Gates of Fire

I bought “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield from the library for $1, and finished reading it on Monday.  The text focused on the Battle at Thermopylae, but also included a lot of context about the Greek city-states, Spartan training, and preparations for the Persian invasion.  I knew something about the battle from watching 300, (as we know, Hollywood movies are flawlessly accurate) but the book taught me so much more.

Two concepts stuck out to me, things that set the Spartan military apart from the others in the alliance against King Xerxes.  The first, is the soldier’s commitment.  Spartan men were raised to be soldiers, that was it, there were laws in place to keep them from pursuing any other vocation.  The boys started training at a very young age, their term of service lasted from age 20 to age 60.  They would drill day and night for their entire lives to become the most effective fighting force.  Because that was all they did, the Spartans were known and feared throughout the Aegean.

The other thing I noticed was that they fought as a cohesive unit.  A small group of Spartans, who spent their entire lives training, was a force to be reckoned with.  While the soldiers were individually impressive, their strength was in the group.  They fought in close quarters and their discipline was unmatched.  Each man’s shield was there to protect his brother on the left, their line was a solid wall.  “Gates of Fire” claimed that if a Spartan lost his helmet or breastplate in battle or in practice, that wasn’t such a big deal, because he was just putting himself at greater risk.  However, if he misplaced his shield, the consequences were severe.  Because the shield is there to protect the man on his left, he’s putting that soldier, and the line itself in greater danger.  For this, he could be removed from the army and lose his Spartan citizenship.

The book was fantastic.  Very well written, extensively researched, and compelling.  I don’t read many war books, but that battle was an exception because of the ludicrous odds: 4,000 against 2,000,000.  I would highly recommend it.

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Gates of Fire