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Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae Paperback – Unabridged, September 27, 2005
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"Gripping and swashbuckling...an exciting, romantic, star-crossed story."
--The New York Times
"An incredibly gripping, moving, and literate work of art. Rarely does an author manage to re-create a moment in history with such mastery, authority, and psychological insight."
"A novel that is intricate and arresting and, once begun, almost impossible to put down."
"A timeless epic of man and war...Pressfield has created a new classic deserving of a place beside the very best of the old."
From the Inside Flap
At Thermopylae, a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece, the feared and admired Spartan soldiers stood three hundred strong. Theirs was a suicide mission, to hold the pass against the invading millions of the mighty Persian army.
Day after bloody day they withstood the terrible onslaught, buying time for the Greeks to rally their forces. Born into a cult of spiritual courage, physical endurance, and unmatched battle skill, the Spartans would be remembered for the greatest military stand in history--one that would not end until the rocks were awash with blood, leaving only one gravely injured Spartan squire to tell the tale....
"From the Paperback edition.
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Paperback : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 055338368X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0553383683
- Product Dimensions : 5.16 x 0.88 x 8.23 inches
- Publisher : Bantam; Reprint Edition (September 27, 2005)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #19,379 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Other's may disagree, but if you're a fan of military history or fiction, or even if you're just interested in Classical Western History, you will love this book.
We related to the attitudes of the Lacedomonians, their moral lessons, their frequent debates on relevant themes important to their lives. The author's depictions of phalanx warfare raised my heart rate and felt so visceral as I sat in the dust and sun of the afghan mornings. We related to this story in a way i've never related to a story before. The sand, sweat, blood, feelings of combat, thoughts of mortality and deep discussions that men at war share are timeless.
On returning to Canada I bought 6 copies of this book and gave them to several men who i thought might appreciate such a powerful re-imagining of this famous historic event. Gates of fire now stands tall on my list of the greatest stories i've ever read and will re-read again.
An awful waste.
These are the two thoughts I am left with after reading this book. This book would just be an amazingly entertaining read except for the fact it is based in truth.
This awful, horrible butchery actually happened.
Men actually lived like this - and do live like this. In a culture of war and bloodshed and honor.
At the same time I stand in near-silent awe and gratitude for the example their lives give, I also shudder at the waste of it.
More than any other "war" book I have read, this book contrasts those two sides of war. The glorious honor that reflects the best of humankind, and the tragedy of a wasted life that could have offered so much more life if it had been left to ripen.
One very interesting thing about this book is it discussed the psychology of the soldier in a way I (who have never been a soldier) never considered before. It is interesting, but theoretical to me. I pray it never becomes real. And I have both envy and pity in my heart for those to whom it is not theory.
This book more than any other book, by far is the best read in a historical novel I have ever read. It is gripping, I could not put it down, and when I did due too work etc...I could not wait to continue, so real and encompassing is the story. It draws you in.
I am combat veteran myself. This author capures completely the spirit of those of us who believe with all our hearts that Freedom is not free, and that the best soldiers, Marines, sailors, warriors fight not because of what is in front of them, but because of what they left behind and are protecting.
Top reviews from other countries
I was expecting a war story with a focus on the mentality of the Spartan warriors, and this was indeed a significant part of the book, but it was ultimately more than that.
Written in an erudite and majestic style the novel tracks the life of one fighter digging deeply into his inner conflicts, his relationships, and his desire to prove himself worthy of marching with the Spartans. The atention to detail is commendale, whether it be in terms of the organisation of the army, the provisions taken onthe march or the tactics employed on the battlefield.
Above all this is a book for an intelligent reader who already knows soemthing about the 300 Spartans and is looking for something informative and convincing as well as entertaining. It was certainly a welcome break from some of the nonsense pedalled in Hollywood movies.
As a professional historian specialising in military topics I was fully entrtained and in no way disappointed by this book.
Following a more historical account of the first Spartan reposte to the Persian invaders than the graphic novel or movie, Pressfield still keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even though you know what is going to happen!
I could not put this book down, the human element between the Spartans is explained in detail. Their sense of honour and duty is explored to great effect, which is very compelling and helps to make the reader understand their motivations for walking into certain death.
Writing this review has reminded me to read this again... for the 6th time!!!
The tale is crafted in a classical style and Pressfield's historical knowledge is impressive; the battle tactics employed, geographical locations, Spartan culture etc. This combination of classical writing and historical accuracy lures the reader into believing he has discovered the actual events that took place before and after the great battle. Although the focus of the story is of the battle at the hot gates we are taken on a journey by the narrator Xeones a captured Greek soldier (gravely wounded) who is beckoned by Xerxes to reveal something of the Spartan warriors who fought so valiantly. Thus begins the epic adventure.
So what is the point of adding just another Five Star Review to the heap of existing ones? Well, this book is "simply" the "Rolls Royce" of historical novels, meaning the Best. I read it over ten years ago. Re-read it twice over the next 7-8 years, then lost my copy and bought another one some 3-4 years ago and have re-read it again and again, finishin it for the last time on New Year's Day, when I decided that I had to write a review on it. Every time I read it, I discovered something new, or something that I hadn't paid attention to previously so that, in reality, there is nothing "simple" about this book. It is a fantastic book on several levels.
First of all, there is MUCH, much more to it than just being a first-class, excellently written, exciting historical novel with superbly described battle scenes and what can only be described as a gripping and heroïc story line: the ultra-famous Battle of Thermopylai (or Thermopylae, if you prefer the Latin to the Greek spelling, as most people do) where a handful of Greek warriors fought to the last against overwhelming odds. The way the story is old sounds and fell so real to you can (almost) get to believe that this MUST be the truth and this is what actually happened. In itself, just this would be worth five stars for most of us (me included), and I could just stop the review here. However, as often with Steven Pressfield, there is MUCH more than that in the book.
Second is the heroïc, honor and duty and death and glory bit, with a very high level of emotional content. This is what some could - rather cynically perhaps - view as the portray of the Ideal Spartan. Regardless of whether this depiction bears any ressemblance to the truth, it is an extremely powerful one and this is perhaps where Pressfield's talent is at its maximum. There is little doubt that the Spartans in this book are shown as they would have wanted to be seen: ready to do what they did best, that is fight to the death to comply with their moral Code, all in an utterly unassuming way, as if it was the most natural and the simplest thing to do. It is this Code that is epitomized in all of the laconic quotations mentioned throughout the book. The most famous are Leonidas' supposed "Molon Labe" (come and get them, when asked by the emissaries of the Persians to surrender his arms), Dienekes' answer when told that Persian arrows were so numerous that they blocked out the sun, according to Herodotos ("Good. Then we will have our battle in the shade.") and the epitaph engraved on the ancient unadorned and unassuming stone at the Gates of Fire that all Greek school children (and many others as well) know by heart, the "Go tell the Spartans, stanger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie." (it's even more moving in Ancient Greek). It is this mindset and behavior that Pressfield has captured and shown so brillantly across the book, starting by the way the story is told by the dying and unassuming Helot of Dienekes. Whatever your personal views, this cannot and will not leave the reader indifferent.
The last point I would want to discuss here is about the historical accuracy of this book, and as to whether this is the TRUE story (as opposed to a legend which has been embellished over time) and whether it even made any sense and any difference for the Spartan Battle King and his band of warriors to stand and fight it out.
To start with the last point, it DID make a difference and the sacrifice was not at all in vain¨, but the difference that it made was on the Greeks moral rather than on the strategic level. By the early morning of the third day, when Leonidas and his surviving Spartans (less than 300 by that time), the 700 Thespians and the 400 exiled Thebans made their last stand, the allied Greek fleet had already pulled back from Artemission (the cap at the north of Eubea) and the King new that his position holding the Gates was also compromized by the Persians who were bypassing him and would surround them by noon. By standing rather than retreating, he did buy time for the rest of his forces to pull back. However, even that was not the essential part nor the main purpose of the sacrifice. Indeed, another general might have tried, and possibly managed, to pull back the whole force under cover of the night, including the Spartans.
The main purpose of the Last Stand, however, was a moral one. Up to Thermopylai, the Greeks were terrified of the Persians (and they had every reason to be). They were also divided and wavering, with many tempted to surrender and submit, as the Beotians (including Thebes, but with the exception of little Thespiae, who paid the price for it), and, before them, the Thessalians did. Even within Sparta (as within Athens) there was wavering and doubts as to whether it "made sense" to fight the Persian Great King
However, after standing to the last, and as Pressfield puts it so aptly, "the standard of valor that they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally". This is a superbly "laconic" understatement meaning that
a) after this sacrifice, there was NO going back, no surrendering to the Great King, and, in particular, there was no going back for Sparta - it was victory or death, so there could be no more prevarications and no hesitations in the Greek camp. We should also remember that the Ancient Greeks, especially at that time in the early 5th century, were very religious and the Spartans, on average, often more than the others. So the sacrifice of a few hundred for the freedom of the many also had sacred implications and a religious resonance to an extent that we might have trouble understanding nowadays.
b) among the Greek coalition's warriors, the hoplites but perhaps also the crews at Salamine, the impact on morale could very well have been HUGE. At a time where laying down your life for your city was what you were expected to do, the Spartans and their Kings laying down theirs for the common good of all could only inspire everyone else. Given the reputation of excellence that Sparta and its warriors had already acquired at the time, Leonidas and his Spartans DID indeed set the standard for valour at the time (and for the next 25 centuries, something that of course they didn't know) and they DID lead by example when laying down their lives although they certainly could have done otherwise. I strongly suspect that Leonidas was perfectly aware of this, that he took the decision to stand and die quite deliberatly because he knew (or at least hoped) that their death would be the seed of the future victory, and that all of his Spartiates knew it and agreed with his choice. Anyway, my last point here may even be somewhat irrelevant. The 300 were in fact acting as the King's guards, meaning that they went where he went, and they would share his fate just because this was what they had to do. Anything else was unconceivable from a Spartan point of you.
My final point, although perhaps the most difficult one to make, relates to the historical accuracy of this novel and, again, to the sheer power of setting the example.
First, where the Elite Spartans some kind of bloodthirsty warriors who relished killing and went "berserk" in battle? Here the answer seems - to me at least - to be an unqualified NO. In practice, Spartans despised "berserk-style" behaviors and battle lust. This was because they would see the warrior as going crazy and losing all self-control, all self-discipline and becoming little more than an enraged animal. Moreover, Spartans were, of course, humans, and did not particularly want to die. They chose to do so, because this was part of their military call and they were expected by their city to set the highest example for all (this is one of the meanings of "obedient to their laws"). This was one of the objectives of their gruelling military training in the Agoge and this was what they were born and bred for. This was a matter of fact. This was "the Spartan Way".
Second, were the Spartans "playing the noble warrior act" and cynically building their reputation as the "super-warriors" of the Age? Where they showing off? Was this a display? Where they vainglorious? It seems not and the chances are that they really believed in their warrior ethos and tried their very (and considerable) best to live up to their Moral Code. They did not always succeed, but they tried and they certainly were successfull at the Gates of Fire. At least at that time, the Spartans, although certainly aware of their valour, did not show it off. Shelfish behaviours where the heroes would go and sulk in their tents because they hadn't got their way (Achilles or Alexander the Great style) were simply NOT the "Spartan Way" and would be despised by them. Moreover, they had no need to show off because they had nothing to prove to anyone, and certainly not to any of the other Greeks: everyone (even the Persians) knew that they were "simply the Best" fighting men that Greece had at the time.
Are there any historical elements that could back up such a view about the "Spartan Way"? Oddly enough, there are some. Some even relate to the Helots and Shield bearers of the Spartans which were used by their lords as sparring partners, as the very beginning of Pressfield's book shows so well. The shield bearers and body slaves knew how to fight and fought almost as well as their lords. Later on, during the Long War against Athens, battalions of Helots would be raised, trained and would fight (very well) for Sparta. We also know that, at Thermopylae, they did not survive their warrior lords but died with them. None of them has ever been mentioned in any of the sources as deliberatly deserting. Even a sceptical mind cannot do otherwise than agree that while many (or most, or all?) Helots hated their condition as slaves and may also have hated their masters, they nevertheless fought and died with them, rather than running away or betraying them to the Persians.
Third and last, has Pressfield painted a somewhat "rosy and glorious" picture of the Spartans, as another reviewer suggested? The book does, at times, feel a bit like that, until you come across one of these frightful scenes where Polynikes gets ready to slaughter a few Helots, to make a point and set the example, but this time a rather grisly and unsavory one. This was also Sparta, and it is also shown in the book.
To conclude, and to cut a (very, very) long story short, this (the book, the story it tells and the Spartans that are at the heart of it) is "simply the Best" of breed, what the Ancient Greeks might have called Aristoi (and from where we have derived our aristocrat).