Steven Pressfield

Gates of Fire

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Gates of Fire Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 52-page guide for “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 38 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The True Nature of Courage and The Difference Between the Courage of Men and of Women.

Plot Summary

Gates of Fire is a 1998 work of historical fiction by Steven Pressfield centered around the famous Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), in which a heavily-outnumbered force of native Greeks led by the Spartans held the invading army of the Persian Empire at bay for several days. Despite their eventual defeat, the Greek forces became renowned for their valor and sacrifice. The story is framed as a series of interviews between Xeones (“Xeo”), a wounded Greek soldier, and members of the Persian court. Most of the story, then, is told in flashback as Xeones relates the sack of his original city, his life among the Spartans, and the battle itself.

Born in the obscure city of Astakos, Xeones is orphaned when the city is betrayed and sacked. Xeones flees into the hills with his cousin, Diomache, and his family’s slave, Bruxieus. Left without a polis (city) or family to rely upon, the trio hunt, beg, and steal to survive. On one raid, Xeones is caught and his palms are nailed to a board. Diomache rescues him, but his hands are permanently damaged.

Xeones believes he is worthless due to his injuries and determines to die by exposure during a snowstorm. While waiting for death, Xeones has a vision of the god Apollo. From this vision, Xeones realizes that he can use a bow with his damaged hands. Diomache and Bruxieus find and revive him. After two years, Bruxieus dies. Diomache, who wishes to find a husband goes to Athens. Xeones decides to go to Sparta.

In Sparta, Xeones is put to work among the helots (the Spartan slave class), and meets Dekton (“Rooster”). Xeones’s crippled hands keep him from being a good field hand, so he is eventually assigned as a sparring partner to Alexandros, a pupil of Dienekes, one of Sparta’s most famous and admired warriors.

Throughout Xeones’s time in the agoge (Spartan training regimen), the threat of Persian invasion looms. The Spartans attempt to form a defensive alliance in anticipation of the invasion. If a city declines, the Spartans invade and forcibly draw it into the alliance.

The bond between Xeones and Alexandros is solidified when they run away to follow the army, when it goes to attack Antirhion. Xeones fails to dissuade Alexandros from absconding and goes to ensure his safety. The pair attempt to buy passage to Antirhion with two locals but are betrayed and abandoned overboard. The two boys manage to swim to shore while discussing personal matters and collapse on the beach. Their bond of friendship is now unshakeable, and the Spartan army is victorious in the battle shortly following.

Upon returning to Sparta, Xeones is called to an audience with Arete, Dienekes’ wife, where it’s revealed that Dekton is the illegitimate offspring of Idotychtides, Arete’s brother, and therefore her biological nephew. Arete warns Xeones that Rooster’s rebellious nature has caught the attention of the krypteia, a secret society that crushes all dissent. She charges Xeones with watching over Rooster in the hope that the boy will distinguish himself and earn his freedom in the war with the Persians.

After the boys are whipped for their disobedience in following the army, Xeones is reassigned as Dienekes’s squire and given his bow back. Rooster is assigned to be the squire of Olympieus, Alexandros’s father.

Five more years pass as the Spartan army conducts 21 campaigns against Hellenic cities that have not yet joined the alliance. During this time, the Persian Emperor Darius dies and is succeeded by his son, Xerxes. Alexandros completes his time in the agoge and is enrolled in the Spartan army.

News arrives that the Persian army has finally crossed into Greece. After some delay, the allied Greeks decide to meet them at Thermopylae. Because only citizens with male sons are chosen, the Spartans intuit that it’s a suicide mission.

After refusing promotion to mothax for a third time, the krypteia seizes Rooster, along with Alexandros and Xeones. Despite the best efforts of Alexandros and Dienekes before the krypteia, it appears that Rooster and his infant son will be put to death. Suddenly, Arete appears and claims that Dienekes is the biological father of Rooster’s son. This is clearly false, but the krypteia is forced to accept the lie, rather than impugn Dienekes’s honor. Rooster is allowed to flee the city, and his baby is adopted into Dienekes’s home. As a secondary consequence of Arete’s intervention, Dienekes is selected for the battle at Thermopylae.

The Spartans arrive at Thermopylae ahead of the Spartans and repair a stone wall across the pass. The battle takes place over three days, with successive waves of Persian battalions assaulting the defensive phalanx of the Spartans and their allies.

Rooster, who joined the Persians after fleeing Sparta but has now deserted, is captured by the Greeks and set to be executed. Rooster wins his life back by offering to lead the Spartans on an assassination attempt on Xerxes. A strike force is assembled and very nearly manages to kill Xerxes but is stymied by the emperor’s personal bodyguard. The Greeks take heavy casualties and withdraw. Alexandros is mortally wounded.

The morning finds the Spartans preparing for their final suicidal stand. Rooster and his family are released from slavery, and he promptly takes the opportunity to depart. Xeones is also released, but decides to stay. Xeones is the only survivor from the Greek side. He is nursed back to health by the Persians so he can tell his story while their invasion continues. The Persians captures and burn Athens, but the Greek fleet is victorious at Salamis. Without naval support, Xerxes suspends the campaign and returns home. With the Persian doctors now tending to their own wounded men, Xeones is left without care and succumbs to his injuries. The remaining Persian forces are decisively defeated the following spring at Plataea.

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