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Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae Paperback – Unabridged, September 27, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 1,296 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.

Thus reads an ancient stone at Thermopylae in northern Greece, the site of one of the world's greatest battles for freedom. Here, in 480 B.C., on a narrow mountain pass above the crystalline Aegean, 300 Spartan knights and their allies faced the massive forces of Xerxes, King of Persia. From the start, there was no question but that the Spartans would perish. In Gates of Fire, however, Steven Pressfield makes their courageous defense--and eventual extinction--unbearably suspenseful.

In the tradition of Mary Renault, this historical novel unfolds in flashback. Xeo, the sole Spartan survivor of Thermopylae, has been captured by the Persians, and Xerxes himself presses his young captive to reveal how his tiny cohort kept more than 100,000 Persians at bay for a week. Xeo, however, begins at the beginning, when his childhood home in northern Greece was overrun and he escaped to Sparta. There he is drafted into the elite Spartan guard and rigorously schooled in the art of war--an education brutal enough to destroy half the students, but (oddly enough) not without humor: "The more miserable the conditions, the more convulsing the jokes became, or at least that's how it seems," Xeo recalls. His companions in arms are Alexandros, a gentle boy who turns out to be the most courageous of all, and Rooster, an angry, half-Messenian youth.

Pressfield's descriptions of war are breathtaking in their immediacy. They are also meticulously assembled out of physical detail and crisp, uncluttered metaphor:

The forerank of the enemy collapsed immediately as the first shock hit it; the body-length shields seemed to implode rearward, their anchoring spikes rooted slinging from the earth like tent pins in a gale. The forerank archers were literally bowled off their feet, their wall-like shields caving in upon them like fortress redoubts under the assault of the ram.... The valor of the individual Medes was beyond question, but their light hacking blades were harmless as toys; against the massed wall of Spartan armor, they might as well have been defending themselves with reeds or fennel stalks.
Alas, even this human barrier was bound to collapse, as we knew all along it would. "War is work, not mystery," Xeo laments. But Pressfield's epic seems to make the opposite argument: courage on this scale is not merely inspiring but ultimately mysterious. --Marianne Painter --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Pressfield's first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was about golf, but here he puts aside his putter and picks up sword and shield as he cleverly and convincingly portrays the clash between Greek hoplites and Persian heavy infantry in the most heroic confrontation of the Hellenic Age: the battle of Thermopylae ("the Hot Gates") in 480 B.C. The terrifying spectacle of classical infantry battle becomes vividly clear in his epic treatment of the Greeks' magnificent last stand against the invading Persians. Driven to understand the courage and sacrifice of his Greek foes, the Persian king, Xerxes, compels Xeones, a captured Greek slave, to explain why the Greeks would give their lives to fight against overwhelming odds. Xeones' tale covers his years of training and adventure as the loyal and devoted servant of Dienekes, a noble Spartan soldier, and he describes the six-day ordeal during which a few hundred Greeks held off thousands of Persian spears and arrows, until a Greek traitor led the Persians to an alternate route. Rich with historical detail, hot action and crafty storytelling, Pressfield's riveting story reveals the social and political framework of Spartan life?ending with the hysteria and brutality of the spear-thrusting, shield-bashing clamor that defined a Spartan's relationship with his family, community, country and fellow warriors. Literary Guild and Military Book Club selections; film rights sold to Universal Studios for George Clooney and Robert Lawrence's Maysville Pictures; UK rights to Bantam, Spanish rights to Grijalbo Mondadori, Italian rights to Rizzoli.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (September 27, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 055338368X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553383683
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,296 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,981 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Last of the Amazons, Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign, Killing Rommel, The Profession, The Lion's Gate, The War of Art, Turning Pro, The Authentic Swing, Do the Work and The Warrior Ethos.

His debut novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was adapted for screen. A film of the same title was released in 2000, directed by Robert Redford and starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron.

His father was in the Navy, and he was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943. Since graduating from Duke University in 1965, he has been a U.S. Marine, an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital and screenwriter.

His struggles to earn a living as a writer (it took seventeen years to get the first paycheck) are detailed in The War of Art, Turning Pro and The Authentic Swing.

There's a recurring character in his books, named Telamon, a mercenary of ancient days. Telamon doesn't say much. He rarely gets hurt or wounded. And he never seems to age. His view of the profession of arms is a lot like Pressfield's conception of art and the artist:

"It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior's life."

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback
Pressfield manages to bring one of the most historic and pivotal battles of civilization to life through characters of his invention. The battle is Thermopylae where 7000 Greeks led by 300 Spartans held an enormous Persian army of 200,000 at bay for several days, an army that would have changed our civilization had the Greeks not died fighting it. Never before or since has such a badly outnumbered army fought so valiantly nor effectively.

This story is told through the eyes of a Spartan slave who comes to admire his Spartan masters' fraternity, loyalty, and pride they have for themselves, their laws, and their city. It begins after the battle where the slave is wounded, and through a Persian interpreter, recounts his odyssey to Sparta, and his life that led to the moment the battle is over.

Pressfield brings us several ironies in this tale based upon historical fact. The Spartans who ruled the Peloponnesus ruthlessly seem to be the least likely saviors of a civilization from which we draw our roots. The Spartans were the only city-state that could have rallied the other Greeks to fight. And King Leonidas was the only Spartan who thought the best way to preserve his city was to preserve everything Greek. He sacrificed his life and lives of his men to rally a disunited country to attack, and defeat a ruthless invader which they did within the year.

It is also ironic that the Spartans who owned and killed slaves on a regular basis, saved their countrymen from becoming slaves themselves, and in a time of absolute crisis provided the leadership they were so reluctant to give, that saved Greece in the end.

In King Leonidas, Pressfield describes a king who feels it his duty to serve his people rather than being served.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
The story of the Spartans' stand at Thermopylae is one of the great heroic legends of all time. How, then, does one tell a well known story with sufficient "freshness" to entice the modern reader? In Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield uses a very sensible approach.
1) He Introduces elements of Ancient Greek culture to give modern readers (many of whom were shorted on ancient history by the modern educational system) familiarity with the historical and cultural context of the novel.
2) He digs deeply into the psychology of creating a social bonding unique to competitive sports and military groups: small unit cohesion. This exposition is crucial when trying to paint a sympathetic picture of men striving to kill one another at arm's length. (Or at any distance, for that matter.)
3) He paints a vivid "spearman's-eye-view" of battle by sword, shield, and spear. The requirement for vivid imagery should not be taken lightly. Today's reader is brought up in a very visual environment, what with TV and the superb directing, cinematography, and special effects of Hollywood productions. Evoking bold images with the written word is often necessary to sustain the interest of the video generation (this includes far too many Baby Boomers, in which demographic, alas, this reviewer falls.)
4) He builds an emotional bridge between the characters and the reader. The difficulty in creating this bridge, between a modern reader and an authentic ancient person, is that the "modern" viewpoint is frequently overwritten onto the ancient character(s). Most of the non-historical characters in Gates of Fire are too modern for my taste, however the linkage works well enough for the story to retain coherence.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
I loved this book! Five Stars means a thought provoking and powerful reading experience. Gates of Fire is a wonderful story, vividly told and built on "page-turner" techniques as effective as any I've ever met. These warriors, women, mentors, kings, and children evoke love, fear, and honor from the very first paragraph.
The jacket blurbs say "epic," and here "epic" doesn't just mean "long and involved." This historical novel is so true to its times that Homer's blend of perspective and immediacy, Herotodus' human interest and recognition of irony, the power of the gods and of fate are recognizable as you read--as well as a touch of dialogue that is about to become Platonic. By the time the first epic simile appeared in a battle narrative, Pressfield's world and the warrior society and life he had animated stood so solidly behind it that it was as powerfully moving, at least for this reader, as those of the Iliad.
Also moving were the respect and richness with which this Greek world was imagined. The result is a historical novel whose life invades the present. "What is the opposite of fear? How do I live? What is worth dying for?" As a reader you do march out with the army. You find yourself on a battlefield, not in a table-of-contents from a history book.
I recommend this book without reserve to anyone interested in Greek civilization, army life, military history, a meditation on life and time and sacrifice, or simply a good novel. Many thanks to Mr. Pressfield.
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