The novel is about the historical epic Battle of Thermopylae (aka The Hot Gates), where 300 Spartans and about four thousand of their allies and slaves fought against the invading Persian army ten times that size. I’m going to spoil it for you right now and tell you that the Spartans lose. Every single one of them, down to the last man, dies in that battle.
But they decimated the Persian’s forces to such a degree that the invader was unable to regroup and was massacred in subsequent battles with the full-force of the Spartan army and the Athenian marine fleet. It was the sacrifice of these 300 Spartans that enabled Greece—along with the burgeoning ideals of democracy and human freedom—to stand their ground, ally together and defeat the Persian’s desire to conquer the entire world. It was because of the Spartans that the world as we know it exists nowadays. Without that ultimate sacrifice, Persia would have invaded and conquered Greece, and modern civilization would’ve had a distinctly oriental feel to it.
You may ask me why I like the Spartans so much. People sometimes do. They were a small polis (city) in comparison to Athens. They had no art or theatre or great sculptures or anything external or concrete, really, that defined them as the great city that they were. They didn’t even have written laws. All they had was a rigorous educational system, distinctly military and highly disciplined, that forged not only the best warriors of that time, but also the noblest, most selfless humans.
Yes, I sound fanatical. But truthfully, I am a fan. How could I not be a fan of the only Greek society that allowed women to not only compete in athletic games and train like the men trained, but also take an active part in the political and economical life of the city? Aristotle (an Athenian) criticized Spartan society because of the degree of freedom it allowed their women. Another Athenian women asked Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, why Spartan women were the only ones who ruled over men. She answered, in true laconic style: ‘Because we’re the only ones who give birth to men.’
And in reality, a Spartan warrior was nothing if not a true man, in the classic sense of the word. As a warrior, a Spartan’s duty was first and foremost to defend his city. They campaigned from the time they turned twenty until they retired at sixty years old. Most of them died in battle before that time, true enough. But dying in battle was considered honorable, even glorious. It proved that the warrior possessed Andreia—true bravery.
I admire all this in Spartan society, but what I most admire is their very peculiar and unique mood of the soul. In other words, their attitude towards life. Spartans were known to be amongst the most pious of Greeks. They revered the gods and paid homage to them religiously. But not only did they revere those forces which they thought and felt to be higher than their human station, but they also possessed a collective modesty that prevented them from giving themselves airs or becoming too arrogant. All that they had, all that they were, they owed not to themselves but to the gods and their city. And they knew that in a flash, everything could be taken away from them.
That’s why the eve before battle, when a young soldier from the Greek army was telling his mates, voice quivering with fear, how the Persian army was so numerous that when their archers fired their arrows it covered the skies, Dienekes, a Spartan general, calmly replied: ‘Good. Then we’ll fight in the shade.’ It is also the reason Leonidas, the Spartan King who led the 300 and the rest of their allies into battle, replied to a Persian messenger who came to relay his King’s order for the Greeks to lay down their weapons in the way he did: ‘If he wants them, he can come and get them.’
Oh, the Spartan sayings. You’ve got to love them. So much meaning packed into so few words.
This immutable strength and tranquility of mind sprung forth in the Spartans because of their love of higher ideals, but also their disdain for lower ones. A Spartan who lost his composure in battle was shunned by his fellow soldiers. A warrior who escaped battle was shunned even by his very mother. Cowardice and blood thirst were equally abominable to them. War was work, it was what they trained for, as simple as that. A man who cannot work is a man unfit for their society, and a man cannot work well if his mind is overwhelmed by katalepsis, that euphoric despair that overtakes the minds of less-prepared men and gives them false Andreia that propels them into battle unprepared and screaming like a maniac, which often results in blood lust and unnecessary violence.
War was an art form for the Spartans. It was their profession. The women also trained militarily, just in case they needed to defend Sparta from the attack of a foreign army while the Spartan men were away on campaign. Because as Leonidas also said when another Athenian (those dear naïve Athenians) asked him why he didn’t erect a wall around his Sparta, like the rest of the Greek city-states: ‘A wall of stone will not defend freedom. Only a wall of men.’
All of these laws, all of these customs, sprung from Lycurgus, the man who gave birth to the (oral) Spartan Constitution and thereby changed that city forever.
Plato, the Greek philosopher, was also a fan. He said the reason why Spartans seemed slow and stupid to the rest of their fellow Greeks was because they said so little while the rest of the men blabbed however way and in whichever manner they felt like. But when a Spartan spoke, it was like an arrow hitting its mark. Sharp and concise. Plato considered them true philosophers, not because they spoke much (because they didn’t), but because they lived their life virtuously, always striving to become better men, better women, better citizens, both for their polis and for the whole of Greek world.
I could go on and on about the Spartans. I could talk about the agoge, that academy where boys from the age of seven to the age of twenty trained to become soldiers. Much can be said about their educational system. I could talk about their common messes (all the men ate together every day for dinner, but nothing they said within those precincts could ever leave the hall), their economics (they shunned all forms of money and basically relied on trade), their politics (they had two Kings in case one of them died in war and a community of Ephors who could overrule the King’s decision), their festivals (women danced in the nude and scorned and laughed at men who ogled them and those who had performed poorly in battle, and sang praises to those who had won prizes of valor), their marriage (a Spartan couple wasn’t allowed to live together until the man had turned thirty, which afforded very little opportunity for a couple to be intimate with each other and forced them to come up with all kinds of excuses to do the deed, which in turn kept the sensual passion alive for much longer), their décor (their houses were simple and austere in the extreme in order to foster discipline and engender a sort of loathing for comfort as well as to banish envy from the hearts of the community), their lifestyle (they bathed in the chilly waters of the Eurotas and boys were only given one tunic a year to wear), and on and on and on.
It truly is a remarkable society, and Gates of Fire is the one piece of historical fiction that I feel really lives up to it. Pressfield gets it. It’s almost like he was one of them in some past life. I’ve read Plutarch’s Parallel Life of Lycurgus, and the Sayings of Spartans, and even Herodotus, and in Spanish Los Espartanos by Denes Martos, and all of this is great non-fiction and great investigative material is you’re interested in learning more about their society.
But I’ve laughed, and cried, and dreamed, and breathed and lived through Gates of Fire over and over again. It’s made the Spartans real for me, as real as they can ever get. I feel like I lived through Xeones and Alexandros and Polynikes and Arete all those other fictional characters, and feel like I got to know Dienekes and Leonidas and the rest of the historical characters personally, as if I were one soldier more, living the day to day of battle and war and sacrifice. And all of that for what? Well, for fear of dishonor, yes, but also for Love. Love for others, love for their city, love for freedom, and love for that which is greater than all of us. And that is something worth living for. Most importantly, it’s something worth dying for, as the Spartans well knew.