“If in the library of your house you do not have the works of the ancient Greek writers, then you live in a house with no light.” -George Bernard Shaw, Irish-British playwright
“In peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons.” –Croesus King of Lydia (560–c.547 B.C.)
The interest in Persian-Greek Wars and interactions between Persia and the West have always been a subject of deep interest amongst scholars, but like most scholastic literature it has often been confined within university press or research departments with little exposure to a wider readership. Interestingly in the past 50 years or so, the depiction of ancient history on screen through epic films like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis ? or the Ten Commandments generated curiosity and thirst for historical feedback on era’s beyond our contemporary times. It was also accompanied by a great number of novels and fictional stories set against a historical background. Some were actually written by Hollywood screenwriters such as Harold Lamb an orientalist who was to work on several Cecile B. DeMille Epic films like The Crusades, Samson and Delilah or The Buccaneer. One of his last novels was on the Life of Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great (1962) published a few years after Cecile B DeMille’s death which could suggest that the Great DeMille himself may have considered the making of a movie on the Persian Conqueror had he been alive. Indeed Lamb had already written a novel and screen adaptation of another historical Persian, the Poet Omar Khayyam which was brought to screen with great success in the mid 50’s. Some of the actors cast in the film had already earned stardom on the Paramount Lot thanks to DeMille such as Cornel Wilde ( The Greatest Show on Earth), Debra Paget and John Derek ( Ten Commandments). Hollywood epics often with a religious theme were also adamant to acquire respectability and have the endorsement of academicians when depicting the lives of Jesus, Moses or illustrating great civilizations like Rome, Egypt or China. This was not always achieved without difficulty as in the case of William Wyler’s Ben Hur. Controversial American Novelist Gore Vidal was hired for the task of adapting the celebrated novel of General Lew Wallace for the Technicolor screen. But Artistic differences between Wyler and Vidal were to end the latter’s collaboration on the film. He was fired after a few days of shooting for insisting to Wyler that he should develop the rivalry between Ben Hur and Messala not on religious differences but based on the fact that they may had been jealous lovers in the past. An early gay activist, Gore Vidal claimed that homosexuality was highly rampant in ancient Rome and Greece. Shocked by a suggestion which was seen as taboo in the late 50’s Hollywood, Wyler immediately replaced Gore Vidal by Karl Tunberg and Christopher Fry, certainly a good decision given that it led to an international and critical success of Ben Hur that earned the film and its director 11 Oscars, a record in the history of Motion Pictures, that was only broken nearly 4 decades later with James Cameron’s Titanic. The unhappy Vidal was to equally shock Hollywood years later by writing the script for the movie Caligula in what was to be a porn epic film shot in Italy ( at the same Cinecitta Studio’s where Ben Hur was shot decades earlier) which Vidal hoped would equal Fellini’s cinematography as in Satyricon. Thus a cast of respectful Shakespearian actors starring the then unknown Helen Mirren ( The Queen, Excalibur), Peter O’Toole ( Lawrence of Arabia), Malcolm McDowell ( Clockwork Orange) and John Gielgud ( Julius Caesar) took part in the movie while their sexual bouts with Playboy and Penthouse Bunny girls were actually achieved through careful editing and doubles. The film triggered controversy and censorship upon its release for not drawing the line between Art and Pornography. A controversy not so different from the brawl amongst some Iranians today in regard to the film 300 in depicting King Xerxes as a Drag Queen. However for those genuinely interested in historical films and literature one can fortunately turn to a good number of movies, TV series and books that have remained loyal to a more authentic depiction of the ancient world that can be both entertaining as well as educational. The best example in recent years, I believe, has been the HBO series ROME where a good modern tone acting, realistic yet beautiful sets, render a believable and palpable ancient lifestyle where sex, violence and superstition co-exist very much as in our own modern times. This realistic and at times unglamorous depiction may not replace a history lesson, but it certainly does contribute to giving life to an ancient era where only old ruins and indigestible academic literature vainly render its glory or livelihood. Epic films and the Sword and Sandals genre in particular often reflect an image of our own modern obsessions. They do not claim to answer the moral dilemma between Good and Evil unless there is a religious context as in most Biblical films like Ben Hur, The Robe or Quo Vadis ? where the pagan hero discovers the virtues of Christianity and pardon to sooth his vengeful soul. In contrast God and Religion are totally absent in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus or Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The heroes are actually faced with real life challenges and human dilemmas that the modern citizen can be confronted too. As such they sometimes can be considered as modern day political statements. The release of Spartacus for instance put an end to the Black list in Hollywood, thanks to Kirk Douglas’ brave stand to impose the name of the Black Listed screenwriter Howard Fast who was subject to investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee thus putting an end to political censorship in Hollywood. Same for Oliver Stone’s movie Alexander that became a metaphore against American interventionism in the Middle East and Iraq but ironically surged anger amongst the Greeks for depicting Alexander as a Bisexual. The depiction of decadence and corruption in ancient society often serves a purpose to criticize not as much our elders but question the modern day society’s degree of tolerance towards this depiction and judge whether or not we are more civilized today in comparison. The same could be said for the dozens of fictional novels written on ancient times and particularly in the context of this article on the Ancient Persian Empire (which rarely was brought to screen) that through centuries was to fight the two founding civilizations of the Western World: Greece and Rome.
Below is a compilation of some of these books and summary of each novel (*):
Harold Lamb: Cyrus the Great
The story of Cyrus from youth the kingship and conquest of the Persian Empire and ultimate death. It was first published in 1960, and reissued in the 70’s. As explained above Lamb was one of Cecile B DeMille’s favorite authors of historical fiction. He wrote the script of The Life, Loves and Adventures of Omar Khayyam directed by William Dieterle in 1957.
William Golding: The Hot Gates
Tells the story of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae opposing 300 Spartans lead by King Leonidas against the massive Army of King Xerxes 1st of Persia. The Battle was decisive for the ultimate victory of Greece over Persia although the 300 Spartans were to be killed to the last. It was to be remembered as The Battle for the West ( See other novels on the same battle below).
Gore Vidal: Creation
Published in the 1980’s Creation was the very first novel to seriously question Herodotus’ depiction of the Persian Greek Wars. Dedicated to Unhappy Iran and equally unhappy Afghanistan Vidal praises ancient Persian civilization in an epic novel that was also an attempt to explain the philosophical and political rivalries of the ancient World. Written during America’s Reagan years when the Western World was yet to see the downfall of the Soviet Union, Creation appears as a metaphor for the moral and political challenges in our modern times. A strong advocate and supporter of the American Democrat Party, Gore Vidal’s novel was an immediate and surprising international best seller. Vidal’s depiction of ancient Persian customs and history was based on meticulous historical research but remained controversial as most of Vidal’s work in exploring sexual behavior in the ancient world such as his True or False assessments that Persian nobility indulged incest and that bisexual relationships were tolerated if not encouraged as in Greece. But Creation offers in contrast to most Western literature in regard to Persia a favorable account on Persian civilization and social and political organization at the time of King Xerxes 1st.
The plot of his novel is as follows:
In 445 BC Cyrus Spitama, the Persian ambassador to Athens, hears Herodotus reading from his 'Histories' and in response recounts to his nephew Democritus the story of his life. He has served three Persian kings and traveled to India and China; himself the grandson of Zoroaster, he has met Buddha, Gosala, Lao Tse and Confucius! This is the thesis of Creation, a historical novel which geographically spans most of the fifth century civilized world and intellectually engages with an immense range of ideas about the fundamental nature of creation.
While it's probably impossible to avoid shallowness in presenting complex philosophical and religious systems in a novel, Vidal does a surprisingly good job of it: if you don't know anything about Buddhism or Confucianism or Taoism, then you could learn quite a bit about them from Creation. Although religious and philosophical ideas are at the core of Creation, they are never allowed to overpower the novel. There is plenty of historical (and particularly political) interest — poisonings in the Persian harem, the internecine feuds of the Greeks, the warring states of India and China. Much of this will be best appreciated by those who already have some knowledge of the history, but it isn't assumed.
Tom Holland: Persian Fire
Tom Holland is an acclaimed British author. He has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction, on many subjects from vampires to history. He has adapted Herodotus, Homer, Thucydides and Virgil for BBC Radio 4. His novels, including Attis and Deliver Us From Evil, mostly have a supernatural and horror element as well as being set in the past. His earlier book Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic offers great insight into the early years of the Roman Republic and Julius Caesar’s Coup and overthrow of the Republic by crossing the Rubicon. In Persian Fire Tom Holland's non-fiction but - inevitably - slightly fictionalized account of what the Greeks called 'the Median things' (they were incapable of distinguishing the Medes from their southern Iranian cousins and vanquishers) is the first in English addressed to a general readership for more than 30 years. In it, Holland crosses his own Rubicon, from Roman history to Greek, but not only Greek by any means. One of the book's many attractions is the care lavished on trying to get under the skin of the Persians, especially those of the imperial court and wielding the highest military commands. Indeed, as the title is surely meant to suggest, he - like the professional ancient historian George Cawkwell in The Greek Wars (2004) - wants us to see the wars from the Persian just as much as the Greek side. Special attention is paid to the Persians' religion, one that lives on in the modern world from Mumbai to Vancouver in the observances of the Parsis (whose name betrays their ethnic origin). Holland emphasizes the causal, motive force of royal Persian opposition to the Lie. Xerxes's invasion of Greece should not for obvious reasons be called a crusade. But there was about it something of the same spirit that animated the anathema on all daivas (demons) that Xerxes delivered in a famous trilingual text - Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian - found at his chief ceremonial capital. This magnificent site the Greeks later called Persepolis; the name that has stuck to this day, thanks not least to Alexander the Great's symbolically definitive destruction of it in 330. The big trouble for Xerxes was that his monotheist Mazdean zeal was met with an equal and opposite force from his polytheistic Greek enemies. Holland does Thermopylae full justice within the broader scope of his account, which also treats expansively the other major conflicts at Artemisium, Plataea and Mycale. Throughout, the reader's attention is caught by sparkling insight and no less sparkling writing. Nor does Holland fail to rise to the seriousness and vastness of his East-West theme. If you read nothing else, do read the Preface, which succeeds in its aim of building a bridge between the worlds of academic and general readers. Indeed, one of the most astonishing aspects of the author's achievement here, as in Rubicon, is that this is a book written by someone trained neither in the (Greek and Latin) classics nor even in history, let alone Oriental Studies.
Barry Strauss: The Battle of Salamis
Building a strong and compelling picture of an event in the distant past, of the forces that drove its occurence and of the people that lived through it is not an easy task. Historians as a breed seem often narrow, didactic and detail-obsessed, taking the most fascinating moments and devolving them down to dry and dusty factual points, sending another generation of students drifting into the land of Nod in the back rows of the lecture hall. The Battle of Salamis is not that type of history book. Barry Strauss has penned a superlative and riveting account of the epic naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC between the Greeks, led by the fledgling democracy of Athens and the canny, manipulative and vain Themistocles, and the overwhelming Persian forces of Xerxes. Strauss vividly portrays the key individuals, events and circumstances, drawing on chronicles of both participants such as Aeschylus, and the later accounts of 'the first historian' Herodotus, among others. The result is an amazingly readable account of the battle, the ships (triremes), the tactics (drawing the enemy into enclosed waters where speed and manuverability mattered more than size...and ramming, lots of ramming), and the long-term impact of the battle through the history of the western world (Greek victory at Salamis = success for democracy). Strauss has mastered the ability to give the reader a feel for the action, normally the strict purview of fiction writers, illustrating the event beyond just bare facts. In his words you can taste the woodsmoke and sweat, feel the thick knot of fear in the rowers stomachs and hear the creak of the oars and the thunderous crescendo of splintering wood before the rams. Overall Strauss has written a crackling good history that is well worth your time.
Michael Curtis Ford: The Ten Thousand
When Darius II, King of Persia, died and was succeeded by his brother Artaxerxes, Darius's son, Cyrus the Younger, collected a force of 100,000 Persians and 13,000 Greek mercenaries, mainly Spartans, and marched on Artaxerxes's stronghold in an attempt to win the throne for himself. In 401 B.C.E., the armies of Cyrus met those of Artaxerxes in battle at Cunaxa, near the Euphrates River. After Cyrus was gruesomely killed in battle, the Greeks wanted nothing more than to return to their beloved homeland. Without the provisions needed to return by way of the desert over which they had come, they struggled 1000 miles through Kurdistan and over the Armenian mountains in the dead of winter until finally reaching the Black Sea. Along the way, the 'Ten Thousand' were decimated by hostile forces, starvation, frostbite, and disease. Based primarily on the writings of Xenophon, a junior officer who assumed command of the Spartan forces after most of the senior officers were treacherously slaughtered, this novel retains much of the flavor of the soldier's memoirs. Ford, a Romance linguistics scholar, combines historical accuracy with eloquent storytelling to create an epic story that will capture the imagination of anyone interested in the history of ancient Greece and Persia. Michael Curtis Ford is also author of the Last King chronicling the feats of Mithridates Eupator VI, last King of Pontus (a region of Asia Minor), Ford captures the Roman first century B.C. from a novel perspective, viewing it through the prism of one of Rome's most formidable enemies. (stay tuned for Part II)
Photo 1: title ©photocomposition Darius KADIVAR
Photo 2: Top: Hollywood screenwriter Howard Lamb worked for Cecile B. DeMille and his novel on Omar Khayyam was adapted for the Silver Screen with Cornel Wilde in the title role. Middle: The 300 Spartans sacrifice at The Hot Gates (as Thermopylae was known) was to inspire William Golding better known for the classic Lord of the Flies. Bottom: Gore Vidal’s Creation challenges Herodotus’ Histories by depicting Persia from the Persian Perspective. ©amazon.com
Photo 3: Tom Holland, Barry Strauss and Michael Curtis Ford have given interesting perspectives particularly on the Persian-Greek Wars.
David Wishart Parthian Shot and Andre Norton’s Empire of the Eagle focus on Persian conflicts with the Roman Empire©amazon.com