Pressfield: Gates of Fire

September 14, 2011

Gates of Fire
An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
Steven Pressfield
(Bantam, 1998)
386 p.

A few years ago I read Steven Pressfield’s Tides of War, a novel about the Pelopennesian War, and I remarked at the time that another of Pressfield’s books had been highly recommended to me. This is that book, in which Pressfield gives a similar novelization of the story of the Battle of Thermopylae.

It was at the Battle of Thermopylae, you will remember, that a small band of 300 Spartans (with support from allies) confronted the massive advancing armies of Xerxes, king of Persia. The Spartans were defeated, but not without making a heroic stand, and their courage roused the Greeks to engage, and ultimately to win, the war with Xerxes. It was a battle with decisive consequences for all of subsequent Western history. An account of the battle, its causes, and its aftermath forms a crucial section of The Histories of Herodotus.

Pressfield tells the story through the eyes of Xeones, a fictional Spartan helot captured by the Persians at Thermopylae and made to tell the story of his life to Xerxes. Leonidas, Dienekes, and other figures named in Herodotus’ account are woven into the story, and Pressfield has filled out the scene with supporting characters: families, household slaves, and enemies. These characters have lives of their own, but they do not distract from the centrality of the main battle and the overall arc of the story. One of the best things about the book is the way that the Spartan way of life is revived on the page. They were a distinctive people: Greek, but with a culture centred around the cult of the warrior. It is an ethos very different from the more familiar climate of Athens, and it is vividly depicted.

Perhaps the most notable strength of the book is the quality of the battle scenes. They are gripping. Pressfield studied Spartan tactics, and he imagines what it must have been like for them — and for their foes — on the battlefield. These scenes are apparently also admired by those who should know what they are talking about: the book is assigned reading at the West Point and Annapolis military academies.

I also appreciated the place given by Pressfield to the role of religious experience in the lives of his characters. Too often this aspect of life is passed over in silence in modern literature (and even more so in television and film), or treated perfunctorily, or contemptuously. Spartan religion is surely foreign and strange to most of us today, so it is all the more impressive how effectively Pressfield animates it. Several of his religious scenes I found surprisingly moving.

I was also surprised to discover — not from Pressfield’s book but from related reading — that the Persian Xerxes is thought to be identical with Ahasuerus, the husband of Esther in the Bible. I had not suspected such a connection.

This is not the sort of book that attracts the attention of committees looking to bestow literary prizes. That is a pity. It is well-written, with good pacing and strongly drawn characters, but it is unselfconscious about its literary effect. Pressfield is no literary genius, but he is a talented craftsman, and this book is a taut, absorbing account of a famous historical moment. It is well worth reading.

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