Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium

Book CoverAs you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.

In The Shadow Of The Sword:

The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
It’s a somewhat controversial topic, and Holland got a bit of flak for suggesting that the early years of Islam were an evolution based on existing cultures and religions, and not quite as fully formed and unique as was suggested by later Islamic authors (unfortunately we don’t have any biographical sources until much later). It’s a difficult path to tread though, and he also received criticism for not going far enough in places. Despite all this controversy, it was however a very sensitively written book, which stressed the difficulty in finding contemporary sources and laid out the similar processes of consolidation and reformation that the other middle eastern religions were going through at the time (it has a much wider scope than some of the publicity would suggest).

There were also faults that Holland would accept, he’s a classicist by trade and well suited for dealing with Greek and Latin sources but Arabic is not really his field. It was also a bit of a departure from the direct, narrative style that has served him so well in the past. The objective was, however, to fill a gap and bring the debate over these murky origins to the attention of the public, and in that I think he has done a good job. It was accompanied by a BBC series, that was also interesting but perhaps struggled to deal with the complexities of the topic – it’s hard to really dig into detail on television.


The Last Years of the Roman Republic
Personally my favourite book by Tom Holland, and possibly one of my favourite history books by anyone, this tells the tale of the fall of the Roman Republic. In comparison to SOTS it’s a much simpler narrative but it is perfectly paced, well-researched and judged at a brilliant level for the popular audience. It is actually in large part down to Rubicon that my interest in history got rekindled in university, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Persian Fire:

The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
This is every bit as good as Rubicon. It tells the story of the rapid rise of the Persian empire to superpower status and their struggle to defeat the unruly Greek states. Around the time I was reading this, the topic was quite in vogue due to the film 300 but there’s so much more to it than Thermopylae. Again, the pacing and standard of writing is superb and I would highly recommend this book.


The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom
Book CoverThis begins a step away from the simpler narratives of the previous two books, one that would perhaps lead to the ambition of SOTS. This is much less controversial but no less interesting. Holland weaves together the diverse histories of western europe in the 10th and 11th centuries. In those times there were many that feared the oncoming end of the world, which would obviously happen a thousand years after Christ’s death. They were to be relieved (or disappointed) when it didn’t happen, but they did find dramatic changes nonetheless – the battles between secular and religious powers, the crusades and the beginnings of feudalism. For me, it’s not quite at the level of Rubicon or Persian Fire, but still stands up well in comparison with most other books out there.

Holland elsewhere …

In addition to this, he had become a common sight (or sound) on the BBC with a number of enjoyable documentaries and worked with BBC radio in presenting shows, adapting scripts and guest appearances. He has also written a few vampire novels (before they were cool – if they are cool? Not really my type of thing!). He even got involved in the Scottish Independence debate.

The Byzantine podcast interview is interesting, and gives a taste of both Tom Holland’s latest book and where the podcast is heading for the next few weeks. Check it out at

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