is an award-winning writer of popular history, praised alike for his ‘originality and erudition’ (the Spectator) and his ‘marvellous eye for detail’ (the Economist).
Harry Smart met him on Skype on 19 June 2020.
Photography: Andrew Firth
The village of Broad Chalke where you grew up sounds quite idyllic. Was it a happy childhood?
It was a very happy childhood, and yes, it was idyllic. We had a cottage that abutted the gardens of the Queen Anne house in which Cecil Beaton1British photographer and designer best known for his elegant photographs of high society lived and it was very easy to hit balls over [the wall], so every so often we’d just go and play in this enormous garden. In my memory, my childhood was like something out of an Edwardian novel.
When was it invaded by dinosaurs?
Almost my earliest memory [is of] a dinosaur book I was given when I was three or four. I remember it so vividly!
My godmother, to whom I was very close, was a headteacher in Lyme Regis and we would go there a lot. There were little museums and fossil shops, and a famous diorama of prehistoric Dorset which showed an icthyosaur wrapping its jaws around the neck of a plesiosaur. The plesiosaur was actually shitting itself – you can imagine the impact this had on a horrible small boy!
I remember looking at the sheep behind our house and thinking how much more exciting it would have been if they were triceratops. Obviously, I’d have been woefully unsuited to survival in the Mesozoic Era, but the [perception] that the past was basically more exciting and more glamorous than the present is something that I’ve never really grown out of.
At your Sunday school, I understand, there was an illustrated Bible that showed Adam and Eve standing next to a brachiosaur…
I particularly remember a sense of disappointment that the Garden of Eden hadn’t really featured dinosaurs.
I did enjoy the Bible stories, very much; but my sympathies were always with the Pharoahs or the kings of Assyria. I found the Children of Israel a bit low-rent, to be honest. I mean, Solomon [built] quite a good temple, but it was not really up there with the Pyramids.
I wanted to be a great writer, but it took me time to realise that if I wanted to write about things that were deep inside me, actually history was better than fiction because it was history that moved me
And the biblical account just says that God created sea monsters and leaves it at that, whereas in the original [Babylonian myths] he has a massive great fight with one. I much preferred myths (and, I suppose, civilisations) in which gods did battle with monsters. They just seemed more interesting, more fun!
You’ve said that the loss of your childhood faith was like a dimmer switch being turned down.
My upbringing was marinaded in a kind of instinctive, unthinking Christianity. I found my mother’s Christianity very moving. It had been a great source of comfort to her, I always knew that it informed her behaviour and I loved her hugely. So, I never had any youthful, Byronic rejection of Christianity. I guess I just didn’t find it as interesting.
I had a kind of synesthetic approach to history. I would think of ancient Athens and imperial Rome as a deep blue sky and the sun, you know, [glinting] off temples; and it would be rich and sumptuous. And when I thought of the coming of Christianity, I thought of a gloomy autumnal day, like going to school after the long summer holidays.
It was exactly like [Swinburne’s poem]:
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…2From ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ (1866)
By the time I was 20, I had just kind of imbibed this Enlightenment take that Christianity had come along and ruined everything.
Why did ancient Rome become such a particular fascination for you?
I think there were two particular triggers, two books that – it’s very hard to explain the impact they had on me, but it was kind of like a coup de foudre.3Love at first sight The colours and the images of those books are imprinted on my memory – if I shut my eyes, I can see them.
The other was a book called The Roman Army.5ecx.images-amazon.com The cover depicted Julius Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix at Alesia and showed a [soldier] with his stomach ripped by a spear and blood coming out. It conjured up all the illustrations of theropods ripping sauropods to pieces in the dinosaur books which had been a kind of dark thrill for me.
Caesar had allegedly slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved another million, and these feats of conquest and bloodshed were a part of his terrifying charisma. This was always a part of what made Rome Rome.
When I look back at how I became obsessed by Rome, I realise that there was that constant balance [between the safe and the scary].
After a foray into writing ‘historical’ novels about vampires, in 2003 you published Rubicon, your first book of history, about the ‘last years’ of the Roman Republic.6Rubicon: The triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic (Little, Brown, 2003)
When I left university, I wanted to be a great writer, but it took me time to realise that if I wanted to write about things that were deep inside me, actually history was better than fiction, because it was history that had moved me. That’s why the first book I wrote featured Caesar’s conquest of Gaul: I felt that I was drawing on the wellsprings of my childhood, hopefully to bring it alive – and a part of that was a sense of identification with the Romans.
The years I spent researching and writing Rubicon were an amazing experience – like going to live in a foreign city, but more and more unsettling, more and more frightening in a way
But also a sense of alienation?
Yes. I wanted people to see how and why the Romans did what they did, these (by our standards) terrible things that they took pride in. To do that, I had to get inside their heads for the two or three years that I was researching and writing the book, and I found it an amazing experience – a bit like going to live in a foreign city, but more and more unsettling, more and more frightening in a way.
I was finishing it as the [Iraq War] began, and all my friends were outraged by [the war] but to me it all seemed rather civilised, because the American generals would boast about how few people they’d killed. Everybody seemed to take for granted that bombing a foreign country was somehow wrong; and, against the backdrop of writing about the Romans, it didn’t seem obvious [to me] at all. And so it began to niggle at me.
I then wrote a book about the Persian Wars,7Persian Fire: The first world empire and the battle for the West (Little, Brown, 2005) and it became evident that the way the Persians saw the world was closer to us in a sense than the way that ancient Athens did, let alone ancient Sparta, because they saw the world in moral terms. They believed in values that we could recognise as good and evil, light and darkness. And so I became interested in these stories in which good and evil are locked in a cosmic battle and the earth is part of this battle.
I [subsequently] wrote about how Zoroastrianism and Judaism and Christianity and Islam all kind of emerged informed by this primal idea that the world can be divided into dark and light. In the Shadow of the Sword8In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world (Little, Brown, 2012) was very controversial because it tried to look at the origin myths of Islam, as I’d earlier looked at the origin myths of Rome and Athens and Sparta and Persia; and this didn’t go down well at all. I made a film about it9Islam: the Untold Story (Channel Four, 2011) that got me all kinds of death threats. It meant that I spent years having to argue about Islam and be shouted at and it was a really horrible experience.
How did you come to write Dominion?10Dominion: The making of the Western mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
I made a point of talking to Muslim groups if I was asked to, and I would say: ‘Look, I’m not a Muslim, I don’t think that God spoke to Muhammad, so that’s my starting-point. I’m trying to work out what happened historically.’ And I remember one questioner saying to me: ‘But you haven’t done that with your own beliefs. You don’t subject your own atheism to this kind of test.’ And I thought that was an incredibly forceful point. To claim that I was neutral or objective was completely wrong, of course – I wasn’t at all. I had a position. I had a perspective.
And that’s when I started trying to think of almost everything I took for granted and, just as a thought experiment, to see how far back I could follow the thread. It wasn’t just things like: Why are we more nervous [nowadays] about mass slaughter? Writing about the Romans, I’d also come to realise that I couldn’t use words like ‘religion’ and ‘homosexuality’, because they were absolutely marinaded in Christian assumptions and they did not signify anything that the Romans would have recognised.
The process of writing Dominion was kind of like a pilgrimage, I suppose. I wanted to see if I could trace this thread through 2,500 years of history. It was insanely ambitious, but pilgrimages should be ambitious, I think, or what’s the value in them?
It’s a very analytical book, but the last chapter takes a very personal turn…
I think it’s incumbent on anyone who writes a book like that to look at their own prejudices and assumptions. I’d spent an entire book arguing that all of us have breathed this stuff in, it’s shaped us completely, and that must be true of me as well. Clearly, there were elements in my childhood that made me actually sympathetic to [Christianity]. I did actually associate it with kindness.
You say that Christendom was built at the knees of women rather than by emperors and popes.
One of the problems with writing about the history of something like Christianity is that you cannot help but deal in headlines, and the headlines tend to be written by powerful men. But it’s clear that by and large, generation after generation after generation, the primary influence tends to have been women: mothers, godmothers, Sunday school teachers, whatever. And thinking about my mother and my godmother, having written about generations of people who’d gone before, I felt this incredible sense of communion with the past, because I realised that this is the chain that links me to the Roman world. There isn’t anything else.
It’s sharpened for me by the fact that I haven’t handed that on to my children. So, there’s a kind of regret that informs that final chapter, I guess: that I’d broken the chain.
There is violence involved in the building of any empire, but your documentary Isis: the Origins of Violence11Channel 4, 2017 suggests that violence itself had become your central concern.
The backdrop to that was an impatience, I think, with what was then the mainstream assumption: that violence could not be theologically justified, that there must be reasons for what Isis were doing that had nothing to do with the inheritance of Islamic history.
Essentially, my great conviction is that things that happened a very long time ago can still reverberate very powerfully into the present. So, when Isis moved in on the Yazidis in Sinjar and the Christians in Nineveh, I kind of knew what was going to happen, because I’d looked at the history and I’d looked at the texts. There was this genocide happening that was theologically mandated – and nobody seemed to care.
I’d become obsessed by the Yazidis while doing Shadow of the Sword because they are this kind of syncretic combination of Zoroastrian12See history.com/zoroastrianism. and Manichean13See rep.routledge.com/manicheism. and Jewish and all kind of other elements. So, when Isis moved in on them it was kind of like how I feel about cutting down the forest that orang-utans live in. Just because [a cultural community] is small and no one’s heard of them doesn’t mean that they’re not incredible. The Yazidis connect us to ancient paths, maybe all the way back to Babylon.
So, it wasn’t purely humanitarian, is what I guess I’m saying. I was anxious that something precious was in danger of being lost – and people wouldn’t even realise what was being lost. Likewise with the Christians around Nineveh – a fabulously rich and ancient history being threatened.
You talk about the desire during the French Revolution to wipe the slate clean and you see something universal in that. It isn’t a documentary just about Isis.
No, it isn’t. Essentially, it’s about [the way] the stories we tell ourselves can license violence. The liberal idea that if people are free, they’ll be kind seemed to me ridiculously wrong.
You know, all my life I’ve been kind of torn between my interest in literature and history; and the kind of history I write squares the circle because, particularly in antiquity, narratives and stories essentially structure history, so that to write ancient history is really to do literary criticism. Dominion explores the way in which stories like the Exodus, the Passion and the Resurrection have structured how people have behaved through history. And the idea of [a Judgement Day] is part of both the Christian and Muslim inheritance from Zoroastrianism.
Both Isis and the French revolutionaries are drawing on that idea of a day of reckoning when God’s enemies will be wiped from the face of the earth. By and large, intellectuals and policy-makers and politicians tend to think in terms of abstractions – you know, what are our values, what are our ethics? – but the stories we tell about ourselves are actually much more powerful.
In the film, there is a sequence in Sinjar where you look at a row of shattered buildings and you say: ‘It could almost be a Roman ruin.’ Then you turn into an alleyway that hasn’t been cleared since the fighting – and suddenly you are no longer the historian, you are just someone in the presence of extreme violence.
I was convinced I was going to devote my life to the Yazidi cause – and I tried. But I don’t devote my life to it. There are whole weeks when I don’t think of them
Well, you say that I stopped being a historian, but part of the horror of it was feeling like I’d strayed into my worst nightmare of what life would have been like under the Romans. I’m not a naturally brave person and so I – and it was incredibly hot, I had this kind of armour on and I think I was a bit dehydrated… So, I think I just felt dizzy. I sat down, thinking, you know, ‘I just need to rest, I need to compose myself’ – and of course the director continued filming.
It struck me, watching it, that it’s one thing to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who’s scared shitless, as you did in your description of the Battle of Marathon in Persian Fire, and it’s quite another thing to be scared shitless.
Yes, absolutely! Absolutely. And I was. That’s another reason I was sitting down. I don’t think it was entirely fear, it was also a slightly upset stomach, but, yeah… I simply have no idea how war correspondents do it. I cannot imagine going back to something like that.
Isis could have come and grabbed us at any minute…
You were in the presence of an apex predator and you were potential prey.
Completely, completely. We filmed [another] sequence and my heart was racing and it was like I was blinded by a sense of: Fuck! There are men who crucify people a mile away and I’m sitting here among the bones of the women they’ve slaughtered!
I was three chapters into Dominion when we filmed that, and I think that being in a place where men had been crucified and women had been enslaved massively sharpened for me the sense of what had changed – because all Isis were doing was what everybody back in antiquity took for granted.
When I came back, I rewrote the opening of Dominion to focus on crucifixion. I had stood in a place where people had suffered that and I now understood how weird Christianity is in a way that I’d never understood before.
Then you go to Lalish and there is a sequence of shots simply looking into the innocent faces of young girls, some as young as nine, exactly like those whom Isis had taken.
Yep… Yep… Yep.
And I said, you know, ‘Something must be done!’ I was convinced I was going to devote my life to the Yazidi cause – and I tried. But I don’t devote my life to it. You know, there are whole weeks when I don’t think of them.
You did become an advocate for them, but you found that most people in the West don’t give a shit.
There are long sequences in that film that show a drone flying over Iraq or Syria – a strangely reptilian thing that is actually called a ‘Predator’ and which represents an empire greater in reach and dominance than Rome ever was –
The dominant ideology in the West for 1,000 years and more has been anti-imperial. It has as its symbol an emblem of the right of an imperial power to torture to death those who oppose it
– but an empire that was built, to a large degree, on the backs of Africans and Asians. How does the Crucifixion bear on all that – if it does?
Yes, it does, because it’s why you are asking these questions, and why you will have many, many counterparts in the belly of the beast, in America itself. The language, the stories, the moral and ethical assumptions that underpin Black Lives Matter, as they underpinned the civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties, as they underpinned most of the anti-colonial movements, are Western. The dominant ideology in the West for a thousand years and more has been anti-imperial and has as its symbol an emblem of the right of an imperial power to torture to death those who oppose it.
The paradox of Christianity is, I suppose, twofold. First, that over the past few hundred years it’s been the religion of the most powerful states on earth, and that generates all kinds of tensions. But, also, Christianity itself has become hegemonic; and that in a way, I think, is why confessional Christianity has kind of imploded in the West, [because] its own power has become a source of anxiety to people. Christianity has declined for profoundly Christian reasons.
In Millennium,14Millennium: The end of the world and the forging of Christendom (Little, Brown, 2008) you look at a period in history when people felt they were standing on the threshold of an unknown future. Do you think we are living through a similar time of uncertainty and upheaval now?
In particular, I wonder whether you think the writing may be on the wall for white supremacy.
Well, I’ll tell you what I think: that this is a further reverberation from the Sixties, which I think will come to be seen, in 100, 200 years’ time, as a decade as significant in the history of Christianity as the first decade of the Reformation. Sixty years on from Martin Luther, people were still processing what the hell had gone on, and was going on – there were still aftershocks happening.
The European Wars of Religion left millions dead. That’s quite a processing!
I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I think – it’s like Christian civilisation is built on a San Andreas Fault. You know, we raise these incredible structures and we do it in a [belief] that we’re being true to ideals of charity and so on; but, as is always the way, these ideals atrophy and the skyscrapers go up and the poor get shoved out to the [margins] – and then there’s a massive convulsion and everything falls down, and so the cycle goes on.
I think this is what happened in the 11th century, I think it happened in the Reformation, I think it happened with the French and the Russian Revolutions, and I think it happened in a very distinctive way in the Sixties. I think the comparison between the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter now is revelatory: the impulses are basically the same, the assumptions are the same, even the symbolic expressions of public repentance are the same – I mean, it’s clear that these are bred of the centuries of Christianity in America, and the kind of Anglo-American empire – and yet overt Christianity has gone.
There is no equivalent of the Rev Martin Luther King now. We have the [same underlying] assumptions but the justifications for them are more contested than they’ve ever been. King ‘took the knee’ because it’s [something] Baptists do: you know, you kneel before God to repent. But now it’s done because some enormously rich American sports star did it. It has come to have its own logic. When [Dominic] Raab says, ‘I only bow the knee to the Queen and my wife,’ he’s talking about it as a kind of acknowledgement of inferiority.15The British Foreign Secretary told TalkRadio on 18 June 2020: ‘I take the knee for two people: the Queen and the missus when I asked her to marry me.’ He also suggested that the gesture was derived from the popular TV fantasy Game of Thrones and was ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’.
But why does the spectacle of an innocent man being killed have this unbelievable impact? I mean, objectively it’s a bloke dying in a foreign city. There’s something more in the culture that explains it. If you were raised in a culture that has as its central symbol an innocent man being tortured to death by law-enforcement officers, you don’t have to be a Christian for that to [go off like] a depth charge.
But in terms of what’s happening now – you know, how does this fit in? – I don’t really know. The symbol of an innocent man being tortured to death, the symbol of somebody kneeling in defiance of oppression – in the Fifties, the Christian resonance would have been apparent to everyone. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, and so it seems to me that people are groping around for a kind of narrative for what’s happening that doesn’t as yet exist.
And that’s not in any way to denigrate it, because (as I have said) I think that stories and myths are the most powerful things that we have. But just at the moment we don’t have a shared myth, we don’t have a shared story.
In a way it’s a liberation, but in a way I feel the loss of it, because I feel the power of these stories, I think, much more than I did before – and I’m aware that, essentially, you press the button and they go off in all kinds of weird ways.
I think I said that in my morals and ethics I am not a Greek or Roman, I’m a proud Christian.
[In Dominion,] I quote Tolkien [to the effect] that myths can be true.
There’s a substantial discussion of Tolkien…
Well, he’s such a conservative!
As you are yourself?
I think I am naturally conservative. I think I’m more moved by things that have been than things that might be. I feel the power of what’s happening now as something that is rooted in the past.
So, essentially, what has happened is that I have lost my faith, and my faith was liberalism. I just don’t think it has any secure foundations at all. As Western power retreats, we’ve come to realise that these values that [we] had assumed were universal – human rights, the inherent dignity of Man, the obligation of the rich to the poor – are actually very culturally contingent. Our assumption that there are universal values is itself very culturally contingent – and specifically Christian, I think. I can find no basis for believing in any of this stuff at all that does not involve a conscious leap of faith.
I also feel that the legacy of Christian writings, of Christian experience, of Christian activism, of all the things about Christianity that stir and move me, [is] richer than anything that my secular liberal assumptions have to offer. I find it rich and beautiful and exciting in a way that as a child I found the Romans rich and beautiful and exciting.
And there’s a power to it. This is the most powerful way of explaining what humans are about that has ever existed, in terms of its impact, its influence, the numbers who’ve followed it. And so I feel an incredible tug. You know, if I’m not just going to become a kind of Nietzschean, let’s-revel-in-power! kind of nihilist, I have to take this leap of faith. And if I’ve got to take a leap of faith to believe this stuff that I viscerally believe in, I might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb.
You’ve said that you go to church but you don’t pray. When you take part in a service, what’s going on in your head? Is there always some mental reservation or is there a sense in which you say ‘Amen’?
Sometimes I think: This is just a fascinating cultural expression of something that’s been going on for hundreds of years. And then there are other times when I think: This is the key to why I think the way I do. Perhaps I just need to stop overthinking it.
Maybe I should just ‘surrender to the Spirit’. One of the things that really struck me writing Dominion was the vast [impact] that the idea of the Spirit has had – the idea that you can read something and suddenly the Spirit enables you to see things afresh, the idea of this fire that blazes and spreads across the world. There’s this tension between head and heart, between thought and Spirit.
The church I go to is London’s oldest parish church (it was founded by a jester of Henry I).18british-history.ac.uk/st-barts-records It is absolutely a sacred place to me, because it’s a place where you can feel humble before the immensity of human experience. You know that people have wrestled with the issues and ideals that you are wrestling with, and maybe they’ve been hypocritical and haven’t measured up to what they believe. That is what I find powerful and moving about it, and with the lockdown I find I miss it far more than I would ever have imagined.
|British photographer and designer best known for his elegant photographs of high society
|From ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ (1866)
|Love at first sight
|Rubicon: The triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic (Little, Brown, 2003)
|Persian Fire: The first world empire and the battle for the West (Little, Brown, 2005)
|In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world (Little, Brown, 2012)
|Islam: the Untold Story (Channel Four, 2011)
|Dominion: The making of the Western mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
|Channel 4, 2017
|Millennium: The end of the world and the forging of Christendom (Little, Brown, 2008)
|The British Foreign Secretary told TalkRadio on 18 June 2020: ‘I take the knee for two people: the Queen and the missus when I asked her to marry me.’ He also suggested that the gesture was derived from the popular TV fantasy Game of Thrones and was ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’.
|John 3:8 (NIV)
Tom Holland was born in 1968 and grew up in the village of Broad Chalke near Salisbury. He was educated at Canford School near Wimborne Minster and then studied English literature at Queens’ College, Cambridge, taking a double first. He began work at Oxford on a doctorate on Lord Byron, but soon gave that up.
His first novel, The Vampyre: Being the true pilgrimage of George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron (1995), was followed by Supping with Panthers and Attis (both 1996), Deliver Us from Evil (1997) and Sleeper in the Sands and The Bone Hunter (both 1999).
His first excursion into writing history, Rubicon: The triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic, was published in 2003 and won the 2004 Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History (and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize). Persian Fire: The first world empire and the battle for the West (2005) was joint winner of the Anglo-Hellenic League’s 2006 Runciman Award. These were followed by Millennium: The end of the world and the forging of Christendom (2008); In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world (2012); Dynasty: The rise and fall of the house of Caesar (2015); and Dominion: The making of the Western mind (2019).
He has also written a ‘quick read’, The Poison in the Blood (2006); and two short historical biographies, of Æthelstan and Æthelflæd, in 2016 and 2019 respectively. Having taught himself classical Greek, he produced a new translation of Herodotus’ The Histories which was published in 2013 by Penguin Classics (which will be publishing his new translation of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars in 2021).
He has adapted the writings of Herodotus, Homer, Thucydides and Virgil for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 – his play based on Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, titled ‘Our Man in Athens’, went out in 2001. He has written the libretto for an opera about Cleopatra.
Since 2011, he has been one of the presenters of Radio 4’s popular history series ‘Making History’.
In 2011, he wrote and presented Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters for BBC4. In 2012, he produced and presented a documentary for Channel 4 titled Islam: the Untold Story, which generated more than 1,200 complaints to Ofcom and Channel 4 and ‘a firestorm of death threats’.
In 2015, he gave the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the Hay Festival, on the subject of ‘deradicalising Muhammad’.
In 2017, he wrote and presented another documentary for Channel 4, Isis: the Origins of Violence.
In the same year, with Kevin Hague and Ali Ansari, he formed the thinktank These Islands to stimulate positive debate about Britain’s identity, Brexit and the issue of Scottish independence.
He has written dozens of articles for newspapers, journals and websites on a wide range of topics, and reviews books for the Guardian.
He was awarded the Classical Association Prize in 2007. In 2016, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He was chair of the Society of Authors from 2009 to 2011, and plays cricket for the Authors XI.
He has been married since 1993 and has two daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 July 2020