Battle of Thermopylae
"Answer this, Alexandros. When our countrymen triumph in battle, what is it that defeats the foe?”
The boy responded in the terse Spartan style, “Our steel and our skill.”
“These, yes,” Dienekes corrected him gently, “but something more. It is that.” His gesture led up the slope to the image of Phobos.
Their own fear defeats our enemies.
“Now answer. What is the source of fear?”
When Alexandros’ reply faltered, Dienekes reached with his hand and touched his own chest and shoulder.
“Fear arises from this: the flesh. This,” he declared, “is the factory of fear.”
The above dialogue from Steven Pressfield’s incomparable Gates of Fire (in addition to reminding me a bit of the famous “what is best in life?” exchange from Conan the Barbarian) is one of those grab-you-by the throat moments in which you realize that there existed such a thing as a warrior culture. The ancient city-state of Sparta offers prima facie evidence of such a society. Its entire purpose was to produce unstoppable, peerless, fearless fighting men. As a result the Spartans boasted the best warriors of their own, and perhaps any, age.
The Spartans’ legendary prowess was put to the ultimate test when a two-million man Persian army under King Xerxes poured into Greece in 480 BC to enslave the western world. The ensuing events are now the stuff of legend: 300 Spartans were dispatched to slow the advance of the Persian forces at the Hot Gates, a narrow strip of land between the cliffs and sea. All were killed, but the Persian army was delayed for seven crucial days, which bought the rest of Greece enough time to mobilize, unify, and ultimately defeat the Persians at Salamis and Plataea. The west was saved.
How did the Spartans hold out so long at Thermopylae and eventually beat the Persians? The answer lay in a combination of superb training and an unbeatable martial mindset. The armies of Xerxes sewed fear in their opponents with their overwhelming numbers. Their hordes of archers, for instance, were said to fire enough arrows to blot out the sun. But Xerxes did not understand the nature of the opponent he faced in the Spartans, who were not only exquisitely trained and skilled with shield, spear, and sword, but quite simply knew no fear in battle. Theirs was not the mindless, slavering fearlessness of a barbarian horde bolstered with liquid courage, but the unbreakable fearlessness of superbly disciplined soldiery. The fear of death was stamped from the Spartans during a pitiless 13-year period of training that turned boys into iron-hard warriors who regarded dying on the battlefield as a gift. I would have wet my pants and defecated if I had to stand in a shield wall and fight belly-to-belly with an opponent who wanted to kill me; the Spartans relished the opportunity.
Gates of Fire offers its reader battle without compromise. Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t in the Spartans’ vocabulary. That’s actually not fair: The Spartans mourned and honored their dead. After battles they wept and shook, or fell on their knees and thanked the Gods they survived. They were in the end only men, after all. But this never occurred during battles, which the Spartans conducted with ruthless efficiency and impeccable discipline. In the midst of the unspeakable carnage of the shield wall they entered into a displaced state of mind which allowed them to avoid a condition called katalepsis, or “possession, meaning that derangement of the senses that comes when terror or anger usurps dominion of the mind.” Gates of Fire introduces its readers to a host of these Spartan descriptors—Arosis (harrowing, or a hardening the will), Phobos (fear), Aphobia (fearlessness), Andreia (true courage). Pressfield also acquaints his readers with the Spartans’ fearsome eight-foot war spears and their most prized possession, 20-pound shields of bronze and wood that served as both protection and offense, a battering ram whose rim could crush an opponent’s skull.
Pressfield simply writes awe-inspiringly well about the Spartans’ training and discipline and how it manifests itself during battles. From an early skirmish against the Syrakusans:
Now from the Lakedaemonian ranks rose the paean, the hymn to Castor ascending from four thousand throats. On the climactic beat of the second stanza,
the spears of the first three ranks snapped from the vertical into the attack.
Words cannot convey the impact of awe and terror produced upon the foe, any foe, by this seemingly uncomplex maneuver, called in Lakedaemon “spiking it” or “palming the pine,” so simple to perform on the parade ground and so formidable under conditions of life and death. To behold it executed with such precision and fearlessness, no man surging forward out of control nor hanging back in dread, none edging right into the shadow of his rankmate’s shield, but all holding solid and unbreakable, tight as the scales on a serpent’s flank, the heart stopped in awe, the hair stood straight up upon the neck and shivers coursed powerfully the length of the spine.
This scene (and many others like it) are to me what make Gates of Fire such a great book. Yes, the battles are awesome and Thermopylae is enough to earn a place in my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles. But it’s the lead-up to the battle that’s the crowning achievement of the book.
Once the Battle of Thermopylae begins the action and the carnage are unrelenting. Thermopylae is like some great marathon without a finish line; the warriors fight on, day after day, beyond endurance, until they are ground down and destroyed. Each day the Spartans take the field thinned in number, horribly wounded, dog-tired, but committed to the purpose. They were going to die and they knew it. Their wives and children and peers expected no less and would not have accepted surrender or retreat.
The Spartans were not only better trained and more motivated but had topography on their side at Thermopylae. They built a wall of rough stone, the height of two men, from which they mounted their defense. The narrow defile of the Hot Gates allowed a maximum of 1,000 Persians to close with the defenders, of which there were 4,000 (the 300 were reinforced with other Greek soldiers). This created a pinch point of death, a meatgrinder into which the Persians marched. Xerxes’ watched over the battlefield from a throne perched on the cliffs; he expected his men to finish off the Greeks on the first morning and be treated to a warm noontime lunch.
The Persians, needless to say, didn’t know what was about to hit them. Their army was built for mobility and fighting on the open plains; they bore wicker shields, bows, javelins, and scimitars and were lightly armored. Fighting in close quarters against the Spartans and the massed heavy infantry of the Greeks resulted in their massacre. The Spartans’ phalanx hit the Persians like an armored rugby scrum and smashed and trampled them down, then speared them underfoot. They shoved them over cliffs en masse, tumbling them 200 feet to shatter on the rocks or drown in the churning sea below.
After the first day of fighting the Hot Gates looked like a scene out of hell. Writes Pressfield: “The ‘dance floor,’ now in full shadow, looked like a field ploughed by the oxen of hell. Not an inch remained unchurned and unriven. The rock-hard earth, sodden now with blood and piss and the unholy fluids which had spilled from the entrails of the slain and the butchered, lay churned in places to the depth of a man’s calf.”
On the sixth night the Spartans made one last desperate attempt to turn the tide, sending a handful of Peers on a forced march through the night to assassinate Xerxes in his tent. The attempt comes up just short. The next day most of the remaining Greek allies withdrew, leaving barely 100 of the original 300 Spartan Peers to guard their withdrawal. A few hundred Greeks remained behind as well. All die to the last man, save one, Xeones, who will go on to narrate the tale.
Before the final battle each of the leading Spartan Peers offers up some final words to their comrades in arms. Here’s a bit of King Leonidas’ speech, issued from this great king of 60 years, one tricep torn through in the fighting, shield lashed to his useless arm, recounting what men a hundred generations yet unborn will remember of this great last stand:
“They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetite for knowledge of the ancients. They will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What will they learn of us? Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks will prise forth no everlasting architecture or art. What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today.”
I wrote in a previous review that when you read Gates of Fire you feel as though you’re in the shieldwall, amid sweating, straining men awaiting the clash of spear and sword. I felt exhausted, terrified, and exhilarated while reading it. That’s the highest praise I can bestow on a battle-novel, of which, like the Spartans themselves, Pressfield's book is peerless.