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    GATES OF FIRE by Steven Pressfield

    Bantam Books, 1998

    In the aftermath of the battle of Thermopylae, Persian Emperor Xerxes's troops discover one survivor--a man dressed in the armor of the Spartan hoplites, but with helot undergarmets and accent. Xerxes demands an explanation of how a few hundred Greeks, led by the Spartans under Leonidas, were able to confound the vast army of Asia. Xeones, born free yet adopted as a servant by the Spartans, answers by telling his life story. GATES OF FIRE takes the form of Xeones' story, intermixed with occasional commentary by the Persian scholars who transcribe his dictation.

    Steven Pressfield has both humanized the battle of Thermopylae (where the Spartans held the Persian invaders for several years in an Alamo-like suicide stand) and provides a convincing look into the life, tactics, and organization of Sparta. Sparta, unique among Greek cities, maintained its conqueror/conquered distinctions. Its upper class lived and trained as professional soldiers giving them an advantage over the citizen/soldier of other Greek cities. Their heavy armor, shields, and spears created a heavy infantry second to none and against which light Persian troops, accustomed to battles of maneuver and distance, crashed and died.

    By describing Xeones' life, from his childhood and the destruction of his native city of Astakos by the Argives (Sparta's traditional enemy), through his survival as a youth without a city, to his training by the Spartans, both Xeone and those who play a key role in his life become fully articulated characters. The contrast between the comic-book heroism of Polynikes and the philosophical Dienekes enriches the traditional concept of the unfeeling Spartan. Dienekes becomes the central character of the novel with his description of man's battle against fear.

    GATES OF FIRE is a compelling and thoughtful look into a particularly important historical moment of time, and into the nature of man in battle. I highly recommend this novel.

    Four Stars

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