This is an R-rated book for violence, language, and some sexual content (though not crude or pornographic). If any of these things offend you, do NOT read this book. It is not for the faint of heart or the under-13 crowd. I’ll admit I almost didn’t make it through because it’s rather difficult to swallow (being an epic, gritty war novel), but I was glad by the time I got to the end.
Steven Pressfield launches you into the harsh Grecian world of 480 BC. The story is told largely from the perspective of the slave warrior Xeones (often referred to as Xeo) who serves as squire to Dienekes, one of the Spartan heroes of the book and of Greek history. Xeo has been captured by the Persian enemy as the only survivor of the battle. Their King Xerxes insists Xeo explain how Spartan warriors came to fight so valiantly at the “Hot Gates”—otherwise known as the historic Battle of Thermopylae. So there are really two stories happening: one in “the present” in italics as the scribes narrate and the other, the “historical account,” all from Xeo’s perspective. This storytelling method adds greatly to the suspense as you near the end. The narrative moves slowly at first, but picks up significantly as you move through.
My highest praise for the book is the striking prose and sentence craftsmanship of the author. He is pulling you into a completely different world and his descriptions help you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste it. I stopped multiple times just to reread beautifully constructed sentences. Unfortunately you’ll have to take my word for it since it’s not my habit to annotate fiction (another reason I was reluctant to review…no quotes, sorry!) He may not be writing about beautiful things, but he writes beautifully.
And now I must confess that this is not really a book review, which I seem incapable of. But more of a personal book reflection and further explanation of why I loved it so much.
Because of the time period and the circumstances surrounding the book, Biblical images kept coming to mind. At the beginning of the story Xeo’s hometown is completely destroyed. Pressfield’s description of the devastation of losing ones entire city helped me think about how the Israelites must have felt after the fall of Jerusalem. It gave personality to the book of Lamentations in my mind and helped me empathize as much as I can, being a comfortably suburban American. Also, when the Spartan soldiers are marching to Thermopylae, the author describes the mass exodus of people from the city to escape the pending doom of war with the Persians. I recalled the Biblical scene of the exodus out of Egypt—hasty and chaotic, and perhaps laced with some fear, although not without hope.
Several features about ancient Greek culture in the book struck me in their contrasts with Biblical truth. The book frequently references the mythological gods. Xeo especially looks to Apollo, the Archer God, who appears to him in the woods when he is near death. Xeo’s cousin, another main character, also ends up serving a goddess as her profession. But it’s clear that faith in the gods was optional. They were immortal but not infallible or morally perfect. Humans could have a tit-for-tat relationship with the gods, unless the god decided to be fickle, which they often did. Many characters in the book despise Xeo as foolish for his faith in the gods. How grateful I am to serve the one, true God who never changes and is perfectly good. How grateful I am that our relationship is not tit-for-tat but drenched in grace. And how grateful I am that God is never fickle.
Fear is a major theme in the book. Dienekes, as a Spartan officer and trainer in the “agoge” (school for young warriors), is a student of fear. He believes fear originates in the flesh. There is some Gnostic belief woven in there that the flesh is inherently bad and is something you must train to overcome and finally shed completely. Here I agree with the idea that human nature is inherently evil, but not in the idea that our bodies themselves are inherently bad. Nor do I agree with their methods of overcoming fear, though it was fascinating to read. The Spartan warriors train to steel themselves to pain: to block it out with both physical and mental exercises, to consider loyalty to Sparta first and foremost, and to fear the shame of people more than fear the pain of death. Dienekes is constantly trying to decipher the ultimate way to overcome fear. I wholeheartedly agreed with his conclusion, which he comes to at the very end: the opposite of fear is not courage as one may think, but love.
Finally, The Spartan King Leonidas is the true hero of the book and many of his traits resemble our Lord and King Jesus. Leonidas loves his city and the men he leads. Unlike King Xerxes, Leonidas fights at the forefront, leading his men into the fray, never watching from the sidelines. He is compassionate; he counts the cost of sending men to battle. He mourns with those who mourn and rejoices with those who rejoice. He is humble; he gets down among the people instead of lording his kingship over them. And most of all, *Spolier Alert (if you don’t know the history)* he sacrificially lays his life down for his people.
Overall I enjoyed this book for its literary prowess and its harkening to Biblical truths, either by contrast or by parallel. As Christians we ought always to weigh what we hear, see, and read against the word of God. If you can do that without stumbling over the gruesome, raw nature of the book, then I would recommend it to you. If not, there are plenty of other great books out there!