Gates of Fire

by

Steven Pressfield

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Gates of Fire can help.

Gates of Fire: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Xeo, Diomache, and Bruxieus spend months drifting through the wilderness. Diomache is never quite the same. They occasionally run into other refugees in the hills, and they try to regain a sense of Astakiot fellow-feeling, “but the extinction of our polis had severed those happy bonds forever.” It’s everyone for himself.
Xeo and his family continue to live as refugees and can’t regain a sense of identity, even when they reunite with others in the same situation. The destruction of their home shatters their self-conception.
Themes
Cities, Identity, and Belonging Theme Icon
As the year wears on and the refugees struggle to find food, Xeo has thoughts of vengeance against those who killed his family and shamed his cousin. He vows that he will live among the Spartans and someday slay the Argives. He also vows that he will someday marry Diomache, who’s convinced that she is ruined, so that he can protect her. While begging at a farm, Xeo hears the story of a spectacular Spartan victory and thinks of them as “avenging gods.”
Xeo continues to daydream about the Spartans as “avenging gods” who will set right everything that’s gone wrong in his life. This perception will develop as he grows. He also loves his older cousin, which is unsurprising, as she’s the only woman in his life and he feels responsible for failing to protect her.
Themes
Cities, Identity, and Belonging Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
One day, starving, Xeo gets caught stealing a goose. The farmers nail him to a board, driving tanning spikes through his palms. At this point in his story, Xeo stops speaking. At Xerxes’ inquiry, Xeo explains that he’s listing for the gods’ direction as to how he should proceed; he’s being prompted to change his tack.
Xeo comes to his own traumatic memory of torture. His attentiveness to the gods’ prompting is apparent again; the story is being shaped and directed by them and through their eyes.
Themes
Faith and Divine Intervention Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Xeo relates a story of something that happened in Sparta two years later—a Spartan boy, Teriander, or “Tripod,” was beaten to death by his drill instructor. Ten other boys had been whipped that day, not for stealing (a skill in which the boys are encouraged), but for getting caught stealing. The boys are allowed to give in when they can no longer bear the pain, but Tripod refuses, having passed beyond reason and willing to die instead. The drill instructors knock him unconscious to preserve his life, but Tripod dies moments later.
It’s not immediately clear what Xeo’s digression relates to, and his skipping in time can be confusing to follow. He goes straight from his own fearful experience of pain to watching Spartan warriors-in-training facing similar trials two years later. This begins to convey something of the brutal Spartan training program and what it demands of young boys.
Themes
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Get the entire Gates of Fire LitChart as a printable PDF.
Gates of Fire PDF
Later that evening, 12-year-old Alexandros, who was Tripod’s close friend, takes a walk with his mentor, Dienekes. Since Xeo is in Alexandros’s service by this time, he trails along behind. Dienekes speaks comforting words to his protégé and tutors him in the nature of fear. He tells Alexandros that the purpose of the beating was not to break Tripod’s spirit, but to harden his mind against pain. He further explains that fear arises from one’s flesh, and that the flesh belongs not to oneself, but to the gods, to one’s family, and to the city.
Xeo serves a young spartan trainee, Alexandros, who in turn is mentored by the warrior Dienekes. These two men will be important throughout Xeo’s life among the Spartans. Dienekes wants Alexandros to understand that the Spartan training isn’t about cruelty; it has to do primarily with the mind. Spartans don’t fundamentally belong to themselves alone. Their identity is their city.
Themes
Cities, Identity, and Belonging Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Dienekes goes on the explain to Alexandros that what Tripod displayed that day was more reckless than brave; he cost the city his own life. Nevertheless, there was something noble about Tripod’s contempt for suffering. Dienekes hugs the weeping Alexandros, then closes their talk with the reminder that “there is a force beyond fear. More powerful than self-preservation.”
This reckless madness in the face of fear and suffering is something Dienekes will speak against in the future, but it’s not without a certain nobility. For now, he doesn’t identify this “force beyond fear” except to acknowledge that it’s there. Dienekes’ tenderness toward his protégé further contrasts with the brutality of the physical training.
Themes
Cities, Identity, and Belonging Theme Icon
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon
Xeo returns to the story of what happened in the barn. He screams disgracefully, but the farmers take no pity, leaving him nailed there. Finally, after dark, Diomache sneaks in and releases him; his hands are mangled, and Bruxieus carries him off.
Xeo, in his ordeal in the barn, was unacquainted with this “force beyond fear”—at the time he knew only agony. His suffering parallels what Diomache went through and will be similarly formative in his life.
Themes
Fear, Courage, and Love Theme Icon