While I was in Wellington at the end of last year, I bought a copy of Persian Fire by Tom Holland. I knew I’d like it, as I’ve liked each of his previous books – sure enough, it proved ideal holiday reading: exciting, dramatic, well-researched and elegantly phrased.
Tom Holland (1968- )
- Holland, Tom. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. 2003. Abacus. London: Time Warner Book Group UK, 2006.
- Holland, Tom. Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. 2005. Abacus. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2006.
- Holland, Tom. Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. Little, Brown. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2008.
- Holland, Tom. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. 2012. Little, Brown. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2012.
I Claudius (1976)
Holland, as I understand it, began as a fiction writer (Attis (1995), The Bonehunter (2001), etc. etc.) then branched into popular history with his best-selling book Rubicon, about the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. For a long time I resisted reading this book. Talk about a hackneyed subject! As well as all the books, there have even been numerous television series about the period! I Claudius, Rome: Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian, it’s all been done.
But then, as I started to read, I began to realise why this one stood out from the ruck.
For a start Holland is clearly very well grounded in classics: he’s no journalistic opportunist, and he keeps up with the latest research, both historical and archaeological.
Above all, though, he’s an expert storyteller. I know that that sounds almost like an insult to most historians: it’s analytical ability and archive-hunting they prize, not the ability to turn a rattling good yarn.
But then, the art of the narrative historian is neither as easy nor as intellectually negligible as it may seem. Telling the story in a new way can bring out new connections and encourage a new overview. Nor should the art of bringing to life some period in the past ever be disprized as an objective. Holland is expert at assembling telling details which transform one’s understanding of some shopworn subject.
We know some things so well, or think that we know them so well, that we’ve stopped looking at them clearly. Persian Fire, for example, works mainly as a commentary on and (at times) paraphrase of Herodotus. I’ve read Herodotus many times, in various different translations, with varying degrees of annotation and commentary (Holland himself has just published his own translation, in fact).
Herodotus [Hēródotos] (c.484-c.425 BC)
- Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. 1954. Ed. A. R. Burn. 1972. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
- Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. 1954. Rev. John Marincola. 1996. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.
- Strassler, Robert B., ed. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Trans. Andrea L. Purvis. Introduction by Rosalind Thomas. Pantheon Books. New York: Random House, Inc., 2007.
- Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Tom Holland. 2013. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2014.
- de Selincourt, Aubrey. The World of Herodotus. London: Secker & Warburg, 1962.
I literally had no idea that so much remained to be said on the subject! How complex and nuanced a discussion Holland could make of each of the three major battles, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea (now familiar to filmgoers in somewhat caricatured form – though not so much as one might think - through Frank Miller’s big-screen epics 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014))
300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
What of his other books? Well, Millennium was thought-provoking but (I felt) a little tendentious in its attempt to discuss the long and complex story of the growth of the Christian Church at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire through a few key figures and occurrences. Interesting, but not finally entirely convincing.
In the Shadow of the Sword, by contrast, would be my pick for Holland’s masterpiece (to date, at any rate). It’s quite simply one of the most illuminating works of popular historiography I’ve ever read.
The initial contention, that we know far less about the life of Muhammad and the early days of Islam than we once thought we did, is surprising enough to anyone reasonably well read in the field. But Holland’s reconstruction of the intellectual world of the Middle East at the time of the Hegira was – to me, at least – completely new. I didn’t know so much could be known about a period so remote from us. And the painstaking work of recent scholars, admirably condensed by Holland into a simple and comprehensible narrative, results in a whole new understanding of the history of one of the world’s great religions.
I don’t feel this book has received anything like the notice it deserves. It will not “explain” recent events in the Middle East to you, or even feed into our simplistic notions of “East” and “West” – the unsubtle Orientalism that undermines most of our thinking about the region. But it will remind you of just why disinterested scholarship is valuable.
Holland is not an Orientalist – not is he an Academic. He’s just a very clever and empathetic person with a gift for retelling the past and an insatiable appetite for information. He’s the closest thing to an Edward Gibbon (in my humble opinion) the modern age has produced. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword (2012)