The description of the heroism displayed approximately 2,500 years ago was the focus of Steven Pressfield's 1998 tour de force,Gates of Fire. Unquestionably, one of the finest books about the legendary three-day defense of the Pass of Thermopylae, it has received many accolades worlwide. Its status as a classic was elevated even more so, when it became required reading in college and university programs around the world. Interest by readers who wish for an adaptation for the motion pictures still continues unabated.
This book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world and not surprisingly, was and is loved by the nation of Greece. As a testament to the impact of Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield was made an honorary citizen of Sparta, the journal of which can be read below.
His books on ancient Greece are accepted readings by many universities, as the topics covered include not only the aforementioned Battle of Thermopylae, but the Peloponnesian Wars and campaigns of Alexander the Great as well. However, S.P. has probably received more questions about a Gates of Fire movie more than any other. I was fortunate to conduct a 'Questions & Answers'session with Mr. Pressfield, where we discussed this topic, including several others, including his latest Killing Rommel.
MY BIG FAT GREEK BOOK TOUR
(Reprinted with permission from Steven Pressfield)
(In which Pressfield, to his great delight and appreciation, is made an honorary citizen by the city of Sparta). An informal journal:
Saturday, September 6
I'm wrapping up a golf trip in Scotland, schlepping my bag to Inverness at six in the morning to catch a flight to Athens. Only the airport computers have crashed. I miss my connection at Gatwick, have to go back through Passport Control, collect my bags (except they've been lost so I wait three hours), then catch a shuttle bus (an hour and a half) to Heathrow because there are no more connecting flights. At Heathrow I recheck my bags and board another plane. Meanwhile my friend Joanna and the publicist from my Greek publisher are waiting at Athens, I have no way to tell them I'm late, and with the new security regulations, the airlines are forbidden to inform friends of who's on what flight. We're all screwed. The good news: British Airways gives me a free coupon, good for the bus ride from Gatwick to Heathrow.
Sunday and Monday, September 7 and 8
Anna Pataki is my publisher. She picks me up at midnight at the new airport. When I first flew into Athens seven years ago, I couldn't find my hotel in the dark; I was lost in the city; my girlfriend Carol was flying in next morning; at all costs I couldn't let her arrive, eighteen hours from L.A., and find no one there to meet her. I wound up sleeping in the airport parking lot in our rental Fiat. That was the old airport. The new one has been built for the Olympics. Anna whisks me away, along German-built freeways, to a charming boutique hotel called the St. George Lycabettus, with a spectacular view over the city. Anna is young, smart, on top of everything -- and cute too. She handles fiction, non-fiction and lots of other stuff at Patakis, my Greek publisher. "My father started the company in 1974," she explains, "After the dictatorship." After the dictatorship. It's a phrase I will hear again.
Monday morning. I've never been on a book tour before. Never been interviewed by journalists back-to-back-to-back. I can tell they've all done this a thousand times (each one knows which nook and cranny at the hotel they usually go to), but I still want to give fresh answers. It's hard work. The journalists are young and attractive, everyone speaks English; we could all be in NoHo or Brentwood. It probably wouldn't be fun to do this day after day or book after book, but for me for now it's an adventure.
Chara and Eleni are in charge of me for publicity. They work me hard and work themselves harder. Women in Greece will not let you carry anything for them. Lugging thirty pounds of books I have to practically get into a fistfight with Chara (pronounced Ha-RAA, with the "h" like a "ch" in "L'chaim") to let me help her; then when we get within sight of the office, she takes the bags back, in case anyone sees. The cafes are jammed at three in the afternoon. "Doesn't anyone work?" Dinner starts in Greece at about ten. I tell Chara in L.A. we're all sound asleep by that hour; we have to get up at five to get to the gym. She looks at me like I'm out of my mind.
Monday night my friend Jim Mimikos picks me up for dinner. We drive along back streets (the city is one gigantic construction site, thanks to the Olympics) to a taverna on Mt. Pendelos, where the marble came from to build the Parthenon. Jim is a Vietnam vet and former quarterback from Detroit, who moved to Greece twenty-plus years ago and isn't coming back. At dinner I meet his friend Nick Papandreou. Nick is a big tall hoops type guy, Lincolnesque, whose Mom was American and who was born in Berkeley. Nick's father and grandfather were both Prime Ministers of Greece; his older brother George is Foreign Minister now. Word on the street is George is next in line to be the Man. Nick so far has avoided politics; he's a writer. He gives me one of his novels, A Crowded Heart, which I knock off in two days; it is excellent. One chapter is called By the Light of the Pall Malls. It tells how his mother used to take him at night, when he was a boy, and stand beside a kiosk across the street from the prison where his father was being held. Nick's Mom would strike a match and light a Pall Mall. Across the boulevard, in the darkness of a cell window on an upper floor, a matching flare would ignite. Nick and his Mom would stay until the troops discovered them, then they had to scram.
"I had a letter a few years ago from a CIA agent, a doctor," Nick says, "who was there when my father was first brought in to jail. My Dad had a severe leg wound, bad enough to kill him if it wasn't treated. The CIA doctor told me he was there in the room when the colonels talked it over. Do we help Papandreou or let him bleed to death? They decided to help. The doctor patched my Dad up. He said it was one of the few acts he performed in the service that he was actually proud of."
On the drive back, Jim explains about the dictatorship. U.S. support helped keep the junta in power. The Greeks haven't forgotten. At least ten times on the trip I am told, "It's not the American people we hate, it's the American government." But everyone is nice to me.
Tuesday and Wednesday, September 9 and 10
Two years ago I got a letter from Dimosthenis Matalas, who introduced himself as the Mayor of Sparta. He said the municipality would like to honor me, for what most Greeks seemed to feel was an extremely realistic portrayal of the Three Hundred at Thermopylae, and for helping, with Gates of Fire, to restore some much-missed attention to the glorious past of the city. Unfortunately Mr. Matalas' term expired (it was his fourth; sixteen years all together). Money ran out. The plan fizzled.
Now it's on again, with a new mayor, Mr. Sarandos Andonakos. But Dimosthenis is picking me up. He has driven all the way from Sparta, 140 miles, and now we're going to drive back. Dimosthenis (with the accent on the third syllable) is a wonderful guy, exactly my age, an attorney and a fierce patriot for his hometown. I take to him instantly. We drive out of the crush of Athens, past the port of Piraeus, whose roadsteads are cheek-by-jowl with freighters and tankers, past Corinth, into the Peloponnese. "Everything stops at Corinth," my new friend explains, meaning tourists, government money, interest. Nothing makes it down to Sparta except visitors coming to tour Mystras, the medieval city. They stay one day and get the hell out.
We're in farm country now. Orange and olive groves. The road becomes two-lane. We crest a rise and the Eurotas Valley unfolds beneath us. We track down by slow switchbacks. "The engineer who laid out this road," Dimosthenis tells me, "just followed a donkey down the track." Across the valley, there's the mountain. Taygetos. Ta--EE-get-OS. Like a miniature Grand Teton, the range stands right above the town. It has power. It gives the place grandeur. We cross the river. There's a story from the ancient days of an Athenian and a Spartan trading boasts. "We have buried many Spartans," the Athenian brags, "beside the Cephisos." The Cephisos is the river of Athens. "Yes," replies the Spartan, "but we have buried no Athenians beside the Eurotas." Meaning none of them got that far.
In ancient Sparta there was a law against hewing roofbeams to any shape except their natural round. Once a Spartan visiting Athens, noticing that his host's roofbeams were limned at perfect right angles, asked if trees grew square in Athenian country. "Of course not," replied the host, "but round, as they do everywhere." "And if they grew square," the Spartan inquired, "Would you make them round?"
Sparta is a country town now. The Leonidas statue rises next to the ball field. Dirt bikes blast along the old Acropolis. I was here seven years ago with Carol. We were "sussing the vibes." Carol is worse than me; at Olympia she stood in the ancient starter's blocks; suddenly she was bolting down the track. She said she felt a hand push her. Sparta's streets today are packed with Fiats and Yugos. Moms with strollers cruise the sidewalks. It's hot and sunny. Dimosthenis checks me into the Hotel Menelaion and immediately I'm swept up into the little traveling circus of directors, art directors, actors and musicians who will be my mates for the next two days.
There's a summerlong festival in Sparta, the Sainopoulou (named after Mr. and Mrs. Sainopoulos, who built the ancient-style amphitheater in the country beneath Mystras and planted every one of the 5000 trees by hand), with events each week. This is the last week. The event is me. I hadn't realized. I thought I would just be one act in a revue. But the whole night is to honor me. It's overwhelming. I can't think about it. Fortunately there's no time because now I've met Panos who's in charge of the show (he's about thirty, looks just like Dennis Quaid, speaks excellent English and wants to come to L.A.), Spiros (the architect who's Dimosthenis' secret weapon and who will watch over me), Alona (a beautiful Englishwoman--"I married a Spartan, divorced him, and stayed on"--who will translate. Barbara Douka is directing the show. She looks like Sandra Bernhard but not quite as skinny. Everybody speaks flawless English and is hipper than hip. We have actors, three famous ones, Zaharias Rojas, Giannis Katsambas, Xristos Mantakas; they'll read dramatized passages from Gates. Barbara even has thirty soldiers on loan from the Greek army; they will stand in for the Three Hundred. I ask Panos what he wants me to do on festival night.
"Can you give us twenty minutes?"
"You mean speak?"
"Twenty-five would be better."
I have to lie down. I'm choking like a dog.
What do I want to do in Sparta? I want to get up in the hills by myself. I want to get on Mt. Taygetos, where the ancient Spartans hunted and trained. The mountain is Sparta to me, the mountain and the river. That first night we go out--Dimosthenis, Panos, Alona, Spiros and his wife Lina, with an artist named Georgia and Janna, our archaeologist--to a taverna directly beneath Taygetos. When I say directly, I mean the rock wall is towering right above our heads. The moon is almost full. Ancient Sparta is closer in the dark. If you use your imagination you can almost get back there. Surely few places on earth are so different, ancient to modern, as Sparta. In Athens you've got the Acropolis; it's not hard to picture the city in its classical glory. But Sparta, even in its heyday, was only five villages. No walls. No monuments. Thucydides predicted that, were Sparta to fall into ruin, subsequent generations would have a hard time believing, from what they could dig up, that the place had been as powerful as it was. On festival night when I make my speech, I read that passage (or Alona does, in Greek). It brings down the house.
Festival day. I meet the new mayor, Mr. Andonakos. Everyone at City Hall comes in to shake my hand. I'm trying to grasp what exactly my presence means to everyone. Clearly it's not me personally. I represent something. What? Festival headquarters is across from the hotel. Panos takes me there to meet Mr. Sainopoulos, the founder of the event. It's like meeting Churchill in retirement. Mr. Sainopoulos is 87, he moves slowly, with a cane. And he doesn't speak English. But the light in his eyes tells everything. Suddenly I understand the festival and I understand the city. What the hell am I gonna say tonight? It better be good. I don't want to let Mr. S down.
Everyone has a cell phone in Sparta. They call them "mobiles," with the accent on the second syllable. You have forty coffees a day in Greece. As soon as the group sits, everyone whips out their mobiles and checks messages. It's worse than L.A. Even little kids have mobiles. In Greece you answer the phone with, "Neh?" The actual spelling is "nai," which means "yes." But it sounds like "neh." It's the only Greek word I know. In Sparta people come up to me all day, thanking me for writing Gates of Fire and asking me how I made the book so accurate and realistic. What they really mean is, How the hell can you convince Greeks about Greece when the only word you know is "neh?"
In ancient Sparta they had a law against ingratitude. If you did me a favor and I failed to requite it, the magistrates could haul me up and fine me. The modern Spartans are not far off, I'm beginning to see. In a letter, I asked my friend Joanna why contemporary Greeks seem to neglect their ancient battlefields. If we Americans had Marathon or Thermopylae we'd Disney-ize the sites with Imax theaters, theme hotels, re-enactors. "Time is different," Joanna wrote back, "for Greeks than for Americans." She herself came here from the U.S., like Jim Mimikos and, like Jim, she's not going back. "In some weird way, those battles didn't happen 2500 years ago, they happened yesterday. They're still happening, unspoken, in the blood."
"Greeks feel burdened by their past," one of the journalists told me in Athens, "in the sense that they feel sometimes overshadowed by it in the eyes of the world. Is that ALL we're known for? Haven't we done anything since 480 B.C.? But we revere the past too. And maybe we resent Americans a little because it's their time now, and not ours."
I rest all afternoon in my hotel room, working in my head on what I'll say tonight. Being honored by the city of Sparta seems surreal. When I started on Gates, it was only my second book. I had no publisher, no contract. I was not a classical scholar; I had never been to Greece; I was doing research as I went along. I never expected the book to find a market, even in the States. Americans have never heard of Thermopylae; they can barely remember Vietnam. Who's gonna buy an obscure book about ancient Greek arcana? When Gates came out and found an audience, no one was more surprised than I. When my agent told me the rights had been sold in Greece, I thought nothing of it. Greeks will hate it, I imagined. A book about their history, written by an American? Readers in Sparta would be particularly hard on the book, I thought, taking it to task for every historical glitch or fault in research. I have a bit of a mystical bent, and I imagined in my more lurid moments that the ghosts of the Three Hundred would in some parallel dimension be examining the text themselves. I pictured myself, after death, attending a celestial cocktail party. Two gentlemen appear at my shoulder and ask if I'm the guy who wrote Gates of Fire. When I say yes, they tell me: 'We were there with Leonidas ... and you got it all wrong.' Then they take me out back and beat the crap out of me.
Five o'clock. Thunder. Panos is getting nervous. Will the show be rained out? Night falls; we motor in a caravan to the amphitheater. "How many people will be there?" "The theater holds fifteen hundred but there could be twenty-five hundred." Now I'm the one freaking out. The squall hits. Our little circus collects backstage. It's coming down in buckets. The thirty soldiers are bare-chested in makeup under the trees; they're getting drenched. Alona's silk blouse is starting to look like a wet t-shirt. Everyone's on their mobile. I'm suddenly calm. I'll speak in a downpour; I don't care. Panos hustles us to the amphitheater, to the spot from which we'll make our entrance. I peek around the corner. Rain is coming sideways. The gale whips theatergoers' umbrellas inside-out. A general flight ensues. To the parking lot. We're caravanning to the city library.
Eleni is my chaperone from Patakis. She's young and pretty and petrified; she has to speak to introduce me. The auditorium holds about three hundred. It's packed. I don't know what the temp is Celsius but it must be 100 Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity. Everyone is dressed up. Panos makes a speech, Eleni follows; Mayor Andonakos officially greets me. It's all in Greek. Then Mr. Sainopoulos speaks. He meets my eyes and holds them. I don't know what he's saying and it's probably for the best. I get the passion. He loves this city, he loves this country; I'm someone, a stranger from halfway around the world, who has honored them by his prose. What could be more natural than to honor me in return? Poor Panos. Poor Barbara. The whole outdoor show has been sunk. They're devastated. They'll regroup with an indoor reading, but it won't be the same.
It's my turn now. Alona and I mount the stage. I'll speak in short bursts and wait for her to translate.
Why did I write about Sparta and Thermopylae? I cite the Dienekes anecdote from Herodotus: that when the Spartans first occupied the pass but had not yet seen the Persians, a native of the place came dashing in; he had seen the enemy and was bug-eyed in terror at their numbers, reporting that the Persian archers were so many that when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows actually blocked out the sun.
Dienekes, however, quite undaunted by this prospect, remarked
with a laugh, "Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade."
I make a point about Spartan wit. It's warrior humor. Its purpose is to dispel fear. Dienekes, Herodotus tells us, was famous for other laconic quips. All the Spartans were. This was no accident. Wit was prized in Sparta. (The word laconic itself comes from Sparta's province, Laconia.) Boys were schooled from childhood to break fear's spell with a smart remark.
I cite two more famous lines from Thermopylae. Leonidas, when the Persian king Xerxes demanded that the defenders lay down their arms, replied, "Molon labe." Come and take them. On the final morning the Spartan king instructed his troops:
"Now eat a good breakfast, men. For we'll all be sharing dinner in hell."
I call the audience's attention to two things about these remarks. First, they don't attempt to deny reality. They don't say No, we're not going to die. Second, they make no mention of glory or patriotism. There's great wisdom in this. These seemingly off-hand quips are the product of a profound warrior philosophy.
There's a type of person today, I continue, called a terrorist. A suicide bomber. One might say, comparing him to an ancient Spartan, that the two are similar. Both know they're going to die and both advance to their end head-on. But no distinction could be more fallacious. The suicide bomber (forget his civilian targets or the duplicity of his approach) works himself into a state, either of hope for paradise or of numb denial; he renders himself inhuman in order to perform his deed. The Spartans and Thespians at Thermopylae were not like that. They were rational men, in full possession of their faculties. They were not fanatics. They loved their families; they wanted to live. They did not worship death, but understood what sacrifice the hour called for. And they kept their wry, laconic wit right up to the end.
I wrote about Sparta, I say, because I thought she always got a raw deal. To readers of history, it was always Athens, Athens, Athens. At this the auditorium roars. Alona translates, "Athenai, Athenai, Athenai." The place erupts again.
I talk about Spartan women. They're always ignored in the lionization of the Spartan male warrior. I tell the (fictional) anecdote from Gates about how Leonidas came to choose the three hundred he did. Not for their courage, he explains, but for the courage of their women. Leonidas says that the fate of the three hundred is sealed. None, including himself, will come back. The fight against Persia will not be won at Thermopylae, Leonidas continues, but in subsequent battles fought by other armies of Greece. When the Three Hundred have fallen, as they must, the other Greek cities will look to Sparta. If she stays strong, they will too. If she cracks, they will fall apart. But who, Leonidas asks, will the Spartans look to? To the wives and mothers of the three hundred. If they remain strong, so will the city. If they break, Sparta will break too.
I wanted to show in Gates of Fire that the valor of Spartan warriors was only half the story, that it rested upon the courage of Spartan women. I wanted to honor them for that.
I make the point that we think of Thermopylae and of the ancient Spartans as legends, a story, a saga. But we shouldn't forget: they were real. Real men marched out from this real place, to fight a real enemy and to give their real lives; real women watched them go and bore up under the grief of their loss. It really happened, and much more, right here beneath this mountain, among these fields, on the banks of this river. I thank our modern Spartans for honoring me this night. But in truth, I say, we're both honoring those men and women who are the forebears of you who sit here now. They were Spartans and you are Spartans too.
I finish by making the point that mighty civilizations have come and gone, leaving monuments that appear immortal, like the Sphinx or the Pyramids, the Colosseum of Rome. But something as great or greater came from right here, from these five villages that left no memorials in stone or marble, that left nothing behind but the deeds of their men and women. And that fame is still alive today and burning as brightly as ever ... or you and I wouldn't be here, 2500 years later, celebrating it. Huge cheers. I finish. Our actors perform their piece with terrific aplomb. In the end, the municipality makes me an honorary citizen. I thank everybody. It's the greatest honor of my life.
Thursday, September 11
Back in Athens, the second anniversary of 9/11, at a book signing for Last of the Amazons at Patakis' jam-packed hip modern bookstore. I thank my most excellent translator, Vassiliki Kokkinou, and do about twenty minutes on ancient warrior women. Now the questions begin.
"What do you think of the American imperialist invasion of Iraq?"
"Do you feel that September 11th is payback for American arrogance around the world?"
"Are you a Hebrew?"
At my side, Anna Pataki puts her hand over the mike. "These same lunatics come out for every presentation. Don't pay attention to them."
I can't get mad at any Greek. Athens is just like it was, twenty-five hundred years ago. It's great. I wind up signing books till my shirt is soaked through.
Friday, September 12
Goodbyes to my new friends. Some business at the office. Then dinner at the harbor under the moon with Joanna and her friends Christos and Tiki. Joanna and Tiki are Greek-Americans who came home. Joanna wants me to stay another week, go up into the mountains where her father, a Greek who went to America, lives now in the old ways. Tiki talks about Athens. "I can't take it any more." She means the low salaries, the traffic, the struggle to survive. "Oh come on," says Joanna, "you know you don't mean it. Come up to the village with me. It'll remind you."
Greeks are not like Americans, I see. Principle matters over here, far more than it does in the States, and for a Greek passion is inseparable from principle. A Greek is ready to scrap over anything, but he wants a fair fight; if you screw with him he never forgets. Here's what I come to, after this long week beneath the Hellenic sun:
People are starved for heroism in these post-heroic times. They feel their own capacity for great things, for commitment, for sacrifice, and it kills them that there's no place to go with it in these superficial consumerist materialist days. Women feel this as keenly as men, maybe even more so. People blame America for it, because the "culture" we spread is so cheap and phony and so sold-out to money. Maybe they'd resent any superpower. Surely the Greek world did in the days when Athens held sway.
People everywhere feel pride. It matters to them to be seen for who they are and to be respected. I see it, on this trip, in the faces of intelligent complex people who come up to me, presenting me with gifts of local honey and olive oil, hand-written letters of appreciation. The gesture isn't for me, or even for the historic Spartans of Thermopylae, but for the ideal of a heroic response to life, which is so absent today, that even a rendition of it in a book of historical fiction has the power to stir passions. I think of Nick Papandreou, torn between art and politics. Which serves best in times like these?
I've been working on a novel about Alexander the Great. In his day it was possible for one charismatic conqueror to win (for a time at least) the hearts of subject nations, by force of arms and the sheer magnetism of his personality. Those days are gone. We don't genuflect before kings any more. What ways can we find, in our time, to let men and women enact the heroic passions of their hearts, without war and without destroying the planet? Is that the question? Is anyone asking it?
Saturday, September 13
I'm packed. My plane is at 12:15. The St. George features breakfast on the rooftop terrazzo. The view across Athens is unforgettable, with the Acropolis and the Parthenon shining, dead-center, about a mile away. My next book, as I said, is about Alexander. I'm done with it really, except the editing, which I'll get into when I get home.