Tom Holland: In Conversation
Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. He is the author of several books on the ancient world - including Rubicon, Persian Fire, and DynastyA line of hereditary rulers of a country, business, etc. - and has written extensively on medieval Europe and the Near East. He has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC, and has translated Herodotus for Penguin Classics. In 2007, he was the winner of the Classical Association prize, awarded to ‘the individual who has done most to promote the study of the language, literature and civilisation of Ancient Greece and Rome’. He has written and presented a number of TV documentaries, for the BBC and Channel 4, on subjects ranging from ISIS to dinosaurs. His latest book is Dominion, a study of Christianity and the West over the last two thousand years, and we caught up with him in Oxford to talk to him about it.
I would like to talk to you about your new book, Dominion. Could you describe it in a few sentences?
It's a book about Christianity going from 479 BC right the way up to the present. But it's not specifically a history of Christianity. Rather, it's a history of what has made Christianity revolutionary, transformative, radicalA person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform, or a description of that change., over the span of its existence. And it's predicated on the thesis that if the West is a goldfish bowl and we are all the goldfish, then the waters in which we swim are Christian. Essentially the argument is that we are so saturated with Christian assumptions that we may not even realise it. Much that may seem antithetical to confessional Christianity, in fact, is so shot through with assumptions that derive from Christian theology that to all intents and purposes we remain a thoroughly Christian civilisation.
Are there any particular examples of things we would consider completely anti-Christian today, but which you believe are inspired by Christianity?
One example would be people who consider themselves emancipated from Christianity, to have attained an enlightenment that enables them to look down with superiority on those mired in superstition. But even in phrasing it in those terms you can recognise echoes of the ProtestantSomeone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation. Reformation in the language. And going further back, you can recognise the tones of missionaries in the early Middle Ages and, ultimately, the tones of the Hebrew prophets of Isiah and Jeremiah. So this language of enlightenment - of people who've walked in darkness and have seen great light, the very idea that the worship of gods can be a superstition - in a way is a natural evolution from Christianity. When you think of Christian missionaries chopping down holy trees in the forests of Germany or Protestant preachers smashing statues of the Virgin, you can see the line of succession.
Do you think there's anything that bucks the trend; that there's anything that comes directly from ancient civilisations that hasn't been touched by Christianity, within the West?
No, I don't think there's anything. I think everything's been mediated through Christianity. Nothing comes from nothing, and of course Christianity draws massively on the inheritance of Hebrew scripture and very heavily on the traditions of Greek philosophy. But the way that Aristotle and Plato, or stoicismAn ancient Greek school of philosophy that taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with the divine reason, which governs nature. As such, they thought that the wise should be indifferent to changes in fortune, and to pleasure and pain., have been understood has been through this medium; they've been Christianised, and we see them through Christian eyes. In that sense, we see through a glass, darkly. It's very hard to see them as people in the pre-Christian world would have seen them.
Your book challenges a lot of people; has there been a negative reception of some of the points, say, about secularismThe idea that state and religion should be separate. and atheismDisbelief or lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods?
I wrote another book about the origins of Islam, In the shadow of the Sword, which posited essentially that the foundational myths of Islam were not history but ‘salvation history’. That generated a lot of upset! I remember several Muslim interlocutors asking why I wasn’t doing this to my own beliefs. So, Dominion is my attempt to do that: I'm taking my secularNot connected with religious matters. liberal humanist beliefs and seeing where they come from. And I'm embarrassed I ever for a minute believed that there was a period of rational enlightenment in ancient Greece, then it all went dark because monks came along and ruined it, and then the light was switched back on in the Enlightenment. But there are certainly people who do believe this with a literally religious degree of conviction. Equally, there are plenty who do recognise that it doesn't really impact on what they think about it.
Do you think that writing In the Shadow of the Sword has given you useful insight for Dominion?
I couldn't have written Dominion, which is on a massively hubristic scale - two and a half thousand years - without having written quite a lot about various periods. In the Shadow of the Sword certainly focused it for me. But so too did the books that I wrote on Rome, and Classical Greece and Persia. I've always, in an inchoate way from my childhood, identified with Rome, but the more that I lived in the minds of the pre-Christian classical world, the more alien, the more frightening, the more unsettling I found it. And I think I found the same writing about Islam: although there's much that Islam has in common with Christianity, there's much about it that made me realise how many of my presumptions and assumptions derive from a Christian seedbed. So, I don't think that I could possibly have written this book without it.
As you said, the book covers two and a half thousand years, and the continent of Europe and beyond; how did you go about condensing that much history into something manageable?
It was kind of overwhelming! Basically, I drew on Christian symbolic numerology. What other way is there?! I drew on the sacred numbers of three – of the Trinity – and seven: the sacraments, the deadly sins, the number of churches in the Book of Revelation. The book is divided into three parts: you start with ‘Antiquity’, then you have ‘Christendom’, then you have ‘Modernitas’. Each section in turn is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter has a single-word title, and begins with a particular moment, a particular vignette that I hope can serve as a kind of clothes hanger from which to hang the general theme of that chapter. So, I mentioned that the book begins in 479 BC, which might have seemed a rather overly precise date, but that's because the opening episode is the crucifixion of a Persian general on the banks of the Hellespont by the victorious Athenians. The title of the chapter is ‘Athens’, which enables me to talk about the Persians, to talk about the Athenians, to talk ultimately about the Hellenistic world – the world created by Alexander the Great, Alexandria, the Stoics – and then ultimately the coming of Rome. The second chapter is set in 55 BC and the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey the Great. It's called ‘Jerusalem’ and I look at the world of Jewish civilisation, what Christians will come to call the Old Testament. And so it goes on. The penultimate chapter is called ‘Love’, which opens in 1967 in Abbey Road with the Beatles recording All You Need Is Love. The final one is ‘Woke’ and it opens in Rostock with Angela Merkel live on TV having to confront a Palestinian girl, who's on course to be sent back to Palestine, bursting into tears. This, of course, is setting up discussion of the migrant crisis, #MeToo, and a slightly more personal tone right at the end.
You include women throughout the entire narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis., when often the histories of Christianity are of ‘great men’; was it a conscious effort to do so?
The book is dedicated to my godmother, who died about five years ago, and to whom I was very close all my life. She was a very devout Anglican; I never thought of her really in those terms, but I realise now that her understanding of what it is to be good, what it is to do the right thing, has been very influential on me. I wanted my godmother to play a key role and I finish the book by writing about her. And I realised that, of course, this is a crucial part of how Christianity has put down such deep roots. The risk, I think, if you're writing history and if you're dealing with theologians or popes or kings or whatever, is that you miss the way in which over the course of two thousand years our minds have become saturated with the idea. Children grow up at the knees of their mothers, or their godmothers, but that's hard to express through the fabric of a history. But women are there throughout the Bible: it's women famously who first see the risen Christ, and men and women are created equally in the image of God in the Book of Genesis; Paul famously says there is no man or woman in Christ Jesus. Within that Christian tradition there’s a radical potentiality for equality between men and women that was not there, I think, in Greek philosophy, or Roman medicine, or even Jewish scripture. It's obviously been a very rocky road, and there is a huge amount of institutional sexism, but when institutional Christianity is criticised for being patriarchal or sexist, the ideological framework within which that criticism is being offered is itself largely Christian.
The opening vignette of a chapter that I most enjoyed writing, because it came as the most astonishing revelation I had, was for a chapter called ‘Flesh’, which is about how desire has been Christianised, as well as the understanding of what the proper relationship between men and women should be. It's focused in the fourteenth century with a cousin of the tyrantA cruel and oppressive ruler unrestrained by law or other people, although the early ancient Greeks used it to refer to anyone with absolute power. of Milan who's an abbess. All the nuns believe that they're destined to become cardinals, and that their abbess is going to become the pope, because of an enigmatic aristocrat who appeared a few years beforehand, died, and was buried at the church, whom they believed to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. It's such an amazing story, like something out of Umberto Eco, but I came across it as a throwaway line in the history of medieval heresyA belief or opinion that goes against the official Church doctrine..
These vignettes humanise the story so well; it must have taken an awful lot of detective work.
I needed characters and scenes that could be interwoven over the course of the entire fabric of the book. To give an example, in dealing with the emergence of radical Protestantism - that gave birth to Quakerism and evangelical Protestantism, and influenced British and American civilisation subsequently - I knew I had to do something from the Civil War and the CommonwealthThe countries once part of the British Empire; the interregnum in Britain; or the welfare of the public., because it was so transformative and creative. And I knew that later I would be looking at the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the emergence of socialism and communismA theory of system of government and social organisation where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.. I knew as well that I wanted to include the Beatles. So, I looked at the Diggers, a radical community who in the months after the execution of Charles I in 1649 occupied crown land on St George’s Hill in Surrey just to the west of London. They started digging it, saying that the earth is common treasury for all, drawing on the ‘world turned upside down’ elements within the biblical tradition. That, of course, looked forward to the traditions of socialism and communism. But it also linked to the Beatles: in the heyday of Beatlemania, John Lennon lived on St. George's Hill. It's where he had his swimming pool, and where he kept his psychedelic Rolls Royce. This is the man who famously said, ‘Imagine no possessions’, but he was the very opposite of a Digger: he was living in the lap of luxury. I haven't been able to get to St. George's Hill because to this day it's a gated community patrolled by people keeping anyone who's not an oligarch out of it. The ironies of history! So it was that kind of thing that would motivate me to choose a particular episode.
Of course, you're well known for your studies of antiquity. Do you intend to revisit the period?
Yes. So, I've written a book on the fall of the Roman Republic and then I've written a book on the Julio-Claudian emperors, ending with Nero. I am in the midst of translating Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars for Penguin Classics at the moment, but the next book will take the story forward, from the siegeA military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender. and sack of Jerusalem by Titus, bookended with the destruction of Israel and another series of wars between the Romans and the Jews in the reign of Hadrian. So, it will cover the heyday of the Pax Romana: the building of the Colosseum, Pompeii, Trajan, Hadrian. My ambition ultimately is to write a history that will take us right the way up to the fall of the Empire in the West, and then join it up with In the Shadow of the Sword and the coming of Islam.
Of course, you're busy campaigning against the Stonehenge tunnel as well.
The government are planning to dig a tunnel to sink a road that goes directly past Stonehenge, which you might think is great, because then you can go to the stones and not have lorries thundering past. But it is actually terrible because it will involve the destruction of vast swathes of what is the prehistoric landscape that gives context to Stonehenge. It's akin to saying, ‘We'll keep a chunk of animals from the rainforest in a zoo, but we'll just destroy the rest of the rainforest and turn it into a cattle ranch’; it's an absolute desecration. At the moment there's nothing much we can do: an inquiry has been sitting all summer and now they're working on their report. But if whichever government is elected in the current election decides to press ahead with it, then I'm hoping with my brother to do a protest walk from the quarry where it's thought some of the stones were mined right the way to Stonehenge. If people wish to register their interest, they can go to the Stonehenge Alliance’s website.
What are the big issues with history today?
I think that around the world, certainly in Britain and America, there's a feeling that history is squatting in a way that it hasn't for a fair while. The idea that history is over has been massively put to bed, and the Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum were basically debates about history. So, I think that history is alive and present in the way that people are thinking, in the way that they're talking, in the way that they're debating, in a way that hasn't been for a while. And it may be that there's a decline in the number of students taking it up both at school and university, which is a great shame, but this could simply reflect the fact that people already feel overloaded by history!
Assuming you had a safety bubble, if you could go to any place in history, where would you go and why?
I would go to see if the crucifixion happened, what happened, and then what happened a few days later. I have no doubt that Jesus was crucified. And I have no doubt that something strange happened around the aftermath of the crucifixion, which explains why Paul, when he writes his letters a couple of decades later, can take absolutely for granted that everyone he's writing to knows what happened. What it was, we will never know, but I'd love to find out.
Who, from history, would you invite to dinner?
I would definitely invite Herodotus - the most charming, inquisitive of men - and Dr Johnson. I'd probably invite Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero, who by all accounts was a tremendous laugh and would spice things up enormously, and I think I'd probably invite Cleopatra, who again was a brilliant woman.
Tom Holland's latest book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is available to buy now.