Gates of Fire

Richard Lee

Richard Lee’s Spring 2000 interview with STEVEN PRESSFIELD.

Gates of Fire first came to my attention when it knocked Stephen King’s The Green Mile from the top of the Guardian UK bestsellers list in February last year. An unknown author, writing historical fiction, going straight in at the number one slot? It had to be good.

Gates of Fire tells the story of Thermopylae, one of the most famous of ancient battles. Notoriously, 300 Spartans along with no more than 7,000 allied Greeks, held off an attacking army of (Herodotus tells us) 2 million Persians for several days. The behaviour of all the Greeks was heroic, but that of the Spartans was absurdly so. In the end they died to the last man, refusing to surrender. But their self-sacrifice bought time for the Greek City States. What followed were the Persian defeats at Salamis and Plataea. Ancient and modern historians unite in seeing the battle as one of the great turning points.

Pressfield tells the story of Xeones, one of the survivors of the battle. He is taken, wounded, before Xerxes, and asked to explain “who were these foemen, who had taken with them to the house of the dead ten or, as some reports said, as many as twenty for every one of their own fallen?” In Xeones’ own words, therefore, we get the story of his life; from when his own city is destroyed, to when he comes to Sparta as a slave, to the time when he finally comes to stand beside the Spartiate in the fateful battle. Pressfield sets himself the task of explaining Spartan culture to us in all its glory, humour, brutality and philosophy. To do so, he draws on his personal experience as a US infantryman, as well as the classics. The result is a fascinating tale, on one level a war story written with great pace and excitement, on another a ruminative tale of man’s capacity for honour, heroism, and self-sacrifice.

Most reviewers loved the book. “Does for (Thermopylae) what Charles Frazier did for the Civil War inCold Mountain’, enthused author Pat Conroy. The New York Times praised the book’s ‘feel of authenticity from beginning to end.’ Author Nelson DeMille  admired the ‘mastery, authority and psychological insight.’ Sarah Broadhurst, in The Bookseller, particularly wanted to recommend the book to women: “ Although it has a male feel to it, it will appeal to both sexes, as my two readers and I can testify. In fact, it is a great example of the rebirth of the historical novel, which I am sure is on its way.” Where people quibbled, it was usually about the violence of some of the descriptions, or on small errors of fact. The Times called it ‘a story of blood, biffing and bonking, thigh deep in blood, terror-piss and entrails’ but acknowledged that ‘their heroism still makes the hairs at the back of the neck bristle’. The Times Literary Supplement sniped at Pressfield for confusing two different Greek cities called Argos, and for what it called ‘phallocentric discourse’, but also called the book ‘a monument to the important twentieth-century art of pace.’

Author Steven Pressfield is perhaps best-known at the moment for his book The Legend of Bagger Vance, a story about golf, which has just been made into a film by Robert Redford. Film-rights to Gates of Fire have been taken up by George Clooney’s production company.

Steven Pressfield is currently working on a book about Alcibiades. 

At what stage of writing did you decide to write from the point of view of a non-Spartan? How did the decision help?

Right away.  On pure instinct.  The story had to be told by an outsider, just to make it accessible to the contemporary reader.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately.  When the subject matter is a band of such pure heroes, the reader needs an intermediary character to “let him into the story.”  How does one write in the voice of a pure hero?  And to do it from the “omniscient author” would have daunted me too much.

Which sources did you find most useful? Did you consult recent archaeology? 

The most useful sources were Herodotus first, his pages about the battle.  Plutarch’s Lives of various Spartans — Lycurgus, Agesilaus, Lysander, etc–were hugely helpful, and the section of his Moralia called Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women.  Xenophon of course was the best contemporaneous eyewitness to real Spartan society. Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, the Cyropaedia and even the Anabasis were huge helps.  Diodorus’ version of the battle added the thought of the night raid (which The 300 Spartans also had) and I took that from him.  No, I did not consult recent archaeology, other than going to Sparta myself and checking out the ruins of Artemis, Orthia and so forth.

Was there much detail that you needed consciously to make up? What kind of things?

Yes, there was tremendous detail that I had to make up.  You would be amazed.  For instance, the concept of phobologia, the Science of Fear. That’s completely invented, yet I feel absolutely certain the Spartans, like every other warrior race, must have had something like that, a religious-philosophical doctrine of warfare understaying the principles of their culture, probably a sort of cult-like initiatory situation.  The speech that Alexandros recites holding his shield —  “This is my shield, I bear it before me into battle, etc.” — was a fictional invention based upon my own experience in the US Marine Corps, where Marines recite, “This is my rifle. There are many other like it, but this one is mine, etc.” Another huge fictional detail that I made central to the story is the prominence of the squire in hoplite battle.  I based this purely on instinct and common sense.  I figured the relationship must be much like that of a professional golfer to his caddie.  The bonds formed between man and batman in the course of bloody warfare must have been intimate on a level second only to husband and wife, and maybe more intimate.  The ancient sources make nothing of this, but I think they just passed it over as obvious.  The fact that squires and armour bearers voluntarily stayed to die at Thermopylae says volumes.  (Also a squire was the perfect fly-on-the-wall narrator, like Midshipman Byam in Mutiny on the Bounty.)  Further I could not imagine that squires would stand idly by, watching their men fight.  They must have served as auxiliaries, not only dashing in and out of the field evacuating the wounded, but getting in their blows as light infantrymen whenever they could.  I suspect that, as prominent as I’ve made their roles in Gates, if we could beam ourselves back and witness actual ancient battle, the part of the squire/auxiliary was even bigger.

Which other authors do you admire most, and why?

Authors?  Outside of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Tolstoy, nothing good has been written in the past 2500 years.  Just kidding.  Well, only halfway. I really admire the ancients, Eastern as well as Western.  I can’t read novels and the more contemporary they are, the less they mean to me.

How difficult was it to find a publisher for this project, and how enthusiastic was the publisher about it at first?

We found a publisher almost at once, at Doubleday, and they loved it. I was really amazed.  My editor Shawn Coyne read a blurb about the book in an article and called up my agent.  He couldn’t have been better or more enthusiastic and, to my astonishment given the subject matter (which I thought was pretty obscure), the whole company got behind it.  It still amazes me.

Did you make any use of re-enactors? Have you ever worn hoplite armour? How did you come to the way that you imagine the warfare and tactics of the time?

No, I did not use re-enactors, nor have I worn hoplite armour.  I did spend a couple of days with a guy named Hunter Armstrong, founder of the International Hoplology Society at Sedona, Arizona.  He is a “weapons athlete,” actually a sword master from the Japanese school.  He helped enormously, just brainstorming with me as we tried to re-imagine what hoplite combat was like.  Other than that, it was all inspiration and imagination.

What inspired you to write the characters that you chose? Which ones were planned (and why) and which just came along in the writing?

I believe in the Muse.  I think she guides writers absolutely.  Of characters I knew I must have Dienekes, he was historical and central.  From him came Xeo, his squire, the narrator and point of view.  Next Dienekes must have a wife to give us that side of the tale, so … Arete.  I believe that a story must have a theme, that one central character must embody that theme and that the supporting characters surround him, like a constellation, each embodying another aspect of the theme.  In this case it was fear/courage.  So Polynikes represented one aspect, Alexandros another, Rooster another, Leonidas another, and the women Paraleia and Arete two more.  They all came along in the writing by themselves.

Arete is in some ways the most powerful character in the book. Do you think Sparta was a good place for women?

I was amazed at how well Arete came out.  She just popped forth, full-grown from the brow of Zeus.  I’m glad you liked her.  Whether or not Sparta was a “good” place for women I can’t say.  Certainly it would be fascinating as hell to beam back there and see, for real, how they lived and what they were like.  I got a lot of Arete from Plutarch’s Sayings of the Spartan Women. These, if you’ve ever read them, are unbelievably hard-core.  For example, here’s one: A messenger returns from a battle to inform a Spartan mother (Plutarch gives her name but I’ve forgotten it) that all five of her sons have just perished honourably fighting the enemy.  She asks this only: “Were we victorious?” The courier replies yes.  “Then I am happy,” says the mother and turns for home. Here’s another: A messenger returns from another battle to tell another mother that one of her sons has been killed, facing the enemy.  “He is my son,” she says.  Her other son, the messenger continues, is still alive but ran from the enemy. “He is not my son,” she replies. I didn’t see Arete quite that hard-core but certainly someone tough as nails who imbibed the Spartan mythos even more than the men and lived it.  Again, this was all instinct.  I could be dead wrong.  It just was what felt right to me.

What lessons do you think we might learn today from Spartan ‘culture’?

Lessons?  I don’t know.  Sparta was a small, compact, basically tribal society where every citizen (forgetting about the helots for the time being) was vitally needed and where warfare was hand-to-hand and absolutely communal, with your own brothers, uncles, father and friends fighting beside you, so if you acted the coward, there was no hiding it.  The modern world of anonymity, mass culture, commercialism, shamelessness, indulgence of sensual desires, worship of money couldn’t be farther.  The Spartan society is like a culture from the moon. Only on an individual and interior basis, I think, can we take lessons that might help us.  Self-discipline, etc.  It’s not a bad thing in this day and age to be a little bit “spartan,” don’t you think?

What I liked most about the book was that it is unflinching in its presentation of both the glory and the pity of war – most books tend to pitch one line or the other. Do you think the Spartan defence at Thermopylae was worth it?

Was the Spartan defence of the pass worth it?  Clearly, unless we all want to be speaking Persian.  That same East-West battle is still being fought.  Hopefully we’ll learn to integrate the two eventually. What the defence meant to me was this: its significance was metaphorical rather than literal.  We are all in a battle that will end with our deaths and, like the Spartans at Thermopylae, we know it.  The question is how do we deal with it.  They answered by being true to their calling, to their brothers and sisters, and to their ideals.  Early in the book there’s a passage where the Persian historian is narrating; he’s speaking of King Xerxes and his interest in the fallen Spartans.  Xerxes says of them: “He knew they feared death, as all men.  By what philosophy did their minds embrace it?”

How are plans for the film of Gates of Fire progressing (George Clooney?). What about Baggar Vance?

The film.  Just a week ago, the director Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans, The Insider) closed a deal with Universal to “develop” the property, i.e. work with the screenwriter David Self on getting a script that will move on to the next level.  We’ll see how that goes.  I’m not sure what George Clooney’s participation will be, if any, as an actor.  In his capacity as a producer, however, he is still involved, as the deal was made with his production company, Maysville Pictures, and his ex-partner Robert Lawrence.  Basically, I know nothing, however.  All I know I get from   I’m not kidding.  Check it out. The movie of Bagger Vance is finished shooting and now in editing.  It’ll come out in the fall.   Hope it’s good.

Am I right in thinking you worked on revising a screenplay of Total Recall? Do you have any other film credits?

Above the Law starring Steven Seagal and Free-jack starring Mick Jagger, Emilio Estevez and Anthony Hopkins are the only ones I’ll admit to.

Do you see a connection between golf and Thermopylae?!

Golf and Thermopylae?  They’re both battles in which one must hold the line against hordes of shrieking barbarians whose basic nature is that they arise from our own hearts and are indivisible from our baser nature.  The Bhagavad-Gita, on which Bagger Vance is based, is a warrior epic espousing a warrior code of duty, honour, service, detachment, etc. only elevated by its sublime-to-divine origins to the level of religion, in the best sense of the word.  The Spartans at Thermopylae elevated themselves, by their sacrifice, from history to legend, which is pretty close to religion too, if you ask me.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Spring 2000.

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