A review of Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield.
Gates of Fire is a novel of Thermopylae, the storied suicidal defense of 480 BC by Spartans against a vastly superior Persian army. The novel is, I am informed, widely admired at West Point and other officer schools.
After the battle of Thermopylae, a foreign-born Spartan squire named Xeones is found by the Persians, gravely wounded but alive. The Persian king Xerxes, wishing to know what kind of people the Spartans might be, who at hundreds strong could slay thousands of enemies in a valiant suicide mission, has the squire revived and asks him so that he might explain his people. Xeones tells this tale, but a more personal one as well: the sacking of his town, his unrequited love for his cousin, his rise up the Sparatan ranks, the cruelty of the Spartan school for warriors, the thoughts and fears of his master and the Spartan women that he somehow became privy to.
This is certainly an entertaining book: the various plots are interesting enough, and of course the drama of Thermopylae itself is inherently fascinating. There are a couple of potential problems with Pressfield’s handling of the Spartans, however.
One, Pressfield gives no doubt that he finds much to admire in the Spartan way of life. That the Spartans were eugenically-minded, infanticide-practicing, child-abusing, secret-death-squad-using, insulated, jingoistic, land-grabbing, hierarchical imperialists with proto-fascistic tendencies doesn’t seem to affect his judgment any. His affection for the culture leads him, on the contrary --- much like Frank Miller would later in the aesthetically pleasing but historically reprehensible 300 --- to present Spartan culture as a sort of freedom-loving patriotism when the truth was likely closer to a fear-based subsumption of the self to the greater good.
Two, Pressfield has the Spartan women interfere in political ritual, which --- and here I confess I don't know anything definitively --- I assume would be simply unthinkable; most ancient Greek women were little more than property.
Aside from those points, which the historian in me can't overlook, the gritty historical detail is handled well enough. Every detail --- from the armor’s accouterments, to the effects a thousand men’s feet, blood, and piss have on dust, to the experience of a thousand arrows whistling through the air, to the psychology of fear --- is explored. As a military historical fiction, as a battle piece, as epic drama, the book works. There's no wonder that it's popular amongst the men of the armed forces; it celebrates virility, valor, and violence, while being careful to paint a civilized, philosophical face on the machismo. But a book like this really only boils down to its entertainment value: is it an enthralling adventure? And this is superior by that standard.