Its success should have been a formality. For seventy years, victory - rapid, spectacular victory - had seemed the birthright of the Persian Empire. In the space of a single generation, they had swept across the Near East, shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, putting together an empire which stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean. As a result of those conquests, Xerxes ruled as the most powerful man on the planet.
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But go back another five centuries, to an era at least as crucial to European history if not more so, and folk memory fails. Cyrus the Great? Generations of grammar and public schoolboys knew all about them, but those years are long gone. Even our notion of how the 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. 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 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. 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. A killer quip two and half millennia before Roger Moore or Bruce Willis, and for real as well. 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 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, Athenians faced the Persians at Marathon, joined only by another men from the gallant little city of Plataea.
This gesture of solidarity fortified them powerfully. Hopelessly outnumbered, against an implacable foe numbering , 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 Greek dead, later nobly buried with their names memorialised on marble slabs, for the first time in history.
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 , 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 Spartan warriors, his "hoplites", with perhaps another 1, 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.
King Leonidas turned to his tiny band of men. 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. 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 , 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, years old. These ancient, paradigmatic battles between Greece and Persia really were the birthpangs of a recognisable Europe.
And Holland affirms: "Everything stemmed from Marathon; everything was justified by it, too. 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. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.
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The Persian invasions of mainland Greece in the early fifth century BC are the beginning of history as we understand that word. Seeking "to preserve the memory of the past" and also to understand how Greeks and Asiatics came into conflict, the ancient writer Herodotus deployed a technique he called historia: knowledge obtained through diligent inquiry. Herodotus, a native of Ionian Greece or what is now western Turkey, travelled the known world asking people what had occurred in the s and s and why. The result was a story of pride, heroism and intrigue that gave first the Greeks, and then Europeans in general, a sense of special destiny. Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae were inspirations in the struggle for Greek independence from the Ottoman empire in the 19th century and, less creditably, for European domination of the near orient. For the Iranians, national myth and Islamic history had submerged all memory of the achievements of Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius until European archaeologists and translations of Herodotus arrived at the turn of the 20th century. The Pahlavi monarchy that came to power in the s sought to revive ancient Persian glory as the Greek historians had known it.
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