Gates of Fire tells the story of the war between the Persians and the Greeks, about 500 B.C. when Xerxes was the king of Persia. He conquered most of Asia and eventually attacked Greece, which at that time consisted of a large number of city states, most prominently Athens and Sparta. While Athens was the modern, progressive city of artists, philosophers and hedonists, Sparta was more – well Spartan. Their king Leonidas and their warriors were the most fearsome of their time. At the battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas of Sparta resisted the much larger Persian forces, but were ultimately defeated. The Persians broke the Spartan phalanx after a Greek man called Ephialtes betrayed his country by telling the Persians of another pass around the mountains.
In this 1998 historical novel, Pressfield frames the story nicely by having it told by the captured Greek Helot Xeones as an eyewitness and the sole Greek survivor. A few times the storytelling jumps to another narrator, one level removed, but it never is difficult to follow. Spartan life 2,500 years ago came alive in front of me as I read this book.
Here is a passage where he describes the Spartan notion of a king to “His Majesty” Xerxes:
I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.
The story focuses on the major battle at Thermopylae, a hot springs at a narrows in the mountains. The Spartans and their other Greek allies are vastly outnumbered by the Persians, but they station themselves in the narrows and slaughter the waves of Persians coming at them to the point where dead bodies are piling up and eventually falling down the cliffs.
The Spartans are indomitable. They train their male youths for war from an early age. A hapless fourteen year old who forgot to take his shield with him during a brief errand is punished and flogged until the bare ribs show through the flesh of his back. Boys routinely die during such disciplinary measures. The whole process is designed to make them tough.
This is a very graphic book, full of blood, gore, despair, hopelessness and horror. Sometimes I got the feeling it glorifies war. The Spartans are almost superhuman. The action is non-stop. History, with all its horrible injustice, comes alive. Virtue, honor and discipline rule, but do not always win. Immense sacrifices are made for country and home. Men would rather die than lose their honor. After reading Gates of Fire, I will never think of Spartans the same way again.
Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.
For completeness’ sake, I should mention that this story is the same as the story in the popular 2008 movie 300. Ebert reviewed this and gave it only two stars. He reports that the story is based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. I do not know how Miller’s graphic novel and Pressfield’s historical novel relate, or which comes first. Both are obviously telling the same story, how 300 Spartans stood up until the death to thousands and thousands of Persians. Ebert’s review is negative enough that I do not want to go and watch the movie, now that I read Pressfield’s book. I do not want to destroy the images of the characters as I have them in my head, not for a mediocre movie. So while I’d normally go out and rent the movie right away, I think I’ll trust Ebert and pass.