This is a terrific book describing the battle of Thermopylae, where 300
Spartans (plus a few thousand allies) withstood the million man invading force of Xerxes from Persia.
Everyone knows the Spartans, though greatly outnumbered, fought the Persians to a standstill
for 6 days, holding a narrow mountain pass (Thermopylae is Greek for Gates of Fire, which is
the name of the pass) until they are betrayed - a traitor shows a the Persians an old goat
track up and over the mountains, allowing the invaders to surround the Spartan defenders
and slay them all. Everyone knows this story, but Pressfield tells it in the voice of the
lone surviving Spartan, bringing to life different defenders. He is successful in creating
a page turning tale, even though the outcome is a forgone conclusion.
The first two thirds of the novel is a recounting of Spartan life. The story
is told through the eyes of Xeo, who was not born into Sparta. Xeo was living in another Greek city,
until it was attacked and destroyed by a rival city-state. Xeo and his sister are left homeless,
and turn to banditry. Eventually, Xeo finds his way to Sparta, which converts the young man into the
Spartan life style (this process also introduces the soldiers who will fight at Thermopylae.) Spartan
life is incredibly brutal and primitive. Civilization is just taking root, the weapons and tactics are
mostly brute force and fierce willpower. It is interesting to someone to refer to the era of Achilles
as an ancient age, since Gates of Fire itself takes place in 480 BC.
Pressfield describes in detail only the first day of the six day battle, but
that is enough - the onslaught by the Persian forces is a tidal wave of armed humanity. The Greeks stand
and fight relently, incredibly. It is a slaughter on both sides. The Persian empire is vast, it claims
most of the known world under it's banner, and each of the conquered nations has sent its troops to the
campaign. Each of the various troops charges into the Greeks at Thermopylae, and they are all repelled.
Given the description of the fighting, it seems incredible the fight could last even more than a few
hours, as bodies pile up everywhere.
After a few days of fighting, the Spartans conceive of a daring raid - they will
strike at night at the tent of Xerxes and hope to slay the emperor. It is suspensefully told, despite the fact
that the reader already knows the raid fails. In the end, the Persians triumph, the Greeks are overwhelmed
and everyone perishes. But the six day battle has delayed the Persian offensive, and inspired the Greek
city states to unite and ultimately repel the invaders, which kept Greece independent and allowed the
birth of Western Civilization.
I award this book 4 stars, it is excellent at recreating the ancient Greek era,
the fighting and weapons and Spartan life style all seem well researched. Despite their savage nature,
the Spartans win the reader's sympathy for their courage in the face of impossible odds. I will probably
look for additional Pressfield books to read.