Steven Pressfield: Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

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Steven Pressfield Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
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An epic heroic novel, set in Ancient Greece, and based on the true story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. This is the story of Xeones, the only survivor of 300 Spartan warriors ordered to delay for as long as possible the million-strong invading army of King Xerxes of Persia.

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Steven Pressfield

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae



Historical Note

In 480 B.C. the forces of the Persian Empire under King Xerxes, numbering according to Herodotus two million men, bridged the Hellespont and marched in their myriads to invade and enslave Greece.

In a desperate delaying action, a picked force of three hundred Spartans was dispatched to the pass of Thermopylae, where the confines between mountains and sea were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, it was hoped, an elite force willing to sacrifice their lives could keep back, at least for a few days, the invading millions.

Three hundred Spartans and their allies held off the invaders for seven days, until, their weapons smashed and broken from the slaughter, they fought with bare hands and teeth (as recorded by Herodotus) before being at last overwhelmed.

The Spartans and their Thespian allies died to the last man, but the standard of valor they set by their sacrifice inspired the Greeks to rally and, in that fall and spring, defeat the Persians at Salamis and Plataea and preserve the beginnings of Western democracy and freedom from perishing in the cradle.

Two memorials remain today at Thermopylae. Upon the modem one, called the Leonidas Monument in honor of the Spartan king who fell there, is engraved his response to Xerxes' demand that the Spartans lay down their arms. Leonidas' reply was two words, Molon labe.

Come and get them.

The second monument, the ancient one, is an unadorned stone engraved with the words of the poet Simonides. Its verses comprise perhaps the most famous of all warrior epitaphs:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.

Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. Dienekes, however, quite undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade. -



The fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog one good one,


Book One. Xerxes


BY ORDER OF HIS MAJESTY, Xerxes son of Darius, Great King of Persia and Media, King of Kings, King of the Lands; Master of Libya, Egypt, Arabia, Ethiopia, Babylonia, Chaldea, Phoenicia, Elam, Syria, Assyria and the nations of Palestine; Ruler of Ionia, Lydia, Phrygia, Armenia, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Thrace, Macedonia and the trans-Caucasus, Cyprus, Rhodes, Samos, Chios, Lesbos and the islands of the Aegean; Sovereign Lord of Parthia, Bactria, Caspia, Sousiana, Paphlagonia and India; Lord of all men from the rising to the setting sun, His Most Holy, Reverend and Exalted, Invincible, incorruptible, Blessed of God Ahura Mazda and Omnipotent among Mortals. Thus decreeth His Magnificence, as recorded by Gobartes the son of Artabazos, His historian;

That, following the glorious victory of His Majesty's forces over the arrayed Peloponnesian foe, Spartans and allies, at the pass of Thermopylae, having extinguished the enemy to the last man and erected trophies to this valorous conquest, yet was His Majesty in His God-inspired wisdom desirous of further intelligence, both of certain infantry tactics employed by the enemy which proved of some effect against His Majesty's troops, and of the type of foemen these were who, though unbound by liege law or servitude, facing insuperable odds and certain death, yet chose to remain at their stations, and perished therein to the final man.

His Majesty's regret having been expressed at the dearth of knowledge and insight upon these subjects, then did intercede God Ahura Mazda on His Majesty's behalf. A survivor of the Hellenes fas the Greeks call themselves) was discovered, grievously wounded and in a state of extremis, beneath the wheels of a battle waggon, being unseen theretofore due to the presence of numerous corpses of men, horses and beasts of transport being heaped upon the site. His Majesty's surgeons being summoned and charged under pain of death to spare no measure to preserve the captive's life, God yet granted His Majesty's desire. The Greek survived the night and the morning following. Within ten days the man had recovered speech and mental faculty and, though yet confined to a Utter and under direct care of the Royal Surgeon, was able not only at last to speak but to express his fervent desire to do so.

Several unorthodox aspects of the captive's armor and raiment were noted by the detaining officers. Beneath the man's battle helmet was found not the traditional felt cawl of the Spartan hop-lite, but the dogskin cap associated with the race of helots, the Lakedaemonian slave class, serfs of the land. In contrast inexplicable to His Majesty's officers, the prisoner's shield and armor were of the finest bronze, etched with rare Hibernian cobalt, while his helmet bore the transverse crest of a full Spartiate, an officer.

In preliminary interviews, the man's manner of speech proved to be a compound of the loftiest philosophical and literary language, indicative of a deep familiarity with the epics of the Hellenes, intermingled with the coarsest and most crude gutter argot, much of which was uninterpretable even to His Majesty's most knowledgeable translators. The Greek, however, willingly agreed to translate these himself, which he did, utilizing scraps of profane Aramaic and Persian which he claimed to have acquired during certain sea travels beyond Hellas. I, His Majesty's historian, seeking to preserve His Majesty's ears from the foul and often execrable language employed by the captive, sought to excise the offensive material before His Majesty was forced to endure hearing it. Vet did His Majesty in His God-inspired wisdom instruct His servant so to translate the man's speech as to render it in whatever tongue and idiom necessary to duplicate the precise effect in Greek. This have I attempted to do. I pray that His Majesty recall the charge He imparted and hold His servant blameless for those portions of the following transcription which will and must offend any civilised hearer.

Inscribed and submitted this sixteenth day of Ululu, Fifth Year of His Majesty's Accession.

Chapter One

Third day of Tashritu, Fifth Year of His Majesty's Accession, south of the Lokrian border, the Army of the Empire having continued its advance unopposed into central Greece, establishing an encampment opposite the eastern fall of Mount Parnassus, the sum of whose watercourses, as numerous others before upon the march from Asia, failed and was drunk dry by the troops and horses. The following initial interview took place in His Majesty's campaign tent, three hours after sunset, the evening meal having been concluded and ail court business transacted. Field marshals, advisors, household guards, the Magi and secretaries being present, the detaining officers were instructed to produce the Greek. The captive was brought in upon a litter, eyes cloth-bound so as to dissanction sight of His Majesty. The Magus performed the incantation and purification, permitting the man to speak within the hearing of His Majesty. The prisoner was instructed not to speak directly toward the Royal Presence but to address himself to the officers of the household guard, the Immortals, stationed upon His Majesty's left.

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