Before I begin, a note of warning: this post assumes that you’re familiar with the outcome of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. I’m leaping to the conclusion that, if you haven’t already read this book, you’ll probably have seen the film 300 or come across this stirring story in a history book or documentary. If you don’t know what happened, then my recommendation would be to simply buy this book and plunge in: don’t read any further, and don’t go looking up anything on Wikipedia. It’ll be even more dazzling and gut-wrenching if you don’t know what to expect.
It has been observed, in the past, that I have a fondness for doomed heroes. This may be true. I definitely have a weakness for nobility, self-sacrifice, and characters who can laugh in the face of certain death. Under the circumstances, it’s surprising that I didn’t read Gates of Fire years ago, because they don’t get much more doomed than this.
Steven Pressfield’s novel focuses on one of the most celebrated battles in history, when a tiny force of Hellene allies, spearheaded by the Spartan king Leonidas and three hundred of his warriors, temporarily held the pass at Thermopylae against the full might of the invading Persian army. There was no question of their returning home in triumph: the Three Hundred were chosen from among the married warriors who already had living sons to carry on their lines. It was a suicide mission, pure and simple; and yet, it was a mission of immense significance: they held the pass for a few crucial days, giving their allies time to assemble their armies. Combined with the spectacular naval victory at Salamis, this dented Persian pride until the Great King’s forces could be conclusively repulsed at Platea in the following year.
After the rout at Thermopylae, the Persian king Xerxes’ forces find a grievously-wounded Greek buried beneath the dead. Tended back to consciousness, he gives his name as Xeones, a squire of the Spartan army: a foreigner by birth, who has been drawn to the strict and pitiless discipline of Lakedaemon. Fascinated by the spirit of his Spartan adversaries, Xerxes demands that this Greek tells all he knows about the warriors at Thermopylae. For his part, impelled by the god Apollo to whom he is devoted, Xeones complies.
He describes the men with whom he lived and fought: the down-to-earth commander Dienekes; the Olympic champion Polynikes; the bitter half-helot braggart Rooster; the naive, sensitive Alexandros; and, above all, the courageous king Leonidas, who at more than sixty years old takes his place at the head of his hand-picked battalion of warriors. Each of these men represents a different aspect of Sparta; each touches a different part of Xeones’ soul. Telling his story from boyhood until the moment he finds himself in the bloody tumult of Thermopylae, he offers a picture not just of stirring martial spirit, but also of the everyday lives of these nonpareil warriors. He repeatedly makes the point that Sparta’s success is not based on the cultivation of the individual – there is no Achilles here – but on subjugating the good of the self to the good of the polis. True glory is only possible when a man’s deeds glorify his country; individual glory will be the result of that:
When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime.
You can’t help but admire the Spartans. They put the English in the shade with their stiff upper lips. Their women were formidable, allegedly warning their sons and husbands to come back with their shield or on it: either victorious or dead. Dishonour or retreat simply wasn’t an option. The men were even harder. There are two famous stories about Thermopylae in particular, both of which make appearances in Pressfield’s book. First, having graciously offered Xerxes the chance to surrender (he declined), Leonidas was informed that all the Persian king desired was their weapons, i.e. their allegiance. Leonidas’ response was: ‘You want our weapons? Come and get them.’ Bear in mind that comes from a man with three hundred warriors under his command, against a force of allegedly more than a million. Then there’s the tale about the Persian archers: the Spartans were warned they were so numerous that a volley of their arrows would block out the sun. One of the warriors (Dienekes, who is a character in this novel) simply laughed: ‘Good: then we’ll have our battle in the shade.’ That, my friends, is sangfroid.
Pressfield is very good at the (literally) laconic way in which these hard men speak. Despite the unbelievably grim circumstances, I laughed aloud when Leonidas and Dienekes assess the Persian troops waiting to engage them in their final skirmish. Already badly wounded, their bodies strapped together and their weapons bound to their useless limbs, these men know only too well that they are looking into the faces of their executioners. But what is Leonidas’ conclusion? ‘I am sorry for them … What wouldn’t they give, the noblest among them, to stand here with us now?’ What pride and what courage live in that?
I’m not entirely up to date with my blog posts: I came to Gates of Fire just after finishing a joint reading with Heloise of Mary Renault’s superlative The King Must Die. It’s important to make that point because, with Renault so fresh in my mind, I was initially rather shocked by Pressfield. His writing style is earthy, manly, crude and breathtakingly brutal: it couldn’t be further from Renault’s serene classicism. At first I couldn’t fathom the glowing reviews I’d read on Goodreads and Amazon; and then, slowly but irreversibly, I began to understand. The Spartan officers and their men become fully realised, rounded characters, bound together by the unforgiving grit of their training and the all-consuming love and pride they feel for their polis. Their vulgar jokes and banter are no less than you’d expect from men who have made their living out of fighting and dying side by side. By the end, even though I knew what was coming, I found myself choked with tears.
This is a grisly and hard book, with blood and sand packed under its fingernails. Like The Iliad, it manages to combine dazzling honour with gory description – and there were points when Pressfield seemed to be directly imitating Homer’s style, particularly in his use of similes. It isn’t for the squeamish – there were several points when I asked myself how on earth these men were still standing, let alone fighting (I would clearly have been no good as a Spartan) – but it feels like a frank, open and very sobering description of what war is like.
In fact, reading this, I couldn’t help thinking how unnecessarily overblown the film 300 is. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Gerard Butler’s physique just as much as the next red-blooded woman – but the battle of Thermopylae is one of the instances where you don’t have to exaggerate. The achievements of those men – not just the three hundred Spartan Peers, but those who stood and died with them – are moving enough. The schlock campness of 300 undermines the story by making it into little more than a superhero movie of rippling muscles and monsters. Those warriors were real men. Their sacrifice and their success were real. Pressfield manages to honour them and convey the magnitude of their courage without turning them into prim exemplars: these men are cheerfully foul-mouthed, dredging up humour wherever they can find it, and their fate is all the more shocking because they feel so alive.
This joins the ranks of those books which I didn’t want to end – although in this case it wasn’t simply because I was enjoying it. I knew only too well what had to happen, and I could hardly bear to keep going. Pressfield deserves real credit for this. The success of the book tells its own story, in the vast flood of sword-and-sandal novels that have come in its wake. I’m sure that few of these come close to Gates of Fire, but would be very interested to know which ones you’ve read and which you’d recommend. In the meantime, I leave you with two epitaphs for the fallen of Thermopylae. The first is Pressfield’s: a warrior’s sober assessment of the fate that awaits him and all his fellows:
By our deaths here with honour, in the face of these insuperable odds, we transform vanquishment into victory. With our lives we sow courage in the hearts of our allies and the brothers of our armies left behind. They are the ones who will ultimately produce victory, not us. It was never in the stars for us. Our role today is what we all knew it was when we embraced our wives and children and turned our feet upon the march-out: to stand and die. That we have sworn and that we will perform.
The second – and I couldn’t resist (excuse me while I get misty-eyed) – is the simple and characteristically brief epitaph carved in the rock at Thermopylae itself, in the words of the poet Simonides:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.