Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire is a work of historical fiction concerning the stand at Thermopylae made by 300 Spartan hoplites and their allies against an invading Persian force of a quarter million.
The story is told from the point of view of a free-born youth named Xeores. He traveled to Sparta under his own volition after his birth-city was destroyed by the Argives, knowing full well that, once in Sparta, a life of servitude awaited him.
The Spartans are a freedom-loving people. However, they understand that the way of the warrior is the only one which will ensure freedom. Every free-born son of Sparta, from the meanest on up to, and including, the king, knows that his life from adolescence to 60 years of age will be spent as a professional soldier in active duty. The Spartans train incessantly and when not training will debate the philosophy of fear or the art of war.
This continual honing of military skills, aside from giving the Spartans a physical advantage over their foes, allows them to inure their minds against possession—possession by fear, possession by blood-lust. On the field of battle, they are responsible not only for their own person, but must also retain control of their minds. They train so that in the swirling, chaotic maelstrom of gore that is close-quarter combat, they will be able to perform the simple formations designed to save their life and the life of the man beside them. To do the ordinary in conditions like that are anything but ordinary.
Xeores sees the Spartans as the only ones strong enough to defend their city, their citizens and their culture. His desire to live under the scarlet aegis of Sparta makes him, in many ways, more Spartan than the Spartans.
He is an interesting character, and presenting the story from an “outsider’s” point of view is virtually requisite to introduce a culture so far removed in time and place from our own. The first-person telling of the story is usually employed to lend an air of immediacy to the tale, yet this one is told entirely in retrospect; major events are clearly demarcated before being relayed in full. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the novel.
Despite this, I found Gates of Fire difficult to put down. Pressfield weaves the narrative through pairs of similar but contrasting events. This device is particularly effective as it allows us to learn the difference between the sons of Sparta and those born to other cities, without breaking the narrative thread.
Everyone knew what the outcome of the battle of Thermopylae was to be. Even the 300 marching out from Sparta, a number which includes the Spartan King, knew they marched against insurmountable odds to their death. To be fair, there were a number of allies that stood with the Spartans and swelled their ranks by an order of magnitude. Even still they were outnumbered 50 to 1. So why the sacrifice?
The Spartan Warrior-King, Leonidas, tells his men before the final day of fighting that to surrender or flee makes the battle a rout. It would be a complete victory for the Persians and would allow fear to take root and destroy the hope of the Greek allies. The war ultimately will be decided outside the walls of Sparta. To never give up and to make the Persian hoards pay dearly for entrance into the Peloponnese will unify the Greeks and plant the seeds of despair in the hearts of the invaders. If they lose 20,000 men here to 300 Spartans, how many must they sacrifice to overtake the main force of Spartan warriors and allies fighting in front of their homes?
Gates of Fire is a fascinating look at one of the greatest battles of all time. The pyrrhic victory at Thermopylae and the eventual defeat of the Persian armies and navies allowed democracy to continue in Greece. For that, perhaps we should all be thankful to those 300 elite warriors who willingly, but not cheaply, sacrificed themselves to defend their way of life.