LITTLE, BROWN £20 (418pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Persian Fire: The first world empire and the battle for the west, by Tom Holland

A clash of civilisations?

Cyrus is Cyrus II the Great, the Empire's founder, and the text of the Cylinder has been hailed a touch enthusiastically - not to mention anachronistically - as an early declaration of human rights. Actually, it concerns the repatriation of religious statues and human deportees, recalling that it was the same Cyrus who earned the title "Lord's Anointed" from Deutero-Isaiah for restoring the exiled Jews from Babylon to Judaea.

It was as a human rights document that the UN had the text translated in 1971. That was the supposed 2500th anniversary of Cyrus's death - an event commemorated with unseemly grandiosity by another Shah an Shah (King of Kings). How were the mighty to be fallen! Within a decade, the Peacock throne of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was no more. A revolution that still casts its long shadow over the world, and not least the West, had swept it away.

It is Tom Holland's plausible contention, in this brilliant sequel to his award-winning Rubicon, that Achaemenid Persia was the first truly world empire and that, had Cyrus's grandson Xerxes succeeded in his attempted conquest of the Greek mainland in 480, there would not have been much if any "West" for that shadow to fall over.

This is incendiary stuff, and the igneous metaphor that blazes from the cover has a deeply serious antique relevance. Cyrus erected fire-holders at his original capital of Pasargadae; Xerxes trailed news of his would-be exploits from Europe to Asia by a series of fire-beacons. And the Empire's second founder, Xerxes's father Darius, yielded to none in his absolute devotion to the Lord Ahura Mazda: god of light and life, implacable enemy of the Lie, whose worship - founded by the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) - centred on rituals involving fire.

Tom Holland's non-fiction but - inevitably - slightly fictionalised account of what the Greeks called "the Median things" (they were incapable of distinguishing the Medes from their southern Iranian cousins and vanquishers) is the first in English addressed to a general readership for more than 30 years. In it, Holland crosses his own Rubicon, from Roman history to Greek, but not only Greek by any means. One of the book's many attractions is the care lavished on trying to get under the skin of the Persians, especially those of the imperial court and wielding the highest military commands.

Indeed, as the title is surely meant to suggest, he - like the professional ancient historian George Cawkwell in The Greek Wars (2004) - wants us to see the wars from the Persian just as much as the Greek side. Special attention is paid to the Persians' religion, one that lives on in the modern world from Mumbai to Vancouver in the observances of the Parsis (whose name betrays their ethnic origin).

Holland emphasises the causal, motive force of royal Persian opposition to the Lie. Xerxes's invasion of Greece should not for obvious reasons be called a crusade. But there was about it something of the same spirit that animated the anathema on all daivas (demons) that Xerxes delivered in a famous trilingual text - Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian - found at his chief ceremonial capital. This magnificent site the Greeks later called Persepolis; the name that has stuck to this day, thanks not least to Alexander the Great's symbolically definitive destruction of it in 330. The big trouble for Xerxes was that his monotheist Mazdean zeal was met with an equal and opposite force from his polytheistic Greek enemies.

The key religious aspect of the culture-shock was brought out beautifully by the Wars' great pioneering historian, the Asiatic Greek intellectual Herodotus of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum). One of the leitmotifs of his historia (enquiry, research) - to which, for all its imperfections, Holland like the rest of us is ultimately in hock - was the theme of hubris.

Xerxes overstepped the limits - of power, of geography, of humanity - and paid the price. He had the waters of the Hellespont whipped, as if the Hellespont - for the Greeks a divine force - was but one more of his millions of human bandaka (slave) subjects. For that sacrilegious confusion of categories and tyrannical transgressiveness, Xerxes paid the appropriate tisis (divinely authorised restitution).

Another case of royal whipping, this time of his own troops, also caught Herodotus's eye, and it has resonated to this day. This occurred at the first land battle of Xerxes's campaign, fought at the "Hot Gates" of Thermopylae. John Stuart Mill declared the battle of Marathon, won ten years earlier against Darius, to be "even as an event in English history... more important than the battle of Hastings". The same could, and should, be said of Thermopylae, at which the self-sacrificing Spartan king Leonidas and his 300 champions won immortal fame.

Holland does Thermopylae full justice within the broader scope of his account, which also treats expansively the other major conflicts at Artemisium, Plataea and Mycale. Throughout, the reader's attention is caught by sparkling insight and no less sparkling writing. At Thermopylae there were horridly visible "viscera spilled across the ground"; Regent Pausanias of Sparta, the victor of Plataea, was a "notorious enthusiast for barbarian chic"; the Syrian Gates functioned as "a tourniquet ever ready to be applied, in case of emergency, to the flow of the Royal Road". The narrative is studded and always enhanced with such luminous and arresting phraseology.

Nor does Holland fail to rise to the seriousness and vastness of his East-West theme. If you read nothing else, do read the Preface, which succeeds in its aim of building a bridge between the worlds of academic and general readers. Indeed, one of the most astonishing aspects of the author's achievement here, as in Rubicon, is that this is a book written by someone trained neither in the (Greek and Latin) classics nor even in history, let alone Oriental Studies.

If Persian Fire does not win the Samuel Johnson Prize, there is no justice in this world. The Lie will have triumphed, again. "Look to the end," a character in Herodotus warns. So a final word to the wise (judges): yet another Greek divinity, Nemesis, always lies in wait to punish hubris. And it is the inexorable goddess Nemesis with whom Tom Holland aptly ends his grippingly, acutely relevant logos (tale).

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history at Cambridge University. His 'Thermopylae: turning-point in world history' will be published by Macmillan in 2006, and the paperback of 'Alexander the Great: the hunt for a new past' by Pan this October

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project