November 17, 2013

Persian Fire review

After listening to the excellent Ancient World Podcast, I picked up one of the books mentioned by the host, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland, largely on the strength of recommendation.

Persian Fire by Tom HollandPersian Fire by Tom Holland

The host, Scott Chesworth, described it as not just the best book I’ve read about the Persians and the ancient world, but one of the best books I’ve read period.

I’d say that was definitely a good summary. A few months ago, after reading this excellent Metafilter post about the Bronze Age Collapse, I picked up a series of recommended books and found Chesworth’s podcast. Some of the books, while fascinating, were overwhelmingly academic in nature, with every other sentence being a quote of someone else. While this kind of academic work is fascinating if you have direct access to an academic library or the kind of grounding in the quoted authors that makes sense of the use of each quote, to a lay reader like me it can be very dry and hard work.

Tom Holland’s style, by contrast, is very readable, reminding me of Anthony Beevor’s sterling work in describing some of the grimmer conflicts of the Second World War. I really enjoyed this book and feel that I have a much stronger grasp of Darius, Xerxes, the rise of the Persians and the historical background of battles like Thermopylae, Salamis and Platea. While an actual classicist would no doubt see it as inferior to reading the source material, I admire the combination of synthesis of dozens of sources, extensive endnotes and commentary, all united by a very strong narrative voice. Highly recommended.

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