“Good. Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
—Spartan captain Dienekes, at Thermopylae,
quoted from Herodotus’ The Histories
Let’s talk about Gates of Fire. Let me talk today as a writer, about what drew me to this material—the story of the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae.
Gates of Fire by the way is NOT the source of the movie 300. That came from Frank Miller’s graphic novel by that title, 300.
There has never been a movie made of Gates of Fire.
That’s why there’s never been a movie of Gates of Fire.
But let me get back to how it began for me.
I was fifty-five years old. I had written one novel that was a modest success. My publisher wanted a second book.
But I had no idea what I wanted to do.
I was reading Herodotus, for fun, for about the tenth time, when I came to the passage where the Three Hundred Spartans and their allies have arrived at Thermopylae. They’ve taken possession of the pass. They’re awaiting the arrival of the enemy–two million Persians advancing as an army on land accompanied by a fleet of a thousand ships.
Let me pause here to address the issue of how big this Persian army really was. Herodotus says two million. Modern scholars dismiss this. No way a force that size could cross so many miles and be fed and watered and supplied. The figure these professors come up with is 300,000.
Here’s my thinking on the subject. I believe the ancients.
Remember Homer’s Iliad, about the Trojan War? Modern scholars laughed at this too. Homer’s description of the towers of Troy, the scale of the city? Ridiculous, said the professors. No city three-and-a-quarter thousand years ago could be that big.
Then in 1870 Heinrich Schliemann found Troy and dug it up. Yes, everything Homer said was true, right down to the locations of the individual city gates.
But back to the Persians. Consider the nations that constituted Xerxes’ empire, and from whose ranks he drew his army.
India, Bactria, Parthia, Aria, Arachosia, Dragiana, Persia, Media, Babylonia, Assyria, Armenia, Egypt, Libya, Samaria, Syria, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Lydia, Caria, Phrygia, Thrace.
In other words, everything from North Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I’m leaving half the nations out.
Two million men? Maybe not. But Xerxes definitely brought a boatload.
But back to the Spartans at the pass, setting up their camp and awaiting the arrival of this massive force.
Remember too, that the Spartans have never faced Persians. Never even seen them. And they’ve certainly never taken the field against a force even one-fiftieth this size. They have no conception of what a force of millions might look like.
Suddenly a native of the area comes racing into the camp. Freaked out. He has seen the Persians! They’re coming! They’re close! The scale of the army and the fleet is beyond anything he or anyone could possibly imagine.
The Spartans gather round this fellow, listening to his tale. The native is a fellow Greek; he’s urging the Spartans to run, save themselves, they haven’t got a chance. He’s trying to find some image that will impress upon these impossibly few defenders exactly what they’re up against.
The native declares that the Persian archers are so numerous that, when they fire their volleys, the mass of arrows block out the sun.
The Spartan Dienekes replies,
“Good. Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
When I read that response of Dienekes (who was a true historical person, not fiction), I thought, “This is the book. I can write about this.”
I felt, across 2500 years, that I recognized the man Dienekes. I could see him. I could imagine him in the flesh. I felt like I knew him.
The other thing was the specifics of what he said.
This was clearly no off-the-cuff quip. It wasn’t just a one-liner dropped on the spur of the moment.
The remark was perfect.
It was exactly what the scared Spartans (and they were scared shitless, bank on it) needed to hear at that moment. It took each isolated individual, sinking into his own fear and the certainty of his own death, and pulled him out, bound him to his brothers …. note, “WE’LL have our battle in the shade” … and made him laugh.
There was a philosophy of great depth underlying this seemingly tossed-off remark.
I decided I wanted to explore that.
I wanted to travel via the imagination back to this time and this event.
I wanted to tell this story.
Its an awesome quote, thanks for sharing. What a contrast with the modern world where fragility/ weakness is celebrated.
That is the line that drew me into “Gates of Fire” also. One of the greatest battle lines of all time, better than Clint Eastwood, even better than some of the (great) gallows humor of Navy SEALs. Just as bold as “Give me liberty, or give me death!” but an extra point for humor.
Appreciate the personal account.
What an awesome concept to write a book around a quote!
Your caddie days must have influenced ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ as well.
I think that’s the first I’ve heard of the caddie story. Be the ball, Danny.
Yes…it was the opening quote on page one of ODA 316’s SOPS (standard operating procedures). The intent behind the quote served us well in combat for many years.
I know there will be many difficulties and challenges but I am determined to do it. If it doesn’t work, it will also be a lesson for me: driving directions
Thank you for sharing the way that you came to the idea on writing “Gates of Fire” (one quote), and how you decided you would tell the story…fascinating!
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