Necessary Preface: After my Book Club entry on Tom Holland's most recent book, In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom and I struck up a Twitter correspondence. He read and said generous things about Patriots. Now I'm back writing about him. Are we log-rolling? I can only answer that if I had not sincerely enjoyed and learned from both Persian Fire and Rubicon, it would be very easy to preserve a tactful silence. But I did, very much so, and it seems unfair in the opposite direction to omit them from the Book Club because Tom said something positive about my work. Anyway, the buck stops here, because - Tom, if you're reading - the next Frum novel won't appear until early 2014 at the earliest.
As everyone who ever read Byron or watched "300" knows, the Battle of Thermopylae pitted all the hopes of Western civilization against the oppressive pall of Oriental despotism. On the one side stood a culture committed to religious freedom and cultural autonomy; to commerce and the pursuit of knowledge. Across the battlefield, the soldiers of that first culture faced warriors from a culture of radical collectivism, brutal sexual exploitation, mindless traditionalism, and ruthless militarism. The first culture, of course, was that of Persia; the second, that of Sparta.
Persian Fire and Rubicon recount two of the most oft-told episodes in world history: the Persian-Greek wars of the 5th century BC and Julius Caesar's seizure of power in the 50s and 40s BC. These are subjects that have gained the attention of Herodotus and Shakespeare, among other people, and by now you'd think there would not be much left to say. You'd be wrong. In these two books, Holland takes the familiar and makes it strange.
How did it happen that the Roman republic tore itself to pieces and then submitted to a military dictatorship? How did warring, factionalized city-states on the edge of the known world repulse the first superpower? Those were the set-piece questions of what used to be called classical education. Appropriately for a post-9/11 world, Holland provides new answers by widening the aperture of the question, by shifting the classical world's eastern boundary to include Persia, rather than by following tradition to exclude it.
The ancient Persians did not write much down, and what they wrote was nothing like history. Reconstructing their story and their world requires artful recombination of other kinds of sources, close parsing of the physical record left by stones and coins, and an imaginative conjuring of the past.
In Holland's telling, the sequence of battles that started with the Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 BC and culminated eleven years later in the bloodbath at Plataea (place-names that were once drummed into schoolchildren like Yorktown or Hastings or the Marne or Queenston Heights), confronted an empire with a unprecedented capability to mobilize resources against small city-states with an unrivaled capability to inflict lethal violence.
Here is Holland's description of the Athenian phalanx's first meeting with the invading force on the beach at Marathon:
Extraordinary stories were later told of this advance. It was said that the Athenians ran the whole mile, as though men bold enough to attack the Persians for the first time must been somehow more than human. In truth, no man wearing the full panoply of a hoplite, some seventy pounds of bronze, wood, and leather, could possibly have run such a distance and still have energy left to fight effectively. Even in the relative cool of the early morning, sweat rapidly began to mingle with the dust kicked up by ten thousands pairs of feet, half-blinding the advancing hoplites and stinging their blinking eyes, so that their vision ahead of them - the outlandishly dressed archers reaching for their arrows, the slingers for their shot, the expressions of glee and disbelief in the Persian ranks - grew ever more obscured. Soon, as the Athenians crossed deeper into no man's land, the first arrows began to hiss down upon them; then, raising the monstrous weight of their shields to protect their chests, the Athenians did at last begin to run. Simultaneously, as though the phalanx were "some ferocious cornered creature, stiffening its bristles as it turns to face its foe," [Plutarch] those in the front three ranks lowered and aimed their spears, in preparation for the coming collision. By now, with some 150 yards still to travel, a storm cloud of arrows and slingshot was breaking over them, thudding into their shields, bouncing off their helmets, striking the odd hoplite in the thigh or through the throat, but still the Athenians, braving the black rain, only quickened their pace. Those of the enemy directly in their path had already begun to scramble to erect wicker defenses, as they realized, to their horror, that the wall of shields and iron-tipped spears, far from providing easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had at first imagined, was not going to be halted. A hundred years, fifty, twenty, ten. Then, as the Athenians' war cry, a terrifying ululation, rose even above the thundering of their feet upon the dry earth, the cacophony of clattering metal and the screams of the panic-striken enemy, the phalanx crunched into the Persian lines.
The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of warfare in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze. Now, though, in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crush of metal into flesh and bone; then a rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows and slings. The hoplites' ash spears, rather than shivering, as invariably happened when one phalanx crashed into another, could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death under the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze.
Marathon was an Athenian victory, and because of the extraordinary effusion of Athenian creativity in the half-century after the Persian repulse, we tend to think of the whole conflict as an Athenian war.
Holland reminds us, though, that Marathon was really just a raid; the heavy fighting to beat back the Persians was done by the Sparta, a society wholly organized for war. Has anyone ever produced a more horrifying and terrifying description of Sparta than Holland?
In other states, the poor were skin and bones, and the rich might be nicknamed "the stout" - but not in Sparta. In other states, it was the elite who would indulge themselves with wine and drunken dancing - but not in Sparta. In Sparta, it was the slaves. Sometimes, as the [warriors] ate in their mess, a helot might be dragged in, a stoop-shouldered, bestial thing, dressed in mangy animal pelts, and with an ugly cap of flea-bitten dog skin on his head. For the entertainment and edification of the watching masters, the wretch would be forced to drink neat wine, to gulp it down until the liquor was spilling from his lips onto the skins. Laughing, the Spartans would then order the slave to dance. His cheeks bright red, his chin wet with spittle, the helot would weave and stagger and totter until he passed out in the dirt. His masters would then amuse themselves by pelting him with bones.
The Spartan economy was based upon the systematic exploitation of its neighbors of Messenia These were the famous helots, who toiled as serfs to produce the food that Spartans ate in their collective mess halls. Slavery was enforced by terror. Spartan youth, male and female, underwent a rigorous education in cruelty, including anal rape by their elders, to steel them to do whatever was necessary to keep the slaves toiling.
To the most promising graduates was granted the honor of one final, bloody challenge. Enrolled into a crack squad known as the Crypteia, they would be sent into the mountains, armed only with a single dagger each, and ordered to live off the land. This period of exile from their city, however, was much more than a mere endurance test. Traveling alone, each member of the Crypteia would inevitably cross the Taygetos [mountain] range and slip into Messenia. There, advancing soundlessly by night, as every graduate ... had been trained to do, they would be expected to prove themselves as killers. ...How else, after all, save by careful pruning of the most able Messenians, could the Spartans hope to breed natural serfs? ... No Spartan could lead his people who had shrunk from killing in cold blood. ... Only once he had smelled for himself the hatred of a hunted Messenian, and seen it in his eyes, could a Spartan truly appreciate the full extent of his city's peril. Only once he had murdered could he truly appreciate what was required to keep it at bay.
Compared to this, the Persian empire - with its traditions of rule through local elites, religious toleration, and talent recruitment from subject peoples - looks positively benign. That empire too was based on enslavement and tribute. The taxes of one whole city were devoted to the cost of buying shoes for the princesses of the reigning imperial family. The bridges, roads, and canals that transported Xerxes' army from Asia to the battlefields of mainland Greece were not constructed by willing labor. But Holland reveals enough of other side of the ledger to confound those who follow Lord Byron's interpretation of the Persian wars as a struggle between Oriental despotism and Western freedom.
The efflorescence of creativity we call classical Greece originated - not with those who bested the Persians, the Spartans - but with the Athenians, who had seen their city occupied and burned. Famously relying on the advice of the Delphic oracle to seek refuge behind wooden walls, the Athenians had invested all their hopes in their new-built navy. At the battle of Salamis, that navy had entrapped and smashed the Persian fleet. Deprived of their command of the sea, defeated at the decisive land battle of Plataea, the Persians were forced to retreat. The initiative in the war now passed to the Athenian fleet, which followed the Persians back to Asia - and asserted dominance over the Greek islands in between.
These military actions had huge social consequences. Greek soldiers provided their own weapons, meaning that the weight of battle fell most heavily upon the most affluent citizens, who could afford the mass of bronze required to fight in the front ranks of a a phalanx. But no equipment was required to pull an oar, so all could do it - especially once the Athenian war leader, Themistocles, persuaded the Athenian assembly that oarsmen should be paid. The aristocracy's old claim for predominance in the state was abruptly discredited. Athens became the first society in recorded history in which all citizens (not women, not slaves, not resident foreigners) discussed and gave their consent to the measures of government.
That government levied tribute upon the new-liberated Greek islands. The tribute was originally designed as a revenue source to pay the wages of the oarsmen who kept the Persians away. But much of it was diverted to the rebuilding of Athens - and especially to the construction and decoration of the great war memorial we know as the Parthenon.
Athenian democracy can easily be over-estimated. The Athenians owned slaves, exploited subjects, and excluded women from public life. But these days, we are more prone to make the mistake of under-estimating that democracy. Never before since human beings emerged from hunter-gatherer bands had the leaders of the state ever much cared about the opinions of the poor multitude. Now suddenly a system of government had appeared in which leaders did.
The art works which still astonish the world were launched in part to give employment to the poor multitude. And as Athenians reviewed the astounding events and aftermath of the Persian wars, they began to ask in the most searching terms: how did we do these seemingly impossible things? And out of that habit of questioning were born the disciplines we now call history, philosophy, and science.
The "Persian fire" of Holland's title - the fire that burned Athens - is a fire that still lights the human mind.
The long struggle between Greek and Persian ended with an astonishing victory for … neither.
Within a little more than 150 years after the Battle of Marathon, most of the mainland Greek city-states were subdued by their northern neighbors, the kings of Macedon. A decade more, and the Macedonians had overthrown the Persian empire too. It was as if the Cold War had ended with both the Soviet Union and the United States defeated, and the Canadians the winners.
The Macedonian empire quickly cracked up, however, leaving behind multiple successor states under Greek-speaking royal families. These were the richest societies of the Mediterranean world. They were not, however, the strongest. One by one, the remainders of the Greek-Persian wars were subsumed by the fiercest of all the Mediterranean military powers: the Roman republic.
As Rome subjugated both what had been Greece and also what had been the richest part of the Persian empire, Rome's leaders seized wealth on a dazzling scale. The flow of new money triggered ferocious competition in the old ruling class to grab a larger and larger share. Tom Holland's Rubicon tells the story of this competition - and how it destroyed the Republic that had incubated it.
The next time somebody tells you that the Roman Republic fell because of "fiscal irresponsibility" - or because the plebs voted themselves too many benefits from the public treasury - reach for Holland. The end of the Republic was of course a very different thing from the fall of the Roman empire. Indeed, the empire proceeded to much greater strength and stability after the Republic than during. But it is the Republic with which Americans identify most, and the Republic was brought down not by an over-reaching populace, but by the spiraling violence of the competition among Rome's elite to grab the proceeds of the Eastern conquest.
The winners of the elite competition gained wealth and status on a scale never before seen in their political experience. (The first winner, Lucius Licinus Lucullus, still bequeathes to our language the adjective "lucullan.") On mission in the East, Roman generals lorded over kings and claimed the revenues of whole cities as their personal bribes. Back home, they dominated the city as super-aristocrats - and worried in fear that their subordinated former peers would might attack and despoil them. In previous centuries, a Roman aristocrat who made a political misstep ended in obscurity or exile. In the first century before Christ, he was liable to end up dead. The new higher stakes was played with a new savagery - first out of greed, then out of self-defense - until at last there emerged a single winner strong enough to end the competition altogether: Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar.
That is the story vividly told in Rubicon, and despite our distance in time from this world - which Holland in his artistic way helps us to see both as familiar and strange - it is a story that Americans will never stop applying to themselves so long as the United States remains both a republic and an empire.
"Nobody is truly rich unless he can afford to maintain an army," said Marcus Licinius Crassus, who more than qualified under his own rule. In an age when the richest American can afford to pay single-handedly the cost of a presidential election, that saying of Crassus acquires new and sinister resonance.