The coastline of Thermopylae.
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Gates of Fire

I went into the hospital for bariatric surgery (a gastric band), and rather than take Livy I picked this for hospital and post-operative reading. I was too miserable in the hospital, despite the cute night nurse, to get any reading done, so this was largely post-operative at home reading.

This is an historical novel that is set against the background of the Persian wars. The primary narrator, Xeones, is a survivor of the battle of Thermopylae who has been captured by the Persians. He tells his story to the Persian king’s historian. (There was one actual survivor, a man who was sent home early. He felt shame, and tried to outdo everyone else for bravery at Platea. This part is recorded in Herodotus.)

Xeones covers the period between Marathon and Thermopylae, a period of 10 years. In the process we get glimpses of Greek life in the 5th century BC. We also get a short dialog, modeled on Plato’s Symposium in part, on what is the opposite of fear. The common observation that it is bravery is rejected. The answer finally arrived at is somewhat surprising, but it fits in with the common observation that soldiers fight for their buddies. (Victor Davis Hanson would disagree with this to some extent, and in The Soul of Battle he argues that soldiers will fight for an idea.)

Pressfield’s description of battle is thrilling. The only jarring note, which I think is because he is trying to give the flavor of what a Greek speaking to a Persian would be like, is his use of English for names or nicknames that I think should be in Greek. For example, the character Dekton has the nickname Rooster, another is Ball Player, and so on.

These are minor quibbles though. Overall the book is a good depiction of ancient war, and of a conflict that continues, in another form, today.

I see The Landmark Herodotus is due out in June. The Amazon link is over there on the right sidebar. If the you buy it, check the publisher. I think that Strassler, the guy behind the Landmark series switched publishers. The one who did The Landmark Thucydides did a terrible job with the binding, and it fell apart as I read it. This one may do a better job with Herodotus.