Unlike so many other novels that I just happened to stumble upon, this one was mentioned in a documentary called Restrepo. The documentary is about the Afghanistan War and in particular a forward operating base that was notorious for being attacked. The documentary was named for a platoon medic who was killed before filming started name PFC Juan Sebastián Restrepo. I don’t mean to get off topic but if you have any interest in the war you need to watch this documentary. During the documentary a commander of one of the platoons said that anytime he is assigned a new soldier he makes them read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. Because I liked the documentary I really got to thinking about this book what why a modern military leader would have his troops read it? Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to check it out.
Pressfield was born in Trinidad to a military family. He later graduated from Duke University and joined the Marine Corps. After his service he struggle to hold down a “normal” job and began writing, struggling to make it as an author he was homeless and lived in his car. His two most famous novels are The Legend of Bagger Vance (which was also made into a movie) and Gates of Fire. He has also worked on writing scripts for movies and television shows. After reading a little about the author I was very surprised to learn of his struggles to make it as a writer. It is always interesting to read the rags to riches stories such as J.K. Rowling, who struggled very much so as a divorced mother before hitting it big with the Harry Potter Series. Both of these writers are a great inspiration to so many people.
The story is a retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans along with around 3,000 Greek soldiers stood against the tyrant Xerxes and his invading army of more than one million Persian soldiers. The story has been retold numerous times in different mediums and is quite famous. One of the most famous is the graphic novel by Frank Miller called 300, there was also a movie with the same name that I am sure most of you have seen.
This story starts out with Xeones who has been wounded in battle is captured by the Persian army. Xerxes orders his surgeon to save his life and his squires are to write down everything he tells them. Xeones tells his story which mostly is about Spartan life and their society. He goes into great detail about their training and how they were chosen to fight at the battle of Thermopylae. Most of his recounting is about Leonidas (who is the King of Sparta), Polynikes, (who is one of the most beautiful and athletic Spartans) and Dienekes (who by all account and historical sources was the bravest of the 300 Spartans.) I say that because if you have seen the movie 300 there is a line in the move where someone says. “The Persian army is a million strong, their arrows will blot out the sun.” (see the quote below from Herotodus.)To which Dienekes responded, “Good, then we will have our battle in the shade.” The cool thing about this is that that was actually said by one of the Spartans, some say it was Leonidas while another accounts says it was Dienekes who uttered the famous words. Most of the characters in the story are actual people, however Polynikes was not a real person as far as I can tell. Regardless he is an interesting character and gives the reader insight into the Spartan culture.
I loved this book and it is one of my favorites. The coolest thing about it is that is perfectly blends fiction and historical events to create a really awesome story. The other thing, and probably the most important, is what the Spartans have to say about war, especially Leonidas. I wont ruin it if you want to read it but the Spartan King gives some really awesome speeches about how he chose the 300 warriors, no they were not the bravest, but they all had to have sired a son. The real reason is great and tells you what kind of a person Leonidas and King he is in the story.
Another interesting point is how confused the Persians are with the Olympics and many Greek customs. They find it so bizarre that the strongest and fastest men compete for a wreath of olive leaves, not gold or women. This is the main point of the story and one of the reasons the Persians were defeated. The Spartans and the Greeks were fighting for honor and freedom not for an emperor. In one of Leonidas’ speeches (I think it was he who talks about this, but I cannot remember for sure) he talks about the Greek Phalanx and why it is so successful. The King talks about how each soldier is trained to protect the man next to him, not worrying about his own wellbeing, because the man next to him will protect him and so on. Basically every man protects one another, which leads me to my next point.
At the beginning of this review I mentioned that I first heard about this book on a documentary about the war in Afghanistan. A platoon leader made everyone in his group read the book and that is why. He wanted to get the point across about protecting one another, and not worrying about yourself. In fact I did a little research and this book is taught at West Point and many other US military schools for that reason. That is pretty cool!
If you cannot tell by now I loved this book. My only negative is that it is very wordy and a little lengthy. Pressfield uses as many words as he can to get his point across, but in the end it is a beautifully written book. Just be ready for a longer than normal read. The characters in the story are awesome and give insight to a culture and a time that is long gone, yet many of their beliefs and ideals are still relevant in our society over 2,000 years later. Not only are the characters great they are real, they actually existed, fought, bled, and died protecting their country. To this day a monument stands at Thermopylae to honor their brave sacrifice. It is not every day that 2,000 years later people still know your name and what you did and in the case of Diekenes what you said. I highly recommend this book it is a great read and beautifully written. You will not be disappointed.