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Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Review by Arakasi

A friend recommended this to me a while back so I finally got around to reading it. This is an excellent book and falls in the genre of historical fiction, leaning more towards the historical side than the fictitious. In 480 B.C. the forces of the Persian Empire under King Xerxes, numbering according to Herodotus two million men, bridged the Hellespont and marched in their myriads to invade and enslave Greece. In a desperate delaying action, a picked force of three hundred Spartans was dispatched to the pass of Thermopylae, where the confines between mountains and sea were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, it was hoped, an elite force willing to sacrifice their lives could keep back, at least for a few days, the invading millions.

Three hundred Spartans and their allies held off the invaders for seven days, until, their weapons smashed and broken from the slaughter, they fought with bare hands and teeth before at last being overwhelmed. The Spartans and their allies died to the last man, but the standard of valor they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally and, in that fall and spring, defeat the Persians at Salamis and Plateaa, thus preserving the beginning of Western democracy.

For a 400 page book Pressfield manages to show a lot of depth to the story, describing the battle in excellent fashion as well as delving into the deeper aspects of war, such as the nature of fear and the brotherhood that men in war form. Women as well are shown by their strength in how they deal with their loved ones dying in battle, but still continuing on to be pillars of their society, thus preserving the society through their strength, despite the loss of the flower of Sparta's men in battle. There are some very well drawn characters, including those of Leonidas the Spartan king, and Polynikes the champion of the Spartans. If there is any main character to the novel as such it would be Dienekes, a Spartan captain and the moral leader of the forces there. The story is told through the eyes of Xeones, the one fictitious character in the novel. He tells the story to Xerxes' scribes on his deathbed, telling the story of his life leading up to Thermopylae and then of the battle itself.

Overall I was very impressed by the book. It is a standalone and fairly narrow in scope, but it feels epic because of the nature of the writing and of the events that took place. It is tragic in that you know from the very beginning that everyone will die, but that as we say is history. Here it is the telling of the history that makes it such an outstanding book. It really hit me emotionally which is rare for a book and it is just a very tight, well written, and well researched book. I give it 4.5 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone interesting in ancient Hellenic history.


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