Though Pressfield is not heavy-handed in his portrayal of Greece as the traditional birthplace of democracy, he does portray King Leonidas and the Spartans as fledgling freedom-fighters, in contrast to the enslaving Xerxes and the masses of soldiers Xerxes compels to dominate Asia and Europe on his behalf. More than a political or historical point, Pressfield uses the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes to make a point about the nature of leadership itself. He argues that by struggling alongside them and even suffering on their behalf, true leaders earn their people’s loyalty—a loyalty more enduring than that which is compelled through outward strength and dominance alone.
King Leonidas portrays Xerxes as his opposite—himself as a king who earns loyalty through his actions and Xerxes as a tyrant who commands his subjects’ loyalty by force. Leonidas’s devoted followers echo this characterization. In a speech to the Spartans, Leonidas tells his men that Xerxes is not a king like himself. “He does not take his place with shield and spear amid the manslaughter, but looks on, safe, from a distance, atop a hill, upon a golden throne […] His comrades are not Peers and Equals, free to speak their minds before him without fear, but slaves and chattel […] [Xerxes] seeks nothing more noble than to make all other men slaves.” In other words, Xerxes rules from dominance, and Leonidas rules based on a foundation of camaraderie, as a brother-in-arms.
Near the end of the book, a dying Xeo, who has an audience with Xerxes himself, dares to utter a similar claim to the Persian king’s face: “I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field […] A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. […] He serves them, not they him.” If Xerxes is really interested in what compelled the Spartans to put up their hopeless defense at Thermopylae, in other words, he must grasp this foreign philosophy of kingship.
The difference in King Leonidas and Xerxes’s leadership styles reinforces the respective nations’ philosophies of governance—the Spartans’ based on burgeoning democracy and the Persians’ on tyranny. Leonidas describes the coming battle at Thermopylae as a confrontation between altogether different kinds of nations. He predicts that the battle against the Persians will be a day “when we teach [them] once and for all what valor free men can bring to bear against slaves, no matter how vast their numbers or how fiercely they are driven on by their child-king’s whip.” Torrents of soldiers under compulsion, in other words, can’t stand up to a valiant force who believe in their cause and willingly surrender their lives for it.
Remembering Leonidas, Xeo later tells Xerxes, “That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free. His Majesty may ask, as Rooster did […] why one of such condition would die for those not of his kin and country. The answer is, they were my kin and country. I set down my life with gladness, and would do it again a hundred times, for Leonidas, for Dienekes and Alexandros […] I and every man there were never more free” than when they gave up their freedom for the Spartan cause. Xeo’s own story of giving himself to the Spartan cause illustrates the difference between a tyrant and a true leader. Only the latter can inspire authentic loyalty, because a true leader respects and elevates the humanity of his followers.
On the final day at Thermopylae, Leonidas tells his doomed men that their valiant deaths will give priceless hope to the rest of Greece: “in the face of these insuperable odds, we transform vanquishment into victory […] Our role today is what we all knew it was when we embraced our wives and children and turned our feet upon the march-out: to stand and die.” It’s the King’s willingness to suffer and die alongside his men that changes Xeo’s view of the Spartans over the course of the book—from seeing them as mere killing machines to brothers for whom he is willing to die himself, even when he is granted the freedom to leave at the last moment.
Kingship, Loyalty, and Freedom ThemeTracker
Kingship, Loyalty, and Freedom Quotes in Gates of Fire
What kind of men were these Spartans, who in three days had slain before His Majesty’s eyes no fewer than twenty thousand of His most valiant warriors? Who were these foemen, who had taken with them to the house of the dead ten, or as some reports said, as many as twenty for every one of their own fallen? What were they like as men? Whom did they love? What made them laugh? His Majesty knew they feared death, as all men. By what philosophy did their minds embrace it? Most to the point, His Majesty said, He wished to acquire a sense of the individuals themselves, the real flesh-and-blood men whom He had observed from above the battlefield, but only indistinctly, from a distance, as indistinguishable identities concealed within the blood- and gore-begrimed carapaces of their helmets and armor.
Listen to me, brothers. The Persian is not a king as Kleomenes was to us or as I am to you now. He does not take his place with shield and spear amid the manslaughter, but looks on, safe, from a distance, atop a hill, upon a golden throne […] His comrades are not Peers and Equals, free to speak their minds before him without fear, but slaves and chattel […] The King has tasted defeat at the Hellenes’ hands, and it is bitter to his vanity. He comes now to revenge himself, but he comes not as a man worthy of respect, but as a spoiled and petulant child, in its tantrum when a toy is snatched from it by a playmate. I spit on this King’s crown. I wipe my ass on his throne, which is the seat of a slave and which seeks nothing more noble than to make all other men slaves.
High above the armies, a man of between thirty and forty years could be descried plainly, in robes of purple fringed with gold, mounting the platform and assuming his station upon the throne […] He looked like a man come to watch an entertainment. A pleasantly diverting show, one whose outcome was foreordained and yet which promised a certain level of amusement. He took his seat. A sunshade was adjusted by his servants. We could see a table of refreshments placed at his side and, upon his left, several writing desks set into place, each manned by a secretary.
Obscene gestures and shouted insults rose from four thousand Greek throats.
“A most impressive testimony of faith, my lord,” the prince spoke after some moments. “Such devout orations cannot fail to sustain your men’s courage. For an hour. Until darkness and fatigue efface the passion of the moment, and fear for themselves and their families resurfaces, as it must, within their hearts.”
The noble repeated with emphasis his report of the mountain track and the Ten Thousand. He declared that if the hand of the gods was at all present in this day’s events, it was not their benevolence seeking to preserve the Hellenic defenders but their perverse and unknowable will acting to detach them from their reason. Surely a commander of Leonidas’s sagacity perceived this, as clearly as he, lifting his glace to the cliff of Kallidromos, could behold there upon the rock the scores of lightning scars…
“Why do we remain in this place? A man would have to be cracked not to ask that question. Is it for glory? If it were for that alone, believe me, brothers, I’d be the first to wheel my ass to the foe and trot like hell over that hill. […] If we had withdrawn from these Gates today, brothers, no matter what prodigies of valor we had performed up till now, this battle would have been perceived as a defeat. A defeat which would have confirmed for all Greece that which the enemy most wishes her to believe: the futility of resistance to the Persian and his millions. If we had saved our skins today, one by one the separate cities would have caved in behind us, until the whole of Hellas had fallen.”
I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field […] A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him […] That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.
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.