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In 480 BC, King Xerxes lead a Persian army of between one and two million into Greece. The Spartan King Leonidas lead 300 Knights ans some 700 Thespaian allies to the narrow pass at Thermopylae, in order to hold the Persians back as long as possible. They proceeded to hold the pass for 7 days. These 300 Spartans died to a man defending the pass against a force of over a million and the epitaph
provided to them by the poet Simonides, "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie", is perhaps the most famous in history. Their example rallied and inspired all of Greece and eventually the Persians were defeated in the naval battle at Salamis and on land at Plataea.

Pressfield (whose only previous novel was the, by all accounts wretched, golf story The Legend of Bagger Vance) has taken this story and created a novel that is not only a brilliant recreation of Ancient Greece, but can also stand beside The Killer Angels (1974)(Michael Shaara 1929-1988) (Grade: A+) as one of the great war novels of all time.

The story is told from the point of view of Xeones of Astakos, supposedly the sole survivor among the Spartans, who Xerxes has tell his story to the court historian Gobartes.  Xeones starts with the tale of how he came to Sparta. As a youth, his village of Astakos is destroyed and his family slaughtered, but he and the cousin he loves, Diomache, escape. As they wander the countryside, Diomache is raped by soldiers and Xeones is crucified after stealing a chicken, although Diomache saves him from death. Thrown into despair, because his hands are so damaged that he can never wield a sword, Xeones heads off by himself to die. But he experiences a visitation from the Archer god Apollo Far Striker and realizes he can still wield a bow. When Diomache, who is also distraught after being violated by the
soldiers, takes off, Xeones heads to Sparta where he hopes to join the army.

The middle section of the book, which I found interesting but slow, deals with his life in Sparta and the training techniques used by the Spartans to create what was one of the most formidable fighting forces the world has ever seen. Eventually he becomes the squire of one of the 300 knights who are chosen for Thermopylae.

The final section, on the battle itself, depicts wholesale slaughter accompanied by acts of ineffable courage. It also relates two of the great lines of all time. When Xerxes offers to spare the Spartans lives if they will surrender their arms, Leonidas is reputed to have snarled, "come and get them." And upon being told that the Persians have so many bowmen that the cloud of arrows would blot out the sun, one of the Spartans says, "good, then we'll have our battle in the shade."

Having just read The Thin Red Line (1962)(James Jones 1921-1977)   (Grade: C), where James Jones presents war as a fundamentally nonsensical and tedious exercise, it was a real joy to read this book. Pressfield captures the romantic side of war (recall Robert E. Lee's comment, "It is good War is so horrible else we would come to love it too much") by relating the true history of the Spartans awesome sacrifice. In two of my favorite passages, he explains: (1) why this sacrifice is so beautiful to us, "In one way only have the gods permitted mortals to surpass them. Man may give that which the gods cannot, all he possesses, his life"; and (2) why men fight, "Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder."

I can not recommend this one highly enough. Read it.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Steven Pressfield (6 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
Steven Pressfield Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Steven Pressfield
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Steven Pressfield (IMDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel (Random House)
    -VIDEO: Mini Documentary on Killing Rommel (YouTube)
    -ARTICLE: Bruckheimer Adapting Pressfield’s Killing Rommel (BeyondHollywood, 9/03/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Steven Pressfield (Hugh Hewitt Show)
    -PODCAST: Steven Pressfield on the Artist as Warrior: In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast (First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing , July 12, 2021, LitHub)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (Random House)
    -ESSAY: Tribalism is the real enemy in Iraq (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, 6/18/06, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ESSAY: Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East (Steven Pressfield, September 11, 2006, ABC News)
    -ESSAY: Theme and Character in the Historical Novel (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, Historical Novel Society)
    -INTERVIEW: The art of the art of war (Steven Martinovich, November 15, 2004, Enter Stage Right)
    -INTERVIEW: Gates Of Fire: Richard Lee talks to Steven Pressfield about his new novel (Historical Novel Society)
    -ARCHIVES: "steven pressfield" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (Ray Palen, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Tony Perry, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steven D. Laib, Intellectual Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Chet Edwards, Defense and National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Paul Katx, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steve Terjeson, Ezine)
    -REVIEW: of Killng Rommel (Norm Goldman, American Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Andrew Lubin, Military Writers)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Armchair General)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Mary Ann Smyth, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jeff Valentine, Bella)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (John Boyd, Kliat)
    -REVIEW: of Kiliing Rommel (Michael Lee, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan War ( Lisa Ann Verge, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Scott Oden)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign ( N.S. Gill,
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great Steven Pressfield (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War (Helen South,
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War(Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interes)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great expectations: Four new biographies suggest that the more we write about Alexander the Great, the less we understand him (Rory Stewart, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Gates of Fire
    -CHAT: A Review of Steven Pressfield's "Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War" (Classics-L)
    -REVIEW: of Tides of War (SUSAN HALL-BALDUF - Knight Ridder Newspapers)
    -REVIEW: of Tides of War (Newt Gingrich, Newt,org)
    -REVIEWS: of Tides of War (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of GATES OF FIRE By Steven Pressfield (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Mary Lefkowitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Gates of Fires by Steven Presfield (Michael Lind, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Denver Post Wire Services)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Curled Up)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEWS: of Gates of Fire (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of Gates of Fire (Steven Zoraster)
    -REVIEW: of THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE Golf and the Game of Life. By Steven Pressfield. (Dave Kindred, NY Times Book Review)

    -Alcibiades (The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000)
    -AN INTRODUCTION TO ATHENS IN 403 B.C.E.: DEMOCRACY AT THE  CROSSROADS (Reacting to the Past, Barnard College)
    -ETEXT: Alcibiades   By Plutarch
    -SHORT BIO: alcibiades (Plato and his dialogues)
    -ETEXT: ALCIBIADES  by Plato  Translated by Sanderson Beck
    -LINKS: Alcibiades
    -ESSAY: Alcibiades and the Politics of Rumor (C. D. C. Reeve)
    -ESSAY: "Boring from Within: Reading the Speech of Alcibiades as Attack on the Agenda of Definition" ( J.W. Powell)
    -REVIEW: of David Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation (David M. Johnson, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 99.11.12 )
    -REVIEW: of THE GREEKS AND GREEK CIVILIZATION By Jacob Burckhardt. Translated by Sheila Stern (Garry Wills, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Bernard Knox: The Theater of Ethics, NY Review of Books
       The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy by Martha C. Nussbaum

    -Battle of Thermopylae
    -The Persian Wars
    -Thermopylae (the poem by C.P. Cavafy)

    -ESSAY : The Second Fall of Rome :  Have the past two centuries of Western culture been one long saga of lionizing Greece while disparaging the cultural prestige and classical values of ancient Rome? (Michael Lind, Wilson Quarterly)
    -Historical Novel Society
    -Greek Civilization
    -The Internet Classics Archive

If you liked Gates of Fire, try:

Green, Peter
    -Alexander of Macedon 356-323 B. C. : A Historical Biography

Kagan, Donald
    -Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy

Thucydides (ed. Robert Srassler)
    -The Landmark Thucydides : A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War
    -ESSAY: The Epic Battle of Thermopylae Remains One of the Most Stirring Defeats of All Time: A vastly outnumbered Greek force faces off against the invading Persian army in a fight to the death that still resonates today (Nathaniel Scharping, December 19, 2020, Discover)
    -The Spartans Were Morons (Gabriel Russell, 3/30/22, Task & Purpose)