What did the Spartans have that made it possible for 300 elite soldiers to take on a Persian army at least 300,000 in size? That has been a burning question throughout history.
There’s an anecdote I’ve heard in a podcast episode from Seth Godin where he describes a question & answer session with author Stephen King. Someone asks Mr. King what pencil he uses to write his novels, as if buying that same pencil will endow the questioner with the same powers.
We all know a certain type of sword for the Spartans or a certain type pencil for Stephen King is not what gives these people an advantage. It’s something inside. But what could possible exist in a people to where they could take on an empire?
This type of inquiry reminds me of a book I read and loved last year called Living with a SEAL. In the book, Jesse Itzler describes a 100-mile relay race that he runs with some friends. There is a man at the race who doesn’t bring any friends to trade off the running. He is there to run 100 miles by himself. He has crackers and some water, that’s it. During the race, he breaks the metatarsal bones in his feet and begins peeing blood at mile 70. He finishes all 100 miles. Jesse was so intrigued that he had to find out what made this feat possible. He then invites the Navy SEAL, David Goggins, to live with him for a month on the condition that he do everything the SEAL says. The result is a great book about what makes David Goggins tick. (Hint, it’s not his running shoes.)
So, how does one go about writing a book about the Spartans? How does one go about finding out what made them tick? Steven Pressfield, the author of Gates of Fire, approaches the topic as a novel as opposed to non-fiction. The narrator of this novel is someone who grows up outside of Spartan culture, but has always been intrigued (much like anyone reading this book). When discussing Gates of Fire in a recent podcast episode, Pressfield said the Spartan culture was so different from ours, that writing a non-fiction book and just describing the people would have shocked people. Instead, by introducing the reader to the Spartans in the form of a boy who slowly gets to know them and then become one of the 300 soldiers, the reader is slowly introduced to the Spartans.
Pressfield relies on historical writings and modern-day research about the Spartans to paint an amazing picture of the Battle of Thermopylae, an historical battle between the Greeks and Persians that took place in 480 BC. It’s not just how they trained, their weapons, or their bravery, but it’s about their mentality, the strength of their women, their beliefs, and the humility of their king, Leonidas. I’m sure Pressfield took great liberties in writing the story, but he also highlighted common misconceptions about the battle (for example, many people think it was 300 Spartans vs an army of 2 million Persians, but the Spartans each had slaves (helots) and a few other groups of Greeks fighting with them and the Persians were likely more around the 300,000 number).
The result is a book rich in detail about the Battle of Thermopylae, an extraordinarily entertaining story, and deep and challenging dialogue. We get to see people from different walks of life (not all Spartans) join the 300 final soldiers. Pressfield even asks the question of how King Leonidas chose the 300 soldiers out of all of his options. The answer was interesting, and perhaps even true. Another major question in the book is “What is the opposite of fear?” The answer is also a good one, and well-worth the read.
Gates of Fire was suggested by Chris Fussell in Tools of Titans. Fussell is a former SEAL and aide-de-camp of General Stanley McChrystal and states that this book is a “classic in the special operations community.” It’s easy to see why. What made the Spartans great is a lot of what we saw in the previous book, About Face. Selflessness, fighting for your brother on your left and your right, focus on the basics. This book was a great companion to About Face.
This year’s Books of Titans reading list has included a good number of fiction and non-fiction war books. There are pros and cons to both, but this one stands out as one of the best.