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Molon Labe: A review of ‘Gates of Fire’

Molon Labe: A review of ‘Gates of Fire’

A little over three years ago, a stranger in a coffee shop with whom I’d struck up a conversation excused himself from the table, walked to his car and returned with a copy of Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire.”

He handed me the book, said “He’s my favorite author,” and insisted I keep the book, telling me he had other copies at home. 

About a month ago, on a whim, I finally pulled the book from its shelf, began reading, and found myself on a journey through one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

This best-selling novel tells the story of the epic Battle of Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans died facing countless thousands of troops of the Persian Empire and so won for themselves everlasting fame and glory. The grievously wounded Xeones, a Spartan squire, has survived the battle and is brought to the quarters of King Xerxes, where the Persian ruler asks to hear his story to learn more about the tough, gallant warriors he has just defeated. The king’s historian, Gobartes, records the prisoner’s soliloquies, interjecting from time to time with his own observations and news of the ongoing Persian military campaign against the Greeks.  

At age 12, Xeones finds himself, his cousin Diomache and a wise elderly slave, Bruxieus, on the run as outcasts after invaders kill the rest of the family and sack their city. After months of living largely in the open, scavenging food as best they can, Bruxieus dies from age and exhaustion. Diomache follows the advice of their old companion and departs for Athens, while Xeones strikes out for Sparta, whose fame as a city-state of warriors acts like a magnet on him.

Though his foreign birth dooms Xeones to Sparta’s helot class, who serve both the state and individual masters as serfs, his fortunes take a turn when he becomes a sparring partner with Alexandros, son of a respected leader, Dienekes. His loyalty to this family, his acceptance of Sparta’s customs and harsh military code and his service as a squire soon give Xeones access to other prominent men and women of the city.

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As both insider and outsider, Xeones is in an ideal position to offer King Xerxes, and by extension the rest of us readers, unique observations on Spartan life and the killing machine that was its army. Moreover, it is through Xeones that Stephen Pressfield dazzles us with his command of language, his talents for storytelling, and his ability to bring to life this epic moment from the past when Greece was besieged and the budding flame of Western civilization might have been snuffed out forever.

That Pressfield spent countless hours absorbing Greek history is apparent throughout “Gates of Fire.” From the novel’s first pages, we are swept back in time to a place and a people with whom we can connect but who also seem as exotic and strange as the far side of the moon. Like the best of historical fiction, “Gates of Fire” brilliantly bridges these two worlds of past and present.

Just one example of many illustrates this success. The Spartan phalanx, with rows of men ranked deep one behind the other and with those behind pushing against those ahead to add the force of a battering ram when they met the enemy, Pressfield’s descriptions make us feel as if we ourselves were in those same ranks, pushing, shoving, moving forward for the kill.

Pressfield’s vivid recreation of ancient warfare and his running commentary on leadership and martial virtue earned “Gates of Fire” high praise from the American military. Unless circumstances have changed, the book is taught at West Point, Annapolis and the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. In “The Leader’s Bookshelf” by Ret. Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell, “Gates of Fire” comes highly recommended by retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen. He notes that this is “a particularly powerful book about leadership,” with Spartan King Leonidas as the best exemplar of that virtue. “A king does not abide within his tent,” says Leonidas, “while his men bleed and die upon the field.” 

Gen. Allen also remarks on what other readers will find in Pressfield’s novel, that love of their comrades and their families and friends back home are what inspired the Spartans to fight, and what makes soldiers stand side by side today. At one point, addressing his warriors and squires after a hunt and before setting out for Thermopylae, Dienekes says, “All my life one question has haunted me. What is the opposite of fear?” No one, including Dienekes, can adequately answer that question until much later during a pause in the battle these men are doomed to lose. ‘“The opposite of fear,’ Dienekes said, ‘is love.’”

According to the Roman historian Plutarch, when Xerxes demanded that the Greeks lay down their arms, Leonidas replied with two words: “Molon labe,” or “Come and take them.” Those words, which have literally echoed from time to time throughout American history, are a reminder of the courage and defiance that are the safeguards of freedom.

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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