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Persian Superpower Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006
by David Potter
Persian Fire

Once there was a time when the world's most powerful leader believed he represented the forces of good against those of evil, a time when the world's only superpower committed vast resources to punish terrorists, but had no real strategic vision. Historian Tom Holland writes of a world where xenophobia was joined with a passion for democracy, and where power defined truth. Holland is writing about the fifth century B.C. and the wars between Greece and Persia in his book Persian Fire.

One of the key actors in the story is Darius I of Persia, who genuinely believed that his enemies were the servants of demons and that he had a sacred duty to defeat all who opposed him. Thus, when some Greeks destroyed a temple in one of his western provinces, Darius launched a pair of massive expeditions to punish them. When those invasions both failed, he prepared a third that would, after his death, be commanded by his son Xerxes. These expeditions were equally devoid of any practical strategic aim, drawing from the archaeological evidence of the rock-cut inscription of Darius at Bisitun, and in the design of the palace at Persepolis, Holland shows Darius and Xerxes defined reality as it suited them, and allowed themselves to be ruled by their own propaganda.

While the motivation for the conflict on both sides is problematic, victory falls to the side with the stronger ideology. Persian religious fanaticism and excessive central control were far less powerful than the Greek desire to preserve freedom. Driven to defend their way of life, the Greeks routinely outperformed larger Persian armies on the battlefield. Blessed with one exceptionally able leader, Themistocles, they were able to lure the Persians into a trap at the decisive naval battle of Salamis, ensuring that their way of life would triumph.

Holland creates a vivid and sympathetic tale of a world dominated by forces of cultural dissonance. Much of what he says must resonate with any modern audience, but the parallels are implicit rather than explicit; not the least of these, I fear, is that "War fever...was an intoxication to which democracies appeared particularly prone."

David Potter is a professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America