Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
© 1998 Steven Pressfield
When Xerxes, Ruler of Asia, god-king of men, finally stood over the bodies of the few Greeks who had withstood his hordes drawn from half a world, he could not understand. Hailed as all-knowing, he could not fathom why a few hundred men would have opposed his army of millions, even after they were offered the greatest seats of influence in the Empire. Finding a Greek still holding on to life, the Persians looked for answers; nursing him back to health, they coaxed out this, the story of the Spartans. The story of an orphaned boy who fled to the strength of Sparta after his parents and home were destroyed by the Argives, Gates of Fire is his growing up among them, his quest to become like them, to be the quintessence of strength and valor, unbreakable.
Though not born of Sparta, Xeones lived in awe of them from his youth. So fiercly did he admire them that after war turned him into an orphaned child, wandering the wilderness with a cousin, he left her behind to pursue the Spartan way. He could never be one of them; criminal violence had robbed him of the strength needed to wield the heavy oaken shield and the lance. He could string a bow, however, and let it fly with accuracy, and so he devoted his life to the service of Sparta. He is motivated by youthful admiration, but also haunted by the memory of his parents, ashamed of not having been there to defend them, agonized by knowing he ran away from his conquered city. In the Spartans he looks for the strength and fortitude he missed in himself, and when he takes his stand among them at the last, it is quite personal.
Through Xeo the reader is introduced first to a harsh world in which children can be reduced to scrounging about the countryside, begging and stealing food, and then to the Spartan soul. The Spartans are different than other Greeks; even when the Persian hordes threaten to reduce Hellas’ cities to ashes, its women and children to slavery, the Spartans sneer and laugh while other cities kneel in the dust in homage. There are fates worse than death for a Spartan. The proud city is a severe place in which the souls of men are tempered like steel against the vagaries of fate, against pain; these cannot be avoided, but they cannot be allowed to rule. Discipline must rule; loyalty to the clan must prevail. Xeo, like all men of the city, becomes subject to Spartan law, a demanding law that forces greatness of the soul even from the lowly. Having found a place in the ranks as a squire to one of Sparta’s knights, Xeo lastly becomes the narrator of the battle of Thermopylae This is the finale, a last stand so audacious in courage that its telling has survived through the centuries, wherein 300 Spartans and a few thousand Allied Greeks attempted to stop the Persian millions in their tracks.
Although it lives on in the western imagination like no other battle, Thermopylae was for the Greeks a defeat: the Persians broke through after losing thousands upon thousands every day of combat to a mighty, valiant few heavy infantry, and Xerxes swept across Greece, burning even proud Athens. For those who remain, however, for those who later rose against the Persians, for any number of people who have protected a flicker of hope against the gaping maw of darkness– the British expeditionary force standing in Belgium against the German invasions of 1914 and 1940, for instance — Thermopylae was a triumph of the human spirit. Pressfield does a magnificent job of giving it poetic due; perhaps, considering the drama of the situation, an artful rendering of it is unavoidable. Time and again Pressfield ensnares the reader in the glorious action, or awes the soul is descriptions of the great slaughter. This he does without much hyperbole; the Persians are not demonized, nor are the Spartans lionized; the two sides meet repeatedly before the slaughter, emissaries hailing on another as brothers. The Spartans, whom we grow to know through Xeo, have a severe discipline, but even though they seem to fight like demigods they are still human, and herein they weep, laugh, and love fiercely Their antidote to the fear of battle is fear of failing one another, of failing to give selflessly to their brothers-in-arms. It’s an extraordinary work, as gripping for the martial telling as for the exposure to a culture whose stoic-like dedication is staggering.