on 20 February 2001
What a magnificent book this is. I have read a lot of books but none of them - in every genre - comes close to this one. I don't remember ever being this emotionally involved in a story as it unfolded through the novel, and you certainly go through every emotion as you turn the pages. Not only is the story itself, of the heroism of a tiny Greek army in the face of absolutely impossible odds, a remarkable premise in itself, Mr Pressfield has managed to make it even the more remarkable by his totally involving telling. As other reviewers have said, you really do feel as if you know all of the characters, and suffer along with them. Even though they are doomed to die, you can't help hoping that by some miracle, they will be triumphant. It is also descriptively unsurpassed, actually transporting you back into the world of the Spartans and taking you into the formidably painted battle whether you like it or not, leaving you breathless and terrified but unable to put it down. It's a fairly thick book, but I read it in 2 days, staying up into the wee hours because its impossible to put it down. This is the only book I've ever read that made me cry, and when I cried, I didn't stop for about an hour. It has everything - heroism, honour, comradeship, history, the love of family (especially the heartbreaking scene, without dialogue, when we see the great warrior Dienekes inform his wife of his inclusion in the 300 who must go to Thermopylae) - you name it, it will be in there somewhere. By degrees horrifying, hilarious, heartbreaking, shocking, terrifying and ultimately one of the most uplifting reads you will ever come across, "Gates of Fire" will never, ever be forgotten.
on 29 June 2000
An outstanding novel, exceptional reading. As another reviewer mentioned, I am surprised the movie rights to this book have not been snapped up. I'd love to see Gates Of Fire brought to the theater, if the movie were anywhere near the quality of the novel I think it would be an epic film.
The books passages are vibrant and alive with life, ancient Sparta unfolds in all of its harsh, relentless, and even ruthless glory. At the same time Mr. Pressfield has been able to paint for us in exquisite detail the Spartan code of life, military training techniques, ancient weaponry of the period, battlefield tactics, why the Spartans were feared and almost invincible in war, as well as the role and attitude of the strong, independent, warrior-type women of Sparta. They were as brave as the men of Sparta, if not more courageous ... they knew their men were sworn to die in battle. Interwoven throughout is the off color humor, angst, and fears of the common Spartan soldiers, their sarcasm and commentary on the politics of the divided Greek City States, down to the petty internecine rivalries of the officers in their ranks. But, when it came time to fight, all closed ranks in tight phalanx, locking shields, long spears forward and aligned in perfect rows ... each man locked tightly to the man on his right, all protecting one another. Just as it has always been with soldiers, when in the throes of combat, we take care of each other. Any soldier of any period up to the present will chuckle out loud at these passages, a soldiers lot has always been pretty much the same throughout history ... weapons change, leaders change ... but soldiers of any army of any country are soldiers one and all.
The battle at the Narrows, the Hot Gates, raised the hair on the back of my neck ... described in incredible fashion by the author, the account was chilling, breathtaking in its carnage and ferocity ... wow! I don't think it mattered much that the Persion Immortals were able to get to the rear of the Spartan defenders and cut them off from retreat ... the Spartans under Leonidas had no intention of retreating, they came to die.
An ancient monument on the battlefield inscribed:
"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws, we lie."
What a great book.
Gates of Fire, a must read.
As you will no doubt have realized by the time you reached this point, Gates of Fire has already been reviewed by 120 readers and 111 of them have rated it five stars. Of the other nine, only two have gone below 3 stars. That in itself should already tell you most of what you want to know, that is should you buy this book (or offer it to someone) and should you read it. In all cases, the answer is a resounding and almost unanimous YES in all cases.
So what is the point of adding just another Five Star Review to the heap of existing ones? Well, this book is "simply" the "Rolls Royce" of historical novels, meaning the Best. I read it over ten years ago. Re-read it twice over the next 7-8 years, then lost my copy and bought another one some 3-4 years ago and have re-read it again and again, finishin it for the last time on New Year's Day, when I decided that I had to write a review on it. Every time I read it, I discovered something new, or something that I hadn't paid attention to previously so that, in reality, there is nothing "simple" about this book. It is a fantastic book on several levels.
First of all, there is MUCH, much more to it than just being a first-class, excellently written, exciting historical novel with superbly described battle scenes and what can only be described as a gripping and heroïc story line: the ultra-famous Battle of Thermopylai (or Thermopylae, if you prefer the Latin to the Greek spelling, as most people do) where a handful of Greek warriors fought to the last against overwhelming odds. The way the story is old sounds and fell so real to you can (almost) get to believe that this MUST be the truth and this is what actually happened. In itself, just this would be worth five stars for most of us (me included), and I could just stop the review here. However, as often with Steven Pressfield, there is MUCH more than that in the book.
Second is the heroïc, honor and duty and death and glory bit, with a very high level of emotional content. This is what some could - rather cynically perhaps - view as the portray of the Ideal Spartan. Regardless of whether this depiction bears any ressemblance to the truth, it is an extremely powerful one and this is perhaps where Pressfield's talent is at its maximum. There is little doubt that the Spartans in this book are shown as they would have wanted to be seen: ready to do what they did best, that is fight to the death to comply with their moral Code, all in an utterly unassuming way, as if it was the most natural and the simplest thing to do. It is this Code that is epitomized in all of the laconic quotations mentioned throughout the book. The most famous are Leonidas' supposed "Molon Labe" (come and get them, when asked by the emissaries of the Persians to surrender his arms), Dienekes' answer when told that Persian arrows were so numerous that they blocked out the sun, according to Herodotos ("Good. Then we will have our battle in the shade.") and the epitaph engraved on the ancient unadorned and unassuming stone at the Gates of Fire that all Greek school children (and many others as well) know by heart, the "Go tell the Spartans, stanger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie." (it's even more moving in Ancient Greek). It is this mindset and behavior that Pressfield has captured and shown so brillantly across the book, starting by the way the story is told by the dying and unassuming Helot of Dienekes. Whatever your personal views, this cannot and will not leave the reader indifferent.
The last point I would want to discuss here is about the historical accuracy of this book, and as to whether this is the TRUE story (as opposed to a legend which has been embellished over time) and whether it even made any sense and any difference for the Spartan Battle King and his band of warriors to stand and fight it out.
To start with the last point, it DID make a difference and the sacrifice was not at all in vain¨, but the difference that it made was on the Greeks moral rather than on the strategic level. By the early morning of the third day, when Leonidas and his surviving Spartans (less than 300 by that time), the 700 Thespians and the 400 exiled Thebans made their last stand, the allied Greek fleet had already pulled back from Artemission (the cap at the north of Eubea) and the King new that his position holding the Gates was also compromized by the Persians who were bypassing him and would surround them by noon. By standing rather than retreating, he did buy time for the rest of his forces to pull back. However, even that was not the essential part nor the main purpose of the sacrifice. Indeed, another general might have tried, and possibly managed, to pull back the whole force under cover of the night, including the Spartans.
The main purpose of the Last Stand, however, was a moral one. Up to Thermopylai, the Greeks were terrified of the Persians (and they had every reason to be). They were also divided and wavering, with many tempted to surrender and submit, as the Beotians (including Thebes, but with the exception of little Thespiae, who paid the price for it), and, before them, the Thessalians did. Even within Sparta (as within Athens) there was wavering and doubts as to whether it "made sense" to fight the Persian Great King
However, after standing to the last, and as Pressfield puts it so aptly, "the standard of valor that they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally". This is a superbly "laconic" understatement meaning that
a) after this sacrifice, there was NO going back, no surrendering to the Great King, and, in particular, there was no going back for Sparta - it was victory or death, so there could be no more prevarications and no hesitations in the Greek camp. We should also remember that the Ancient Greeks, especially at that time in the early 5th century, were very religious and the Spartans, on average, often more than the others. So the sacrifice of a few hundred for the freedom of the many also had sacred implications and a religious resonance to an extent that we might have trouble understanding nowadays.
b) among the Greek coalition's warriors, the hoplites but perhaps also the crews at Salamine, the impact on morale could very well have been HUGE. At a time where laying down your life for your city was what you were expected to do, the Spartans and their Kings laying down theirs for the common good of all could only inspire everyone else. Given the reputation of excellence that Sparta and its warriors had already acquired at the time, Leonidas and his Spartans DID indeed set the standard for valour at the time (and for the next 25 centuries, something that of course they didn't know) and they DID lead by example when laying down their lives although they certainly could have done otherwise. I strongly suspect that Leonidas was perfectly aware of this, that he took the decision to stand and die quite deliberatly because he knew (or at least hoped) that their death would be the seed of the future victory, and that all of his Spartiates knew it and agreed with his choice. Anyway, my last point here may even be somewhat irrelevant. The 300 were in fact acting as the King's guards, meaning that they went where he went, and they would share his fate just because this was what they had to do. Anything else was unconceivable from a Spartan point of you.
My final point, although perhaps the most difficult one to make, relates to the historical accuracy of this novel and, again, to the sheer power of setting the example.
First, where the Elite Spartans some kind of bloodthirsty warriors who relished killing and went "berserk" in battle? Here the answer seems - to me at least - to be an unqualified NO. In practice, Spartans despised "berserk-style" behaviors and battle lust. This was because they would see the warrior as going crazy and losing all self-control, all self-discipline and becoming little more than an enraged animal. Moreover, Spartans were, of course, humans, and did not particularly want to die. They chose to do so, because this was part of their military call and they were expected by their city to set the highest example for all (this is one of the meanings of "obedient to their laws"). This was one of the objectives of their gruelling military training in the Agoge and this was what they were born and bred for. This was a matter of fact. This was "the Spartan Way".
Second, were the Spartans "playing the noble warrior act" and cynically building their reputation as the "super-warriors" of the Age? Where they showing off? Was this a display? Where they vainglorious? It seems not and the chances are that they really believed in their warrior ethos and tried their very (and considerable) best to live up to their Moral Code. They did not always succeed, but they tried and they certainly were successfull at the Gates of Fire. At least at that time, the Spartans, although certainly aware of their valour, did not show it off. Shelfish behaviours where the heroes would go and sulk in their tents because they hadn't got their way (Achilles or Alexander the Great style) were simply NOT the "Spartan Way" and would be despised by them. Moreover, they had no need to show off because they had nothing to prove to anyone, and certainly not to any of the other Greeks: everyone (even the Persians) knew that they were "simply the Best" fighting men that Greece had at the time.
Are there any historical elements that could back up such a view about the "Spartan Way"? Oddly enough, there are some. Some even relate to the Helots and Shield bearers of the Spartans which were used by their lords as sparring partners, as the very beginning of Pressfield's book shows so well. The shield bearers and body slaves knew how to fight and fought almost as well as their lords. Later on, during the Long War against Athens, battalions of Helots would be raised, trained and would fight (very well) for Sparta. We also know that, at Thermopylae, they did not survive their warrior lords but died with them. None of them has ever been mentioned in any of the sources as deliberatly deserting. Even a sceptical mind cannot do otherwise than agree that while many (or most, or all?) Helots hated their condition as slaves and may also have hated their masters, they nevertheless fought and died with them, rather than running away or betraying them to the Persians.
Third and last, has Pressfield painted a somewhat "rosy and glorious" picture of the Spartans, as another reviewer suggested? The book does, at times, feel a bit like that, until you come across one of these frightful scenes where Polynikes gets ready to slaughter a few Helots, to make a point and set the example, but this time a rather grisly and unsavory one. This was also Sparta, and it is also shown in the book.
To conclude, and to cut a (very, very) long story short, this (the book, the story it tells and the Spartans that are at the heart of it) is "simply the Best" of breed, what the Ancient Greeks might have called Aristoi (and from where we have derived our aristocrat).