Gates of Fire


Steven Pressfield


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

February 7, 2005

his 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 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 relentlessly, 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.