While searching for Greece books to read (or rather sifting through them because there are so many), I came across Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, a creative nonfiction about the famous Battle of Thermopylae where the 300 Spartans stood, and fell, in order to give their country a chance to hold back the Persian invasion. It was amazing.
A Note on History:
The Battle of Thermopylae was part of the bigger Greco-Persian Wars that began in 499 B.C. Basically the ancient Greek city-states always fought amongst themselves. Sometimes they allied with Persia to get what they wanted and sometimes they allied against it. During one of these tiffs, the city-state of Miletus allied with Persia to conquer another city-state, so that city-state (Naxos) allied with Athens and some other city-states, and they not only withstood the Persian and Miletus armies, but they also captured and razed the Persian city of Sardis. The Persian king was mad and thus began the Greco-Persian Wars.
First Persian War
The first Persian War began in 499 B.C. as a reaction to the burning of Sardis and ended in 490 B.C. when the Greeks kicked Persia butt at the Battle of Marathon (basically. There’s a lot more involved).
Second Persian War
Between the first and second Persian wars, Darius, the King of Persia died and his son, Xerxes, ascended to the throne. He continued his father’s military goals by sending armies up through Thermopylae—a pass through the mountains that was also known as the Hot Gates for its natural hot springs—in 480 B.C., beginning the Second Persian War.
It was here that King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 Spartan warriors along with allied Greek troops held back the numerous Persian hosts for three days. When a traitor showed King Xerxes’ 10,000 Immortals (his personal bodyguard) a route through the mountains circumventing the pass to surround the Greeks, Leonidas sent the allied Greeks away and held off the Persians with his 300 Spartans (and 700 Thespians). The Spartans gave their lives heroically in order to protect Greece and inspire them to arms. Considered the best warriors in Greece—possibly the world—the Spartans did a ton of damage to the Persian forces. Although Persia technically won the battle, 20,000 of their men died. Sparta won that battle in spirit.
The story of the Battle of Thermopylae is told by the fictional character Xeones, the only Greek survivor (in reality, there were no survivors). He was a hoplite and squire of a full Spartan warrior, so he wasn’t considered one of the 300. Actually, he should have died, but Apollo kept him alive in order to tell the story of the Spartans.
He threads his own personal tale—one of an orphan boy and his cousin surviving in the wild after their city-state was ravaged by the Argos (another city-state)—with that of Sparta and the way the Spartans were brutally trained in battle from the age of seven to create the greatest fighting force in the world, one that held back the Persian army and slaughtered thousands of its soldiers before succumbing to overwhelming numbers.
To make this a creative non-fiction book, it has to largely be real. So although Gates of Fire is a close history of the Battle of Thermopylae, it has some fictional characters and creative dialogue that makes it read like an adventure instead of a dry history. The result is magic.
Xeones, the main character through whose lips we hear the first-hand account of the Battle of Thermopylae, is fictional. No Greek survived that battle, so a fictional character had to be created for the Greek perspective. What’s fascinating about Xeones is that he intermingles his own story with that of the Spartans. He’s very well-rounded. Very real.
Dienekes also plays a huge part in the book. Unlike Xeones, though, he’s real and was a major leader in the Spartan army. In this book, he was Xeones’ master and Alexandros’ mentor. His wisdom and courage was the fulcrum upon which the bravery of both Xeones and Alexandros was built. His lessons turned them into warriors that faced Persia in the end. He was my favorite character. I was a little in love with him by the end.
Alexandros was also fictional. Because Xeones wasn’t a citizen (aka freeman and noble) of Sparta, he could never be a full Spartan warrior. He was a helot, a serf trained with the Spartans. Alexandros, on the other hand, was a full Spartan, so we get a fuller idea of Spartan life from him than from Xeones (who is not only a helot, but a foreigner as well).
Other important characters appear like Leonidas, a real person and one of the two kings of Sparta, and Polynikes, a fictional warrior. There’s Rooster, the Spartan bastard that’s torn between being a helot and a noble. Then there’s the Persian historian that writes down Xeones story for the future.
The story starts with Xeones, barely alive, being taken from the fallen Greeks after the Battle of Thermopylae. Xerxes instructs him to tell his story and he does. He starts with the ravaging of his city-state by Argos and jumps to the future with his time training as a squire beside young Spartans, then jumps back to surviving in the wild and forward to the brutal (yet efficient) Spartan training methods of their boys. Xeones goes back and forth, moving forward in time until he reaches the critical battle. It’s an excellent way of telling a story—telling two stories, really—and holding the reader’s attention.
The writing was as austere and beautiful as the Spartans themselves:
“A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them…A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.”
“You have never tasted freedom, friend,” Dienekes spoke, “or you would know it is purchased not with gold, but steel.”
“Sweetest of all is liberty. This we have chosen and this we pay for.”
But perhaps this is my favorite:
“The opposite of fear,” Dienekes said, “is love.”
In case you’re curious, the sacrifice of the 300 was worth it. In 479 B.C., the entire Spartan army and all their Greek allies descended on the Persians, who had invaded Athens by that time, and routed them completely. Persia never again regained its magnificence and the Spartan warriors were revered. There’s something beautiful in the self-sacrifice of those Spartans laboring at the Hot Gates, knowing that they would die in the blood and horror of war. Doing it anyway for their families and their freedom.