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Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield

If there was any book that kept me awake thinking late at night long after I’d finished it, it was this book. Ask the people in my life that I was texting in all caps the minute I finished. It was that good. If you saw the movie 300 and wished there was a more accurate book that paid beautiful homage to the philosophies of brotherhood, bravery, and the warrior spirit, then this is the book for you. 

What’s the Book?

Gates of Fire is an in-depth look at not just the famed events of the Battle of Thermopylae, but the structure and philosophy of Spartan society as a whole. Told through the eyes of an outsider who idolizes and joins the Spartan way of life, Pressfield’s story takes a sweeping look at the world of the Spartan warrior and what it was that made these men and women so different from their Greek counterparts.

The book starts out with tremendous force, opening on our critically wounded survivor of the battle being taken to the Persian king to tell his story, and refuses to let up from there. No aspect of Spartan society is too small or insignificant for Pressfield to unpack. But rather than become bogged down in a dry lecture, Pressfield uses his main character’s status as an outsider to seamlessly introduce Spartan values and actions while never once losing the heart of his characters’ relationships with one another or the inescapable peril that waits in their future. Brotherhood, athleticism, and a lifetime of war. Spartan culture is unpacked in its entirety within the pages of Gates of Fire and will leave any reader enthralled. Just ask my roommate who had to deal with me yelling “I want to be from Sparta!” from across the room the day I finished the book.

Be warned, though. This book is not for the faint of heart. In film terms, this book is undoubtedly rated R for multiple reasons. The mature content doesn’t in any way take away from the quality of the book, but it is something to be aware of when starting this particular read.

Why It’s a Top Ten

If I were queen of the world, I would make this book required reading for anyone in any kind of leadership position, especially any kind of team sport coach or military leader. Just required reading across the board. 

We’ve learned to look to Sparta’s warfare as a go-to example for fearless and brutal heroism, but with Pressfield at the helm, Spartan culture is presented to a depth I’d yet experienced. With it, comes the ethos of a warrior and the loved ones who back their efforts. To delve into this topic, Pressfield centers his story on the thing that all warriors must learn to master: fear. The philosophy of fear becomes a staple of the narrative, creeping into every aspect of a Spartan society heading to its death at the Hot Gates. How does fear affect those we leave behind and what do they do to master it? 

The characters Pressfield introduces are wildly different from each other and yet each holds a firm place in their world, showcasing the many different kinds of warriors and leaders and their motivations. From Polynikes, the Spartan star athlete who’s the best at what he does and is dangerously aware of that fact, to Dienekes, the philosophical mentor more bent on the study of fear than administering it, no character is lost in Gates of Fire and all have a part to play in their glorious final battle.

What’s even more impressive is Pressfield’s ability to create a page-turning narrative out of such a well-known event. If you enjoy historical fiction it’s very likely you know the outcome of the Battle of Thermopylae and the fate of the characters we’re rooting for. And yet, Pressfield manages to create meaningful characters and relationships that keep you desperate to reach the end of the book to know what resolution they might have been afforded before the decisive end of the story. Their fates are as inevitable as the fear they’ve learned to master, and yet a reader can’t stop turning the pages on their quest to meet that fate. 

At one point in the story, Dienekes asks a young group of warriors: “What is the opposite of fear?” and the crux of the story is revealed. This isn’t simply a book about a famed battle and the blood lust of the warriors who fought it. That would be too simple. This is a story about fear and what it takes not only to face it but to lead others through theirs. That is the real battle and why Gates of Fire makes such a lasting impression. Apologies to the movie 300, but I’ll be sticking with this telling.

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