Here, Holland covers a far more complex and controversial era of history, the world of late antiquity centred on what we now refer to as the Middle East. This fits in nicely with my current undertaking of patching the massive holes left in my knowledge of world history by the aforementioned UK school syllabus. It particularly snuggles like a jigsaw piece against Judith Herrin’s superlative history of Byzantium which, naturally, focused on that great city itself and the world beyond only inasmuch as it bore directly upon it.
The setting here is the Eastern edge of the late Roman Empire where it abuts the most Westerly of the great Asian empires - initially the Parthians, then succeeded by the Sassanians. Each, much to the surprise of most people with a Western Classical education, was easily a match for mighty Rome and inflicted at least as many defeats and humiliations upon it as it upon them (the most striking of which is the fate of Emperor Valerian who, after being captured by the Parthians, spent the rest of his life being used by King Shapur I as a stool to mount his house and, on his death, having his skin flayed and gilded as a throneroom trophy).
Holland throws in vignettes like this to wonderful effect - such as the introductory account of the bloodthirsty religions zeal of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, before ending with the startling line “So perished… the last Jewish king to rule in Arabia.”
The author spends most of the book with background of how the two great empires grew and changed through the first 600 years or so of the Common Era - more detail on the Sassanids as Rome is more familiar to his audience, although he sketches in such things as the Gothic conquest of Italy and Spain and refers to a few things with which we are more likely to be familiar to ground the narrative. He takes us through the difficulties that Parthia has with the ‘barbarians’ on its Northern and Eastern frontiers that it massively underestimates and leads to its collapse (if I’ve learnt one thing from reading history, it is NEVER pursue bands of mobile mounted archers however much the taunt you), along with an overview of their culture and religion.
Along with this, as part of the timeline of Constantinople, we are shown the rise of Christianity in Palestine - the response of Rome to the various Hebrew insurrections, leading ultimately to expulsion from Jerusalem, the foundation of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage from Europe following Constantine’s conversion, the ascetic monks such as Simeon on his pillar. We also get a potted history of the schisms of Christianity, Nicea and Chalcedon, the Arians and the Copts.
Then, in the third part of the book, we are introduced again to that fragment of the region under the control of neither superpower. To the south of the fractious border is Arabia, a land considered barbarous by both Romans and Sassanians, although they are both also quite happy to pay the tribes as mercenaries. This disregard despite the fact that this area has housed the kingdom of Sheba, made wealthy beyond imagining by being the major supplier of Frankincense but fallen on hard times by the rise of Christianity and their dislike of such pagan practices as the burning of incense. From this area comes a third force, one which gives some editions of this book its alternative (and rather inflammatory) subtitle, “The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire”.
And this is where the controversy comes in. Holland shows how Islam rose not only as a political force as much as a religious one, but that it was a melange of the Hebraic history of the Arabian peninsula (as foreshadowed by that introduction with King Yusuf), the Manichaeism of late Iranshahr (Sassania), along with influences from others in the area such as the Biblically maligned Samaritans, the philosophy generated by the Christian schisms and the close textual analysis and argumentation of the Jewish yeshivas. Most controversial of all, the author points out the signal lack of contemporary accounts of the Qu’ran, Mecca and Mohammed’s direct influence. He shows Islam (or the Mohammedan faith, which came to be called Islam almost a century later) as a political construct, as riven with dissent and infighting as any other human political process. Perhaps most shockingly of all, he suggests that the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed used as an adjunct to and expansion of the Qu’ran, are made up out of whole cloth the best part of a century after his death to justify interpretations of the extremely vague Qu’ran - or, indeed, to entirely re-write it, such as to upgrade the punishment for adultery from lashes to the traditional Jewish death by stoning. Mixed in with the jockeying for position as the power behind this new and vast empire, this shows that Islam and its holy texts are no more trustworthy and god-given than those of Christianity or Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Hinduism. They are products of human societies, of political power struggles that have a background and a frame, that both use belief and are a vector for it.
While Tom Holland’s fourth history book (he also write fiction - I really should investigate that!) is not without flaws, it is remarkably well written, well argued, as well as well researched and referenced. I have yet to read a narrative history as good as his debut, Rubicon (although that is on a par with saying that I have yet to hear a symphony on par with Beethoven’s ninth or Mahler’s fifth. Okay, anything by Mahler) but I think that is because the relatively narrow focus of the internecine power plays of Roma perhaps lend themselves more easily to the narrative history style without oversimplification. Holland obviously must simplify somewhat, but he really does seem to try to include as much relevant information as is humanly possible. As with his book Persian Fire about the Greco-Persian wars (Thermopylae and all that) this can lead to a temporary overload of information, that I dealt with by putting aside the book for a few days on occasion to allow my brain to process it. I do also feel that he sometimes gives myths of Christianity an easier ride that those of other religions, putting them down with argumentative foot- or endnotes. While this may be purely as he expects the audience to be already more familiar with these, it does mean these appear to be accepted more uncritically.
In all, an utterly superb addition to my knowledge of the history that has formed our world, told in an utterly compelling, absorbing and informative manner.