The story of Telamon of Arcadia, a man-at-arms, might be set in the first century, but at its core, Steven Pressfield’s newest novel is really an American Western. Filled with vivid characters, brutal violence, and rich historical detail, A Man at Arms is captivating from cover to cover. It’s a hero’s journey, focusing on an aging warrior coming to terms with the end of his road and being reborn through mentorship and sacrifice.
“When he first set eyes upon the man-at-arms […] The youth’s conversion took less than an instant. At once, and to the core of his being, David knew that this was what he wanted, this was who he wished to be.”
Pressfield, the bestselling author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, is himself a warrior. A former Marine, Pressfield served as a rifleman from 1965 to 1971. He’s renowned for his ability to bring war and warrior cultures of all eras back to life. From his depictions of Alexander the Great in The Virtues of War to Long Range Desert Groups in Killing Rommel, Pressfield is a master of historical fiction writing. His nonfiction mini-book, The Warrior Ethos, holds a spot on the Commandant’s Reading List, and his most famous novel, Gates of Fire, is still taught at the Naval Academy, West Point, and The Basic School. A Man at Arms is another successful venture into the world of ancient combat.
The story begins 25 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, in tumultuous Roman-occupied Judea. Christianity, even in its infancy, threatens the stability of the Roman Empire, and Telamon, a former legionary turned mercenary, agrees to protect a critical piece of the new religion: a letter from Paul the Apostle. The letter contains a message that has the potential to destroy the empire. In his race to protect the valuable message, Telamon faces an endless stream of foes.
Alongside Telamon are two children: David and “the girl.” The children simultaneously despise and admire Telamon — a dynamic reminiscent of Mattie Ross and Bob Starrett from the classic Westerns True Grit and Shane, or Laura from the 2017 film Logan. David and the girl view Telamon as a dangerous drifter with a mysterious past. He reluctantly takes the children under his wing and teaches them how to survive the violent world they find themselves in, ultimately saving himself in the process.
In the same way Gates of Fire is a military classic, applicable to all time periods, A Man at Arms is full of lessons in warfare that remain unchanged despite the evolution of technology. David and the girl question every seemingly insignificant decision Telamon makes. When asked why they are constantly choosing to travel through rough terrain rather than on the road, he explains, “We never cross a valley or any stretch of open ground by a road or trail, but always from ambush site to ambush site. This is called highlining.”
When they question why Telamon crosses danger areas at the ready, he states, “A warrior crosses an open plain at arms, and approaches in stealth from the flank or rear.” Although the terms change, the principles remain the same today as they did in ancient Rome.
The journey to Corinth provides Telamon a platform to pass along his knowledge of warfighting to a new generation — a fantasy to which many military veterans can relate. During the height of the Global War on Terror, Gates of Fire was one of the most popular books among American troops. Veterans of the GWOT who once related to Gates of Fire’s Dienekes and Polynikes are now older and will relate to Telamon the way they once did the Spartans.
Telamon remains shrouded in mystery throughout most of the novel. A faded “LEGIO X” tattoo and battle-worn armor hint at a life spent in combat, yet he is a man of few words, and like the gunslingers of the Wild West, we can’t wait to see Telamon back in action. Pressfield hands out just enough clashes to keep the reader salivating for more, before eventually delivering a climax that exposes the martial skill we know Telamon still possesses. Witnessing the man-at-arms fighting full-tilt provides the same satisfaction as watching Rooster Cogburn bite the reins or Luke Skywalker rescue Grogu.
A Man at Arms sticks to Pressfield’s proven formula for historical fiction. Ripe with Latin vocabulary, the novel assumes the aura of an ancient text yet never loses momentum. Fans of Gates of Fire and Pressfield’s previous ventures into the ancient world will agree; his newest book hits its mark.
A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield, W. W. Norton & Company, 336 pages, $25