I. In Greece the polis of Sparta was the number one military authority for the people and for the time period. There was nothing that the Spartans could not do when it came to war. From the time that Spartan men were born, they were evaluated for their future services to the Spartan society. Each baby was sent to have the ten, ten, one test done on them as explained in the novel, The Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. This test was to check and make sure that there were no deformities. If there were the children were killed because they could not help the military, therefore had no purpose in their society as a whole. Sparta was a militarist state. The other helots and Athenians and so on, looked to the Spartans for guidance and often for overall protection during the times of war. Their society as a whole was very separated from the rest of Greece though. For example in the novel when Xeones talks about his dreams to be a Spartan he knows that he would never be recognized, while his cousin Diomache wants to be an Athenian she knows that is it possible. One could only call himself a Spartan if he was born of a Spartan in Sparta.
The polis also held itself high in importance. In the book, The Gates of Fire Rooster whose mother was a Messenian did not see a need to be honorable to Sparta and protect it either. Rooster would curse it and speak of the gods as if they were nothing. So in the novel Polynikes was going to kill Rooster because there is no need for someone who has no trust and honor for Sparta.
The Spartan society was one of a kind. There was no other polis that was quite like Sparta in the matters of how they raised their people. The society had two kings, one military and one religious. They also had the council of elders that helped make decisions. In Pressfields novel Leonidas was the military king of Sparta during the times of the battle of Thermopylae.
The polis of Sparta had a system, and overall it worked effectively. The men protected the city, and controlled everything through the council of elders. Then in the times of war when the men were away the women were in control. They took care of the cities everyday matters along with the helots from the surrounding polis. The mens duty to the country was to serve. In fact the last paragraph of the novel does an excellent job in showing this by stating, Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie. This was referencing the fact that the 300 Spartans died as they were told to by their laws and way of life.
Overall the polis of Sparta had an effective system. The military worked as it was supposed to, and most other cities and rulers feared the military of Sparta. The polis also had an effective trade and governing system overall. The women and helots more often than not dealt with the everyday trade and intercity dealings. The council of elders also was effective in governing the city.
II. From the beginning of life perfection was the aim and the only way for Spartans. When the children had any imperfection they were either killed or adopted by the helots surrounding the Spartan polis. The men were put up to some of the toughest tests at extremely young ages. At the age of seven they were put into the agoge for their military training. This would prepare them for the military life that they would eventually lead. Pressfields novel explains some of the tests that these young boys were expected to perform. Xeones speaks of the pushing of the tree, in which the boys are expected to push down a huge, old tree with just their muscle and force. This is known to be quite impossible, yet it prepares them for the force needed to fight later on in life.
These young boys had to enter this agoge. It was part of growing up in Sparta. They would also have to fight other boys about their age in fist of fist battles as Xeones and Alexandros have to do. The Spartan boys were expected to fight until they could not fight anymore. After these ring fights the boys would also often be whipped until their spines and muscles would show. The boys could tell them to stop, but this would show weakness, so they often would take the beatings until they passed out. This may have seemed harsh and often it was, but this training was what produced the strong military men that Sparta deeply depended on to keep its title as the military power house. Throughout the novel it shows Xeones struggle to be accepted as a Spartan man.
This was his dream his entire life, because as his friend Bruxieus stated, other cities produce monuments and poetry, Sparta produces men.Then men continued to serve in the military until they were thirty years old, when they were finally pardoned of their military duties. The elders in Sparta were upon the most honored citizens. Their age and wisdom were respected more than anyone else. In the novel Xeones honors Bruxieus as he should. Even though Bruxieus is only a slave, with many handicaps that hold him back, Xeones looks past all of this. He sees the knowledge and love that he offers to him and his cousin Diomache in their time of most need. Bruxieus guides and takes care of the children after their town is attacked and their parents and farms are destroyed. So when Bruxieus died Xeones kept his promise that he would go to Sparta and become a Spartan.
The women of Sparta were unlike any women from the surrounding areas. The women of Sparta were allowed to be educated, dress as they pleased, exercise and work out, and did many of the tasks that the men did. This exercised the Spartan belief that a man was only as strong as the women that he was born of. The women were not considered equal with the men though. There were many examples of this is Pressfields novel. One being the fact that when Diomache was raped by the military men they told her it was nothing personal, but not to come back because it would happen again. Also it is seen in the fact that women such as Arete though strong in her overall beliefs and her speech she was only this way in the seclusion of her own dwelling. She often would talk to Xeones about personal matters or questions and she would state her opinion, but again this was in the privacy of her own home.
Though women were restricted in their power as a gender, they were also greatly respected by the honorable men in their society. This was greatly explored when Dienekes was asking the question of what is the opposite of fear. Dienekes then states, Perhaps the god we seek is not a god at all, but a goddess. He goes on to state that women have more courage and less fear than the men themselves because of all they give to society, such as childbirth. They go on to later state that the opposite of fear is love, which the women show constantly.
III.Pressfields novel explores the everyday lives of the Spartan at the time of the battle of Thermopylae. The frame story is a perfect way to tell Xeones story. The first chapter explores Xeones waking up after the battle of Thermopylae and slowly realizing the situation that has occurred. The novel starts out tell the life story of Xeones and how he ended up in the predicament that he did. Pressfield does an amazing job telling the history of Sparta through a personal story. The themes of war, love, society, and spirituality were explored and related to the history aspect of the book.
When Xeones starts off his story as a child, the novel shows the harsh side of war. It is one thing for the soldiers themselves to be injured; it is another for a child to see his family and polis destroyed right before his own eyes. Xeones and Diomache then have to forage in the wilderness with Bruxieus, a slave of Xeones that also survived the attack on their polis.
The brutality of war and the life Xeones had to live is explored throughout the next few chapters of the novel. The harshest was the rape of Diomache and the internal battle Xeones faces with himself. After being caught stealing his hands are nailed to a board, and Xeones believes they are ruined forever. Eventually he returns to Diomache and Bruxieus, yet he runs off to let himself die because he believes he will never be a Spartan now with his disability. At this point in the novel the spirituality of the time is seen. Xeones sees Apollo the archer who guides him to his chosen career by the gods.
Love is seen throughout the entire novel as Xeones craves for his cousins love and acceptance. In the beginning she tells him that he would never be man enough for her to marry and that he is only a silly boy. Yet, throughout the book he seeks her and she could then see in the temple in Athens the real man that her cousin Xeones had become. He was a Spartan, and was a man. Though he loves Diomache and later it is seen she felt the same they both had children and a spouse that came first, before true love. Arete also speaks on the matter and difference of love and marriage to a Spartan when Xeones talks privately with her. She states that she always loved Dienekes even when she was married to Iatrokles his brother. Yet, the society deems arranged marriages more important than the love felt between two people.
The battle of Thermopylae was brutal, and heart wrenching. Though only explained through words in this book the blood spill was so life like. The men of Sparta spent days upon days fighting Xerxes men, trying to keep their polis free. The saddest part was the fact that they were fighting so hard, knowing the whole time that they were fighting to just eventually die. They knew they would never again see the site of Sparta or the faces of their children or wives ever again. Yet, that was what kept them going; the love for their country and families and the hope that it would remain free for them and the future generations. So though Thermopylae was a battle of warfare and fighting, it was also a story of the Spartans fighting for what they loved and what they respected.
So though the book as a whole focuses on the battle of Thermopylae, it also explores the Spartan society through the eyes of Xeones. He always loved the Spartans and their ways of life. The Spartans were war; it defined them and separated them as a polis. Xeones spent his entire life to become one of these elite men, and eventually through death did so. He died serving the polis that he wanted so bad to become a part of. Yet, through his death he did so. He served the polis and protected his people, and in the end Xeones dream came true, he was honored and named a true Spartan citizen.