Saturday, August 22, 2015

Persian Fire by Tom Holland

I picked the book because I am interested in Persian history and wanted to educate myself. I should have gone by the lead instead of the name. Subtitled The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, it is a back handed paean to Greek ideals and achievements, in particular their stand against a Persian advance in unabashedly jingoistic terms. It is obviously well researched and I came off with a clearer understanding of Mediterranean geopolitics in fifth century BC but the devil is in the perspective. 

What troubles me is that when Mr. Holland characterises the Trojan War as the first battle between Europe and Asia or represents ancient Greco-Persian battles as a stand off between all that the Western world purports to stand for today and a despotic and powerful empire of the East- not to or from the East,  mind you - he does not simply delve into harmless tribalism to win a readership. He is race-mongering. Sure, the medieval Islamic world, which comprised of large chunks of the erstwhile Achaemenid empire, adopted a Persianate culture and in that place and time Europe's  renaissance theme of claiming kinship with ancient Greece made sense. But the reality is that Ancient Greece was culturally and geographically closer to Ancient Persia than to Northern and Western Europe, the bastions of Western civilisation today. What connects Greece to England is not culture or habits but race. By appropriating a freedom loving Athenian democratic model as a western ideal  - never mind the monarchies that dotted Greece, the slavery, the socialised subjugation of women - Mr. Holland is in fact indulging in white chest beating. Not cool.

I thought. 

The eastern border of the Achemenids 
But the author does pull you along in the sweep of his narrative. There may be inaccuracies in his presentation —India is scooped into the Persian fold on the basis of lost border territory thousands of miles away from Pataliputra, the capital — but the distortion (besides having a breezy aspect to it, a line quickly snuck in here, a passing mention there, all adding to the effect,
Persian empire - parts of Greece and nothng beyond the Indus
some may say,) is done through implication or exaggeration and not through a brazen manipulation of facts. So Athenian idealism and Spartan obduracy are depicted as the face of Greek resistance in Persian Fire but the book also informs us that the Greek King of Macedonia and the Greek Queen of Artemisia sailed for the Great King Xerxes, that the Thebans of Greece fought alongside Xerxes, that Argos,  the land of Agamemnon - the Greek general in the mythical Trojan war - thwarted the Spartans all the time, and last but not the least, that the Athenians had nominally submitted to Darius I at one point. 

The book has the heft of truth. The slant is affectionately amused and European in its pro Greek-resistance tilt. The understatement is all British.  If I were white I think I would have loved the book. But from such books spring execrable movies like 300 where Xerxes of Persia is portrayed as seven feet tall with a nose ring! Do you think Xerxes above could be shown as the one below?

Xerxes in 300 (he is the one on the right!)
I think the Greco-Persian conflict was not an ultimately admirable revolt against a remote master by cute crazies from a far flung outpost.  The Greek civilisation was as advanced  as the Persians; their conflict would have been a natural power struggle. They were organised differently which gave them specific advantages and vulnerabilities.

And the book got me thinking  

Unification seems to have been a starting point for empire building. However what I found admirable in the Greeks was strangely their ability to collaborate and cooperate. It is amazing that the Spartan King Leonidas made his stand against Xerxes in Thermopylae, miles away from his native lands, while the Athenians led a combined Greek Navy off Artemisia and then Salamis. The Greeks for all their squabbles united  in order to preserve their way of life and their sense of being a distinct people. A sense of self was crucial to their ability to withstand predators. 

At a practical level, this self identification seems to have bypassed Indians - not once, in the face of wave after wave of marauders from the North West was it thought important to secure the passes that led through the Hindukush into India. Like Hotel California, India has invited the world to check in (and perversely not allowed them to leave). And the few instances of collaborative stands - the Rajput confederacy against Babur led by Sanga, the 1857 first war of independence against the British East India Company - have ended in spectacular failure.  Are we too divided to appreciate who is a foreigner and who is not? More troubling still, is this self identification, code for racist ideology? Ancient Indian texts refer to preservation of Dharma ("the" way of life), purity of race (the horror of miscegenation),  the idea of the mlechha (barbarian).  But as India became a potpourri of nations and races, this sense of self as separate and worth preserving warped into a casteist divisively supremacist and irrelevant ideology that could not recruit the energies of her people into a single unified force.

All food for thought. Glad I read the book even if I did not enjoy reading it. Go for it if you want a handle on Greek history with some accurate information about Ancient Persia.