Thursday, August 26, 2010

[Novel Review] Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

A novel by Steven Pressfield

And, wow, what a great novel. I first heard the name Thermopylae back in my high school Military History class, but it's become quite popular in recent years with the 300 comic book, the derivative movie, and plenty of documentaries on the History Channel. And rightfully so - it's certainly one of the greatest heroic dramas in human history.

For those who aren't familiar with the Battle of Thermpylae, it's actually pretty straightforward. The time was 480 BC, which for reference is about fifty years before the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, and a hundred and fifty years before Alexander the Great conquered most of the (at that time) known world. It's ten years after the battle of Marathon (490 BC), in which the Persians were defeated in their first attempt to invade Greece. It's an era of city-states. It's the bronze age, when warfare is becoming a serious business and tactics are becoming increasingly refined. It's an era when Persia is the great Empire, ruling lands from India in the East to Asia Minor and even Libya in the West. By the time of this, the second Persian invasion, Emperor Xerxes has decided to conquer all of Europe, beginning with Greece and proceeding on to Italy, Gaul and all the way to the Atlantic. To bring this home to you, dear reader, consider that the defeat of the Persians at Marathon and Thermopylae directly contributed to the rise of Hellenic and Helenistic culture, the very foundation of Western Civilization from the roots of the Roman Republic all the way to the U.S. Constitution. Whoever you are, your life today was surely impacted by these events.

Anyway, Xerxes had assembled an absolutely enormous force to invade Europe. His army was said to have been a staggering two million strong (though modern historians suggest that 200,000 is more probable - still a mind-boggling force for the bronze age). They crossed the Hellespont from Asia Minor into Eastern Europe and marched through Macedon all but unopposed. Without challenge, they drove down through northern Greece, and right into the entrance to Hades. All right, well, it wasn't the entrance to Hades, but that was part of the myth surrounding the narrow area of rivers, high cliffs and and hot springs near the Gulf of Malia: Thermopylae, the Gates of Fire. There, they ran hard into a solid wall of bronze shields, cuirasses, and the blank-faced helms of the Greek forces, anchored by Lacedaemonian king Leonidas and his 300 Spartan homoioi.

Pressfield's novel spans a decade or more, telling the story of a youth whose Greek community is overrun by its neighbor, Argos, leaving him homeless and embittered. He travels to Sparta knowing that his foreign birth will leave him forever as an outsider. But he wants to join the ancient world's greatest military in whatever capacity they'll have him, so he enters Spartan servitude and trains with the other youths to become what essentially amounts to a squire. He's very good, and indeed rises to become the right-hand man for one of the Spartan officers. More, he is one of the auxilliaries who accompanies the 300 Spartans to Thermopylae, where he is the sole survivor of the pitched battle. The whole tale, in fact, is told by this obscure figure who's being interviewed and interrogated by the advisors of Persian emperor.

The novel is incredibly entertaining. Pressfield has an amazing knack for recreating the ancient world in such a way that you feel like you could walk outside your door and find yourself standing in a Spartan orchard or an Athenian courtyard. And, every bit as critical for a novel about one of the world's most significant, compelling battles, his combat narrative is masterful. You feel every swing, every strike, the beads of sweat and the spurts of blood as the largest military Europe had ever seen faced the world's most perfect warriors. It's not the stylized, cartoonish story of the comic/movie 300 - it's hard-as-nails reality. The Spartans are legendary, and Pressfield maintains that larger-than-life status while at the same time revealing the human hearts that beat beneath the Spartans' bronze breastplates.

The combination of an engaging backstory, personable characters, tense pace, and nail-biting action - despite the fact that everyone's know how the story ends for almost 2500 years - made Gates of Fire a real page-turner. I've read very little historical fiction, but if it's half as good as this novel, I'm sold. If you want to feel like you're holding the line in a Greek phalanx that's keeping the invading Persians from burning, pillaging and conquering your home, all without leaving your comfy chair, then pick up Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. I rated this novel an A.

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