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
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities