Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

The faultline of world history lay at the Hellespont, 3,000 years ago. William Napier relishes an epic retelling of the battles of Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae, victories whose importance for the west can't be exaggerated
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The key players and moments of Rubicon are part of folk-memory: Julius Caesar; Anthony and Cleopatra; "et tu, Brute?"; the die is cast; and, of course, "crossing the Rubicon". But go back another five centuries, to an era at least as crucial to European history if not more so, and folk memory fails. Themistocles? Miltiades? Salamis? Cyrus the Great? Generations of grammar and public schoolboys knew all about them, but those years are long gone. (A sure test of popular familiarity is the Carry On films: Carry On Cleo, yes; Carry On Themistocles, no.) Even our notion of how the 26-mile marathon originated is mistaken. It is therefore a testament to Holland's superlative powers as a narrative historian that he brings this tumultuous, epoch-making period dazzlingly to life, and makes the common reader familiar again with one of the most thrilling periods in world history.

Holland gives us a masterly and gripping overview of the ancient Persians. They were regarded by the Greeks as "hilariously effeminate" because they wore trousers, and their kings and nobility even sported platform heels and luxuriant false beards and moustaches. But in war they were a different matter. Fighting the Egyptians they pinned cats to their shields - a sacred animal to their enemies. Rebels were flayed, their skins stuffed with straw and impaled on stakes. Trousered, toupéed and platform-heeled they might have been, but effeminate they were not. All the glimmering, bloodstained magnificence and horror of the antique world is here.

Over in the little-known city state of Athens, things were much as normal: talkative, quarrelsome, conspiratorial, mercurial, furiously competitive. "Always be the bravest. Always be the best," said the Athenians, quoting Homer; and they lived by it. Supreme among the operators were Themistocles the politician and Miltiades the general. Themistocles was a lawyer before entering politics, he invited popular musicians into his home, and he used make-up to enhance his image. Plus ça change.

Down south were another kind of Greeks altogether: the Spartans. They possessed "a rare and sanguinary mystique", in Holland's words, and they command our attention still. They were grimly militaristic, culturally barren, and treated their slaves, the helots, abominably. At the same time they were funny, loyal, self-disciplined and fantastically brave.Their food was famously revolting, consisting in the main of a black, bloody broth. After tasting it, a visitor once observed, "No wonder they have no fear of death." They gave us the word laconic, from their homeland, Laconia: curt, brilliant wit, often in appallingly adverse circumstances. Philip of Macedon once sent a messenger to the Spartans, saying, "If I capture Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground." The Spartans sent the messenger back with a message of just one word: "If." Now that's cool. A killer quip two and half millennia before Roger Moore or Bruce Willis, and for real as well.

"Tell me," queried Cyrus the Great, the King of Kings over in Persia, "who are the Spartans?" The answer would come soon enough. Assuming rule over all the earth as his god-given prerogative, his successor Darius sent out two of his ambassadors to Sparta to demand earth and water. The Spartans flung them down the nearest well, saying they could find what they wanted there. Darius was soon sailing his huge Persian army over the Aegean for Greece.

The Battle of Marathon was fought on a narrow coastal plain. The moment the Persians landed there, the Athenians sent their best runner, Philippides, to Sparta to ask for their help. He covered 140 mountainous Greek miles in two days. The Spartans were in the midst of one of their holiest festivals but said they would come when they were finished, in 10 days. And so a mere 10,000 Athenians faced the Persians at Marathon, joined only by another 800 men from the gallant little city of Plataea. This gesture of solidarity fortified them powerfully. Hopelessly outnumbered, against an implacable foe numbering 250,000 men-at-arms, who had defeated every army that had stood against them, the Athenians attacked. Penned in against the shores, their own ships, and the marshes to the north, the Persians were hacked to pieces, finally breaking and fleeing back to their ships.

It was then that the "marathon" was first run - by men who had already fought a bitter battle by 10am, each clad in around 70 pounds of bronze, wood and leather. They made it back to their beloved Athens by late afternoon, "an astounding display of toughness and endurance", as Holland says. Behind them on the plains of Marathon they left 192 Greek dead, later nobly buried with their names memorialised on marble slabs, for the first time in history. 6,400 Persians were left for the flies.

The first battle was won, but not the war. Ten years later Xerxes, successor to Darius, crossed the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges to destroy the rebels of Greece once and for all and impose proper kingly dominance over these troublesome little city states with their fledgling ideas of "freedom" and "rule of the people". He marched at the head of another 250,000 men, and they took seven days to cross the pontoon bridges. It was then that the extraordinary battle of Thermopylae took place, in a narrow pass that stood between Xerxes and the rest of Greece. It was defended by King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan warriors, his "hoplites", with perhaps another 1,000 or so Thebans and Thespians (not a passing troupe of luvvies, but a courageous little band from nearby Thespis). Holland evokes the stench and fury of the battle with cinematic vividness: the narrow pass, the steaming waters that gave it its name of the Hot Gates, "where the tang of sulphur hung moist in the August heat". An eerie and ominous place; but the Spartans were unruffled. Instead, more laconic jokes: the Persians threatened the Spartans, saying that their storm of arrows would darken the sky. "Excellent," replied the Spartans. "We can fight our battle in the shade." The Persians said then that they would attack and show no mercy. King Leonidas turned to his tiny band of men. "Eat a good breakfast," he told them cheerfully. "For tonight we dine in the underworld."

Technically speaking, the Spartans lost at Thermopylae. Outnumbered, betrayed and surrounded, they died to a man, and the Persians broke through. But it was a distinctly Pyrrhic victory, dearly won; and what this example of Spartan valour had done to Persian morale is incalculable. The Spartan "defeat" has rung down the centuries, perhaps the purest example of heroism in history (and a salutary counter to the cliché that only the British celebrate their defeats). Leonidas' head was impaled on a stake by a vengeful Xerxes. It was left to posterity to honour him.

Finally there was the epic sea-battle of Salamis. Xerxes mounted on a golden footstool to his throne upon the headland to watch this famous Persian victory down in the bay. How the Olympian gods must have rubbed their hands in glee at such hubris. Xerxes watched in horror while his ships were smashed and sunk. Greece was saved, and the Persians retreated back east.

Eight years later, Aeschylus, who had fought at Marathon, staged The Persians. And in 447, work began at Athens on the finest, most dignified building ever created by the hand of man: a temple called by later generations the Parthenon.

Holland lays all these scenes before us with an acute sense of drama, from the "clover-rich pastureland" at the foot of the Zagros mountains, where "horses, white horses, covered the plain", to his heroic Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae "feathered with arrows, slathered with gore". Beneath these muscular tales of blood and sacrifice, however, there also runs considerable scholarship, as the footnotes attest, and the steely intellectual cable of the author's argument. Holland should be applauded for resisting the vanity of attention-seeking revisionism. The faultline of world history truly is at the Hellespont, and it is 3,000 years old. These ancient, paradigmatic battles between Greece and Persia really were the birthpangs of a recognisable Europe. J S Mill said that Marathon "even as an event in English history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings". And Holland affirms: "Everything stemmed from Marathon; everything was justified by it, too." This is not a faultline to be closed up easily by Turkey's membership of the EU, say, or new "dialogue" between Islam and the West.

Ancient Persia, for all its virtues, was founded upon a repressive monotheistic authoritarianism, and practiced a proselytising, dogmatic, god-ordained violence against those who opposed it or its religion of Ahura Mazda, the Truth. All unbelievers were people of the Lie. Ancient Greece, for all its vices, was polytheistic, multitudinous, woolly, sceptical, and as such a fertile seedbed for ideas of democracy and individual liberty. The Greek-Persian wars were wars of two opposing ideologies; and we are the heirs to Greece's astonishing victory. We should be deeply grateful.

Without the Greek victories over monolithic Persia, the very notion of democracy might have been associated ever after with mere mob rule, rebellion, chaos, the Lie, rather than freedom, human dignity, and equality before the law. The significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis to the story of the West is impossible to exaggerate.

In his preface, Tom Holland expresses the hope that his "attempt to build a bridge between the worlds of academic and general readership does not end up appearing as vainglorious as did the two-mile pontoon which Xerxes built from Asia to Europe". On the contrary. He has conquered this new territory with more power and panache than any platform-heeled King of Kings.

William Napier's historical novel 'Attila' is published by Orion on 15 September