Interview: Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword

Author Tom Holland: Tackles a highly contentious topic
Author Tom Holland: Tackles a highly contentious topic
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Historian Tom Holland tells DAVID ROBINSON how he decided to tackle a highly contentious topic

ANYONE who has ever read any of Tom Holland’s bestselling history books – Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millennium and now, Shadow of the Sword, about the eclipse of Roman and Persian power and the rise of Islam – already knows that few writers can match his ability to bring antiquity back to dramatic, vivid, pulsing life.

“It all goes back to my childhood,” he says. “I had the classic small boy’s fascination with dinosaurs – because they’re glamorous, dangerous and extinct – and essentially the appeal of the empires of antiquity is much the same. There’s a splendour and a terror about them that appealed to me – and that kind of emotional attachment is something that stays with you.”

He must have been a parent’s dream: a child fascinated by everything he learnt, avid to learn more. At 13 he asked for Barbara Tuchman’s The Distant Mirror, and that was him off into the blood-drenched 14th century. Yet in another three year’s he’s reading Catullus – not the bowdlerised stuff they’d already done for O-Level “but something that opened my eyes to how Latin wasn’t a dead language, but full of life and rudeness, real filth”. Next thing, he’s reading Cicero’s defence of Caelius, “and it opens up this world of exotic, upper-class manoeuvring, of incest, of parties, and it’s not too far removed from Heat magazine.”

Already you might have gathered two things, perhaps interconnected, about Holland: first, that he gives a breezily good quote, and secondly, that his approach to history isn’t dustily academic. When he went to Cambridge, he didn’t even study it – or classics, come to that. Instead, he read English, and in his early twenties, “mouldering in semi-unemployment in Earl’s Court” ,he might well have wondered why.

By that time, he was writing vampire books. “There was one in which I convincingly proved to my own satisfaction that Byron was a vampire, then I did one with Oscar Wilde set at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders”. The last one was a three-parter set in Egypt. I really went to town on the research, and I remember going to the library in High Street Kensington and finding this book, From Alexander to Actium, by Peter Green, about the Hellenistic Age in Egypt and their conquest by the Romans.

“It came out in the 1990s, just when the concept of globalisation was kicking in, and here was this portrait of a world that was eerily like our own – a distant mirror in fact! – and it was like a match lighting a gas flame. All my old fascination with antiquity just went Whoosh! up again. From that moment I started re-immersing myself in that world. I had a sense that antiquity was almost like a science fiction world, that it was utterly remote and yet eerily like our own. I was doing vampire books at the time and it never crossed my mind to write history – but I was finding that my real interests were welling up, and the vampire books were really historical novels, and that I was much less interested in the fiction than in the research.”

No-one noticed how much effort he’d made to get everything right about the Valley of the Kings in 1922 or the world of the 18th dynasty pharaohs – “why should they? It was just horror” – and the novel fell almost lifeless from the presses. Yet one good thing had come of it. He was now in his late twenties, and he had finally worked out what he wanted to do. From now on, he was going to write history.

For Rubicon, he went back to the fall of the Roman republic. “I’d been obsessed by it ever since I was ten and I was given a book called The Roman Army. There were these wonderful illustrations on the cover and I remember a Roman soldier with a spear embedded in his stomach – a seamless move, you see, from dinosaurs shredding each other – but while I knew readers would know all about the Romans in Britain, how could I get their interest in the engagement of a superpower republic in wars in the East? I was midway through writing it when 9/11 happened, so the argument that I was making – that ancient history could have a resonance for the modern day – struck home.”

His latest book, In the Shadow of The Sword – subtitled “the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” – makes that point just as clearly. But in writing about the early history of Islam he ran slap up against a massive problem – and one that is the reason this book has taken him five years to write instead of the usual two. Whereas his previous books usually had a fair range of contemporary sources, for the rise of Islam and the early Arab conquests of the Middle East, there are hardly any.

“I had read Karen Armstrong, Barnaby Rogerson and these biographies of Mohammed, and I assumed that the sources for his life and for the early conquests were pretty solid. I thought that we would have the equivalent of a Cicero or a Caesar, contemporaries writing about it that would give us at least a rough sense of the narrative. And then to discover that the first mention of Mohammad in Arabic is almost 60 years after his death and that the first datable mention of his life isn’t until 200 years after his death, and that the first mention of Mecca outside the Koran isn’t until 100 years after his death – and that it is located in Iraq – it makes you think, well, this is odd.”

This lack of historical sources isn’t seen as a problem for Muslims, to whom the Koran is the very speech of God, unedited by human hand. No text could possibly be holier. To a Muslim, the Koran offers all the explanation anyone could possibly need of how a sophisticated religion could suddenly spring up, uncontaminated by all other religions, in a desert.

Yet Holland isn’t a believer. So rather than interpret the Koran as the revealed word of God, he sees it as a sophisticated ancient text which is plugged into currents and trends reaching back for centuries. To Holland, all the monotheistic religions – Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam – influence each other, even at when they start separating themselves out into codified religions.

Did he begin the book with this thesis in mind? “It was inchoately there. Having written Millennium, what struck me was how long it took the states of what became Christian Europe to get over the Roman Empire. It takes a long time for Roman Europe to become Christian medieval Europe. And I thought the same about this period. Can it really be the case that a switch gets flicked and then suddenly Persia and the Roman Near-East becomes Islamic? Civilizations don’t change like that. It must be a more gradual process.”

In the absence of contemporary sources on early Islam, Holland draws heavily on his knowledge of the empires eclipsed by its rise and of the Near East and of pre-Islamic society. The sixth century plagues that wiped out a third of the population of the Near East (but to which the nomads of the desert seemed immune), the Christian mystics in the Syrian desert, the rebellions that weakened the Persian empire, the decades-long wars waged by Constantinople, the spread of sects into Arabia – all have their part in this story.

Holland, who employed a Syriac and Arabic-speaking researcher but relied on his own Greek and Latin, emphasises that such a wide-ranging approach has its benefits. “All of the fields of study in this book are ones which take a lifetime of scholarship to really become an expert in – we’re talking Koranic scholarship, the history of early Islam, Roman, Persian and Talmudic studies. But when you look at them all together, you realise that the experts in various disciplines are hardly ever aware of what is going on in other, parallel, ones. Maybe it takes a fool to rush in where angels fear to tread …” He gives a sad laugh.

But given the paucity of contemporary sources on the rise of Islam, and also the fact that his own secular interpretation might offend Muslim sensibilities, didn’t he ever think about abandoning the project? “No. The meaning of Islamophobia is fear of Islam. The Islamophobic thing to do would be to say yes, I have looked at the construction of Christian Europe in those terms but I am not going to do the same for the construction of the Islamic Middle East.

“That, it seems to me, would be a dereliction of duty. It would be to assume that if you, as a non-Muslim, say something that would annoy a Muslim, that they are going to come and kill you. Which I don’t believe. I am putting my faith in the fact that Muslims will be realistic about this. I may be wrong.

“If you cede a whole area of history and say ‘That’s been closed off, we’re not going to look at it’ – particularly when that history is having a measurable impact on the world we live in …” He abandons the sentence with a shrug at the impossibility of the thought he has just expressed. “I think that’s what history is about, to a degree – working out where things that exist now came from and how they got here.”

• In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland is published by Little, Brown, priced £25.