Gates of Fire


Steven Pressfield

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Gates of Fire: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

When the Three Hundred reached Opountian Lokris, ten miles from Thermopylae, having been joined by various allied fighting units along the way, they find a deserted countryside. Most of the populace have taken refuge in the hills, and local chieftains have gone over to the Persians. It’s determined that the Lokrians and neighboring Phokians had reckoned the date wrong, thinking the Spartans weren’t coming. They encounter many other desperate refugees, many of whom weep with relief at the sight of the Spartans. The Spartans’ sense of urgency mounts, and they quicken their pace.
All of Greece is in an uproar over the anticipated Persian invasion. The pressure is on the Spartans to rescue all of Greece from the foreign onslaught—in order to do so, they will be forced to unite as soldiers and confront the intimidating onslaught.
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Kingship, Loyalty, and Freedom Theme Icon
On the outskirts of Thermopylae, in the village of Alpenoi, the army discovers that residents have set up makeshift shops—a bakery, a tavern, and even a brothel. The Persians haven’t been seen yet. Leonidas sends out raiding parties to destroy or seize anything that the enemy could use. He also sends out reconnaissance units to map the area. In the meantime, a frightening prodigy occurs. A Theban soldier steps on a nest of venomous baby snakes and dies in agony. The seer, Megistias, interprets the prodigy: the man, whose name is Perses, symbolizes the Persians, who are soon to be brought low by the Spartans.
The Spartans begin making camp and preparing for the Persians to appear. Once again, an apparent sign from heaven gives mixed messages. The snakebite would seem to be a terrible omen at first, but the seer interprets things with a more encouraging spin. It’s easy to see how such small signs could set the tone for the entire army.
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While various engineers wrangle over how best to construct a protective fortification, Leonidas simply begins hauling boulders into place himself. Soon the men are eagerly working alongside him, cheered by their king’s encouraging words. Later that night, an outlaw is brought in. Xeo knows him—a fellow named “Ball Player” who’d wandered the hills outside Astakos after their town was destroyed. He’s eager to profit from the war in any way he can, including scouting for pay. Leonidas sends him and Hound, a Spartan ranger, to climb Kallidromos, the 3,000-foot mountain that towers above Thermopylae. Soon the Phokian and Lokrian allies show up and join the camp.
This is another example of Leonidas’s approach to kingship—taking the lead in accomplishing what needs to be done and thereby encouraging his men. There is a marked contrast between Xeo’s and Ball Player’s paths in life. His experience as a refugee prompted Xeo to join the Spartans and do whatever he could to help protect people as vulnerable as he once was. Ball Player just wants to benefit from the war in some way. But Ball Player is quickly conscripted By Leonidas anyway.
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A local merchant and sailor who’s hanging around the camp begins telling stories about the Persians he’s seen while briefly taken captive. He describes massive stores of weapons, supplies, and even sky-high mountains of paper for inventory. Soon Dienekes shows up and begins listening to the story. The merchant, warming to his story and his audience’s fear, describes Persian archery practice: “so numerous were the multitudes of bowmen that when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun!” To this, Dienekes responds with apparent boredom: “Good. Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.” Later that night, rangers return with news that the Persians are advancing.
This Dienekes quote was originally recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. It’s impossible to know if the historical Dienekes actually did say anything like ths, but it seems to be characteristic of the Spartan fondness for concise quips. More to the point, Dienekes won’t let fearmongering put him aside from the larger purpose and hopes his men will follow his lead.
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