In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland

in-the-shadow-of-the-sword-tom-hollandA historian reviewing In the Shadow of the Sword would be able to comment on Holland’s interpretation of the sources, offer alternative opinions, place the work in the context of current scholarship. I came to this book knowing very little about the subject, but since that will be true of many readers I’ll write from that perspective.

In the Shadow of the Sword is an account of the decline of the Roman and Persian empires in the Near East and the rise of the Arab empire. It tells the story of the rise of monotheism and the role religions played in the shifting of political and military power.

Holland takes you through the significance of Zoroastrianism in the Persian empire, the history of Judaism and the Jewish populations across the region, the growth of Christianity and how it impacts on Rome. It’s only a hundred or so pages from the end that we reach the story promised in the introduction – the rise of the Arab empire as Rome and Persia are both brought low following a devastating plague and years of military conflict.

In the Shadow of the Sword makes some points that were new and interesting to me – for example that Judaism and Christianity represented a threat to their opponents, because they were not tied to a particularly location or shrine, as pagan religions were. Holland shows how written texts were central to the power or religion – and how political and religious leaders were willing to rewrite them to suit political expedients. He highlights the link between religion and militarism, such as the early Christians likening their role to that of a soldier, and the suggestion that the word ‘pagan’ is derived from a Latin world meaning ‘civilian’.

Along with the analysis there are anecdotes ranging from the macabre to the absurd  – grisly accounts of early Christians welcoming martyrdom by ever more cruel torture and death, a burgeoning tourist industry as pilgrims flock to holy sites and relics, an Arab ruler famed for his golden dentures and fearsome halitosis.

In the final chapters of the book, Holland tries to distinguish the historical figure of Muhammed from the version in the Qu’ran. He says that no contemporary accounts of the life of Muhammad are known and that much of what is understood about him comes from writings two hundred years after his death. In particular he questions how Muhammad could have lived in Mecca, a remote desert outpost, when the Qu’ran clearly draws on contemporary religious and cultural ideas which suggest involvement in trade and awareness of the other Abrahamic religions and their adherents.

Holland’s writing is clear and relatively accessible but he does favour long sentences in long paragraphs in long chapters, which, coupled with my lack of context and the unfamiliar names meant I paced myself, reading a few pages at sitting, so I could absorb what I’d read. The book also has a really useful timeline, a glossary and a list of dramatis personae.

This was an interesting and readable account and, for me, an introduction to new ideas and one that made me want to learn more.

View In the Shadow of the Sword on Goodreads


  1. Some really tantalising ideas you’ve picked up here. For example, I always assumed ‘pagan’ referred to the countryside (eg French ‘paysage’ and Welsh Powys, a region originally with few Roman towns) as distinct from urbanisation. To see it linked with civilian life (from the Latin for city)


  2. … (sorry, pressed wrong button) is to me a novel notion, but it may be that scholarship here has revised received opinion. The other aspect I don’t know enough about is the early years of Islam, and the notion that all we know about Mohammed is, like much else in history, dependent on who gets to write the official account.


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