Why do they hate us? That’s what Herodotus wanted to know, and this lively history of the Persian Wars ventures a few answers.
Indeed, writes historian/novelist Holland (Rubicon, 2004, etc.), if history begins with Herodotus, then that question is the foundation of history. “Why, he wondered, did the peoples of East and West find it so hard to live in peace?” Herodotus thought it might have had something to do with the business of kidnapping princesses, or the savage attacking of Troy. Holland takes a longer view, writing of restless tribes of Central Asians and their push-pull migrations, of power-hungry satraps, of great emperors. The first was Cyrus, who dominated all of southwestern Asia. His lieutenant Harpagus seems to have had it in for the Greeks who lived along the coast of what is now western Turkey: “City by city,” Holland writes, “he brutally subdued them all,” except the lucky ones who fled to Greece and farther westward to Italy and Sicily. The Persians seem to have taken a liking to the things of Greece, and they pushed ever westward, led by the great general Xerxes. Cyrus knew of the Greeks; a delegation from the mainland once came to his palace and told him bluntly that they had better leave them alone, or “he would have to answer to those who sent them—the Spartans.” The Greeks apparently thought that mention of the Spartans was enough, but Cyrus and company were undeterred—and, to their sorrow, they learned their lesson in battles at places like Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae. Holland’s descriptions of these epochal battles are suitably stirring, and if his East-versus-West notion is just a touch anachronistic, it points to all the misunderstandings, ambition and ignorance that have characterized that struggle ever since.
A welcome popularization of ancient history, with a nicely vengeful cliffhanger of an ending that begs for a sequel.