June 1, 2004
Gates of Fire
|Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield
I work on the second floor of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. Right outside my office space door are thousands of books covering all sorts of topics from history, to fiction, to science fiction. Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time during my breaks and lunch time walking through "the stacks" for good books to read. It is one of the many perks of working at a library and I walk through the rows as much as I can. Anyway, while browsing the collection I happened across this book, Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance). Gates of Fire is an epic novel about the Spartans and their heroic stand during the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. During this battle a small number of Greek forces held a narrow pass called the "Hot Gates" for two days against the Persian advance until defeat looked inevitable. The Spartan king Leonidas told everyone to retreat save 300 Spartan warriors who valliantly held the pass for as long as they could, fighting with their bare hands and teeth to the bitter end, until everyone was killed. This stand allowed the safe retreat of the rest of the Greek army and is considered one of the more heroic moments in military history. Today an ancient monument still stands at the site, an unadorned stone with the inscription, "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie."
As far as books go, this one was hard to put down. With epic novels it is always difficult to deduce how much liberty the author is taking with the actual story, but for me it didn't really matter. I loved the majesty and heroism of the Spartans. I lapped it all up and begged for more. What a fascinating people. Most of what we know about the Spartans is ... well .. pretty spartan, but what we do know demonstrates a very brave and courageous people who shunned art and literature in favor of war. Gates of Fire begins with this quote from the Greek historian Herodotus who wrote about the battle of Thermopylae:
"Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespaians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade.'"
Dienekes features prominently in Gates of Fire but the story itself is mainly told from the viewpoint of Xeo, Dienekes' squire and the lone survivor of the battle. According to the book Xeo was saved by the royal surgeons of Xerxes, the Persian emperor, so that Xerxes could hear more about the Spartans and the secrets of their military prowess. Xeo begins with the story of his own childhood and eventually moves into the infamous training of Spartan boys as warriors. These sections were so unbelievable it prompted me to do a little research of my own on this training. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (forgive the length):
"The Spartan government was founded on the principle that the life of every individual, from the moment of birth, belonged absolutely to the state. The elders of the city-state inspected the newborn infants and ordered the weak and unhealthy ones to be carried to a nearby chasm and left to die. By this practice Sparta hoped to ensure that only those who were physically fit would survive.
The children who were allowed to live were brought up under a severe discipline. At the age of 7, boys were removed from their parents' control and organized into small bands. The strongest and most courageous youths were made captains. The boys slept in dormitories on hard beds of rushes. They ate black broth and other coarse food. They wore the simplest and scantiest clothing. Unlike the boys of Athens, they spent little time learning music and literature. Instead they were drilled each day in gymnastics and military exercises. They were taught that retreat or surrender in battle was disgraceful. They learned to endure pain and hardship without complaint and to obey orders absolutely and without question.
They were allowed to feel the pinch of hunger and were encouraged to supplement their fare by pilfering food for themselves. This was not done to cultivate dishonesty but to develop shrewdness and enterprise. If they were caught, they were whipped for their awkwardness. It is said that a Spartan boy, who had stolen a young fox for his dinner, allowed the animal he had hidden under his cloak to gnaw out his vitals rather than betray his theft by crying out. Girls were educated in classes under a similar system, but with less rigor.
Discipline grew even more rigorous when the boys reached manhood. All male Spartan citizens between the ages of 20 and 60 served in the army and, though allowed to marry, they had to belong to a men's dining club and eat and sleep in the public barracks. They were forbidden to possess gold and silver, and their money consisted only of iron bars. War songs were their only music, and their literary education was slight. No luxury was allowed, even in the use of words. They spoke shortly and to the point�in the manner that has come to be called laconic, from Laconia, the district of which Sparta was a part. "
Fascinating isn't it? Really, the entire book Gates of Fire is a primer on Spartan culture and discipline. And if the book is even half true the Spartans were the biggest bunch of bad-asses that ever walked the Earth. Honesty, bravery, reverance, strength, speed, endurance, obedience, and leadership, it seems, were all traits of the Spartans. While Gates of Fire attempts to cover all aspects of Spartan life, the battle of Thermopylae is probably over 25% of the book, and it is a credit to the author that he found so many different ways to describe war and valor. In particular, Pressfield features Leonidas in a series of speeches to the remaining warriors who vowed to give up their lives to defend the pass:
"They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers from beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetitie for knowledge of the ancients. They will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What will they learn of us? Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks will prise forth no everlasting architecture or art. What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today... Now eat a good breakfast, men. For we'll all be sharing dinner in hell."
If you found all the speeches and battle scences of Return of the King boring and anti-climactic then this is not the book for you. However, if you want something that is based on a true story and is really very awe inpspiring, then you might want to check this book out.
So, back to the stacks I go, looking for my next book. I hope it will be as good as Gates of Fire.
Posted by snackeru at June 1, 2004 9:55 PM | Books
this is so sad how could spartans go through that?
Posted by: Anonymous at April 29, 2006 12:33 PM
This story brings to life and in great detail, that which could not be done in the history books of Herodotus and many other scholars alike. Mr. Pressfeild shows us the true (for lack of a better word) bad-ass, undying power of the Spartans (man and woman) on and off the battlefield. Pressfeilds novel is a classic in the making and I recommend it to anyone that calls them self a history buff.
Posted by: anonymous at March 10, 2010 7:16 PM