Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire is a retelling of Thermopylae, as told from the point of view of a surviving soldier of the battle.

Pressfield is going for a gritty, realistic view of the battle, but unfortunately he doesn’t hit it, tripped up by numerous historical inaccuracies. For example, Pressfield has the Spartans wearing armor, but as we all know from the excellent documentary 300, the only armor the Spartans needed was their rippling abs. Similarly, Pressfield’s view of phalanx combat is one of tight-pressed formation where battles are matters of grinding force, and morale and discipline are keys to victory — whereas from 300, we know that most of the time Spartans were doing awesome spinning slashing moves and jumping on top of people with spears ‘n’ shit.

Most troubling, though, is Pressfield’s view of the Spartan (and, more broadly, Greek) character. He portrays Sparta as a place with its own, distinctly Spartan, culture that is not the same as modern American culture. This seems plausible — I mean, they lived thousands of years ago when basically everything was different — but again, we know from 300 that they were essentially just bare-chested Americans, who love their FREEEEEEEEDOM!!!!!! more than anything else. (This is also true of medieval Scottish people, as we know from Braveheart.)

Putting its many historical inaccuracies aside, though, you can find a lot to like in this book, which does evoke a real sense of what it must have been like to be a soldier and a Greek in some alternate world where 300 isn’t true.


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