Thursday, October 13, 2005

The First Clash of Civilization

A review of Tom Holland, Persian Fire, by Victor Davis Hanson:

Holland, in fact, presents a sober and balanced narrative — as engagingly written as Peter Green’s jaunty Greco–Persian Wars (1996), as reliable as John Lazenby’s meticulously sourced Defence of Greece (1993) and as sensible as Barry Strauss’s more recent Battle of Salamis (2004). Holland has a sense for the golden moment, is a widely read intellectual, shows a keen wit — and the result is an engaging story that the general public will find worth relearning.
How could you not love a story that gives us the tale of a Persian emperor punishing water (the Dardanelles)? From Herodotus:

They then began to build bridges across the Hellespont from Abydos to that headland between Sestus and Madytus, the Phoenicians building one of ropes made from flax, and the Egyptians building a second one out of papyrus. From Abydos to the opposite shore it is a distance of almost two-thirds of a mile. But no sooner had the strait been bridged than a great storm came on and cut apart and scattered all their work.

Xerxes flew into a rage at this, and he commanded that the Hellespont be struck with three hundred strokes of the whip and that a pair of foot-chains be thrown into the sea. It's even been said that he sent off a rank of branders along with the rest to the Hellespont! He also commanded the scourgers to speak outlandish and arrogant words: "You hateful water, our master lays his judgement on you thus, for you have unjustly punished him even though he's done you no wrong! Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you wish it or not! It is fitting that no man offer you sacrifices, for you're a muddy and salty river!" In these ways he commanded that the sea be punished and also that the heads be severed from all those who directed the bridging of the Hellespont.
Bad water! Stupid dirty water!

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