Frederic Raphael

When the Greeks stood together

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Persian Fire

Tom Holland

Little, Brown, pp. 418, £

‘Everyone with a bellyful of the classics,’ Henry Miller said, ‘is an enemy of mankind.’ Was the Brooklyn bronco serious in claiming that indoctrination with ancient literature generated monsters? As readers of The Colossus of Maroussi well know, Miller himself fell under the Greek spell. So, earlier, had the Romantics (with unromantic Periclean Athens), Victorian schoolmasters (with the flog-meister, sodomitic Spartans) and Harold Macmillan, who wanted to be Jack Kennedy’s paidagogos. It all depends which Greece you are looking at, with which preconceptions and through how many veils of a posteriori varnish.

The smug division of the world into Civilised and Barbarian certainly supplied moral sanction for aggressive imperialism. Aristotle’s ethics authorised regarding wogs as natural slaves. Today’s self-flagellating style is to portray the West as impersonating villainy, raining shocking awful fire on the inoffensive East. How the Turks arrived at the gates of Vienna, or the Arabs at Tours, is not a popular question.

Tom Holland’s latest excursion into the ancient world recalls that Greek fire — a potent Byzantine potion of nitre, naphtha and sulphur — was matched by Persian. Fire was the essence of the god Ahura Mazda, under whose hot aegis Xerxes set out to punish the mainland Greeks for backing irredentist ambitions among his Ionian subjects and, in the case of the unforgivable Athenians, going so far as to torch Sardis.

After successfully crossing the Rubicon, Tom Holland now builds a wide bridge of words across the Hellespont. In Gore Vidal’s teasy Levantine novel, Creation, the Persian invasions of Hellas are dismissed as mere police raids. Holland’s vivid rescript of Xenophon and Herodotus (not forgetting Peter Green’s excellent The Greco-Persian Wars) insists that Xerxes was bent on turning Hellas into a permanent satrapy. The Greeks did fight in defence of Freedom (based on slave labour) and what became, with all its faults, Western Civilisation.

Their greatest hero in 480 was Themistocles, who, a few years earlier, and against aristocratic opposition, had persuaded the Athenian demos to deliver the silver of Laurium to the public purse in order to build ships, instead of dividing the profits among themselves. Themistocles made out that the first target of the new fleet would be the island of Aegina, which was well placed, off the coast of Attica, to interfere with Athenian trade. Its conquest promised easy pickings for Athenian colonists.

Only when the Persian menace darkened into ‘the Gathering Storm’ did Themistocles’ longer-term plan emerge: the triremes had really been built to confront Xerxes’ Phoenician galleys. After the gory glory of Leonidas’ last stand at Thermopylae, only the fleet stood between the Great King and the piecemeal provincialisation of Hellas. As Asia moved to crush Europe and its freedom, Themistocles somehow persuaded his fellow citizens to quit Athens and take to the ships. All hands were needed below decks, at the rowers’ benches, toffs and low-class thetes side by side, in what turned out to be the winning crews. The evacuation was a triumph of reason over autochthonous instinct.

In Holland’s blockbuster reportage, the intricacies of Levantine power politics, starting with Cyrus the Great’s triumph over Babylon and the Medes, mesh excitingly into a series of set-pieces culminating in the sea and land disasters for Xerxes at Salamis and, clinchingly, at Plataea where the red-cloaked Spartans masterminded the destruction of Mardonius’ army. The Persians never came back for more, though they later funded Athens and especially Sparta to exhaust each other in the Peloponnesian war.

Holland’s Xerxes is an inverted crusader, bringing the True Faith of Mazda to enlighten the infidel, while the Greeks are riddled with internecine animosity and scoundrelly vanities. All very today; but as Sarah Walden pointed out in these pages not long ago, writing about the National Gallery’s ‘cleaning’ of old master paintings, you can make things too vivid, too contemporary. The late Guy Lee, a classicist and translator of rare finesse, used to warn that, faced with ancient texts, you should remember that the language, psychology and social assumptions of their authors are remote from our own. Whether or not in his own translation, Holland brings it all into crash-bang- wallop proximity.

Not having my copy of Hipponax to hand, I was puzzled by this rendering of the old atheist’s text:

…the court at Sardis could be fittingly portrayed as a prostitute ‘speaking Lydian’ kneeling in a black alley, thrashing her client’s testicles while shafting his dripping arse.

Busy girl, right? Did Lydians really pay to have their testicles thrashed by talkative tarts who at the same time wielded a wicked olisbos? Tous les g