Gates of Fire Summary

Steven Pressfield

Gates of Fire

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us contact us.

Gates of Fire Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.

Gates of Fire tells the story of Xeones, a captive Greek from the city-state of Sparta. Xeones is recounting his own story to a scribe for Xerxes, the infamous Persian King, as the king wants to know Xeones’ version of events. The reader finds that Xeones actually died from battle wounds while fighting the Persians, but has been brought back to life by the Greek god Apollo. Xeones has been brought back in order to tell his own account of the famous Battle of Thermopylae.

Xeones recounts how, while he was nine-years-old, his city-state was attacked and invaded, thus causing him to flee to the mountains with his cousin, Diomache, and Bruxieus, an old slave. Miraculously, Xeones survives, and in time he learns to be an archer. The two boys eventually head to Athens after the death of Bruxieus. Though Diomache travels to Athens, Xeones continues on to Sparta.

While in Sparta, Xeones becomes a battle squire for Dienekes, an older soldier, and befriends Rooster. He also becomes the sparring partner for a young man named Alexandros. One day, Alexandros follows the Spartan army into battle, even though it is forbidden and Alexandros’ mother disallows it. Xeones, however, accompanies Alexandros on the journey, where the two witness firsthand how the Spartans battle.

Xeones then tells of how the Persian army threatens to invade Sparta. Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans, tasks 300 soldiers to fight in a suicide mission. One of these soldiers is Dienekes, for whom Xeones is a battle squire. The Greeks manage to gather a force of about 4,000 soldiers along the way to fight the Persians. Though the Hellenic forces are vastly outnumbered by the Persians, the Battle of Thermopylae begins on August 18, 480 BC.

Though the Persian army has superior numbers, the army is forced to corral its soldiers through a narrow mountain pass to access the battlefield, a mountain pass that has a sheer drop-off at its rear. The Spartans are able to use this Persian disadvantage to their own advantage by forming phalanxes, which are small groups of closely formed soldiers, and then charging the Persians from the Thermopylae mountainside. Due to this strategy, the Persian army suffers many losses, compared to a few losses on the Greek side.

After heavy losses, Xerxes then learns of a trail that actually leads behind the Greek army, and sends his best soldiers to outmaneuver the Greeks. Leonidas tries to have Xerxes killed by sending a raiding party, but the attempt ultimately fails. Nearing the end, Leonidas tells his allies that they can leave on the third day of battle, but some decide to remain behind and die honorably along with the Spartans. Though the Persians attack in full force, thus overwhelming the Greek forces, the Persian army suffers a great many losses from the attack. Angered by the loss of men, Xerxes beheads Leonidas’ body, places his head on a spike and nails his decapitated body to a tree.

At this point in the narrative, Xeones dies, having completed his task of telling the story surrounding the events of Thermopylae. Xerxes’s scribe then continues the story from this point, recounting how the Persian navy is defeated by the Athenians. The sound defeat forces Xerxes to retreat from Greece. The Greeks then defeat Xerxes’s remaining forces, and win the war. At the end of the narrative, the reader finds that Diomache is able to deliver Xeones’ ashes to Sparta and visit the site of Thermopylae.

The Battle of Thermopylae is an important historical event for Greeks, and has been portrayed in various ways through film adaptations and books/plays. As a larger theme, the battle symbolizes the determination of the underdog despite overwhelming odds, as the Greeks were vastly outnumbered by the Persian army. The Greeks’ willingness to sacrifice their lives for this cause also highlights the theme of leadership and sacrifice, as witnessed through Leonidas’ actions as leader, the Spartans willingness to engage the enemy though vastly outnumbered, and the allies of Sparta willing to remain behind even though they knew it meant certain death. As such, these actions also point to the themes of patriotism and honor. For the Greeks, as evidenced in the actions of Leonidas and his allies, to die for love of country was a beautiful and honorable act.

By telling the story mostly through Xeones’ point-of-view, the author is able to add an intimate human element to the story as well, thereby weaving themes like love and beauty into the narrative. Love, as well as sacrifice in the name of love, are hallmarks of Xeones and his fellow Greeks throughout the narrative. By showing these themes as actions in an overarching battle for homeland and honor, and through the eyes of Xeones, Gates of Fire effectively universalizes the themes of this Greek narrative, thus showing how humankind can approach love of self and country in different ways.