In the ancient Greek context of Gates of Fire, which centers on the Battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and Persians in 480 B.C., cities were everything. A city was not just a geographic home, but the environment in which people forged relationships, learned their culture, and formed their sense of identity. To lose a city was really to lose one’s self. This is what befalls the main character, Xeo, who is a young refugee at the start of the book. Through Xeo’s and other outcasts’ experience of exile, and then of seeking and ultimately finding a home in Sparta, Pressfield argues that having a “city” is vital for identity, but that such identity need not be strictly tied to citizenship.
In the first part of the book, Xeo is cityless. When Xeo’s hometown of Astakos is destroyed by the Argives—Greek allies who’ve betrayed his people—he also loses his sense of identity, lamenting, “Our city, my city. Now it was effaced utterly. We who called ourselves Astakiots were effaced with it. Without a city, who were we?” In the aftermath, as Xeo, his cousin Diomache, and their family’s elderly former slave, Bruxieus, wander the hills struggling to survive, they try to recreate a sense of community with other refugees: “We would run into them at the springs and try to resume the fellow-feeling we had shared as Astakiots. But the extinction of our polis had severed those happy bonds forever. It was every man for himself now; every clan, every kin group.” Without the familiar structures of the city, there is no built-in basis for relating; survival becomes a largely individual matter.
When Xeo admits his cowardice to Bruxieus, Bruxieus tells the boy that it’s too difficult to summon courage in isolation. “Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.” In this view, not only community, but even humanity is unattainable without the home and spiritual foundation that one’s city provides. As they forage for survival, Bruxieus worries that Xeo and Diomache are becoming “wild, cityless,” and tutors them in Homer and in compassion, making them recite the most moving scenes from the Iliad. He decides that they must have a city, or else “we were no better than the wild brutes we hunted and killed.” He makes them go to Athens to rebuild a life for themselves.
By the end of the book, Xeo and other characters find an adoptive city—and newfound identities—in Sparta. When Spartan warrior Dienekes gives Xeo the opportunity to leave Thermopylae before the deciding battle, having never compelled his service, Xeo refuses. When fellow outcast Rooster protests that “theirs is not your city. You owe it nothing,” Xeo can only reply that “the decision had been made years ago” when he decided to join Sparta as a homeless boy. He later explains to Persia’s King Xerxes that “I and every man there were never more free than when we gave […] obedience” to Spartan law, and that by surrendering himself to this law, he has been given new life. Xeo is not a Spartan citizen, yet he willingly claims it as his city, to the extent of being willing to die for it.
Rooster, who has hated Sparta all his life and chafed under his helot (slave) status, finally finds acceptance among the Spartans when he joins Xeo and several other Spartans on a raid into the Persian camp. He is even graciously encouraged by Sparta’s King Leonidas to register his son with a foreign, Messenian name. Moved to tears, he gives his son a Spartan name instead, and after his emancipation, he is later revealed to have become a Spartan warrior himself. His resentful outcast status has been transformed into whole-hearted allegiance by these brotherly gestures.
Elephantinos, a wandering merchant in Thermopylae who’s caught unawares by the arriving Spartan army, adopts the warriors as sons and spends his last days cheering and helping them, even dying for them in the end: “I have searched all my life for that which you have possessed from birth, a noble city to belong to […] This will be my city. I will be her magistrate and her physician, her orphans’ father and her fool.” Though a minor character, Elephantinos, too, is a touching example of how belonging, however short-lived, can be discovered in unlikely situations.
At the last battle, Spartans and allies from other Greek nations exchange their shields with one another until “all distinction between the nations had been effaced.” This symbolic action, on the eve of their deaths, is far from a throwaway gesture. In light of the importance Greeks attached to their cities, it’s a significant gesture of brotherhood, based on the trust formed in the thick of battle. This reinforces Pressfield’s argument that identification with cities is important, but that those “cities” may take an unconventional form.
Cities, Identity, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Cities, Identity, and Belonging Quotes in Gates of Fire
This I learned then: there is always fire.
An acrid haze hangs in the air night and day, and sulphurous smoke chokes the nostrils […] The pitilessness of flame reinforces the sensation of the gods’ anger, of fate, retribution, deeds done and hell to pay.
All is the obverse of what it had been.
Things are fallen which had stood upright. Things are free which should be bound, and bound which should be free. Things which had been hoarded in secret now blow and tumble in the open, and those who had hoarded them watch with dull eyes and let them go.
“Listen to me, boy. Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.”
Bruxieus began to fear for us. We were growing wild. Cityless. In evenings past, Bruxieus had recited Homer and made it a game how many verses we could repeat without a slip. Now this exercise took on a deadly earnestness for him. He was failing, we all knew it. He would not be with us much longer. Everything he knew, he must pass on.
Homer was our school, the Iliad and Odyssey the texts of our curriculum […] Bruxieus tutored us relentlessly in compassion, that virtue which he saw diminishing each day within our mountain-hardened hearts […]
We must have a city, Bruxieus declared.
Without a city we were no better than the wild brutes we hunted and killed.
I had never seen the city in such a state as in the aftermath of that debacle. Heroes with prizes of valor skulked about, while their women snapped at them with scorn and held themselves aloof and disdainful […] To marshal such a magnificent force, garland it before the gods, transport it all that way and not draw blood, even one’s own, this was not merely disgraceful but, the wives declared, blasphemous.
The women’s scorn excoriated the city. A delegation of wives and mothers presented itself to the ephors, insisting that they themselves be sent out next time, armed with hairpins and distaffs, since surely the women of Sparta could disgrace themselves no more egregiously nor accomplish less than the vaunted Ten Thousand.
“When I first came to Lakedaemon and they called me ‘Suicide,’ I hated it. But in time I came to see its wisdom, unintentional as it was. For what can be more noble than to slay oneself? Not literally. Not with a blade in the guts. But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin. That, I saw, was the victory you Spartans had gained over yourselves […] When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime.”
That peculiar Hellenic form of government called democratia, rule of the people, had plunged its roots deep, nurtured by the blood of war […] To the Greeks, victory was proof of the might and majesty of their gods. These deities, which to our more civilized understanding appear vain and passion-possessed, riddled with folly and so pretty to humanlike faults and foibles as to be unworthy of being called divine, to the Greeks embodied and personified their belief in that which was, if grander than human in scale, yet human in spirit and essence. The Greeks’ sculpture and athletics celebrated the human form, their literature and music human passion, their discourse and philosophy human reason.