This book was recommended in a recent Ryan Holiday's book-reading newsletter. He had read the book 14 years ago, recently reread it, and was impressed with all the nuances of the book. Along with The Road, I picked up the book from the library. Related: I'm pretty sure that I read the Reading List emails faster than most people on the list, as the books Holiday recommends are usually available when I look for them, and have a backlog of holds about a week later. Is amusing to me.
The book is the telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, more commonly known in today's culture as the battle that the 300 Spartans held off thousands of Persian invaders. Now, I am REALLY not a fan of historical fiction, to the point where I might say the movie is better I dislike historical fiction so much, but, well, this causes me to reconsider my stance. The book is written in third person, and not third person omniscient, which means we see the characters' actions, but don't hear their thoughts. I suspect this is why I enjoyed it, it was a story that didn't go too far.
The basic plot of the book is, well, the Battle of Thermopylae. That story has been told many times, in many mediums. I found the surrounding elements of the book engaging. Pressfield gives us many lessons of Stoicism in the book, while wrapping them into the story, without the dryness of a textbook or the boredom of a lecture. He gives us
The parts that I appreciated the most were the elements of reality in the book. The Spartans were well trained, seeming superhuman, but they were still human. They felt despair. They felt misery. They felt heartache and pain. Pressfield gives us these, tells us about them, and shows us how habits and training and acknowledgement and acceptance all work towards becoming the people we want to be. He shows us that being a warrior was a job, and that includes embracing the suck, as Rob told me was a Marine saying. We also read about the camaraderie of the warriors, how adversity binds us, and how there a moments when we become more than just ourselves.
I also appreciated the campfire philosophy sessions, and, well, let's be real, all the shit talk.
As much as Holiday recommended this book, I strongly recommend it, too. Great book. Way worth reading.
She was trying to dispatch the child that might be growing inside her. “She thinks she has given offense to the god Hymen,” Bruxieus explained to me when I broke in upon her one day and she chased me with curses and a hail of stones. “She fears that she may never be a man’s wife now but only a slave or a whore. I have tried to tell her this is foolishness, but she will not hear it, coming from a man.”
This was the first and only time I saw Bruxieus truly, physically angry. He seized me by both shoulders and shook me violently, commanding me to face him. “Listen to me, boy. Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.”
I curled contorted in Diomache’s arms, with Bruxieus’ bulk enwrapping us both for warmth. I called out again and again to the gods but received no whisper in reply. They had abandoned us, it was clear, now that we no longer possessed ourselves or were possessed by our polis.
The roar multiplied threefold, then five, and ten, as the enemy rear ranks and flankers picked the clamor up and contributed their own bluster and bronze-banging. Soon the entire fifty-four hundred were bellowing the war cry. Their commander thrust his spear forward and the mass surged behind him into the advance. The Spartans had neither moved nor made a sound. They waited patiently in their scarlet-cloaked ranks, neither grim nor rigid, but speaking quietly to each other words of encouragement and cheer, securing the final preparation for actions they had rehearsed hundreds of times in training and performed dozens and scores more in battle.
Once, at home when I was a child, Bruxieus and I had helped our neighbor Pierion relocate three of his stacked wooden beehives. As we jockeyed the stack into place upon its new stand, someone’s foot slipped. The stacked hives dropped. From within those stoppered confines yet clutched in our hands arose such an alarum, neither shriek nor cry, growl nor roar, but a thrum from the netherworld, a vibration of rage and murder that ascended not from brain or heart, but from the cells, the atoms of the massed poleis within the hives.
They did not strip the bodies of the slain, as the soldiers of any other city would eagerly and gloatingly do, nor did they erect trophies of vainglory and conceit from the arms of the vanquished. Their austere thank-offering was a single cock, worth less than an obol, not because they disrespected the gods, but because they held them in awe and deemed it dishonorable to overexpress their mortal joy in this triumph that heaven had granted them.
“Let those we spared this day stand beside us in line of battle on that day when we teach the Persian 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.”
Dekton was the first person I had ever met, man or boy, who had absolutely no fear of the gods. He didn’t hate them as some do, or mock their antics as I had heard the impious freethinkers did in Athens and Corinth. Dekton didn’t grant their existence at all. There were no gods, it was as simple as that. This struck me with a kind of awe. I kept watch, waiting for him to be felled by some hideous blow of heaven.
“I saw Dienekes first from behind. Just his bare shoulders and the back of his head. I knew in an instant that I would love him and only him all my life.”
“At last he turned. He was wrestling another boy. Even then, Xeo, Dienekes was unhandsome. You could hardly believe he was his brother’s brother. But to my eyes he appeared eueidestatos, the soul of beauty. The gods could not have crafted a face more open or touching to my heart.
“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.”
“Men’s pain is lightly borne and swiftly over. Our wounds are of the flesh, which is nothing; women’s is of the heart—sorrow unending, far more bitter to bear.”
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, not 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. Not only to achieve this for oneself alone, as Achilles or the solo champions of yore, but to do it as part of a unit, to feel about oneself one’s brothers-in-arms, in an instance like this of chaos and disorder, comrades whom one doesn’t even know, with whom one has never trained; to feel them filling the spaces alongside him, from spear side and shield side, fore and rear, to behold one’s comrades likewise rallying, not in a frenzy of mad possession-driven abandon, but with order and self-composure, each man knowing his role and rising to it, drawing strength from him as he draws it from them; the warrior in these moments finds himself lifted as if by the hand of a god. He cannot tell where his being leaves off and that of the comrade beside him begins. In that moment the phalanx forms a unity so dense and all-divining that it performs not merely at the level of a machine or engine of war but, surpassing that, to the state of a single organism, a beast of one blood and heart.
His Majesty, cognizant of the catastrophic consequence for the Greeks of this betrayal, may marvel at their response in assembly to the timely and fortuitous warning delivered by the noble Tyrrhastiadas. They didn’t believe him. They thought it was a trick. Such an irrational and self-deluding response may be understood only in the light not alone of the exhaustion and despair which had by that hour overwhelmed the allies’ hearts but by the corresponding exaltation and contempt of death, which are, like the mated faces of a coin, their obverse and concomitant.
There is a secret all warriors share, so private that none dare give it voice, save only to those mates drawn dearer than brothers by the shared ordeal of arms. This is the knowledge of the hundred acts of his own cowardice. The little things that no one sees. The comrade who fell and cried for aid. Did I pass him by? Choose my skin over his? That was my crime, of which I accuse myself in the tribunal of my heart and there condemn myself as guilty. All a man wants is to live. This before all: to cling to breath. To survive. Yet even this most primal of instincts, self-preservation, even this necessity of the blood shared by all beneath heaven, beasts as well as man, even this may be worn down by fatigue and excess of horror. A form of courage enters the heart which is not courage but despair and not despair but exaltation.
“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. That was the glue. It was what you had learned and it made me stay, to learn it too.