Throughout history, warriors and myths of legends have defined how a soldier should act in modern day. From Greek mythology’s Hercules to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East, men have been given prime examples of strength, heart, and a passion for defending their country. In the novel, Gates of Fire, author Steven Pressfield shows an unseen viewpoint of the Battle of Thermopylae. In this novel we see the Spartan army, unlike any other of its time, leading a prime example in strength in individual characters, heavy training and passion for their profession.
In the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas leads roughly 300 men into a small passage to defend their land from the intruding Persian army. Those soldiers knew from the start the odds were against them, but they still marched forth. In the novel, there is a character named Rooster. He was born a bastard child, who was taken under the wing of the protagonist, Xeones, and grew up to have a family of his own. He was offered a ‘Spartan’ title, but he turned it down, claiming he was Messenian and always will be. 1 He was almost an anti-Spartan. Eventually, he becomes banished into Persia.
2 In battle, he sneaks into the camp and was beaten for this. Even with the efforts the Spartans did to break him, he still tried to help them after the beatings. Even if he didn’t take the honor, during the battle, he became a Spartan soldier whether he hated them or not. Although Rooster wasn’t considered an official Spartan soldier, there was a bit in him that was. The Spartan army wasn’t just made up of men from Sparta exactly. It was full of men from all over Greece who wanted to fight to preserve their land. Rooster was exactly that, a man strong in his will, fighting to defend the land.
If he hadn’t been in the story, there is no telling what would have happened to the army. By telling them where Xerxes’ tent was ended up being a turning point in the battle. 3 What made the Spartan army different than the rest was what they stood for as a whole, men from Athens, Messenia, Sparta or anywhere in Greece, they all fought together. As well as unity, there is a form of training every man in Sparta undergoes. If a male is born in Sparta, he is to be enrolled in training. Throughout this training, young men would be put through discipline, told to read stories of past legends, and given specific tasks.
Once they had reached the certain age, they’d be able to be considered a man of the army. An example from the novel is when Alexandros is just a young boy who was pushed into becoming something he was not comfortable being. He was a bright young boy with such spirit is made out to be a killer. He overcame his fear and controlled it into something to use in battle. 4 In the ring with Xeones, there is something in him that snaps and is finally pushed into what every man in that army finally becomes; a killer, a fighter, a warrior in a few terms.
Xeones sees it in his eyes and voice, “Get up, you outlander piece of shit (Pressfield 81)”. 5 As well as not only training from a young age to make themselves but as a whole. During the training camp, a young boy drops his shield and when he claimed it was his shield and his guardian questions him. In efforts to take back the words he just spit out, he recited the code of the shield: “This is my shield. I bear it before me as I head into battle, but it is not mine alone. It protects my brother on my left, It protects my city.
I will never let my brother out of its shadow nor my city out of its shelter. I will die with my shield before me facing the enemy. (Pressfield 75-76)”. 6 This quote reflects the aspect that the Spartans had when they were in war. When they were out on that battlefield, they were not just fighting one on one. They were defending the brother to their left while protecting the bodies. The shield was a symbol of the unity these men performed in battle. Last, we see their different outtake on the whole aspect of war. From the beginning, the way they refer to fighting is not like anything we’ve heard.
A great deal into the novel there is one scene where * is being forced to fight, but not in a way that makes sense to him. He is told to let his body take over the same emotions as “making love” is to fight and kill a man. 7 In that scene, Pressfield takes an interesting take on how the Spartans perceived war. Seeing inside the brain of a Spartan while he was in battle is truly eye opening. Especially in that situation, when a foreign army invades their land, they have no chance of beating them when they are outnumbered 300 to 100,000. To go on and face that scenario is how brave these men were.
They didn’t go out knowing they would win, they actually knew they’d die. A man nicknamed “Suicide” spoke up on how he ended up there and how he had no regrets on his past choices: “When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime.
This is why the true warrior cannot speak of battle, save to his brothers who have been there with him. This truth is too holy, too sacred, for words. I myself would not presume to give it speech, save here now, with you (Chapter 31)”. 8 Suicide’s comment shoved truth back into the Spartan’s reality. They knew they were about to die, they knew that before they even showed up on the dirt path. He tells them that there is no greater way to die than to die with the men he’s fought with and trained with.
He is saying they will not die in vain. They will live on as legacy, with hearts pure and valiant. The final steps until they reached the end of their lives, they knew what they sacrificed. Leonidas even sent most of his men home, to be with their people, the Thespians refused and stayed to fight. Bravery was one of the main reasons why the Spartan are is different than any other one of its era. The final chapters of the novel were told from a historian’s viewpoint.
Shortly after the battle, he goes back to the battlefield. There is a statue of Leonidas, one that is rightfully put. Leonidas was a true ruler, along with the quote, “Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here by Spartan law we lie (Chapter 38)”. 9 The men that fought with him were true warriors. They were an army born and raised into a militaristic environment and they proved themselves on that ground. Pressfield tells the tale of the great Spartan army. He shows their unity, their passion, their bravery.