After Xeo’s hometown is destroyed by the Argives, he longs to join the Spartans because they are the only warriors who can defeat the Argives. “The Spartans became for [him] the equivalent of avenging gods. [He] couldn’t learn enough about these warriors who had so devastatingly defeated the murderers” of his family. In Xeo’s journeys with the Spartans, he encounters different views of what being a warrior and engaging in battle entail. These views are especially symbolized by Polynikes, who’s focused on the pursuit of individual glory, and his more restrained counterpart, Dienekes, who focuses more on the needs of the whole. As Xeo ceases to idealize the Spartans and eventually finds them to be not gods but his own brothers, Pressfield rejects glorification of war for its own sake and argues that if there’s any beauty to be found in warfare, it exists in brotherhood.
Polynikes serves as an example of a kind of brash, even bloodthirsty courage. Xeo reflects that Polynikes’s courage is “that of a lion or an eagle, something in the blood and the marrow, which […] gloried in its instinctual supremacy.” This kind of courage leads Polynikes to cruelly berate those he sees falling short, as he does to the young Alexandros, Xeo’s friend, on multiple occasions. After subjecting Alexandros to a brutal interrogation in front of the other Spartan Peers, he closes with a short lecture on the nature of warfare. “War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man […] There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods. Do not despise war, my young friend, nor delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor.” Polynikes sees war itself as a sacred force that refines people to become their best selves.
Dienekes’ courage, and King Leonides’, by contrast, is marked by humble virtues and care for one’s brothers before oneself—an ethic that prevails at Thermopylae. Xeo describes Dienekes’ courage as “the virtue of a man, a fallible mortal, who brought valor forth out of the understanding of his heart, by the force of some inner integrity.” Dienekes tries to teach his protegees that this kind of integrity is founded not on passionate heroics, but on “those homely acts of order” that are instilled on Spartans from boyhood. Such acts train warriors to put the unit first and their own interests, including ambition or fear, second.
At Thermopylae, King Leonidas, too, embodies this habit-driven approach to warfare. In his philosophy, “war is work, not mystery. The king confined his instructions to the practical, prescribing actions which could be taken physically, rather than seeking to produce a state of mind, which he knew would evaporate” as soon as his motivating speech ended. Training is not mere distraction or busywork, but the pattern that allows frightened warriors to undertake the critical tasks at hand.
Xeo later reflects on the effect of this deeply-instilled habit in the heat of battle: “Nothing fires the warrior’s heart more with courage than to find himself and his comrades at the point of annihilation, at the brink of being routed and overrun, and then to dredge not merely from one’s own bowels or guts but from one’s own discipline and training the presence of mind not to panic, […] but instead to complete those homely acts of order which Dienekes had ever declared the supreme accomplishment of the warrior: to perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions…” When well-trained warriors come together in such “homely acts,” they effectively become “a beast of one blood and heart” on the battlefield. Habit doesn’t just strengthen the individual soldier for battle—it unites individuals around a common purpose.
Dienekes later admonishes Polynikes that he hopes he will “survive as many battles in the flesh as you have already fought in your imagination. Perhaps then you will acquire the humility of a man and bear yourself no longer as the demigod you presume yourself to be.” In saying this, Dienekes suggests that Polynikes’ understanding of war is too consumed with self-importance and glory. In that respect, it’s not a sufficiently Spartan approach to warfare. It turns out that Polynikes is humbled at Thermopylae; he finds that killing isn’t a game, and that the only redeeming factor about war is the way it binds people together in mutual self-sacrifice.
Warfare and Brotherhood ThemeTracker
Warfare and Brotherhood 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.
We talked for hours in secret on the pursuit of esoterike harmonia, that state of self-composure which the exercises of the phobologia are designed to produce. As a string of the kithera vibrates purely, emitting only that note of the musical scale which is its alone, so must the individual warrior shed all which is superfluous in his spirit, until he himself vibrates at that sole pitch which his individual daimon dictates. The achievement of this ideal, in Lakedaemon, carries beyond courage on the battlefield; it is considered the supreme embodiment of virtue, andreia, of a citizen and a man.
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.
This, I realized now watching Dienekes rally and tend to his men, was the role of the officer—to prevent those under his command, at all stages of battle—before, during and after—from becoming “possessed.” To fire their valor when it flagged and rein in their fury when it threatened to take them out of hand. That was Dienekes’s job […]
His was not, I could see now, the heroism of an Achilles. He was not a superman who waded invulnerably into the slaughter, single-handedly slaying the foe by myriads. He was just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attribute was self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for those whom he led by his example. A job whose objective could be boiled down to the single understatement, as he did at the Hot Gates on the morning he died, of “performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions.”
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.
“Mankind as it is constituted,” Polynikes said, “is a boil and a canker […] Fortunately God in his mercy has provided a counterpoise to our species’ innate depravity. That gift, my young friend, is war.
War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all which is base and ignoble. There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods. Do not despise war, my young friend, nor delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor.”
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.
Nothing fires the warrior’s heart more with courage than to find himself and his comrades at the point of annihilation, at the brink of being routed and overrun, and then to dredge not merely from one’s own bowels or guts but from one’s own discipline and training the presence of mind not to panic, but to yield to the possession of despair, but instead to complete those homely acts of order which Dienekes had ever declared the supreme accomplishment of the warrior: to perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.
“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.”
“Brothers, I’m not a king or a general. I’ve never held rank beyond that of a platoon commander. So I say to you now only what I would say to my own men, knowing the fear that stands unspoken in each heart—not of death, but worse, of faltering or failing, of somehow proving unworthy in this, the ultimate hour […] Here is what you do, friends. Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him. That’s all I know. That’s all I can tell you.”