Though Gates of Fire is very much dominated by male characters, women play a surprisingly prominent role throughout. Speaking of what prompted the monumental battle at Thermopylae, Xeo readily acknowledges that “In the end it was their women who galvanized the Spartans into action.” Though female characters are largely viewed through the eyes of male characters in the novel, Pressfield argues that women were the major inspiration for Spartan actions and character in war and beyond.
Women’s decisions set the course of the war, on both governmental and personal levels. After the Spartans skulk home in shame from Tempe, having expected to clash with the Persians but never actually drawing blood, the wives of Sparta mock their husbands’ inaction as disgraceful and even blasphemous. “A delegation of wives and mothers presented itself to the ephors [senior magistrates], 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.” This savage insult finally prompts King Leonidas and his advisers to send 300 warriors on a suicidal mission against the Persians at Thermopylae. It also suggests an ambivalence in the Spartans’ attitudes toward their women—both that they desire the women’s respect and that being shown up by women (who were considered inferior to men) is a deep insult that can’t go unanswered. The rulers answer it by initiating war, showing just how consequential women’s voices could be.
When the krypteia (a secret squad that eliminates troublemakers) hunts down Rooster and is about to summarily execute him as a conspirator, the lady Arete intervenes at the last moment. She persuades the men to release her nephew Rooster and to recognize his son as her husband Dienekes’s offspring, though this revelation brings shame on both Dienekes and herself. Because of Spartan laws about who was permitted to go into battle (in this case, only those with male offspring), “it was this infant whose life would mean Dienekes’ death,” and the deaths of others associated with his household. Though affronted by her intrusion, this squad of assassins listens to Arete, admires her principle, and follows her advice—showing women’s courageous ability to influence the course of battle on a more personal level, too.
Women’s character—or at least men’s idealization of women’s character—motivates the warriors’ fighting and sets the tone for the nation as a whole. While contemplating the nature of courage on the eve of battle, the youth Ariston suggests, “What could be more contrary to female nature, to motherhood, than to stand unmoved and unmoving as her sons march off to death […] [That] the women, from some source unknown to us, summon the will to conquer this their own deepest nature is, I believe, the reason we stand in awe of our mothers and sisters and wives.” Alexandros, in turn, proposes that “What elevates such an act to the stature of nobility is, I believe, that it is performed in the service of a higher and more selfless cause […] Is it not this element—the nobility of setting the whole above the part—that moves us about women’s sacrifice?” Ariston and Alexandros both read the women’s behavior as a female expression of Spartan selflessness. However much it is praised and held up as motivation, for the men there is a mystifying aspect to women’s actions; they can only interpret their female counterparts at a distance and through the lens of their own experience.
Later, in an elaboration of Alexandros’s insight, Xeo gives Leonidas’s reasoning for the selection of the 300 Thermopylae warriors—Leonidas chose each of them because of the character of the women they would leave behind. Leonidas explains to Arete that “the Spartans will look to the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the fallen. If they behold your hearts riven and broken with grief, they, too, will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed, not alone enduring your loss but seizing it with contempt for its agony and embracing it as the honor that it is in truth, then Sparta will stand. And all Hellas will stand behind her […] you and your sisters of the Three Hundred are the mothers now of all Greece, and of freedom itself.” In other words, it’s up to the grief-stricken survivors to ensure that Greece and its values stand firm after the 300 fall. While this affirms the high esteem with which Spartan men regarded their women, Leonidas’s charge, too, puts women on a pedestal and places a great burden on them based on his idealization of them.
While, on one hand, Spartan men—everyone from lowly squire Xeo to King Leonidas—has a very high view of Spartan women, one could argue that, like the 300 themselves, the wives and mothers are conscripted for a cause they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. The feelings of female characters about the Persian Wars aren’t explored at great depth in the novel. Nevertheless, even though women are mostly seen through the eyes of male characters, they clearly act with self-possession and bravery on many occasions. By portraying them in this way, Pressfield deliberately shines a light on the fact that, even if their names aren’t as readily remembered, women were major actors in the events of history.
Female Strength and Influence ThemeTracker
Female Strength and Influence Quotes in Gates of Fire
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.
Put this fatigue-spawned dream from your mind, Your Majesty. It is a false dream, a phantasm. Let the Greeks degrade themselves by resort to superstition. We must be men and commanders, exploiting oracles and portents when they suit the purposes of reason and dismissing them when they do not […] If you retire now, Lord, the Greeks will say it was because you feared a dream and an oracle.
“The gods make us love whom we will not,” the lady declared, “and disrequite whom we will. They slay those who should live and spare those who deserve to die. They give with one hand and take with the other, answerable only to their own unknowable laws […] Now, inspired by blind impulse,” she spoke toward me, “I have saved the life of this boy, my brother’s bastard’s son, and lost my husband’s in the process.”
“Now consider, friends, that which we call women’s courage.
What could be more contrary to female nature, to motherhood, than to stand unmoved and unmoving as her sons march off to death? Must not every sinew of the mother’s flesh call out in agony and affront at such an outrage? Must not her heart seek to cry in its passion, ‘No! Not my son! Spare him!’ That women, from some source unknown to use, summon the will to conquer this their own deepest nature is, I believe, the reason we stand in awe of our mothers and sisters and wives. This, I believe, Dienekes, is the essence of women’s courage and why it, as you suggested, is superior to men’s.”
“The goddess unbound her veil and let it fall. Will you understand, Xeo, if I say that what was revealed, the face beyond the veil, was nothing less than that reality which exists beneath the world of flesh? […] I understood that our roles as humans was to embody here, upon this shadowed and sorrow-bound side of the Veil, those qualities which arise from beyond and are the same on both sides, ever-sustaining, eternal and divine. Do you understand, Xeo? Courage, selflessness, compassion and love.”
She drew up and smiled.
“You think I’m loony, don’t you? I’ve gone cracked with religion. Like a woman.”