“A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field … “
The squire Xeones, in Gates of Fire
Let me return to Gates of Fire in this episode. The narrative device of the book is that the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae is told in the aftermath of the battle, after the Persians have won and all the Spartans have been killed.
In other words, it’s told in flashback.
The story is told to the Persian king, Xerxes, by the lone survivor on the Greek side, a battle squire named Xeones. Xeones has been discovered by the Persians beneath the mound of bodies where the Spartans fell. He is mortally wounded … indeed he has technically died … but the Persian physicians manage to restore him to breath, at Xerxes’ orders. The Persian king wants to know who these Spartans were, who killed forty of his men for every one they lost … who stood and died when they knew they had no chance.
What were they like?
What gods did they worship?
What philosophy did they follow?
What code of honor enabled them to fight like they did to the bitter end?
Xerxes in particular wants to know about his counterpart, the Spartan king Leonidas.
“Is he a king like I am? Where, then, is his throne? His crown? Why did he fight in the dirt beside his men? What made him do such a thing? What kind of king was he?
The young squire Xeones answers. Here’s what he says:
I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him
This ideal of kingship, I believe, arises directly from the reality of phalanx warfare. Agamemnon was not this kind of king. Achilles wasn’t, nor was Priam or Menelaus or any of the Homeric champions of the Heroic Age.
This ideal of kingship embodied by Leonidas is very democratic. It’s very American.
It’s also, I believe, tremendously empowering for you and me as individuals if we think of ourselves as containing, along with the Warrior Archetype, the King (or Queen) Archetype.
We have to be our own kings and queens.
We said a couple of episodes ago that “We are all Spartans.” I believe that.
But we are also all Leonidases.
We are that king, who did not abide in his tent while his men bled and died upon the field.
We are that king who picks up the harshest burden first and sets it down last.
We are that king who sets himself (or herself) at the service of his or her own highest aspirations.
He serves them, not they him.
If you and I are fathers or mothers … or athletes or artists or business people or citizens of a constitutional republic … the part of ourselves that governs our conduct is the King or Queen archetype. Not the Warrior, though that counts too. Not even the Sage or the Mystic.
When the king is strong and centered, the kingdom thrives. When the king rules with justice and wisdom, the land flourishes and the people are happy.
Likewise, when the king is weak or driven only by his own self-interest, the kingdom suffers. When the kind rules with folly and injustice, the kingdom falls
And while we’re on the subject of kings, let’s move on in the next episode to perhaps the most exemplary, in warrior terms, of them all:
Alexander the Great.
I have decided to memorize some of my favorite poems/quotes. As a kid in Awana, (essentially church Boy Scouts) we always had to memorize Bible verses. I never understood why, but the sooner I could memorize them–the sooner I could get back to the sports–which was my true motivation.
Even with Google on my phone, I realized this is not the same as having quotes written into my heart. Instead of reminding myself of something inspiring, I think that each time I recite it from memory it goes deeper and deeper into my psyche. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.
I started with “If” by Rudyard Kipling, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, and “Man In Arena” by TR. I was going to ask this blog’s participants for their favorite Pressfield quotes so I could add a few of those. I was planning to look up this very quote this week. There is something so deeply meaningful about this passage to me that I rarely read it with dry eyes.
I have learned this in the military both explicitly and implicitly. When we eat tactically, spaced 10m apart in the field, slowly meandering to the Mess SGT–we line up in reverse rank order. The Commander eats last. We act it out. In nearly every leadership school from Basic Training thru War College, the tenants of servant leadership are explicitly detailed as well.
Andrew mentioned this same value on Monday with his parents, “Marine Officers eat after Marines.”
There is so much packed into this quote. Empathy. Courage. Self-Restraint. Camaraderie.
What it has taken me years to fully unpack is the wisdom that a King/Commander/Leader gains from serving others first. The leader not only understands the impact of his/her orders–the nuanced understanding of the battlefield, how heavy is the weapon, how his boots get stuck in the mud, how long he can march before needing water…then his orders are grounded in truth more than myth or idealistic hopes. Orders are modified in his head below the surface, before they are ever articulated. The orders are still likely very ambitious, challenging, scary, and dangerous–but they are not insane. He knows his people, knows their capacities–not from an intellectual sense, but in the body. Kinesthetically.
The inspiration that this behavior instills in his men is authentic.
A warm man doesn’t know how a cold man feels. If you want to lead, you better get cold first.
Thank you again for this series.
An over-used term these days is ’empathy’, but taking the time to know your people is just as important to leadership as a command of strategy, tactics, or a booming parade ground voice. What Leonidas knew, and Xerxes (and most others, both mil and business) never understood, is that being a king isn’t much different than being a father. Leadership can be demonstrated, as opposed to ordered, and that comes from knowing your troops – employees. Whether you’re a Spartan in the line at Thermopylyae, or a guy casting motor blocks at Ford, knowing that your leader values your efforts makes you want to do your best. Alan Mullaly @ Ford knew it; Roger Smith @ Gm never had a clue. Who went Chap 11? GM.
Brian – I love that line; “A warm man doesn’t know how a cold man feels. If you want to lead, you better get cold first,” and wish my Dad was still here so I could share it with him.
Steve, I’m wrapping up a book of interivews with builders/tradesmen (based on Studs Terkels book WORKING) in which I use inspiritional quotes. I wonder if I could use the squire Xeones answer to the opposing king? With attribution of course. Did you write this or is it an historical event? I would bracket the word [builder] once or twice thoughout in order to make it clear I want to reader to transfer the image of the King to themselves as a builder.
I have listened to everyone of your posts and forward them to friends. They are wonderful in their brevity and clarity and the core lessons they discuss. Thank you for posting them.
Thank you, Mark [email protected]
I can’t believe this is free. Thank you Steve! Keep fighting the resistence.
Talking to your girlfriend face-to-face is an excellent way to gain a better understanding of her.
Sometimes you can’t pick up on things like voice intonation or sarcasm through text message, and you can’t look at her body language when you’re talking to her over the phone.
“King” is the supreme head, actual or symbolic, of a government; directly or indirectly have the honor, right to rule, or power in a country.
A good article, a good book can change the fate of so many people. Thanks for the valuable sharing, please keep it up to date and I will always follow you.
The topic you brought up reminded me of thought. I was recently studying the fact that waking up some days is a foggy prospect because of the gloomy thoughts that come to mind. Fear engulfs the heart. Unpleasant pictures fill the mind. And the standard feeling of disgust accompanies our psyche. Negativity, it seems, will hang on for seasons, not days, and it will become a prophecy of no satisfaction. Negative reflections will become the pattern into which we spiral. We may sincerely neglect the broader possibilities that should be taken into account.
So that’s my point. Talking ourselves out of negativity is not as difficult as we think. We just have to find ways to do it all the time. For some, it may be a lack of positive emotions or the right people in life, let’s say we just can’t find someone to talk to, we’re afraid to talk to strangers online, and family members don’t understand us. And getting rid of negativity is not always about denying our problems; it’s definitely about keeping them squarely in perspective.
Thank you for letting me know. Actually, I’m glad you brought this up. I really like the way you write and it seems to me that it is even good for your moral health. Seabedee I hope this will help those who will read your work. Also, to maintain good health, I advise you to try CBD.