In the Shadow of the Sword

Just finished reading Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword – the battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world.

Thoroughly referenced history of the place of Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions in warlike power politics of domination across the “civilised” world from the pre-Hellenic origins centred on the Tigris and Euphrates. Striking is the amount of common ground, both linguistic and content, in the myths and legends of Zoroastrian and Abrahamic “tribes” – unfortunately always documented (invented) typically two centuries after their respective prophets claimed absolute authority in the names of their gods. The latter almost invariably the pragmatic political trump card for any imperial campaign or governance “in the name of …”

The other enduring impression is not just how the uses of the religious justifications were simply expedient, but that the “rise and fall” of the assorted empires were so opportunistically the result of vagaries like the outbreaks of bubonic plague or unexpected tactical failures in individual battles – and religious explanations for these as cover stories for the mad excesses of complacent and over-confident leaders. The underlying mythical basis for ethical guidance remains Zoroastrian, just appropriated and re-packaged by each tribe or power that needed absolute justification for itself. Tolerance by taxation and/or slavery another recurring theme, which of course only works so long as at least half the world is seen as “other” than your own. An excellent read.

Given the locations, the peoples and the period, easy to recall both T E Lawrence and Edward Gibbon though neither are referenced directly, Even more evocative of Gibbon is Holland’s wonderfully understated laconic style. You want to read on, to find out how it all ends, how it relates to the present day, even though we already know.

Holland of course knows this, so doesn’t need to insult his readers intelligence by bringing the story up to date – choosing to sign off as the Mongols flattened Baghdad in 1258. The conclusion is still yet to be written.

[Interesting, checking my review of Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs, it proves to be complementary, focussing on post-1200. Another good related read is Barbara Tuchman’s The Bible and the Sword  and of course her March of Folly – which also emphasises the serendipitous cock-up-rather-than-best-laid-plans conspiracy thread running through all of history.]

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