Gates of Fire
Gates of Fire is more popular now than when it was first published because of the movie 300 which is based on the same historical event, the Battle of Thermopylae. As both novel and film demonstrated, it is a battle that took place from 480 to 479 BC between a small army of Spartans versus millions of invading Persians. Gates of Fire is a historical fiction novel published in 1998 and written by Steven Pressfield. Xeones, a free citizen of Sparta and who fought with the Spartans, survives the battle and tells the story. The novel captures the reality of Spartan training and fighting in a battle as well as the meaning of honor for Spartans in order to depict the horrors of war within the context of true victory.
Gates of Fire illustrates the journey towards becoming a true-blooded Spartan soldier. The education of a soldier starts at the age of 7 years old. Children are taken from their mothers in order to cut the emotional bonds between them and to ensure that they will be dedicated to only one goal- to fight for their country. On the one hand, the training is inhumane because families are ripped apart and not every child survives its harsh conditions. On the other hand, in principle, the practice makes sense because the children will learn to live for only one purpose- to know how to survive and to be strong not only in body but most especially in mind. In their training, they are honed to solve problems in the battlefield and determine strategies if they are going to be leaders. They cannot achieve these feats by their teenager years if their training is only a year or so and if their determination is weak due to insufficient physical and mental hardships. A long and arduous training from childhood provides enough time for them to be exposed to different kinds of externalities that will pressure them beyond ordinary circumstances.
Xeones shows, not the power struggles between rulers, but the realities of soldiers themselves in an actual battle and how they persevere. As someone who is in the battle itself, Xeones provides rich descriptions of what happens to soldiers who are actually there fighting the war when weeks and more have passed and many have died. First, death alone is painful and many soldiers do not just die instantly but slowly. If their inner organs are pierced, it may take hours or days of pain before dying. Likewise, if they can still fight, they do so. Second, death surrounds them. The dead are people close to them for they are their brothers with whom they have survived trainings with. One can only imagine the stench of rotting flesh and getting used to it without being emotionally drained. Still, no one among the Spartans fled because of the carnage and they fought until the very last breath. Soldiers who fight in wars suffer in unimaginable ways not just physically but also mentally.
Honor is critical to the Spartan way of life and it is gained in the battlefield. For them, honor is achieved through dying in the battlefield. Spartans are not afraid of fighting and dying but in failing to do what they can for their people. They are strong in spirit as they live to die so others may live. While there is brutality in such a mindset, I cannot help but admire their dignity as soldiers and citizens. They are fighting for what they consider as the most important thing in this world, a life of freedom, and that is what kept them fighting as long as they can.
Death ends human lives but not their history as long as someone survives to tell it and record it. Gates of Fire attests that the fire is not in the boundary that the Persians cross. The fire is in the belly of every Spartan, that indefatigable will to fight for their families and country. Hundreds of Spartans died in the Battle of Thermopylae but their deaths are something we remember for their ultimate sacrifice and love for their people.