The Leading eBooks Store Online

for Kindle Fire, Apple, Android, Nook, Kobo, PC, Mac, BlackBerry ...

New to eBooks.com?

Learn more

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire
Add to cart
US$ 7.99
BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Steven Pressfield's The Profession.

The national bestseller!

At Thermopylae, a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece, the feared and admired Spartan soldiers stood three hundred strong. Theirs was a suicide mission, to hold the pass against the invading millions of the mighty Persian army.

Day after bloody day they withstood the terrible onslaught, buying time for the Greeks to rally their forces. Born into a cult of spiritual courage, physical endurance, and unmatched battle skill, the Spartans would be remembered for the greatest military stand in history--one that would not end until the rocks were awash with blood, leaving only one gravely injured Spartan squire to tell the tale....
Random House Publishing Group; January 2007
ISBN 9780553904055
Download in secure EPUB
Excerpt
I had always wondered what it felt like to die.

There was an exercise we of the battle train practiced when we served as  punching bags for the Spartan heavy infantry. It was called the Oak  because we took our positions along a line of oaks at the edge of the  plain of Otona, where the Spartiates and the Gentleman-Rankers ran their  field exercises in fall and winter. We would line up ten deep with  body-length wicker shields braced upon the earth and they would hit us,  the shock troops, coming across the flat in line of battle, eight deep, at  a walk, then a pace, then a trot and finally a dead run. The shock of  their interleaved shields was meant to knock the breath out of you, and it  did. It was like being hit by a mountain. Your knees, no matter how braced  you held them, buckled like saplings before an earthslide; in an instant  all courage fled our hearts; we were rooted up like dried stalks before  the ploughman's blade.

That was how it felt to die. The weapon which slew me at Thermopylae was  an Egyptian hoplite spear, driven in beneath the plexus of the ribcage.  But the sensation was not what one would have anticipated, not being  pierced but rather slammed, like we sparring fodder felt beneath the  oaks.

I had imagined that the dead would be detached. That they would look upon  life with the eyes of objective wisdom. But the experience proved the  opposite. Emotion ruled. It seemed nothing remained but emotion. My heart  ached and broke as never it could on earth. Loss encompassed me with a  searing, all-mastering pain. I saw my wife and children, my dear cousin  Diomache, she whom I loved. I saw Skamandridas, my father, and Eunike, my  mother, Bruxieus, Dekton and "Suicide," names which mean nothing to His  Majesty to hear, but which to me were dearer than life and now, dying,  dearer still.

Away they flew. Away I flew from them.

I was keenly conscious of the comrades-in-arms who had fallen with me. A  bond surpassing by a hundredfold that which I had known in life bound me  to them. I felt a sense of inexpressible relief and realized that I had  feared, more than death, separation from them. I apprehended that  excruciating war survivor's torment, the sense of isolation and  self-betrayal experienced by those who had elected to cling yet to breath  when their comrades had let loose their grip.

That state which we call life was over.

I was dead.

And yet, titanic as was that sense of loss, there existed a keener one  which I now experienced and felt my brothers-in-arms feeling with me. It  was this.

That our story would perish with us.

That no one would ever know.

I cared not for myself, for my own selfish or vainglorious purposes, but  for them. For Leonidas, for Alexandros and Polynikes, for Arete bereft by  her hearth and, most of all, for Dienekes. That his valor, his wit, his  private thoughts that I alone was privileged to share, that these and all  that he and his companions had achieved and suffered would simply vanish,  drift away like smoke from a woodland fire, this was unbearable.

We had reached the river now. We could hear with ears that were no longer  ears and see with eyes that were no longer eyes the stream of Lethe and  the hosts of the long-suffering dead whose round beneath the earth was at  last drawing to a period. They were returning to life, drinking of those  waters which would efface all memory of their existence here as  shades.

But we from Thermopylae, we were aeons away from drinking of Lethe's  stream. We remembered.

A cry which was not a cry but only the multiplied pain of the warriors'  hearts, all feeling what I, too, felt, rent the baleful scene with  unspeakable pathos.

Then from behind me, if there can be such a thing as "behind" in that  world where all directions are as one, came a glow of such sublimity that  I knew, we all knew at once, it could be nothing but a god.

Phoebus Far Darter, Apollo himself in war armor, moved there among the  Spartiates and Thespaians. No words were exchanged; none were needed. The  Archer could feel the men's agony and they knew without speech that he,  warrior and physician, was there to succor it. So quickly that surprise  was impossible I felt his eye turn toward me, me the last and least who  could expect it, and then Dienekes himself was beside me, my master in  life.

I would be the one. The one to go back and speak. A pain beyond all  previous now seized me. Sweet life itself, even the desperately sought  chance to tell the tale, suddenly seemed unendurable alongside the pain of  having to take leave of these whom I had come so to love.

But again, before the god's majesty, no entreaty was possible.

I saw another light, a sicklier, cruder, more coarse illumination, and  knew that it was the sun. I was soaring back. Voices came to me through  physical ears. Soldiers' speech, in Egyptian and Persian, and  leather-gauntleted fists pulling me from beneath a sheaf of corpses.

The Egyptian marines told me later that I had uttered the word  lokas, which in their tongue meant "fuck," and they had laughed  even as they dragged my shattered body out into the light of day.

They were wrong. The word was Loxias--the Greek title of respect  for Apollo the Cunning, or Apollo Crabwise, whose oracles arise ever  elusive and oblique--and I was half crying to him, half cursing him for  laying this terrible responsibility on me who had no gift to perform  it.

As poets call upon the Muse to speak through them, I croaked my  inarticulate grunt to the Striker From Afar.

If indeed you have elected me, Archer, then let your fine-fletched arrows  spring from my bow. Lend me your voice, Far Darter. Help me to tell the  tale.



Thermopylae is a spa. The word in Greek means "hot gates," from the  thermal springs and, as His Majesty knows, the narrow and precipitous  defiles which form the only passages by which the site may be  approached--in Greek, pylae or pylai, the East and West  Gates.

The Phokian Wall around which so much of the most desperate fighting took  place was not constructed by the Spartans and their allies in the event,  but stood in existence prior to the battle, erected in ancient times by  the inhabitants of Phokis and Lokris as defense against the incursions of  their northern neighbors, the Thessalians and Macedonians. The wall, when  the Spartans arrived to take possession of the pass, stood in ruins. They  rebuilt it.

The springs and pass themselves are not considered by the Hellenes to  belong to the natives of the area, but are open to all in Greece. The  baths are thought to possess curative powers; in summer the site teems  with visitors. His Majesty beheld the charm of the shaded groves and pool  houses, the oak copse sacred to Amphiktyon and that pleasantly meandering  path bounded by the Lion's Wall, whose stones are said to have been set in  place by Herakles himself. Along this in peacetime are customarily arrayed  the gaily colored tents and booths used by the vendors from Trachis,  Anthela and Alpenoi to serve whatever adventurous pilgrims have made the  trek to the mineral baths.

There is a double spring sacred to Persephone, called the Skyllian  fountain, at the foot of the bluff beside the Middle Gate. Upon this site  the Spartans established their camp, between the Phokian Wall and the  hillock where the final tooth-and-nail struggle took place. His Majesty  knows how little drinking water is to hand from other sources in the  surrounding mountains. The earth between the Gates is normally so parched  and dust-blown that servants are employed by the spa to oil the walkways  for the convenience of the bathers. The ground itself is hard as  stone.

His Majesty saw how swiftly that marble-hard clay was churned into muck  by the contending masses of the warriors. I have never seen such mud and  of such depth, whose moisture came only from the blood and terror-piss of  the men who fought upon it.

When the advance troops, the Spartan rangers, arrived at Thermopylae  prior to the battle, a few hours before the main body which was advancing  by forced march, they discovered, incredibly, two parties of spa-goers,  one from Tiryns, the other from Halkyon, thirty in all, men and women,  each in their separate precincts, in various states of undress. These  pilgrims were startled, to say the least, by the sudden appearance in  their midst of the scarlet-clad armored Skiritai, all picked men under  thirty, chosen for speed of foot as well as prowess in mountain fighting.  The rangers cleared the bathers and their attendant perfume vendors,  masseurs, fig-cake and bread sellers, bath and oil girls, strigil boys and  so forth (who had ample intelligence of the Persian advance but had  thought that the recent down-valley storm had rendered the northern  approaches temporarily impassable). The rangers confiscated all food,  soaps, linens and medical accoutrements and in particular the spa tents,  which later appeared so grimly incongruous, billowing festively above the  carnage. The rangers reerected these shelters at the rear, in the Spartan  camp beside the Middle Gate, intending them for use by Leonidas and his  royal guard.

The Spartan king, when he arrived, refused to avail himself of this  shelter, deeming it unseemly. The Spartiate heavy infantry likewise  rejected these amenities. The tents fell, in one of the ironies to which  those familiar with war are accustomed, to the use of the Spartan helots,  Thespaian, Phokian and Opountian Lokrian slaves and other attendants of  the battle train who suffered wounds in the arrow and missile barrages.  These individuals, too, after the second day refused to accept shelter.  The brightly colored spa tents of Egyptian linen, now in tatters, came as  His Majesty saw to protect only the beasts of transport, the mules and  asses supporting the commissariat, who became terrorized by the sights and  smells of the battle and could not be held by their teamsters. In the end  the tents were torn to rags to bind the wounds of the Spartiates and their  allies.

When I say Spartiates, I mean the formal term in Greek,  Spartiatai, which refers to Lakedaemonians of the superior class,  full Spartans--the homoioi--Peers or Equals. None of the class  called Gentleman-Rankers or of the perioikoi, the secondary  Spartans of less than full citizenship, or those enlisted from the  surrounding Lakedaemonian towns, fought at the Hot Gates, though toward  the end when the surviving Spartiates became so few that they could no  longer form a fighting front, a certain "leavening element," as Dienekes  expressed it, of freed slaves, armor bearers and battle squires, was  permitted to fill the vacated spaces.

His Majesty may nonetheless take pride in knowing that his forces  defeated the flower of Hellas, the cream of her finest and most valiant  fighting men.

As for my own position within the battle train, the explanation may  require a certain digression, with which I hope His Majesty will be  patient.

I was captured at age twelve (or, more accurately, surrendered) as a  heliokekaumenos, a Spartan term of derision which means literally  "scorched by the sun." It referred to a type of nearly feral youth, burned  black as Ethiopians by their exposure to the elements, with which the  mountains abounded in those days preceding and following the first Persian  War. I was cast originally among the Spartan helots, the serf class that  the Lakedaemonians had created from the inhabitants of Messenia and Helos  after they in centuries past had conquered and enslaved them. These  husbandmen, however, rejected me because of certain physical impairments  which rendered me useless for field labor. Also the helots hated and  mistrusted any foreigner among them who might prove an informer. I lived a  dog's life for most of a year before fate, luck or a god's hand delivered  me into the service of Alexandros, a Spartan youth and protege of  Dienekes. This saved my life. I was recognized at least ironically as a  freeborn and, evincing such qualities of a wild beast as the  Lakedaemonians found admirable, was elevated to the status of  parastates pais, a sort of sparring partner for the youths enrolled  in the agoge, the notorious and pitiless thirteen-year training  regimen which turned boys into Spartan warriors.

Every heavy infantryman of the Spartiate class travels to war attended by  at least one helot. Enomotarchai, the platoon leaders, take two.  This latter was Dienekes' station. It is not uncommon for an officer of  his rank to select as his primary attendant, his battle squire, a freeborn  foreigner or even a young mothax, a noncitizen or bastard Spartan  still in agoge training. It was my fortune, for good or ill, to be  chosen by my master for this post. I supervised the care and transport of  his armor, maintained his kit, prepared his food and sleeping site, bound  his wounds and in general performed every task necessary to leave him free  to train and fight.

My childhood home, before fate set me upon the road which found its end  at the Hot Gates, was originally in Astakos in Akarnania, north of the  Peloponnese, where the mountains look west over the sea toward Kephallinia  and, beyond the horizon, to Sikelia and Italia.

The island of Ithaka, home of Odysseus of lore, lay within sight across  the straits, though I myself was never privileged to touch the hero's  sacred soil, as a boy or later. I was due to make the crossing, a treat  from my aunt and uncle, on the occasion of my tenth birthday. But our city  fell first, the males of my clan were slaughtered and females sold into  slavery, our ancestral land taken, and I cast out, alone save my cousin  Diomache, without family or home, three days before the start of my tenth  year to heaven, as the poet says.


From the Paperback edition.
More Fiction
Subject categories
ISBNs
0553904051
9780553383683
9780553904055