Gates of Fire

by

Steven Pressfield

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Gates of Fire: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At this point in Xeo‘s story, Gobartes records, Xeo learned of the “sacrilege” performed against the corpse of Leonidas by the Persians. He is so distraught that he asks to be put to death immediately. Xerxes’ captain, Orontes, has become a confidant to Xeo and tries to placate him, explaining that Xerxes regretted the desecration as soon as he ordered it in the midst of his grief over the loss of 20,000 men, including brothers and kinsmen. Orontes also brings in Demaratos, a deposed king of Sparta and guest in the Persian court, who speaks alone with Xeo for a while. Afterward, he explains that the lesser rankers and outland captives like Xeo tend to be “more Spartan than the Spartans” in their great piety, so Demaratos appealed to Xeo’s reverence for Apollo, who had assisted Xeo’s tale thus far. Xeo apparently finds that Apollo does not wish him to stop the tale, for he resumes.
Leonidas’s corpse was beheaded and crucified after he was killed at Thermpylae. Having just recounted Leonidas’s virtues, Xeo is overwhelmed by this news. A Spartan exile is brought in to try to comfort Xeo. Demaratos redirects Xeo to prayer, and Apollo again directs Xeo to keep going with his story instead of collapsing with grief. Again, Apollo’s mysterious purposes seem to be driving the story.
Themes
Kingship, Loyalty, and Freedom Theme Icon
Polynikes, though only 24, is awarded the prize of valor for his actions at Antirhion, his second such prize, as well as being promoted to Captain of the Knights. This makes him a hero for all Greece, “a second Achilles.” Dienekes, by contrast, had been honored as a Knight just once and had declined subsequent distinctions, preferring the obscurity of being a platoon commander. Xeo observes that Dienekes’ greatest gift is teaching, and that like all teachers, he is primarily a student—particularly of “fear, and its opposite.”
A contrast is set up between these two Spartans—Polynikes loves and revels in valor and its recognition, whereas Dienekes prefers to stay out of the limelight and mentor others according to what he’s learned.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
As punishment for joining Alexandros in pursuing the army, Xeo is removed from his friend’s company and forced to march in the dusty rear of the army train, along with his friend Dekton, or Rooster. Dekton is half-helot, half-Spartiate, and hates his Spartan masters, so Xeo’s allegiance to them galls him. Xeo had been assigned to Rooster on first arriving in Sparta, helping with the sacrificial goats and kids. Dekton scorns Xeo’s piety, calling him a “mountain-mad yokel” to think that Apollo would deign to “[swoop] down to chat in the snow with a cityless” kid like Xeo. He looks for every opportunity to humiliate Xeo, feeling contempt for Xeo’s allegiance to the Spartans.
Xeo and Rooster are both helots (slaves), but their attitudes about Sparta couldn’t be more different. Rooster is filled with resentment and can’t stand Xeo’s piety and loyalty to those whom Rooster sees as their oppressors. He thinks Xeo’s piety is naïve. It’s not the last time that Rooster’s and Xeo’s views of their respective situations will clash.
Themes
Cities, Identity, and Belonging Theme Icon
Faith and Divine Intervention Theme Icon
Dekton is the first person Xeo has ever met who doesn’t fear the gods. He doesn’t hate them, or mock them like an Athenian freethinker, but simply doesn’t think they exist. Awed, Xeo waits for heaven to strike Dekton down.
The genuineness of Xeo’s piety shows through here. He’s shocked by Rooster’s cynicism, which is something he’s never encountered before.
Themes
Faith and Divine Intervention Theme Icon
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A couple of days after their return to Sparta, the grief of the losses in battle are still hanging heavily over the city. Late one evening, in the Peers’ dining hall, Polynikes calls Alexandros forward and begins to interrogate him about his experience watching the battle. “How did you like it?” he asks. “It made me sick,” Alexandros replies. He even admits that he found the violence “barbarous and unholy.” Polynikes begins to get angry.
The Spartans call the practice of singling out a young man for verbal abuse arosis, or “harrowing.” It’s meant to harden him mentally, much as the beatings are meant to do. But Alexandros is different from most Spartan boys in his matter-of-fact honesty. He can’t pretend that he loves what he saw on the battlefield. Polynikes takes this personally.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
An interrogation like this is intended to harden a boy’s will and is best deflected by humor, “but Alexandros possessed no gift for the wisecrack.” He answers each question with “excruciating candor” and is too proud to stop the interrogation, even though that’s his right. Polynikes relentlessly questions Alexandros on the types of wounds that can be inflicted by various weapons and forces him to concisely define the various virtues of war. There is something hateful and personal about Polynikes’ grilling, perhaps because Alexandros is the only Spartan male whose beauty rivals Polynikes’, and Polynikes resents that Alexandros prefers singing to athletics—a failure of manly virtue in his eyes.
This “harrowing” is somewhat reminiscent of the ordeal of Alexandros’s friend, tripod, who could have called a halt to his torment but proudly refused. But unlike the Spartan mindset about training, Polynikes’ teardown of Alexandros feels bitterly personal; he doesn’t think the young man measures up, and his quiet endurance affronts him somehow.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Xeo also suspects that Polynikes resents Dienekes’ fondness for Alexandros. He can tell that Polynikes has always envied the city’s respect for Dienekes, even though Polynikes has collected more external accolades. Dienekes wears “the respect of the city so lightly and with such self-effacing wit” that Polynikes is baffled and embittered.
There’s other resentment behind Polynikes’ attitude, too. He’s taking his resentment for Alexandros’s mentor’s fame out on the student. There seems to be a certain fundamental insecurity in Polynikes.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Xeo observes that Polynikes’ courage is “something in the blood and marrow,” an “instinctual supremacy,” whereas Dienekes’ is the courage of “a fallible mortal” whose valor emerges from “the force of some inner integrity which was unknown to Polynikes.” Perhaps this is why he longs to break Alexandros’s spirit the way he’d broken the boy’s face in training. After he has interrogated Alexandros for an hour, he begins making crude sexual comparisons to the violence of battle—such that even the other Spartan Peers begin rapping on the table in protest, which Polynikes ignores.
Even a young Xeo can discern the difference between the two Spartan warriors. There is a lack of self-consciousness in Dienekes which Polynikes doesn’t understand and feels threatened by. His public humiliation of Alexandros begins to cross a line, but Alexandros still stands up under the onslaught.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Finally, Dienekes interjects. He gently asks his protégé why he doesn’t lie like every other boy under questioning. Alexandros replies that the company would see right through him. Polynikes defers to the other Peers, but, with an altered, almost kind tone concludes the “instruction.” He tells Alexandros that war is the gods’ merciful gift, a counterpoint to mankind’s innate depravity. Only war, he argues, not peace, produces virtue. He argues that it purges everything that’s base and selfish in a man, and therefore Alexandros shouldn’t despise it or suppose that mercy and compassion are superior to andreia (manly valor).
Alexandros’s fortitude under pressure is a form of courage, too, although it’s not one that is as readily recognized by Spartans like Polynikes. Polynikes tries to convey to Alexandros that war is a good, purifying force for which mankind should be grateful. Andreia, valor, is the utmost in virtue, and every other virtue pales in comparison to it. Alexandros must be hardened to this truth. It remains to be seen whether he’ll accept this teaching.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Outside the mess hall, Dienekes speaks to Polynikes, demanding to know why he hates Alexandros. Polynikes replies that Alexandros does not love glory, which is the supreme virtue of a warrior. Dienekes tells Polynikes that he hopes Polynikes will “survive as many battles in the flesh as you have already fought in your imagination. Perhaps then you will acquire the humility of a man and bear yourself no longer as the demigod you presume yourself to be.”
Dienekes confronts Polynikes personally. Polynikes indeed resents the young boy’s failure to share his own virtues. But Dienekes calls Polynikes’ love of glory into question. He accuses him of vainglory and thinking much more highly of himself than he ought to do.
Themes
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
After this, Dienekes takes a walk with Alexandros and comforts him, reminding him that Polynikes really would die for him, and that Spartan boys have endured these “harrowings” for centuries: “We spend tears now that we may conserve blood later … He was trying to teach you that discipline of mind that will block out fear” in battle.” Habit is the warrior’s champion.
Polynikes again comforts Alexandros and reminds the boy that he isn’t going through anything unusual for a Spartan. The discipline of mind learned here will only benefit him under the pressures of the battlefield.
Themes
Warfare and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon