By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – It was The Life of Greece by Will and Ariel Durant that helped Steven Pressfield to overcome the ennui of a rainy day in Vermont, where he was visiting friends many years ago.
“It hooked me,” said Pressfield, author of several works of historical fiction, whose most recent, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, will be released by Doubleday in October.
Pressfield was so hooked on ancient Greece that the former ad copywriter, jack-of-all-trades, and frustrated would-be author of many unpublished works decided he would begin writing historical fiction based on battles set in ancient Greek times. Three of his books – Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and Last of the Amazons – have been published since 1998. Of all these works, which have had respectable success in the U.S. but have been extraordinarily successful in Greece (Gates of Fire was #1 in 2003, Tides of War #5, and Last of the Amazons #8), it was his portrayal of the Three Hundred at Thermopylae in Gates of Fire that brought Pressfield “the greatest honor of my life” when he was made an honorary citizen of Sparta last September.
This year, his celebrity has found its way to cable television as the History Channel examines ancient Greek battles. Though Pressfield doesn’t claim to be an expert (“I’m not a classicist or professor or historian; I’m just a writer of historical fiction”), his knowledge of the battle at Gaugamela between Alexander the Great and Darius III in 331 B.C. earned him a role as a commentator on the History Channel’s “Decisive Battles” series on July 30; he will also be speaking on the same program on August 13 about the battle at Thermopylae.
Those who seek modern-day voices to speak out against the homosexual focus of the anticipated Baz-Luhrmann movie Alexander the Great have found a friend in Steven Pressfield.
“There is nothing from my research of ancient sources that would support such a conclusion,” he says.
“As a matter of fact, on one occasion, Plutarch reports that the great warrior actually resented Philoxenos’ suggestion that he be sent a beautiful boy from Ionia for his pleasure, asking what he had ever done to make Philoxenos think of him in such a depraved way,” Pressfield reports, adding that when writing about Alexander, he stayed away from the topic like “poison,” because it is such a sensational topic that it would detract from the book’s intent to examine Alexander as a warrior.
From that perspective, Pressfield’s study of the man who destroyed the Persian Empire focuses on his preoccupation not for “sex or power or subjecting other peoples to his will” as have other modern authors, but on “his heroic ambition… heroic in the sense of the semi-divine heroes we find in Homer’s legends, Achilles and Heracles… who lived according to a code that transcends what we would call justice or morality.
“Alexander was a most magnanimous conqueror when compared to Caesar or Genghis Khan and treated a worthy adversary with hospitality and generosity. He conceived of warfare as a way of increasing his virtue, purifying his character by undergoing trials.”
The virtues were those any soldier today would have: selflessness, courage, patience, steadfastness, and loyalty, Pressfield, a former Marine, says.
“One character in The Virtues of War who wants to become a sage uses the virtues he learned as a soldier to prepare himself. He turns inward and takes on such internal foes as pride, arrogance, conceit and laziness.”
Pressfield tells the story of a Spartan king who, when shown a new bolt-firing catapult that could fling a missile a quarter of a mile, expressed his disappointment. “Alas,” he lamented, “valor is no more.”
“In other words, he thought it wasn’t fair that an enemy could be killed without risk to one’s own life,” Pressfield explains. “There was no honor to such an achievement.
“Today we think of war as carnage. But war then was the primary profession; there was no such thing as business, the title of ‘tradesman’ or ‘merchant’ was despised, only war had any honor for a man, especially for a prince or king, allowing him to acquire wealth, advance his station, make a name for himself.
“War then was the equivalent of sporting activities in our time. The ideal is to take on every champion and prove that you’re superior to them. You are halted only when defeated. To win a battle must have been like winning the state championship in basketball today.”
Although he rejects the idea that standards for warfare in ancient times can be applied to our time, Pressfield does believe there are things we can learn from Alexander’s example as we fight in modern-day Iraq.
“Alexander is said to have ‘subdued’ Fallujah, which must mean he wiped it off the map. But we can’t do that in Iraq; we’re there to help them, not to massacre them. Even if they were an enemy, world opinion wouldn’t let us get away with that. Alexander could.
“We want to come out of Iraq as friends. But to do that, we must show respect for the religion of people we’re conquering, not calling it an ‘evil religion’ as we do, but even participating in their rites. But I’ll bet there’s not one person in a thousand in our military that’s even read the Koran.
“In ancient times, the world was polytheistic; and it could be said that Alexander, a follower of Zeus and the ancient pantheon, was of necessity more tolerant of other people’s beliefs than are today’s monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
“When he entered the city of Babylon, where the Persians had destroyed the Babylonians’ temples, Alexander almost immediately ordered the Babylonians to rebuild them at his own expense. He restored the ancient religion and went out of his way to show respect for it.”
In the U.S. Pressfield’s works have found an audience comprised of people interested in Greek history and those who enjoy military-themed literature. They also attract “ex-jocks and people in the corporate world who see themselves fighting the market-share war. There also many readers who are disgusted with the shamelessness of American society and enjoy reading about an era when honor was left.”
Despite his love of ancient Greece, Pressfield has traveled there only twice, once for research for his book, and last year, for a book tour and the ceremony making him an honorary citizen of Sparta. Initially planned for an 1500-seat amphitheater, featuring readings of passages from Gates of Fire, a sudden squall forced the event indoors to the city library, which holds 300 people.
In his comments, translated on the library stage, he noted how the purpose of Spartan wit, which he calls “warrior humor,” is “to dispel fear.” He explained that he wrote about Sparta because to readers of history, the emphasis was always on Athens and his remark was met with roaring applause. In an effort to correct the ignoring of the importance of Spartan women in the future of city, he told a fictional anecdote that described how Leonidas selected his 300 warriors, not for their courage, but for that of their women because he knew that the men would not survive the battle, that the battle against Persia would not be won in Sparta, and that the “other Greek cities will look to Sparta,” especially the wives and mothers of the 300 on whose strength would rest the future of that city.
At the end of his week-long book tour in Greece, Pressfield came to the conclusion that “Greeks are not like Americans…Principle matters over here, far more than it does in the States, and for a Greek, passion is inseparable from principle.” When questioned by those who came to the book signings about the “American imperialist invasion of Iraq” and whether “September 11th is payback for American arrogance around the world,” despite the advice his publisher gave him to ignore the people who regularly made such remarks, Pressfield concludes:
“I can’t get mad at any Greek. Athens is just like it was 2500 years ago. It’s great.”