Historian Tom Holland joined Tyler to discuss in what ways his Christianity is influenced by Lord Byron, how the Book of Revelation precipitated a revolutionary tradition, which book of the Bible is most foundational for Western liberalism, the political differences between Paul and Jesus, why America is more pro-technology than Europe, why Herodotus is his favorite writer, why the Greeks and Persians didn’t industrialize despite having advanced technology, how he feels about devolution in the United Kingdom and the potential of Irish unification, what existential problem the Church of England faces, how the music of Ennio Morricone helps him write for a popular audience, why Jurassic Park is his favorite movie, and more.
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Recorded February 1st, 2023
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m honored to be chatting with Tom Holland. I’m a huge fan of Tom. He is a historian, a public intellectual and author. He has numerous books, including Millennium, Persian Fire, Dynasty, books on Islam. His latest is Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, which I am a big fan of. He does, with Dominic Sandbrook, one of the best-known — perhaps the best-known — history podcast, called The Rest Is History. He is frequently on radio and television. He has performed what is the greatest translation of Herodotus ever. He is a huge cricket fan, and he is fighting to save the hedgehog in England. Tom, welcome.
TOM HOLLAND: Thank you very much. I’m sure the mention of cricket will induce furrowed brows across America.
COWEN: In what way is your interpretive Christianity still influenced by Lord Byron, a writer you started your career working on?
HOLLAND: That’s a very, very good question because I’ve never thought of the conjunction, although now you mention it. I was raised by my mother as in the Church of England. She is a regular churchgoer, so I went to church with her. That was very much part of my upbringing.
But at the same time, my mother’s elder brother, my Uncle David — he was an extraordinary man who had, during the Second World War, been posted, as a very young man, out to India. He’d fallen in love with India. Throughout the ’50s, he worked as a publisher in Pakistan. Then, while he was out there, he decided that, actually, he wanted to be an actor. He came back to England. He got roles. He got a role in Doctor Who as a homicidal Tibetan monk.
He was not a churchgoer, it would be fair to say. He took me to Newstead Abbey as a very impressionable boy. Newstead Abbey is the home of Lord Byron, and it was an abbey that had been closed down in the Reformation, bought by the Byrons. The Byrons had fought on the side of the king in the civil war, had been admirals and ne’er-do-wells, and Byron inherited this title.
I went to this abbey and was told stories about how Byron and his friends would dress up as monks. Byron had a drinking cup made out of a skull. He and all the lads would do very ungodly things. This seemed to me the height of glamour and sophistication. To my innocent churchgoing self, Byron became a kind of model of swagger and glamour, as he was for people throughout the 19th century, and for many people still is.
I became fascinated by Byron. I initially wanted to do a doctorate on him, but then I gave that up because I decided that he was just too fascinating, too charismatic, and basically too hostile to the academic, I think. He didn’t deserve an academic treatment. Instead, I wrote a novel in which he was a vampire. That set me on the course of writing. I wrote three novels in various periods of history in which famous people from history were vampires.
I began to realize I wasn’t really interested in writing novels. I wasn’t ultimately interested in writing vampire stories. I wanted to write about history. But the link, I think, with Christianity is what interested me in writing about the vampire novels — and what has interested me in writing all the various volumes of history in various periods of time that I’ve done since. It’s a fascination with how people in different ages understood things that, to us today, might seem far-fetched, implausible, impossible. So, essentially, how they relate to the dimension of the supernatural.
It’s a real problem for anyone in the 21st century trying to understand the past, is that perhaps too academic approach to the study of what, say, people in Rome or early medieval Europe or whatever thought about the divine. It’s a bit like studying a butterfly by sticking a pin through it. Too objective, too academic, too rationalist in approach can risk alienating you from perspective, the very perspectives that you’re trying to understand.
I think that that was something I realize now, from the distance of time, from when I was writing the vampire books. That’s what I was exploring in those books and have continued to explore, I think.
COWEN: Do you feel the power and influence of Catholicism more strongly because you’re still a Byronite, still thinking about vampires?
HOLLAND: No, I don’t think so. I found, when I came to writing about Christianity in Dominion, it’s a study of the entire sweep of Christianity. It’s an insanely ambitious book. It was a privilege for me to immerse myself in all these different periods and read the great Christian writers and thinkers and polemicists of different periods. I found that I was fascinated in almost all of them, and there was very rarely a chapter that I wrote where I didn’t think, “I wish I could stay here and continue to read about it.”
Absolutely, writing about the medieval Church, I did find it very, very powerful. But equally, getting to the Reformation, I felt the power of the Protestant reformers as well. Actually, we’re recording this in what? In London, it’s the afternoon. This morning, I spent recording three episodes of The Rest Is History on what’s erroneously called the Cathars. They were the objects of perhaps the most brutal and bloody of all the Crusades, waged not against Muslim enemies but against Christians themselves in the 13th century. I think it’s difficult in that context to look at the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages as wholly a benign institution.
COWEN: If the Book of Revelation were more important in Christian thought, would we, as a society, all be less liberal? It doesn’t read like a liberal book, right?
HOLLAND: No, it isn’t.
COWEN: If you look at Jehovah’s Witnesses, who put a lot of stress on Revelation, they seem less classically liberal.
HOLLAND: The thing about the Book of Revelation is that it was recognized by Christians themselves in antiquity as a highly dangerous book. It wasn’t included in the canon of the New Testament in the Orthodox Church in the realms of the Byzantine Empire until the 10th century. They were nervous of it. Although it was included in the canon of the New Testament in the Latin Church much earlier, again, you look at the Church fathers in the Latin Church, and again, they’re very, very nervous of it.
The archetype of the greatest of the Latin Church fathers, St. Augustine, writing in the late 4th and early 5th century — he is very, very anxious that Christians might read the Book of Revelation and interpret it too literally. There’s talk about a thousand years in the Book of Revelation as a key span of time. Augustine is absolutely definite that this is to be seen as a kind of abstraction. When the first millennium arrives, the year 1000, the Church is not encouraging people to feel apocalyptic anxieties, but I think they indisputably do.
I think, actually, ironically, the fact that the Church emerges from this millennial period and that Christ hasn’t come or the reign of Antichrist hasn’t come — the horrors of the extraordinary wars and plagues and terrors that were seen by John in the Book of Revelation have not been manifested — it opens up, for reformers in the 11th century, an idea that the Christian people can be cleansed, can be reformed, can be brought closer to God. That precipitates what I think is the first great revolutionary moment in European, and therefore Western, history — what’s called the papal revolution.
It’s that revolution, I think, that stands at the fountainhead of the entire revolutionary tradition of which we in the 21st century are still heirs. I think that liberalism and all kinds of things would not have been possible without that revolutionary moment. Perhaps, to that extent, without the Book of Revelation, maybe the papal revolution wouldn’t be launched, and maybe we wouldn’t be where we are today.
COWEN: Which Gospel do you view as most foundational for Western liberalism and why?
HOLLAND: I think that that is a treacherous question to ask because it implies that there would be a coherent line of descent from any one text that can be traced like that. I think that the line of descent that leads from the Gospels and from the New Testament and from the Bible and, indeed, from the entire corpus of early Christian texts to modern liberalism is too confused, too much of a swirl of influences for us to trace it back to a particular text.
If I had to choose any one book from the Bible, it wouldn’t be a Gospel. It would probably be Paul’s Letter to the Galatians because Paul’s Letter to the Galatians contains the famous verse that there is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no man or woman in Christ. In a way, that text — even if you bracket out and remove the “in Christ” from it — that idea that, properly, there should be no discrimination between people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, based on gender, based on class, remains pretty foundational for liberalism to this day.
I think that liberalism, in so many ways, is a secularized rendering of that extraordinary verse. But I think it’s almost impossible to avoid metaphor when thinking about what the relationship is of these biblical texts, these biblical verses to the present day. I variously compared Paul, in particular in his letters and his writings, rather unoriginally, to an acorn from which a mighty oak grows.
But I think actually, more appropriately, of a depth charge released beneath the vast fabric of classical civilization. And the ripples, the reverberations of it are faint to begin with, and they become louder and louder and more and more disruptive. Those echoes from that depth charge continue to reverberate to this day.
COWEN: As you know, there’s the Jacob Taubes view that Paul is more anti-Roman and, in some ways, more anti-status than Jesus, revising Jesus politically. What is your take on that debate? How is Paul revising Jesus politically?
HOLLAND: Well, I think that Jesus is very radically anti-state. By “state,” I mean specifically the notion that, both in Jerusalem and in Rome, power is interfused with those who claim a mandate to interpret the divine.
This is clearly the case in the Jerusalem temple. The Gospel writers — and we don’t know that the sayings of Jesus are mediated through the Gospel writers, and the degree to which they correspond to what a historical Jesus might have said is obviously hugely contested — but insofar as we have a record of what the historical Jesus might have said in the Gospels, he seems hostile to the Jerusalem temple authorities. I think that what he is hostile to is summed up in the attack on the money changers and the idea that, in some way, what is God’s can be implicated in the churn of the earthly.
I think he also feels that about Rome. It’s often cast today that the Jews are religious, and by Jesus going before Pontius Pilate, he’s somehow being handed over to the secular authorities. But the Romans are no less secular than the Judean authorities. The Romans, too, are absolutely implicated in a sense that their power is interfused with an understanding of the divine.
Pontius Pilate’s main base is in the city of Caesarea, which is named after Caesar Augustus, and Augustus is a god. The Romans also, like the Jews, have a great temple in their city, the Capitoline temple, the temple of Capitoline Jupiter, which ironically will be incinerated a few months before the Jerusalem temple is incinerated by the Romans in AD 70.
I think that Jesus, in that kind of incredibly potent episode where people come up to him and they say, “Should we be paying taxes to the Romans?” Jesus asks for a coin, and he is given a coin, and he says, “Whose head is on this?” The people who were talking to him say, “The head of Caesar.” Jesus famously says, “Well, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”
That is, again, another of these depth charges, another of these acorns from which mighty oaks will grow, because it’s there that you get the idea, actually, in the long run, of there being something that is secular. Jesus, I think, is all about separating the divine from the earthly, and that is an incredibly potent insight. It’s one that is as hostile to the claims of Caesar as to the claims of the temple authorities.
I think Paul is completely the heir of that. I think Paul understands that. There’s a huge sense in which his letters, his understanding of Jesus, the way that he portrays that serves as a parody of the cult of Augustus. I mentioned the Letter to the Galatians. Galatia is one of the great centers of the cult of Augustus. So, when Paul is writing to the Galatians, he is very, very conscious that the God that he is talking about exists in the context of a world in which the fastest-growing cult is the cult of Caesar.
COWEN: How do you view the Christian foundations of African American liberalism as being different?
HOLLAND: Well, I hesitate, as an Englishman, to in any way pontificate about American history. But with that caveat, I will rush in where angels fear to tread.
COWEN: But you pontificated about Roman history, about Islamic history. America is a pretty close cousin.
HOLLAND: My feeling about this is that the civil rights movement is one of a succession of great awakenings in American Protestantism and, indeed, in Anglo-American Protestantism, so let that be my sanction for talking about this.
This idea that reverberates throughout Anglo-American history — that people need to be awakened to a sense of their sin and therefore to a sense of the potential for salvation — African Americans are the heirs of that as well. They inherit the Protestantism, and often the evangelical Protestantism, of the White Americans. The figure of Martin Luther King is emblematic of that. He is the Reverend Martin Luther King. He is absolutely situated in the tradition of radical Protestantism, which the Baptists are.
He’s a Baptist minister. He is heir to these traditions that go back to the 17th century and the 16th century — perspectives that are often incredibly radical, the more radical fringe of Protestants. And these are Protestants who often emigrate from England to the New World because their understanding of what the Bible teaches is seen as being too radical, too hot to handle back in England.
They bring with them this notion that the Bible can only be understood if mediated by the Spirit. It’s not what the Bible says in black and white. It’s what the Spirit makes you understand. It’s this, in due course, that enables Quakers and evangelicals, for instance, to argue that slavery as an institution is evil, even though notoriously and nowhere in the Bible is that ever said.
For evangelicals, for Quakers, for radical Protestants, that’s an irrelevance. The Spirit has descended on them, and it has enabled them to understand that. That sense combines with the incredible power of the Exodus story, the idea that people who’ve been in bondage can be brought out of slavery and can be brought to a new world, a new land. That is what powers the Pilgrim Fathers and other emigrants from England.
In due course, it’s what powers people as they move from the East Coast across America. Of course, it has an incredibly potent influence on African Americans. During the period of their servitude and in the wake after it and the failure of Reconstruction, the fact that, particularly in the South, there remains so much institutional oppression, so much institutional racism means that in the ’50s and the ’60s, when there are campaigns starting to develop calling for civil rights, calling for the rejection of repressive laws in the South, this inheritance is an obvious one to draw on, and that’s why Martin Luther King is such a potent spokesman for it.
When he tells White American Christians that Black American Christians are their brothers and sisters, he is going with the grain of everything that American Protestantism, radical Protestantism has been about since the very beginning. He can articulate the power of the Exodus story and the power of scripture as mediated by people upon whom the Spirit has descended. He can do so in a way that reverberates beyond the Black churches into the White churches and secularized throughout the ’60s.
It’s this great movement, I think, that — like the Spirit blowing in the wind, as it were — animates not just the civil rights movement, but all kinds of other movements as well — in due course, movements that may seem very opposed to doctrinal Christianity: feminism, gay rights, and so on. I think that the civil rights movement is incomprehensible without that heritage. It’s absolutely animated by it.
COWEN: In Genesis and Exodus, why does the older son so frequently catch it hard?
HOLLAND: Well, I’m an elder son.
COWEN: I know. Your brother’s younger, and he’s a historian.
HOLLAND: My brother is younger. It’s a question on which I’ve often pondered, because I was going to church.
COWEN: What do you expect from your brother?
HOLLAND: The truth is, I have no idea. I don’t know. I’ve often worried about it. You mentioned Byron at the beginning of the show. Byron wrote a play called Cain. Cain, of course, is the first elder son, and he kills his younger brother, and the mark of Cain is laid upon him, and he becomes a great wanderer. In Byron’s play, Cain becomes the representative of a free thinker, someone who dares to defy the tyrannical Almighty.
Satan, who appears to him, is very much in the tradition of Milton’s Satan. As understood by the Romantic poets, Satan is someone who is saying that, actually, knowledge is found by defying God. I think because I was the elder son, that’s another reason why I found Byron’s poetry when I was in my teens so powerful and so effective. It’s part of what led me away from Christian belief, really, a feeling that all the cool kids were hanging out with Cain, and especially all the cool elder sons.
COWEN: In the book of Exodus, why did there seem to be two versions of the Ten Commandments, at 20, and then at 34? The first being more legalistic, the second being more ritualistic. Why are there two? How do they fit together?
HOLLAND: Well, I think this reflects the way in which what we call today the Bible is an accretion of texts. There often seem to be two versions of stories stitched together. There are two versions of the creation of mankind, for instance. Very obviously, you have the Book of Kings and you have the Book of Chronicles. They’re essentially telling the same stories and duplicating each other.
I think that the construction of what comes to be called the Pentateuch, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible — because they’re so foundational, because they’re so important doctrinally to a sense of Jews’ and Christians’ sense of themselves, they were the most rewritten and the most contested. The idea that you get in the Quran, very obviously, that this is literally the Word of God. It’s not being mediated by humans. With the Ten Commandments, you get that as well. This isn’t being mediated by Isaiah or St. Matthew or whoever —
COWEN: By Moses, right? The Israelites don’t get to look on the face of God.
HOLLAND: Right, but Moses is bringing the tablets down, and those have been written by God.
COWEN: Well, Moses claims.
HOLLAND: Sure. If you want to go that reductive, then Moses clearly, almost certainly, didn’t exist. He was the most ahistorical figure, but the claim is — and it’s clearly believed by the people who are writing these texts, or constructing them, or stitching them together to form what today we think of as those books — for them, this is something awesome and holy, as the Quran is for Muslims. It’s something that you approach with extreme care, extreme nervousness. To tamper with the Word of God is to tamper with God. You don’t want to do that because the Bible is full of examples of what happens to people who do that. In a way, it’s the molten heart of what Christians call the Old Testament. It’s literally the Word of God.
COWEN: Are there religious reasons why America is more pro-technology than Europe?
HOLLAND: That’s a very good question. I think there are generally religious reasons in almost everything in America.
HOLLAND: I suspect that it’s more to do with the fact that it is easy to bring home improvements into a house that’s just been built than it is to do home improvements in a house that’s 500 years old. European states, if you imagine them as houses — they’re very old. They have all kinds of dodgy wiring, botched jobs.
Everyone knows that the worst kind of DIY is when you yourself have botched it over many, many years. It makes it much harder to do. It’s much easier just to rip everything out and put it back in again. I think that is the kind of attitude that people in America tend to have. I don’t know, I have no stats on this, but I would guess that it would be easier to import wholesale technology into a house on the outskirts of Houston than it would be in downtown Manhattan.
COWEN: Or an English country home.
HOLLAND: Absolutely. One of the things that always strikes me when I go to New York is, actually, it’s an old city. In Europe, we’re accustomed to thinking of America as modern and new, but New York is not a modern city. Boston — not modern cities. I remember going to Boston. I’d go for maybe over 10 years. Every time I’d go, there’d be this massive, great hole in the middle of Boston. They were, I think, trying to develop a subway system. Every time I’d go, it got bigger. [laughs]
COWEN: They called it the Big Dig.
HOLLAND: The Big Dig. A Big Dig, I would guess, is much easier to do in — I don’t know — Vegas or Houston than in Boston because Boston is just a very old city, in exactly the way that Manchester is in Britain, or Lyon or somewhere. They’re not quite as old as Lyon, but it is always easier to develop technology, I think, in areas where you don’t have stuff already there. That’s one of the reasons why, over the course of the 19th century, the industrial elite moves from Britain to America and to Germany.
There are doubtless all kinds of sociological reasons that I’m not qualified to opine about, but one of the reasons must be that Britain enters the Industrial Revolution first. Its industrial infrastructure, by definition, is older than that that comes to be developed by the Americans or, say, the Germans.
COWEN: Are you yourself ultimately a gnostic?
HOLLAND: I’m not a gnostic in any way.
COWEN: In any way, at all?
HOLLAND: No, I’m not a gnostic in any way.
COWEN: What is your implicit theology?
HOLLAND: I remember going to San Francisco. My . . . she wasn’t my wife then. She became my wife. She got a one-year place at Stanford. I was very, very upset about this, that she’d gone. I went out, and it was my first time to America. I went to San Francisco. I was so excited to go to San Francisco because, for me, it was the city of flower power and hippies and everything. I went to Haight-Ashbury and went toward all the hippie bookshops and got a whole load of books on the gnostics there and read them up.
I was very into all that kind of stuff, but I now absolutely repudiate that. I don’t think that the gnostics were hippies, were in any way progressive. I think that they were deep, dark pessimists.
What I like in Christianity, actually, is the message of hope that it offers, the message of salvation, and the message that matter is not evil, that our human bodies and the world around us are not creations of some malign demiurge, but are created by God and therefore are good. I find that a much more positive message than the gnosticism that I found so appealing when I was 21 and very much in the throes of love, which may have confused and blurred my thought patterns.
COWEN: What did you learn about modernity by translating Herodotus, which I believe was one page a day?
HOLLAND: [laughs] No, it wasn’t one page a day. The books of Herodotus — there are nine books, and each book is divided up into chapters. This happened in antiquity, and so I would set myself the challenge of translating one of those chunks every day because otherwise, I didn’t think I would ever have finished it.
What I learned about modernity from Herodotus is that I think the quality about Herodotus that I have always loved — he’s always been my favorite writer, not just my favorite ancient writer but my favorite writer. He was the first classic writer I read. I’ve re-read him, I’ve reinterpreted him, I’ve translated him.
I realized, as I was writing it, what I loved was the infinite curiosity that he has about everything. His writings are called Historia, which in Greek basically means researches, inquiries. It doesn’t mean history in the sense that we have. He is writing about the past. He says that this is his aim, but he’s not exclusively writing about the past.
He’s writing about wild animals, he’s writing about rivers, he’s writing about wonders in different lands. He’s writing about how Egyptian men squat to go to the toilet and Egyptian women stand up, and how Scythians get stoned on bongs, and all kinds of extraordinary, mad, weird, fascinating stuff. He was called, in antiquity, the father of lies because there were lots of people who felt that he was just making it all up. I think that’s incredibly harsh. Often, many of the things that he was doubted for, he’s been vindicated.
I was translating Herodotus, and I was able to use the internet as I was doing it. If there was a subject’s name or something, I wouldn’t have to go to a book to look it up. I could look it up online. I realized — it brought home to me how arrogant it is for us to sit in judgment on him when he was the first person to be doing this. He was the first person to be pursuing the infinite curiosity he felt about the vast expanse of everything to its absolute limits and so, of course, he got things wrong. We would. He didn’t have the internet. He didn’t have an example of Herodotus. Herodotus didn’t exist. There was no Herodotus before Herodotus. He’s doing it for the first time.
I think that the sense of curiosity that the modern world is all about — we have access to more knowledge than is beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations, and we can follow it wherever we want.
Herodotus, for me, stands at the head of that tradition, the head of that fascination with the vastness, the infinitude of the world and the universe that we inhabit. I look at modernity, and Herodotus sharpens for me a sense of how extraordinary and wonderful it is that we can know everything that we do, and that we have access to all the sources of information that we have. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, an incredible privilege of being alive in 2023.
COWEN: Are we likely to learn much more about the Persian Empire? And if so, how will that happen? Would it be archaeology, some other technique, recovering lost scrolls?
HOLLAND: We know a lot about Greece because Herodotus was Greek. He writes about the Persian Wars, and so, inevitably, we see the world through Greek eyes because Herodotus was Greek.
However, one of the wonderful things about Herodotus — one of the many wonderful things — is that he does try to see the world through Persian eyes. He tells a remarkable story that I just think is astonishing. He imagines Darius the Great, who’s the Persian king who sends the expedition to Marathon, that gets defeated at Marathon. It’s a great enemy of the Athenians. Herodotus imagines himself in Darius’s high-heeled shoes, the high-heeled boots that the Persian kings are said to have worn.
Darius summons Greeks and an Indian tribe, and these are the two people who exist on the western and eastern margins of his empire, respectively. He says to the Greeks, “What would I have to pay you to persuade you to eat your parents once they’ve died?” The Greeks, who burned their parents when they’ve died, throw their hands up in horror and say, “Nothing, we would never do that.”
Then Darius turns to the Indian tribe, and these are a people who eat their parents when they’ve died as a mark of their utmost respect. Darius says to them, “What would I have to do to persuade you to burn your parents when they’re dead?” Likewise, the Indian tribesmen throw their hands up in horror.
Herodotus says, “This shows to me that custom is king, that everybody believes that their own customs are best.” He understands that; he gets that. When he’s writing about the Persians, he is trying to do his best to portray them as they see themselves and not just to do them down. Of course, it doesn’t work. The problem with the Persians is that we don’t have a Persian Herodotus. Nor do we have, indeed, a Persian Isaiah. The Jews also write about the Persians. Our sense of the Persians has been mediated through the Bible and through the Greek historians hugely.
What’s happened over the past few decades, however, is that scholars have basically teamed up to try and go beyond that, to try and go beyond the fact that we lack Persian accounts, to try and see beyond what the Greeks and the Jews wrote.
This has required, basically, pooling every conceivable source of information that we have: such Persian inscriptions as we do have, archeology, the insights of areas of the Persian Empire that perhaps hadn’t previously been tapped, be that Egypt or Babylonia or wherever, where again there are sources trying to put the Persian Empire as it functioned in the sixth, the fifth, the fourth centuries BC into some understanding that is true to the functioning of the empire in that period, rather than, say, sources that were written much later.
This is a really, really difficult, challenging, complicated process, and it’s been one of the great feats of the field of ancient history that all these scholars haven’t, I think, achieved that. They have, to a degree, performed an act of resurrectionism. They have brought us to an understanding of the Persian Empire that is better than anyone’s had since the collapse of the empire itself. [laughs]
COWEN: Is it possible the Persians might have had a philosophical tradition that was advanced in the manner that the Greeks were? Maybe not quite as splendid, but have we ruled that out, or it might simply be lost?
HOLLAND: They completely did, and it was one of the most influential intellectual-spiritual traditions that’s ever existed. I’m reluctant to call it Zoroastrianism. It comes to be institutionalized as what, today, we might call Zoroastrianism in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD under a new Persian Empire, the empire that’s governed by a family called the Sasanians.
The Sasanian kings, who are institutionalizing Zoroastrianism rather in the way that Constantine institutionalizes Christianity in the Roman Empire — they are clearly drawing on traditions that were very, very current in the earliest Persian Empire, the Achaemenid Empire. These traditions are essentially dualist. It’s the idea that the world can be moralized, that it can be understood as being divided between rival spheres of good and evil, of light and dark, of truth and the lie.
This is what’s so influential about the Persian Empire, is that they moralized their own imperialism. This is hugely influential because when the Persian king — Darius would be the person who most potently expresses this — he says that he is the chosen one of Ahura Mazda, the great god, the good lord, and that truth and order are embodied in Ahura Mazda, and that Darius is his deputy. Therefore, the realm that he rules also is in the dimension of truth and order.
The corollary of that is that those who oppose Darius are agents of the lie and of anarchy, and therefore, they must be crushed, not just as enemies of the Persian king but as enemies of what is good.
When Xerxes leads his campaign against the rebellious cities of Athens and Sparta, he is doing this not just to expand his empire, but because he sees that Athens and Sparta are terrorist states. They are states in which demons have laid siege to the Acropolis and to the temples of Sparta and taken possession of it, and so therefore, they must be smoked out.
I wrote about this in Persian Fire, my book about the Persian Wars. I was writing against the backdrop of the NATO attempt to stabilize Afghanistan, which from the view of the West was a remote and mountainous backwater occupied by terrorists. I realized that, [laughs] basically, that’s how the Persians saw the Greeks. We in the West have the conceit that we are the heirs of Athens, but we are at least as much the heirs of the Persian kings as we are of the Athenians.
That idea — that power can be moralized — passes into the bloodstream, not just of Zoroastrianism, and the Zoroastrianism of the Sasanian Empire, but the Christian empire of Constantine, the Muslim Caliphate, and it has absolutely passed into the present. We are, in that sense, completely the heirs of the Achaemenid Empire.
COWEN: The ancient Greeks and Persians — how technologically advanced do you think they were? How much do we know about that? I’m sure you’re familiar with finding astronomical computing devices from the ancient Greeks. We don’t quite understand what all these things did. Is it possible they were much more advanced than we realize?
HOLLAND: I would in no way claim to be a specialist in the history of ancient technology. I think the hugely interesting question is, basically, not how advanced were, say, the Greeks or the Romans, but why did they not industrialize? Moving on from the Greeks or the Persians and looking at the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD — this was an incredibly economically advanced society.
It had a vast internal market. It was starting to recognize that the scale of the market enabled people to become richer and richer, that more and more resources could be brought together. It’s been estimated that people in the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD were probably . . . no society was as rich until, say, the Netherlands, the Dutch Republic in the late 16th, early 17th century. So it’s a very, very successful, economically successful, prosperous society.
There are brilliant people who are developing all kinds of things, but there does also seem to be, on the part of the Roman elites — and this is true of the Greeks as well before that — a nervousness about allowing technology to go too far. In Alexandria, Hellenistic Alexandria, famously, the steam engine is invented. What do the Alexandrians use it for? They don’t use it to develop steam engines.
Arnold Toynbee and his panoramic history of the world envisages this counterfactual in which Macedonian soldiers are on steam trains, chugging across Mesopotamia, taking out Parthian rebels and so on. That doesn’t happen. Instead, they use it to power temple gimmicks so that people will go in, and they’ll use steam and the statue of a god will move, or something like that.
There’s a story told that the Emperor Tiberius — somebody approaches him and says, “Look, I’ve made unbreakable glass.” Tiberius is very interested but asks for it to be tested. It’s shown that this glass is indeed unbreakable, and the inventor is delighted and thinks that Tiberius is going to reward him. Au contraire, Tiberius has him put to death and the secret buried, and the justification for that is that, if a glass is unbreakable, then what will that do for glassmakers? It’s very bad.
There’s another story that’s told of the Emperor Vespasian. Somebody approaches him and says — when they’re trying to rebuild the Capitoline Temple that’s been destroyed in the great fire in AD 69, that I mentioned earlier — “Look, I’ve developed this brilliant crane. It’s an excellent labor-saving device.” Again, it is said Vespasian refuses to use it because it will put the common people of Rome out of work.
I don’t think either of those stories are likely to be true, but the fact that they are told clearly articulates a suspicion of technology as being the enemy of basically keeping — as the emperors and the elites of the classical world see it — keeping the lower orders busy. What will happen if they’re not kept busy? It’s a Luddite perspective, perhaps.
As I say, I don’t want to imply that I have studied this in any great or specific detail, but my sense is that there is a strain of Ludditisim in the classical world that makes them suspicious of anything that might lead to what might seem to be labor-saving. Which, of course, you see in the earliest of the Industrial Revolution in Britain as well. That’s where Luddites are — people breaking mills and all kinds of things like that.
It’s an anxiety that continues into the present day, doesn’t it?
COWEN: Of course, large language models. They terrify many historians.
HOLLAND: Yes, absolutely. Yes, exactly said.
COWEN: Moving into the present day, you’re involved in a pro-UK union think tank called These Islands that wants to keep the United Kingdom together. Do you feel that the devolution of so much political power to Scotland and Northern Ireland, in retrospect, was a mistake?
HOLLAND: No, I’m all in favor of devolution. I think that Britain before the Second World War was a state in which power was devolved to Scotland, to Wales, to Northern Ireland, but also to the great cities of England as well — to Birmingham. Joseph Chamberlain, the mayor of Birmingham — absolute embodiment of a high-achieving mayor who shaped and reconfigured the architecture and the industry of his city.
I think that in the challenge of defeating Hitler, the British state became so centralized that we have long Second World War, if you want to put it like that. The aftereffects have continued for too long, and it is partly the Second World War; it’s partly the fact that we had a very centralizing Labour government that wanted to concentrate power in its hands. The health secretary — he institutionalized the National Health Service, and he famously said that he didn’t want a nurse to change a bedpan in any hospital across the country without him knowing about it.
I think that we live with the aftereffects of that, and so therefore, actually, I’m all in favor of devolution. I don’t think that devolution is the enemy of the United Kingdom and the union of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. I think it’s the best way for the United Kingdom to function properly. I think that what we’re going through at the moment is a process of teasing problems. We are trying to test and work it out, but I think it’s a creative process. I’m an optimist. I hope that it will work out for the best
COWEN: But isn’t Irish unification, in particular, almost inevitable, and we should just rip off the Band-Aid and get it over with?
HOLLAND: Again, I think that the complexities of psephology in Ireland, and specifically Northern Ireland, is way beyond my pay grade. It is incredibly complicated, and my understanding is that, as sectarian identity — the proportion of people in Northern Ireland who identify as either Catholic or Protestant — fades, it doesn’t translate automatically into a desire, necessarily, to remain in the union or to join a united Ireland, but that there is a solid core, nevertheless, that prefers remaining in the UK to joining Ireland.
I think that that is further complicated by the fact that in Ireland, Northern Ireland is now much poorer than Ireland itself. As I say, I’m not an expert on the psephology of this, but my hunch is that there would be nervousness on the part of voters in Ireland, as well as in Northern Ireland, about the costs, the challenges, the problems of doing it. I agree.
It is often cast as though there’s a kind of inevitability, and if that is what people in Northern Ireland want, then that is absolutely what people in Northern Ireland must have. But I think it’s less inevitable than the way in which the Protestant population is in decline. The Catholic population is growing. I don’t think it necessarily follows quite to the degree that I would say that anything about it is inevitable.
COWEN: The Church of England so suffuses your government. Is it stable in the long run to have 5 percent or fewer of the population attend that church, and in some ways have Islam as the most influential religion in, say, Britain? How’s that going to work out 30, 40 years from now?
HOLLAND: Okay. First of all, Islam is in no way the most influential religion in Britain. Islam has been radically christianized in Britain. Muslims, like Jews, like Hindus, like Christians, indeed, have freedom of religion. But what that means is that they are essentially obliged to see themselves as belonging to a religion — in the case of Muslims, it’s belonging to a religion called Islam.
Classically, that is not how Muslims understood what Islam was. Islam was an entire way of life. Islam was not something to be siphoned off from something called the secular and ghettoized in that way. Au contraire, it was something that saturated everything. But this is the legacy of that little acorn that I was talking about when I was talking about Jesus saying render unto Caesar.
This idea that there are two dimensions, a dimension that today we call the secular and the religious — this is a legacy specifically of Christianity. Muslims living in Britain to that extent are secularized. Of course, there are Muslims who resent this. These are Muslims who tend to be categorized as extremists, as people who reject this idea that Islam should be just a religion, who want to see the whole of Britain become subject to an Islamic state, but these are a tiny minority.
Most Muslims have internalized the idea of the secular in exactly the way that Jews have done, or Hindus have done, or, indeed, Catholics have done, or Protestants have done. To that extent, I think that Muslims have been radically Protestantized. Now, it may be that this is precisely the problem for the Church of England, that everything that made it distinctive, everything that made it the foundation stone of the English and then British state — it became no longer necessary. You don’t need the Church of England for it.
I think you could say, more largely, that this is a problem for Christians in Britain, and maybe in America as well — that in a way, they’ve won too comprehensively. People don’t need Christianity anymore to do all kinds of things. By and large, it was the Church of England that was responsible for education, often for healthcare, often for the provision of charity. In Britain, all those have basically been nationalized. We have the state now. It organizes education, healthcare, benefits. So, what’s the Church for? That’s an existential problem for the Church.
It was clarified for me by the experience of the Queen’s death and funeral, and the mourning period for her, that I think suddenly people — not everyone; there were lots of people who were very annoyed by it — but lots of people were surprised by how moved they were by those whole two strange weeks and actually quite liked it.
They quite liked the sense of the weird that those two weeks opened up. The body of a queen, who’s a lineal descendant of Alfred the Great and Odin and Adam — if her line of descent is to be trusted — lying in state in a Parliament, in the Great Hall built by the son of William the Conqueror, the great ceremony in Westminster Abbey built by Edward the Confessor.
The transfer of the body laid in state in the chapel at Windsor, where Henry VIII and Charles I’s bodies lie, that this sense of communion with the Christian past, the royal past — even republicans [laughs] quite enjoyed it. I think the fact that only, say, I don’t even know if it’s 5 percent — you were quoting me, probably; I’m sure you got the figure right; I’m surprised it’s actually that high — going to church.
COWEN: It’s an estimate.
HOLLAND: Yes. I think because people don’t feel strongly about the Church of England either way, by and large, people are happy for it to stay where it is. Rather in the way that people may not be going to a large church in the middle of a town, but that doesn’t mean that they want to remove it and build a supermarket there.
COWEN: Now, as a historian, surely you value British heritage, the wonderfully manicured look of the English countryside, and for that matter, the hedgehog. Yet my friends, my economist friends tell me we need millions more of homes in southern England because the cost of living is too high. Living standards are falling or stagnating. Rent is an enormous problem. Should we just build more in southern England? What’s your view?
HOLLAND: Well, I’m not an economist. You are, so you will have a much more informed view on this.
COWEN: I don’t.
HOLLAND: I’m aware of the argument. I find it intriguing that the two areas of Europe that have the highest population density are also the two areas that first became capitalist, the Netherlands and southeast England. In a way, these are kind of the motor of the history of capitalism. Clearly, I guess, the sense of critical mass was very important to that.
I think now both the Netherlands and England, in a way, are too small. If we had the space that you have in America, growth might be much easier than it’s proving to be. That sets up for us a very painful decision about what matters more: economic growth, economic success, the wealth, the employment that gives people — or the sustaining of the countryside and all those creatures that depend on the countryside.
My feeling is — and it’s an entirely romantic one that I would not want to argue before a professor of economics, but I’m going to — that, for me, I feel that the humans who live on the island that I live on — we are not the only species that inhabit this island. There are lots of animals and birds and insects and plants and trees that are bred of this island too, and we have a responsibility for them.
I hate the impoverishment of our wildlife, of our biodiversity. If I particularly campaign for the hedgehogs, it’s partly because they are an inherently appealing animal. They’re snuffling. When they run, it looks as if they’re lifting up skirts to do so. But it’s also because I remember the garden of my childhood where there would be hedgehogs. You’d see hedgehogs all the time. I don’t think my children have ever seen a hedgehog.
I was driving through the country in late summer last year, and ahead of me on the road, I saw a hedgehog, and it was the first time I’d seen a hedgehog for a long time. It really pains me, and I feel we have a responsibility not to allow an animal like the hedgehog to go extinct.
More than that, if you want to talk in terms of human self-interest, a world in which biodiversity collapses . . . One of the reasons why hedgehogs are going extinct is because there aren’t enough insects for them to eat. Insects, of course, are much less charismatic than hedgehogs, and so people tend not to get upset about them. But if we don’t have insects, if we don’t have the things that animals would depend upon, then that’s not good for humans either. The cascade effect — we never know when it might suddenly ripple through.
COWEN: Three final questions. First, what is your most unusual successful work habit?
HOLLAND: [laughs] My most unusual successful work habit. When I write history, I will go to libraries. I will immerse myself in academic texts, academic study. I will read texts and books that are often very demanding, written in very academic prose. But I write for the general audience, and there are times where I feel that I have to emancipate myself from that.
I remember when I was writing my first book, Rubicon, which was about the collapse of the Roman Republic, the great warlords of the late Republic — Pompey, Caesar, Crassus. [laughs] I would come back from the library, and I’d sometimes feel covered in the dust of the libraries in which I’d been sitting. Before starting work, I would play Ennio Morricone’s music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as I was making myself a cup of tea.
I would particularly play two tracks. One is “The Ecstasy of Gold,” where Tuco, the ugly, is running around the cemetery trying to find a grave where supposedly gold has been buried. I would always play that when I was writing about Crassus, who is the great billionaire. Then when I was writing about the Triumvirate, the standoff between the great warlords, I would play the brilliant music at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when there’s a seven-minute shoot-off between the good, the bad and the ugly.
I would always feel better going up to work, having listened to that. From that point on, I’ve always tried to find pieces of music that will keep me in the mood of the world in which I’m writing about, but will also remind me that I’m writing for people who may know nothing about it, and I have to make it interesting and accessible.
COWEN: Next, what is your favorite movie?
HOLLAND: My favorite movie is, I think, Jurassic Park. [laughs]
COWEN: Why Jurassic Park?
HOLLAND: I was havering over The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which I have, actually, watched —
COWEN: It’s a wonderful film.
HOLLAND: — millions of times. But I’ll tell you why I love Jurassic Park. As a child, before I got into the Romans, before I got into the Greeks, I was obsessed by dinosaurs. I was one of those boys. I was a child at an age where there wasn’t very much about dinosaurs. They weren’t on the television very often. I remember there was an Open University course on paleontology done by professors, not at all aimed at children, and they had one about dinosaurs. It was the most exciting program that I watched through the entire span of my childhood.
Anything about dinosaurs, I was obsessed by. The films that were shown then — the dinosaurs in them were not very good. They were slow, ponderous. You could see that they’d been that Ray Harryhausen-type models. So, when CGI enabled Spielberg to recreate dinosaurs in the way that he did in Jurassic Park, for me, it was a wonderful, wonderful moment.
You may remember, in Jurassic Park, the two paleontologists are in the jeep. They’re being taken by Richard Attenborough, and suddenly they hear a bellow, and they look round, and there’s a famous sequence where Sam Neill takes his hat off and goes huhhh — like that. I hadn’t yet seen any of the CGI dinosaurs.
When they showed the Brachiosaur coming up out of the lake and leaning up and feeding from the tree, the sense of wonder that Sam Neill’s character was obviously feeling — I felt that sense of wonder. I was so moved. I was moved almost to tears. I think as a film, I’ve just watched it over and over and over again because that sense of wonder has never entirely left me.
COWEN: I will again remind our audience members of Tom’s current book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The final question is, after that, what will you do next?
HOLLAND: I am carrying on with my own podcast, The Rest Is History, as I said. We’ve just done three episodes on the Cathars. We have various episodes coming up, some with definitely an American bent. We’re doing some episodes on Ronald Reagan. We’ve got the fall of Saigon to come. All kinds of things like that.
I’m able to do that and to devote myself to that because I’ve just finished a third book in the series of books that I’ve written on Roman history. The first, Rubicon, was about the fall of the Roman Republic. I mentioned that. The second was Dynasty, about the family of Augustus, ending with the death of Nero. This new book, Pax, is about the heyday of the Roman Empire. It runs from the death of Nero up to the time of Hadrian. It covers the era of the four emperors, the sack of Jerusalem, Pompeii, the Coliseum, Hadrian’s wall, so lots of great stuff. That is out in America in October.
COWEN: Tom Holland, thank you very much.
HOLLAND: Thank you so much for having me. Great honor.
Photo credit: Sadie Holland