That night, Dienekes is restless. Xeo watches his master give up sleep and join the king’s fireside. Xeo looks across the slumbering camp and thinks about Thermopylae. The “hot gates” have hosted battles for centuries, everything from clashes between hill tribes to barbarian invaders: “The tides of war and peace had alternated in this site for centuries, bathers and warriors, one come for the waters, the other for blood.”
The “hot gates,” or “gates of fire,” have been a site of civilizational strife for many years. Xeo is struck by the contrast between the peaceful retreat some have found here and the mayhem the warriors are about to face.
As Alexandros stirs awake, he gazes toward the king’s fireside as well and wonders aloud, “How will we do? […] Will we find the answer to Dienekes’ question? Will we discover within ourselves ‘the opposite of fear?’”
Alexandros’s natural transparency comes through as he speaks what Xeo and others are no doubt thinking. As a good lifelong student of Dienekes, he hopes he’ll leave up to the warrior’s ideal and not succumb to fear.
Three days before the march to Sparta, Dienekes had taken his platoon on a hunt. As the warriors gather around the campfire that night, Dienekes raises the subject of fear. All his life, he has been preoccupied with fear’s opposite. But this “opposite,” he says, cannot simply be fearlessness, or playing off fear of death against fear of disgrace. And the gods cannot help, because they do not have flesh, “the factory of fear.”
Xeo backtracks to an event several days ago in order to provide context for Alexandros’s question. Dienekes gives an impromptu lecture to some of the younger warriors, explaining what fearlessness is not.
Dienekes tells the youthful warriors that veterans are not exempt from fear; in fact, they feel it more keenly, because they have more experience of it. Although he always manages to cobble together courage in battle, the best he can do is to act despite his terror.
Dienekes doesn’t pretend to the younger warriors that he’s free from fear. In fact, knowing more of the realities of war than they do, he’s more vulnerable to it than they are.
Achilles, Dienekes says, was mostly invulnerable. Therefore, he cannot be said to have possessed true andreia. Polynikes, too, though the bravest of the Spartans, fights out of “greed for glory,” which also isn’t true andreia. In fact, the person who possesses pure andreia, more than any other he has known, is his wife, Arete, and Alexandros’s mother, Paraleia. Dienekes suspects that the women’s “higher valor” holds the key to his question about fear.
The famed hero of the Iliad, Dienekes argues, didn’t have to face such fear and so cannot be said to have possessed real courage, either. And courage seems also to require the proper goal, which cannot be something like Polynikes’ vainglory. Surprisingly, Dienekes attributes the greatest of “manly valor” to women.
At this, the youthful warrior Ariston speaks up. He argues that men, from the time they are boys, instinctually fight. In the same way, he says, women naturally bear and nurture children. What, then, “could be more contrary to female nature, to motherhood, than to stand unmoved and unmoving as her sons march off to death?” By somehow summoning the will to act against their natures in this way, the women demonstrate that their courage is, in fact, superior to men’s.
Ariston argues that motherhood and nurture are natural to women in the same way that fighting is natural to men, so sending their men off to death demands far greater valor from women.
Then Alexandros speaks up. He argues that there’s more to women’s courage than Ariston has said. It’s not just that women send their sons and husbands off to war without weeping, but that they do this in service of a higher cause: donating their men’s lives for the sake of the nation. This willingness to set the whole above the part, Alexandros argues, is what’s so admirable about women’s sacrifice. Dienekes promises to later tell them a story about Leonidas that will give them insight both into women’s courage and into the question of fear overall.
Alexandros perceives something lacking in Ariston’s claim. He argues that it’s the goal of women’s sacrifice that makes it truly courageous. They display the essentially Spartan ability to suffer for the sake of the larger whole.
Back in the present, a Persian messenger suddenly approaches the camp. He requests an audience with four Spartan officers: Olympieus, Aristodemos, Polynikes, and Dienekes. It turns out that the messenger is Ptammitechus, “Tommie,” the Egyptian marine the Spartan officers had met on embassy a few years ago. Tommie is accompanied by his young son, who speaks Attic Greek and interprets the exchange. Tommie has a message from King Xerxes for the Spartans alone. Olympieus tells him that his message must be delivered to the Greeks as a whole.
After this digression on fear and courage, it appears that war is finally getting underway with the arrival of the Egyptian envoy. The Spartans refuse to do any business with him without letting all their Greek allies be party to it as well, highlighting the sense of unity they share.
With a friendly manner, Tommie begs the Greeks not to resort to bloodshed, in light of the Persians’ evident superiority. He warns them that “death alone awaits [them] here.” If they surrender to the Persians, they will be ruled with respect; more than that, Xerxes will grant the Spartans dominion over Greece and grant them whatever they ask. The allies hold their breaths as they listen to this exchange.
If the Spartans surrender to the Persians with a promise of being able to rule Greece, they will betray their Greek allies—an act that will diminish the deep sense of brotherhood and community they hold with their kinfolk.
Tommie continues to beg the Spartans not to act out of pride. He describes Xerxes’ ambitions for Persia. Greece is merely the beginning; having conquered Asia, he now has his gaze fixed on Europe. If the Spartans join forces with the Persians, he promises, they will be fellow world-conquerors. At this, an elderly Spartan in a homespun cloak steps forward. He suggests that, instead, Xerxes surrender to the Greeks, as they will not fail to match Xerxes’ generosity. Tommie asks that he be taken to the King instead of wasting further time in this discussion. The old man explains that it’s no use, as the King is a crusty old drunk. Tommie realizes with amusement that the elderly speaker is Leonidas himself.
Leonidas, in disguise, is speaking up on the basis of the Spartan law that all are considered peers and equals. Doing this, while humorous, also highlights the Spartan emphasis on freedom, which is the very reason they can’t surrender to the Persians. No matter what promises are made, they would effectively be servants of the Persians. Leonidas’s common disguise is also in keeping with his view of kingship.
Accepting the outcome of the exchange, Ptammitechus offers Leonidas a gift before he leaves: a heavy golden goblet that had belonged to an ancestor of the Spartans. He exchanges sorrowful glances with the unyielding Spartans, and the men take their leave, until they meet again in battle.
There is no inherent enmity between the Spartans and those of other nations; the gift appears to be a genuine, meaningful gesture. But the higher value of freedom trumps the kind gesture.