The ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, and the splendour of medieval Europe are well-worn historical topics, subject of a thousand worthy tomes. But the time in between—the years between 400 and 800 AD—are an unfamiliar area. It is into this realm that Tom Holland, one of our leading young historians, is plunging with his latest book.
In the Shadow of the Sword—subtitled “The Battle for Global Empire and the end of the Ancient World”—is an examination of this extraordinary period in the near East, principally covering the collapse of Roman and Persian power and the simultaneous rise of Islam. It fills a gap in Holland’s oeuvre between his classical era works (Rubicon and Persian Fire) and his later history (Millennium).
The book took Holland five years to write, instead of his usual three—and not just because he served a two-year stint as chair of the -Society of Authors. “I had to immerse myself in all the primary sources, but also in the vast secondary literature—because there are as many views as to what happened in early Islam as there are scholars writing about it. It took a long time for me to work out what I thought.”
The contemporary sources on the life of Muhammad and the early Arab conquests are virtually non-existent. Most of what we know was written at least 200 years after the Prophet’s death, so Holland has looked at the state of the two super-powers of the day, the Romans and the Persians, to illuminate this crucial and mysterious point in world history. “What becomes the Caliphate [the Arab empire] must surely be building on the blocks of what the Roman and the Persian empires represented. That is the theme of the book; how, out of this melting pot, what is clearly a highly original and distinctive civilisation emerges-—but I think it has its roots in the empires and religions of antiquity.”
At times, trying to fill in the gaps in the narrative, the book reads like a detective novel. “It has this mystery at its heart,” says Holland, “What happened? Where did the Qur’an come from? What explains the genesis of Islam? I’ve tried to explain it with reference to what went before in human history, rather than God.” Some of his findings are startling, and are bound to raise considerable interest in many quarters—partly because it is an area that has become far more contentious since 2001.
“If you are a historian of the ancient world, and you hear a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir demanding the introduction of a global caliphate, it’s like coming across a Coelacanth, it’s terribly exciting, because they are articulating a vision that goes back way before Islam, back to [Roman emperor] Constantine, this idea that there should be a single empire governed by a single God. This is pure Constantine.”
The horrors of the plague that swept the ancient world in the 540s, fatally weakening both established Empires, are laid bare. Around half the urban population died, such that “in Constantinople there are plague pits fit to rival the darkest horror of the Black Death. The bodies are thrown in, to be trodden down, literally ‘the wine press of the Lord’, and the corpses get so mulched up that when you throw a [new] corpse in, it sinks like a plum stone into custard,” says Holland.
Some of the history—particular of the early Christian mystics—has an almost Pythonesque quality. A veritable craze for living on pillars swept the Near East, but the top prize for sheer nuttiness must go to the female mystic who “confined herself to a cell with a spectacular riverside view, and then, for the remainder of her life, refused even once to look out through the window.”
There are huge sweeps of history compressed into single chapters; famines, philosophies and conquests on every page, illuminated by Holland’s laconic style. “Long hair, an aptitude for running people through with lances while ululating loudly on horseback, and an emphasis on the humanity of Christ: such were the markers of Italy’s new elite,” is his take on the Ostrogoths, for example.
This is an important and revelatory book. As Holland says: “This is a fundamentally significant period, it really does change everything. If we are talking about revolutions, it outranks the Russian or the French in its impact. Our society is so utterly shaped by the thinking of this period that we are not even aware of it.”
In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland is out 5 April, published by Little, Brown.