the reliefs in the Louvre and the British Museum
prove otherwise. Another example: the presumed joy with which the fall
of Nineveh was greeted (p.6). In fact, there is - except for the
prophet Nahum - no evidence: on the contrary, the Babylonians nowhere
received support, which one would have expected if the fall of Nineveh
were such a joyful event.
Another example of Holland's being carried away by his own attempts to
get the reader involved, is his use of the word "Christ" for Cyrus
(p.147). True, Isaiah calls the conqueror the "anointed of the Lord",
but this was the common title of any Judaean king, priest, or prophet.
Messianism was born in the second century BCE, and the now common
connotations of the word "Christ" were simply missing in the sixth
century. Mistranslation is too strong an instrument to get the reader's
On p.208, Holland takes the Daiva inscription, which mentions how
Xerxes, at the beginning of his reign, put an end to the worship of
demons in one of the satrapies, as evidence for the suppression of a
revolt in Egypt. As far as I know, there is no evidence of an
interruption for any of the Egyptian cults. On the other hand, it is
certain that in 484 Xerxes proceeded harshly against the Esagila in
Babylon and took measures against organizations that were related to
the traditional Babylonian religion. This is clear from the cuneiform
evidence, Herodotus, Ctesias, and perhaps Arrian.
The issue is important, because Holland proposes a spectacular
interpretation of the Persian War: not Salamis was decisive, but
Xerxes' having to suppress a revolt in Babylonia (p.361). This is
apparently his own idea, because he does not refer to Briant's article
that has dealt with this matter. However, there is no
reasonable doubt that the Babylonian revolt of
Šamaš-eriba and Bêl-šimânni took place
in 484, and the "general murk of Near Eastern history in this period"
that Holland mentions on p.401 is no longer there - at least not here.
The only way to save Briant's thesis is to accept a second revolt in
Babylon in 479. As evidence, Briant refers to Arrian, who states that
Xerxes sacked Babylon on his return from Greece (Anabasis 7.17.2), and
to Ctesias, who mentions two captures of the city. Neither author is
known for his reliability regarding the Esagila. For the time being,
the recall of the Persian troops from Europe, and the consequent Greek
victories at Plataea and Mycale, remain what they have always been: a
Generally speaking, Holland’s book has a strangely
nineteenth-century feel. For instance, on page 20, Holland says that
Cyrus died in 529, something that was believed in the nineteenth
century, until it was discovered in the 1880s that it happened in
August 530. The strange mistake with the date of the eclipse,
mentioned above, is another case in point, and so is Holland's
adherence to the idea that a grandson and namesake of Zopyrus was an
informer of Herodotus (p.382). If this were true, the younger Zopyrus
knows awfully little about his grandfather's career. Finally,
Holland prudishly translates the famous words of Leonidas, Molon labe,
as "Come and get them" (p.271). Which might have been fine in the
Victorian age, but in our age, there is no reason not to translate an
obscenity as an obscenity.
But the most obviously nineteenth-century aspect is Holland's overall
theory, put forward on p.xvii, that "There was much more at stake
during the course of the Persian attempts to subdue the Greek mainland
than the independence of [Greece] ... Much that made Greek civilisation
distinctive would have been aborted." Holland explains that the
Athenian democracy and the philosophy of Plato would not have existed
if the Persians had not been expelled (p. xxii, xvii). Holland quotes
nineteenth-century philosophers like Hegel and Mill, but could have
strengthened his case by referring to historians - after all, the past
is their profession.
As it happens, the importance of the Persian War has been the subject
of a famous theoretical discussion between Max Weber and Eduard Meyer,
who had, in 1901, written that if the Persians had won the war, "the
outcome would have been that some kind of church [...] would have put
Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free
dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures,
have had a theological-religious nature."
Weber, who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences
but started his career as a pupil of the great ancient historian
Theodor Mommsen, responded with a simple question: how did Meyer know
that a Persian victory would have obstructed the rise of freedom,
democracy, and rationalism? Weber could easily prove that Meyer's
reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event
by pointing at what would have happened if it had not taken place. And
counterfactual explanations are, as any student of history learns in
his first year, rarely reliable.
Weber's criticism may seem obvious today, but it was one of the first
occasions on which historians analyzed the quality of their methods,
and it marked the beginning of methodology as a subdiscipline. Weber's
arguments are now textbook examples and I was surprised that Holland
was unaware of them. It is true that he is writing for a large
audience, but that is not an excuse for repeating refuted
nineteenth-century scholarship. I was even shocked to read Paul
Cartledge's review of this book in The Independent - not just because
he was a contributor to Persian Fire (p.ix) and ought to have refrained
from writing a review, but because he praises this book for its
contention that, if Xerxes had won, there would not have been something
called western culture. A Cambridge professor ought to recognize
a logical fallacy, not praise it.
Most of the time, Holland does not rise above this nineteenth-century
level: he is too faithful to Herodotus, unaware of new insights, and
thinks that a counterfactual interpretation is permissible. When he
does bring something new, like the idea that the Persian War was
decided by an insurrection in Babylon, he has no grip on the complexity
of the problems. Persian Fire might as well have been written in 1875.
Still, it would be exaggerated to call this a bad book, although it
isn’t a good book either. The book is unnecessary.
The most plausible hypothesis is that it refers to the kingdom of Urartu: R. Rollinger, "The Median ‘Empire’, the End of Urartu, and Cyrus' Campaign in 547" in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).
Holland is aware that there is debate about Herodotus'
reliability, but confuses this with the debate about the Fehling thesis
(p.377). Generally speaking, it can be said that Egyptology has more or
less confirmed Herodotus' information, while Assyriologists have shown
that Herodotus can never have visited Babylon.
To be fair to the Greek researcher: he nowhere claims to have been
there - he usually says things like "this was still the case in my
time" and "people who have not been there will find it hard to believe
that…" (I owe this observation to Bert van der Spek.)
M. Van de Mieroop, Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (1999), 147.
Herodotus 1.128 mentions the massacre of a Median army and the
Nabonidus Chronicle mentions the same fate for a Babylonian army in
539. According to the same chronicle, a king was executed in 547.
P. Briant, "La date des révoltes Babyloniennes contre Xerxès" in: Studia Iranica 21 (1992) 7-20.
The first known document to the sole rule of Cambyses (31 August) is J.N Strassmeier, Cambyses (1890), #1.
Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002) and Bichler/Rollinger, Herodot (2000) do not even bother to refute this old theory.
Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), part 3, pp. 445-446.
M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), pp.282-287
Take, for instance, these considerations. In 493, a mere thirteen years before Xerxes invaded Greece, his general Mardonius
had accepted democracy as system of government of the Greek towns in
the Persian empire. And how hostile were the Persians towards
rationalism? The research program of the Chaldaeans in Persian Babylonia followed a purely scientific method. In Xerxes' eastern capital Taxila, Panini wrote the world's first scientific grammar. And in Judah, the book of Job
was written, in which God and man discuss the nature of good and evil.
In other words, for any example Meyer and Holland mention, one might
offer a counter-example.
Paul Cartledge, "A Clash of Civilisations?" in: The Independent of 2 September 2005.
Jona Lendering for
Revision: 21 March 2008