Gates of Fire Review


Journeyed there and back again
Few books have moved me to the extent that Gates of Fire did. It marvellously encapsulates the warrior ethos of the homoioi, the dauntless hoplite soldiers of the ancient Spartan poleis. It captivates with equally laconic prose, commensurate with the efficient discourse of the principle characters, revealing many profound and insightful reflections through brevity of warfare, duty, courage, martial valour, and the brotherhood unique to military fraternities the world over. Extraneous and verbose language isn't a deterrent, and yet the absence of it here does not mar but actually enhance this brilliant rendition of the defiant sacrifice of the Spartan Hippeis and their allies at Thermopylae against the monolithic Persian empire.

Cultural ephemera and errata concerning the Lakedaemonian constitution are attested at every turn, each breath punctuated with a crucial digression drawn from the established historical record. Indeed, there Spartan mirage delineated here dovetails succinctly with that discussed and dissected in academia by Ollier, Hodkinson, Cartledge, Kennel (and others), and we see the profound marvel of the agoge, the syssitia and phiditia, and the ways these institutions engender all of the classical manly virtues among their adherents.

Andreia and aristeia are on display in ample amounts, so too do we gain a sense of the 'atime' or shame culture so embodied by the Lakedaemonian culture and the ironic sentiment that Dienekes' mentions - “Fear conquers fear. This is how we Spartans do it, counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear: that of dishonour. Of exclusion from the pack.” To be stained and tainted as unworthy of one's comrades, to bring into disrepute one's erastes or mentor, are far more terrifying burdens to face than the wreckage of the flesh upon the field of battle in service to the state.

The austere dignity and humility of the Spartan women is covered, and there is an almost tender quality to several key scenes even amongst the warriors. The unconquerable bonds of camaraderie unique to the military fraternity are delineated with such care; the author himself a former marine, such experience shines through and provides a palpable, genuine quality to the characterisations that could just as easily have been passed off as interchangeable stoic warrior archetypes.

Pressfield's passionate and engaging rendition of Thermopylae is one that neither grandiloquence nor economy of language can accurately review; this is a thoughtful, insightful, and tragic tale of duty, valour, and sacrifice, and is made all the more powerful not only by the accuracy of its historic delineation, or the riveting action and stark realities of warfare it conjures, but for those small, fleeting moments between the characters seem truly alive, even as the last breath chases from the lungs of their war-ravaged bodies.

This is the cult of the warrior in peerless and vehement execution and exultation both, and it is completely engrossing and magnificent to revel in. One of the finest novels I have ever read, an utter delight, and one that will fire both imagination and introspection long after the last page is closed; well deserving of a 10/10 (the only book I've ever rated so highly aside from LOTR).

I'll end with a commensurately stirring quote - “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. That is why the true warrior cannot speak of battle save to his brothers who have been there with him. The truth is too holy, too sacred, for words."


Journeyed there and back again
I am 90pc in agreement with this review (and it reawakened my old sadness about not being able to join the military) *but* the absence of some of the Spartans' less pleasant traits jarred me quite significantly.


Journeyed there and back again
I agree, I read it some 12/15 years ago, thus my recollections are quite foggy, but definitely one of the best historical fiction book I've ever read. Bought it, I'll have to re-read it soon.