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Real 300 – Persian Fire

July 22, 2012

The movie ‘300’ when it first aired in the cinema caught my eye due to its stylised action and comic like cinematography. Back then I knew little of the actual historic time period or even the comic strip the movie was based on. Without getting into the review of the whole movie I will just say that I was majorly impressed with the editing work that went into the movie to give it that surreal rich-coloured feel.

In summary the film is about King Leonidas and his force of 300 men defending Greece in the battle Thermopylae (480 B.C.) from the invading Persian armies controlled by Xerxes I.

I have recently finished a book by an author I have since added to my list of favourites, titled ‘Persian Fire’. Tom Holland, who is the great writer behind this tome, explores that fascinating period of history when the deciding outcome of a few decades may have changed human history so radically that it would be the end of what we know as the Western civilization.

Holland’s main subject of the book are the Greco-Persian wars, but before he gets into the meat of the subject that provides us with real life depictions of scenes from ‘300’, he sets the scene in its historic and political context.

Leonidas statue

Beginning with the fall of the Assyrian Empire at the end of the 7th century, then taking a fly-over tour of the Median kingdom, the stage is finally set for Persian Achaemenid Empire to make an entrance with Cyrus the Great as their main man. The first two chapters concentrate on the Persian rise to power and the set of events that ultimately led to the massive campaign to wage war with the Greek states.

The book then takes a breather and in similar manner lays out the stepping stones for the Greek states. Holland keeps the spotlight mainly on the two major players; Athens and Sparta. This section of the book is much richer and personally more fascinating. Even with foreknowledge at the reader’s disposal, the book is gripping in the way it portrays the struggles of the first democracy taking root. The many times it came close to being trampled and replaced with autocrats and despots, only to survive the onslaught from the Greek people themselves.

The rest of the books narration is told from the Greeks perspective, yet Holland manages to weave the Persian drama in between perfectly. As the Greek states panic and prepare for the first conflict at Marathon, we are constantly updated on how the Persian armies are advancing and how Xerxes commands his hoards.

What I love about this book and Tom Holland’s other work, is the ability of the man to create a suspenseful and rich tale from factual historic sources. His books do not have any of that dry matzah type of reading a normal history book would contain. Take a passage such as the following when Leonidas (Spartan King) and his 300 men arrive at the pass of Thermophylae:

When Leonidas, leading his small holding force, arrived

in early August at the pass of Thermopylae, then, the

example of the heroes who had fought centuries previously

in the first great clash between Europe and Asia could

hardly have failed to gleam in his mind’s eye. From Homer,

he knew that the gods, ‘like birds of carrion, like vultures’,

would soon be casting invisible shadows over his men’s

positions — for whenever mortals had to screw their

courage to an excruciating pitch of intensity, whenever they

had to prepare themselves for battle, ‘wave on wave of

them settling, close ranks shuddering into a dense, bristling

glitter of shields and spears and helmets’, they could know

themselves passing into the sphere of the divine.

In conclusion if you are a fan of history and enjoyed the movie 300 and want to know the real story behind who the Spartans, Greeks in general and Persians were, then ‘Persian Fire’ by Tom Holland is a must read.

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