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

TV
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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker