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Plataea 479 BCE

Plataea 479 BCE

Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)

When Darius I (549 bce –486 bce ) became king of the Persian Empire in 522 bce , he inherited an empire in transition.

The Rise of the Persian Empire

Although the Persians, who called themselves Irani, were an ancient people, the Persian Empire was quite new. Officially founded in 547 bce by Cyrus the Great after his successful rebellion against the Medean Empire, the Persian Empire had grown by leaps and bounds over the ensuing twenty-five years.

Cyrus added the ancient kingdoms of Assyria, Lydia (inheritor of the Hittite Empire), and Babylon to his Medean conquests, then took control of Palestine before dying in 529 bce . His successor, Cambysses, conquered Egypt during his brief seven-year reign, then died on the way home.

Cambysses’ death created a power vacuum in Persia that was made worse by a rather bizarre twist involving fratricide and pretenders to the throne.

Darius Seizes Power

The main historical source for what happened after Cambysses’s death is Darius’s own account of events, and there is some scholarly doubt over whether Darius was really the heroic liberator he claimed to be. What can be certain is that prior to his departure for Egypt, Cambysses’s brother Bardiya (known as Smerdis to the Greeks) died. The story goes that Cambysses himself, concerned that his brother would try to seize the throne in his absence, had Bardiya killed.

So it was that when Cambysses himself died, there was no heir apparent. The story takes a strange turn at this point, however. A magian, or high priest, by the name of Gaumata claimed that he was none other than Bardiya, who had not died after all.

Despite the rather obvious deception (one story relates that, although they looked similar, Gaumata had had his ears cut off some years previously), Gaumata seemed poised to get away with his back-door usurpation: apparently the other nobles at court were too cowed to do anything about his plot for fear of violent reprisal.

Enter Darius. With the help of six co-conspirators, Darius made a claim to the throne. He was the son of a minor branch of the royal line, the Achaemnids, and was not even the oldest member of his immediate family, but he was ambitious.

Darius himself killed the imposter Gaumata and took the throne, which by this point was resting upon very shaky foundations. Over the next year Darius fought nineteen battles against various rebellious provinces in an effort to consolidate his power. By 521 bce , his rule was unquestioned.

His accomplishments were immortalized on the Rock of Behistun. Rising out of the surrounding plains and situated near a major east-west trade route, the rock to this day bears Darius’s triumphant inscriptions 200 feet above the ground. Written in three languages, the inscriptions proudly tell the story of Darius’s fight for the throne. But Darius’s great reign had only just begun.

Darius as Military Leader

In contrast to his two predecessors, Darius is not noted for his military conquests. He focused on consolidating and improving the inner workings of the far-flung empire.

Nevertheless, Darius did lead several expeditions. The first, from 519 bce –518 bce , was to Egypt, where rebellion still stirred. Two years later, Darius found himself at the other end of his empire, campaigning in the Indus River valley (modern day Pakistan). Adding a portion of India to the Persian Empire proved a wise move. The revenue generated from that region was reportedly several hundred pounds of gold dust per year.

Darius also campaigned against the Scythians, horse nomads whose territory ranged from Central Asia to southern Europe. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reports that one of the expeditions, dated to 514 bce , took place north of the Danube River, which would make it one of the first Persian campaigns on European soil. During this campaign, Darius made use of his Greek subjects, including one Miltiades, the Athenian who would later defeat the Persian invasion at Marathon.

Darius’s Scythian adventures came to nothing. The mounted nomad-archers refused to give battle, and, after suffering weeks of guerrilla attacks, the Persians went home.

Darius as Ruler

It was at home in his empire that Darius truly came into his own. Although an administrative system had been evolving in Persia since the foundation of the empire, Darius was the first king to regulate and codify what would come to be known as the satrapy system.

A satrapy was basically a province arranged along ethnic or cultural lines. The rulers of each satrapy, the satraps, were chosen from the local populace in order to avoid the appearance of imperial domination. In fact, Persian policy was to keep things as “normal” as possible in their many subject kingdoms. Local religions were allowed to flourish. For example, after conquering Babylon, the Persians allowed the Jews to return to Palestine and encouraged them to rebuild the Temple of Solomon.

All that was asked in return was for the satrap to collect a certain amount of “tribute” each year and pass the earnings on to the Persians. Of course, the Persians were not naïve, and a sophisticated royal spy network referred to as “the king’s eyes and ears” closely monitored each satrapy.

Darius is also credited with constructing the Royal Road, a sort of ancient superhighway that ran from Sardis in modern-day Turkey to Susa, one of the four Persian capitals, a length of 1700 miles. A normal journey along the road took about three months, but the king also established a system of couriers who, like the riders of the Pony Express of the American West, would ride in horse relays of twenty miles per horse. This system allowed a message to travel the distance from Sardis to Susa in about a week’s time.

Darius and the Greeks

It was at the extreme western end of the Royal Road, at the provincial capital of Sardis, that Darius first encountered what could be called his “Greek problem.” The western coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), then known as Ionia, was ethnically Greek. In 499 bce , the Ionians rose in revolt, probably encouraged by the local satrap in a politically motivated power grab. However, the rebellion quickly grew beyond the satrap’s control and turned into a movement for total independence from the Persian Empire.

The Ionians sent for help from mainland Greece. The Athenians agreed to help, as did the nearby city of Eretria, which had a large Ionian population.

The Greek expedition sailed across the Aegean and marched inland to Sardis, taking the city and burning it. When word of this foreign intervention reached Darius’s ears, the king became incensed. He vowed that as soon as he had put down the Ionians, he would punish the Athenians for their temerity. It took six years to finally extinguish the fire of rebellion in Ionia, and every night during that time Darius had his attendant remind him three times during dinner to “remember the Athenians.”

The last Ionian stronghold, Miletus, fell in 493 bce and was nearly razed to the ground. By the following year Darius had an expedition ready to take the fight to mainland Greece. Unfortunately for Darius, the ships carrying the army were wrecked off the Mount Athos peninsula in Thessaly, in the extreme north of Greece. The expedition did manage, however, to secure the submission of Macedonia and Thrace before heading home.

Two years after his first attempted invasion, Darius was ready to try again. He sent a fleet directly across the Aegean this time, conquering the many Greek islands that dot that sea. Upon reaching the mainland, the Persians first landed at Eretria, which fell within a week, but the Persians were defeated soon after at Marathon.

Darius was not ready to give up on his dream of vengeance against the Greeks, but his time soon ran out. He died in 486 bce at the age of sixty-four in the midst of planning a third expedition. His son and heir, Xerxes, would attempt to carry on his father’s dream, but meet with defeat at Salamis and Plataea.


The reign of Darius I was pivotal for Persia. He expanded the boundaries of the empire somewhat, adding the Indus Valley, Macedonia, Thrace, and the Aegean Islands. But it is as an administrator and builder that he is remembered. He regulated weights, measures, and coinage. He built grand palaces at Persepolis, his new capital, and left behind inscriptions chronicling his great deeds. He was also the first Persian king to publicly acknowledge the new religion of Zoroastrianism.

It was in the name of Zoroastrianism’s primary god, Ahura-Mazda, that Darius left this advice for future rulers of the state he helped consolidate:

“King Darius states: King, whoever you are, who may arise after me, protect yourself well from lies. Do not trust the man who lies.… Believe what I did and tell the truth to the people. Do not conceal [it]. If you do not conceal these matters, but you do tell the people, may Ahura-Mazda protect you.”


When he ascended to the throne of the Persian Empire in 486 bce , Xerxes (520 bce –465 bce ) could not have known that in a scant seven years he would be responsible for one of the greatest military defeats in history. But the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks during the so-called Persian Wars was only one chapter of a reign plagued by strife and setbacks.

Early Life, First Years as King

Born in 520 bce , Xerxes was the son of the Persian king Darius I, and was tapped from childhood to succeed his father. Although he was not the eldest of Darius’s children, he was the eldest son of the king’s favorite wife. Little is known of his life prior to his ascent to the throne, although there is evidence that he was the viceroy of Babylonia during his early adulthood, perhaps as a means to prepare him for the responsibilities of rule.

When Darius died, Xerxes was immediately confronted with an ongoing revolt in Egypt and would soon have to deal with an uprising in Babylonia as well. He seems to have put down the rebellions quickly and, when necessary, ruthlessly. After Babylon revolted a second time in 482 bce , Xerxes tore down the temple ziggurats (towers) of the city and defaced the statues of the local gods.

Along with rebellious provinces, Xerxes inherited something else from his father: the desire to crush Greece, which had proven a continual thorn in the western side of the Persian Empire. Darius had launched two expeditions targeting Greece in 492 bce and 490 bce . The first foundered in stormy seas off the Mount Athos peninsula the second was turned back at the Battle of Marathon. Xerxes was determined to make good on the third attempt and set about assembling one of the largest armies the world had yet seen in an effort to guarantee victory.

Xerxes’ Army

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus calculated that the Persian army, when all personnel and camp followers were factored in, numbered some five million individuals. Modern scholarship estimates a total closer to 300,000, with about 120,000 comprising the main body of the army. Xerxes assembled a fleet to match his army, some 1,200 ships strong.

The composition of the army was also unlike anything previously seen, drawing units from all over the empire—from the Indus River valley, with its soldiers clad in “tree-wool” (cotton), to Nubia (southern Egypt) and all points in between. The army even included a sizeable number of Greeks, mostly Ionians from the west coast of modern-day Turkey.

The core of Xerxes’ army was his personal bodyguard of 10,000, the “Immortals,” so called because the unit was always maintained at that precise number of soldiers, even while on campaign.

Xerxes’ Strategy

The Greeks were small in number, but had won a reputation as excellent sailors and fearsome warriors. The Persians had felt defeat at Greek hands ten years earlier at Marathon despite outnumbering the Greeks in that battle. Clearly, Xerxes’ strategy was to stack the odds so far in his favor that quantity would have to win out over quality.

The patient Xerxes paid heed to past defeats and took several years to prepare carefully for his invasion. His knew his army was too big to sail across the sea, so his plan was to march across the Bosporus, the strait separating Europe from Asia Minor, then on to Greece proper. Xerxes had two great pontoon bridges, bridges laid across the backs of lashed-together boats, built across the Bosporus at its narrowest point. Remembering what the treacherous Mount Athos had done to his father’s fleet in 492 bce , he ordered a canal dug across the base of the peninsula. It took three years to dig the canal. Finally ready for attack, Xerxes sought divine sanction for his mission by ordering the sacrifice of 1,000 head of cattle. Then he and his army set off for Greece.

Xerxes Invades Greece

Xerxes first met Greek resistance at the Pass of Thermopylae. The famous band of 300 Spartans under King Leonidas were supported by about 4,000 allied troops and stopped the whole of the Persian army for over a week, including nearly three days of fierce close combat. Thermopylae was Xerxes’ first encounter with the quality of Greek fighters, and he could count it a victory despite losing thousands of troops in the effort. He marched south and occupied Athens, with the Greek armies retreating before his advance.

The key to victory now seemed to rest not in a land engagement but on the clash of navies. If Xerxes could crush Greek naval power, his own ships could blockade the remaining third of Greece, the Spartan homeland known as the Peloponnesus. Troops could be landed at will. The war would be all but over.

The Greek fleet had gathered in the Bay of Salamis, between the island of the same name and the Athenian port of Piraeus. The Greek fleet was weakened by bickering and fractiousness and was outnumbered by the Persians to boot. Xerxes had only to blockade the fleet inside the bay and the Greeks were sure to turn on each other.

It was at this point that the crafty Athenian leader Themistocles sent a secret communication to the Persian king designed to look like an attempt at treachery. In the message, Themistocles simply told Xerxes the Greek fleet was in perilously weak condition. Overanxious for a victory, Xerxes fell for Themistocles’ ruse and ordered an attack. So confident was he of victory, he even set up a throne on a nearby mountaintop from which to watch the battle and take notes on which admirals did well and which did poorly.

But instead of watching an easy Persian victory, Xerxes was forced to observe as his fleet went down to defeat. As much as one-third of the Persian fleet was sunk. Unable to swim, most of the sailors of the sinking ships drowned. Xerxes’ overanxious attack, in which his fleet’s great size worked against it, gave the Greeks control of the seas and the initiative in the war. The next year, the Persians would be defeated once and for all at Plataea.

After Salamis

Nervous about the possibility of another rebellion in Babylon, Xerxes took about half his army and returned to Sardis. Without control of the seas, he would not be able to maintain his supply lines for the full invasion army. The vast numbers of soldiers upon whom he had depended turned into more of a hindrance than a help. The outnumbered Greeks had found ways to turn the size of the Persian force against itself.

For the Persians, the wars in Greece were ultimately a sideshow. The empire went on. Official peace was eventually declared with the Greeks about thirty years after Salamis, although the Persians would continue to meddle in Aegean politics and wars.

As for Xerxes, he proved not nearly as durable as his realm. He took no further part in the wars with Greece or the political maneuverings of his generals and governors. Often drunk, he retreated to his palaces, embittered and focused on grand building projects.

Fifteen years after Salamis, in 465 bce , Xerxes was assassinated in a palace coup led by the captain of the guard, Artabanus. The kingdom fell to civil war between Artabanus and Xerxes’ three sons, one of whom, Artaxerxes, eventually won the throne. Even in death, Xerxes’ legacy was one of violence, bloodshed, and death.


There is little that is actually known about the Persian general named Datis (birth and death dates unknown), leader of the expedition against the Greeks that ended in defeat at Marathon in 490 bce . Most of our information comes via the Greek historian Herodotus, although there are also inscriptions and palace records that help fill in the blanks.

Early Military Career

Datis was a Mede from the mountainous northern region of Mesopotamia and was clearly one of the top generals in the army of the Persian king, Darius I. His name first appears in connection with the Ionian revolt, a six-year struggle between the ethnically Greek Ionians of the west coast of modern-day Turkey and their Persian overlords. Datis is historically credited with capturing the key Ionian island of Rhodes in 495 bce and with leading the Persian fleet to victory at the battle of Lade in 494 bce .

Lade marked the beginning of the siege of Miletus, the last holdout of Ionian resistance. Within a year, Miletus had been taken amidst much blood and fire, and the Ionian rebellion was officially put to rest.

When the Ionians had first risen against the Persians in 499 bce , help had come from the mainland Greek cities of Athens and Eretria. Darius swore vengeance on the foreign cities for intervening, and in 490 bce launched an expedition across the Aegean Sea with Datis and another Persian commander, Artaphernes, in charge of the forces.

The Expedition of 490 bce

The expedition had three goals: to punish Athens and Eretria for their involvement in Ionia, to restore the deposed Athenian tyrant Hippias as a Persian puppet ruler, and to incorporate the many Aegean islands into the Persian Empire, thus creating a buffer zone between Persia and Greece.

This last objective had been a Persian goal for nearly a decade, having first been attempted in 499 bce under the command of Artaphernes’s father. That campaign was cut short by the more pressing matter of the Ionian revolt, and the Aegean islands remained free for the time being.

Datis and Artaphernes met with considerably more success in 490 bce , taking every island that stood in their way, including the vital trading center of Naxos and the island of Delos, site of a major Apollo cult. As the Persians associated Apollo with their Zoroastrian god Ahura-Mazda, Datis made a great sacrifice to thank the god for the expedition’s success so far.


Upon reaching the Greek mainland, Datis first laid siege to the city of Eretria, which fell within a week. Its citizens were enslaved and eventually sent back to Babylon for a life in captivity.

After the fall of Eretria, Datis landed at the plain of Marathon, a site north of Athens that Hippias advised would be favorable terrain for the superior Persian cavalry.

Meanwhile, the Athenians had assembled a force of about 10,000 hoplites, heavy infantry clad in bronze armor and wielding spears, to oppose the Persian army, which was anywhere from twice as big to six times the size, but made up almost exclusively of lightly armored archers and light cavalry.

The Greeks blocked the road south to Athens but did not attack. A standoff ensued over the next five days before the Greeks, under their general Miltiades, charged the Persian army and broke it. It has been theorized that the Greeks charged when they did because the Persian cavalry, to which the Greek phalanx (body of troops) was most vulnerable, was not in the area, or was perhaps boarding the ships in preparation for departing to another landing point.

What is known is that after the defeat, Datis sailed his fleet around to the south of Athens with an eye to taking the Athenian port town of Piraeus, but found the port blocked by the victorious troops of Marathon, who had raced home to secure the city. With no apparent landing point, Datis turned back for Persia.


Most of the goals of his expedition had been accomplished, but the defeat at Marathon would have the largest impact on world events. The Persians had never lost a land battle against a regular army, and the defeat had a profound effect on Persian authority and power.

Although some sources claim Datis was killed at Marathon, this is unlikely. His exact date of death is unknown. All that is certain is that he did not participate in the Persian invasion of Greece tens years after Marathon in 480 bce , although two of his sons did serve as generals in that great army. As for their father, he emerges only briefly from the mists of history and, despite his string of successes as a general, is best remembered for one of the most momentous defeats in the ancient world.


Miltiades (c. 549 bce –489 bce ) was an Athenian general and adventurer who is best remembered as the victorious commander of the Battle of Marathon.

Early Military Career

An Athenian aristocrat, Miltiades first made a name for himself serving as a magistrate under the tyrant Hippias. Around 516 bce , he set himself up as tyrant of the Greek colonies in the Chersonese, an area now known as the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. In Miltiades’s day, Thracians, a relatively uncivilized people the Greeks looked down upon as little better than wild men, dominated the area, and Miltiades ruled with an iron fist.

The Chersonese fell under the dominion of the Persian Empire, and Miltiades marched with the army of the Persian king Darius during an expedition against the nomadic Scythians north of the Danube River. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Miltiades considered burning the Persians’ bridge over the mighty Danube, thus stranding the army and their king, but this could very well have been an attempt to paint the hero of Marathon as reluctantly serving under his future enemies, a Greek patriot through and through.

When the other Greeks in the Persian Empire did rise against Darius, Miltiades fought on their side, taking the island of Lemnos, which he later gave to Athens.

In Command at Marathon

Persia eventually suppressed the Greek rebels, and Miltiades returned to Athens, where he faced a cool reception due to his tyrannical rule of the Chersonese. In fact, he was soon brought to trial for his actions, but charges against him were dropped. The Athenians, aware that Darius was preparing a punitive campaign against them for their involvement in the Greek revolts, needed someone like Miltiades, an experienced general with inside knowledge of how the Persian army fought and operated. In July of 490 bce , as the Persian invasion fleet was making its way across the Aegean towards Athens, Miltiades was elected one of ten generals for the year.

The Athenians sent word to Sparta, the greatest Greek military power of the day, requesting help against the Persians. The Spartans replied that they would be unable to help out right away because they were in the middle of a religious festival.

Miltiades suggested marching out immediately rather than hiding behind Athens’s city walls. The Greek force numbered around 10,000 and faced a Persian army at least twice that size. Miltiades and his fellow generals, having blocked the Persians from advancing beyond their landing site at Marathon, were unsure of how to proceed. For five days the Greeks held their ground.

It was Miltiades who finally proposed a bold plan: the Greeks, who excelled at close combat, should charge the Persians, who relied on their archers and cavalry. Forced into close quarters, the Greeks would negate the Persians’ preferred method of fighting. Furthermore, Miltiades proposed to leave the Greek center weak and to strengthen the wings, thus setting up a trap for the Persians in which their numbers would work against them.

By a one-vote margin, his idea won approval from the other generals. The Greeks charged.

Miltiades’ plan went off without a hitch. The weak Greek center gave way, the Persians surged forward, and the Greek wings swung in like great pincers, striking the Persian flanks and causing panic in their ranks. Thanks to Miltiades, Marathon was a triumph, with the Greeks losing a mere 192 men to the Persians’ 6,400.

After Marathon

Miltiades was showered with praise upon his return to Athens and was the natural choice to lead further expeditions against the Persian-occupied Aegean islands. However, his star rapidly fell. During an attack on the Persian-held island of Paros, Miltiades was wounded and the attack was driven off. Returning to Athens, he was condemned and fined for his failure, dying soon after from his wound.

Despite this ignominious end, Miltiades is today remembered as a military genius who showed the Greeks they could defeat the mighty Persian army, inventing the tactic of “double envelopment” in the process.


The legendary hero King Leonidas (?–480 bce ), defender of Thermopylae, remains largely an enigma to modern scholarship. His birth date could range anywhere between 530 and 500 bce , which would place his age at the time of death somewhere between twenty and fifty years old.

The main source of information on Leonidas is the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who reports that Leonidas was born to the Spartan king Anaxandrides and came to rule Sparta through an unlikely sequence of events.

Leonidas, King of Sparta

Anaxandrides had taken a wife who had produced no sons. As such, the Spartan council ordered him to take a second wife, a very unusual decree in Greek society. Anaxandrides dutifully married again and soon had a son by the name of Cleomenes. Ironically, the king’s first wife then began producing sons, three to be precise: Dorieus, Leonidas and Cleombrotus.

Although Dorieus would have been the king had his father not remarried, Cleomenes took the throne instead, which was unfortunate, since consensus held Dorieus to be the better qualified of the two to rule by far. So upset was Dorieus at the hand fate had dealt him that he left Sparta for good and was soon killed during an overseas adventure.

Cleomenes, who was mentally unsound and might have actually been developmentally disabled, died sometime around 487 bce . Leonidas, who had married Cleomenes’ daughter (and his own half-niece) was next in line for succession and so became king, or rather co-king, for Sparta was ruled by two men at all times.

Cleomenes had shared the throne with one Demaratus, but an internal feud had driven Demaratus to join with the Persians. A new king named Leotychides filled the vacant position.

The Role of the Spartan King

As kings, both Leonidas and Leotychides functioned as rulers and high priests, the military and spiritual leaders of their city. Spartan kings were expected to be true leaders, setting the example for those that followed them.

In the militaristic society of Sparta, that example was often by necessity quite extreme, as evidenced by Leonidas’s decision to personally lead a hand-picked band of his 300 best warriors (and a few thousand allies) north to Thermopylae to provide a stopgap defense against the massive Persian army that was bearing down on Greece in the year 480 bce . It was a mission from which none of the Spartans would return.

But Leonidas and his men were not mere lambs to the Persian slaughter—Herodotus claims 20,000 Persians died in nearly three days of fighting against the vastly outnumbered Spartans. Leonidas’s leadership was critical to the Greek resistance, and it continued to serve as an example even after he died.

The victorious Persians set Leonidas’s head on a pike and marched south. After the wars, the Spartans recovered their king’s remains and bore them back home where he was given a hero’s burial.

After the Persian army was defeated at Plataea in 479 bce , the Spartan commander Pausanias had this to say about his deceased king: “For Leonidas, whom you bid me avenge, I tell you he has been greatly avenged he has found great honor in these countless souls here—both he himself and the others who died at Thermopylae.”


Themistocles (c. 524 bce –460 bce ), was the leader perhaps most directly responsible for the Greek victory in the Persian Wars. Little is known of his early life, save a story related by the biographer Plutarch, writing some 600 years later.

Plutarch writes that a young Themistocles was walking down the street when the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus approached from the other direction. When Themistocles’ tutor cautioned him to make way, Themistocles responded, “Isn’t the road wide enough for him?”

Regardless of the truth of this story, it illustrates the biting wisdom that came so naturally to Themistocles and that would mark him out as a clever, wily leader of men in the mold of Odysseus of old. It also gives a hint of the great streak of pride that would eventually see Themistocles make enemies of all his allies.

Early Political Career

The famous democracy of Athens was just blossoming at the dawn of the fifth century bce after two generations of tyrannical rule. There are hints that Themistocles was involved with the city government, perhaps pushing through plans to fortify the Athenian port town of Piraeus.

It is not until 483 bce that Themistocles definitively enters the historical record. Athens had recently received an influx of wealth thanks to the discovery of new veins of silver in its mines. There was considerable debate in the city as to what to do with all the newfound revenue. The most popular plan involved dividing up the money equally among all the citizens of Athens, a dividend that would have been equal to a month’s pay for most people.

Themistocles had a better idea. After the Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 bce , many Greeks had assumed the Persians would no longer pose a threat. Themistocles was not so sure, and felt the best defense for Athens was a strong navy. He introduced a plan to more than double the size of the Athenian navy. The consummate politician, Themistocles was able to convince the citizens of Athens, who were still stinging from a recent naval defeat at the hands of the island state of Aegina, to back his plan.

In 480 bce , the last of the new Athenian warships slipped into the harbor of Piraeus just as the Persians, under their king Xerxes, launched a massive invasion of Greece.

As a Military Leader

Thanks to Themistocles’ navy, Athens had become the preeminent Greek naval power. Nevertheless, the Spartans were appointed commanders of the allied fleet, which first engaged the Persians off Cape Artemisium at the same time as the famous land battle at nearby Thermopylae was occurring. The Greek fleet was driven back, but not before inflicting serious losses on the Persians.

As he retreated with the fleet, Themistocles left a message in every port he stopped in, addressed to his fellow Greeks who were serving in the Persian navy. His message entreated them to come over to the Greek side, or at least not fight as fiercely against their brethren as Xerxes might like.

Although his messages did not win any converts, there is evidence that it sowed mistrust between the Greek and non-Greek generals in the Persian fleet. But Themistocles’ trickery was just getting started.

The Greek navy, made up of ships from a multitude of independent city-states, was under constant threat of breaking up due to internal rivalries. Themistocles kept the various factions together as best he could, using every trick his clever political mind could muster, but he knew that time was of the essence. A battle with the Persians needed to be forced so the squabbling Greeks could unify against a common enemy.

Once Xerxes found the Greek fleet at anchor in the narrow Bay of Salamis, his own fleet hung back. The narrow bay did not favor the massive Persian fleet, which needed the open ocean to make its numbers count.

In order to force a confrontation, Themistocles dispatched a servant to Xerxes bearing a message: the Greek fleet was on the verge of dissolution. They were apt to break up and go home any day now.

Xerxes, anxious to defeat the whole Greek fleet in one blow, ordered the bay blockaded and attacked at dawn. And, just as Themistocles had planned, the Persian numbers worked against them. The Greek fleet, led by the brand new state-of-the-art Athenian navy, outfought and outmaneuvered the Persians, sinking upwards of a third of the fleet.

The victory at Salamis was the turning point of the Persian Wars. The Greeks had won naval superiority and would go on to defeat the Persian army the following year at Plataea.

Ups and Downs after the War

From his shipbuilding initiative, to his efforts to hold the fleet together, to his cunning trickery, the Greek victory over the Persians was owed almost entirely to Themistocles, and he seemed to know it. In the wake of the war, offended that his fellow Athenians did not do enough to honor him, Themistocles departed for Sparta, where he was honored with an olive branch, the “finest chariot in Sparta,” and much merry-making. For his journey back to Athens, an honor guard of 300 Spartans accompanied Themistocles to their border.

Once back in Athens, Themistocles encountered a delegation from Sparta that was lobbying hard to prevent the Athenians from rebuilding their city wall, which only stood in a few spots after the Persians razed the city. According to the Spartans, a wall only served to defend an enemy who takes your city. Sparta had no wall, the Spartans argued, and neither should Athens.

Secretly telling his fellow citizens to devote every man, woman, and child to the task of rebuilding the wall, Themistocles returned to Sparta to “negotiate.”

Once in Sparta, Themistocles stalled and played for time. First he claimed that he was waiting on other Athenian delegates who were unaccountably late. When word reached Sparta that Athens was rebuilding her walls, Themistocles dismissed the reports as wild rumors. He then encouraged the Spartans to send another delegation to see for themselves, sending word ahead to Athens to delay the delegation as much as possible on their journey to the city.

Eventually, of course, the truth was revealed. Not only had Athens rebuilt its walls, they now stood taller and thicker than before. What was more, the fortified port of Piraeus was now connected to Athens by a seven-mile long walled corridor and the city wall in general encompassed a larger area.

Amazingly, Themistocles extricated himself from Sparta with little overt hostility. He explained to his hosts that time and again during the war, Athens had demonstrated superior judgment, and always acted in the service of the greater good for Greece. The city walls, he continued, were simply the latest manifestation of that beneficent judgment. The Spartans let him go, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm than the last time he had departed that city.

As with many wartime leaders, Themistocles saw his popularity at home decline in peacetime. He may have exacerbated matters with his rather arrogant personality and constant need for recognition. Apparently tired of having him around, his fellow Athenians ostracized, or formally banished, Themistocles in 472 bce , eight years after the victory of Salamis.

In theory, when an Athenian was ostracized, he had to stay away from the city for ten years, but his property and social standing were left untouched and he was free to return at the end of the exile, his reputation intact. Unfortunately for Themistocles, things did not work out quite so cleanly.

Themistocles wandered from city to city, trying to find a place to settle, but was dogged by accusations from the Spartans that he was conspiring with the Persians. Unwilling to harbor an enemy of Sparta, no city would put up with him for long. Back in Athens, the allegations of deals with the enemy led to Themistocles being branded a traitor. His property was confiscated and his citizenship revoked.

Later Life and Legacy

The victor of Salamis eventually found himself in Asia Minor, where, in an ironic twist, his former enemies, the Persians, took him in. They made him governor of the province of Magnesia, which he ruled until his death. There exist today Magnesian coins bearing Themistocles’ likeness.

There are two versions of Themistocles’ death. One has him committing suicide by drinking bull’s blood so that he would not have to lead an army against his fellow Greeks. The other, much more likely, story finds him dying of old age sometime around 460 bce .

However he died, Themistocles left behind a towering legacy. Without his shipbuilding program and leadership, victory at Salamis is very hard to imagine. Without victory at Salamis, the Greek army would have almost certainly been defeated. Whatever his personal faults, Themistocles is more directly responsible for Greek victory in the Persian Wars than any other single person.


Best known for his role in the defeat at the Battle of Plataea in 479 bce , the Persian general Mardonius (?–479 bce ) was nevertheless a capable military leader who had the misfortune to lead two campaigns that each ended in disaster.

Early Life

When Darius I became king of Persia in 522 bce , he relied on the assistance of six co-conspirators who helped him seize the crown. One of these noblemen, Gobryas, married Darius’s sister, and it is from this union that Mardonius most likely was born.

The first Persian encounter with the mainland Greeks came when the ethnically Greek region of the Persian Empire known as Ionia rose up in revolt and Athens sent troops to assist the rebels, burning the provincial capital of Sardis.

Governor of Ionia

Darius put down the revolt over a six-year period, oftentimes quite brutally, and he assigned Mardonius to patch the subjugated province back together. All evidence indicates that Mardonius was a just and capable administrator, and that he even instituted democratic reform in the Ionian cities.

As Mardonius got Ionia back on its feet, Darius was busy planning an expedition to Greece with the objective of punishing the city-states that had sent aid to the rebels. Mardonius, perhaps due to his capable work in Ionia, was put in charge of the first expedition in 492 bce .

The First Persian Invasion

The expedition never made it to Greece: the fleet was wrecked upon the storm-tossed peninsula of Mount Athos. Mardonius made the best of a bad situation and used his army to win the submission of the northern Greek state of Macedonia and the semi-civilized region of Thrace, possibly venturing as far north as the Danube in the process. These acquisitions would prove vital to later Persian campaigns in Europe, as they provided a natural staging area for armies assembling at the extreme western edge of the mighty empire.

Serving Under Xerxes

When Darius died in 486 bce , Mardonius’s cousin and brother-in-law, Xerxes, succeeded to the throne. Xerxes intended from the very start of his reign to carry out his father’s plans to invade Greece, and Mardonius wholeheartedly supported the idea. A great army began assembling at Sardis. After a brief pause to put down a rebellion in Babylon, Xerxes was ready to launch his invasion. In 480 bce the army set out, with Mardonius as one of six generals serving under the king.

After taking northern Greece with no difficulty, the Persian army hit its first snag at Thermopylae, where a vastly outnumbered Spartan force held them up for a week. Nonetheless, the Persians pressed on and occupied Athens and central Greece. Shortly thereafter, the Persian navy was defeated at Salamis and Xerxes retired to Asia Minor with about half his army. He named Mardonius commander of the Persian army in Greece, which probably numbered about 150,000.

Prelude to Plataea

Over the winter, Mardonius attempted to win the Athenians over to his side. He retired to north-central Greece and offered to give the Athenians their city back, as well as a preeminent position in Greece, if they would only acknowledge Xerxes as their king. The Athenians, living in exile, would have none of it.

As winter turned to spring, the Athenians refused a second similar offer and Mardonius moved back to Athens. He razed the city to the ground, leveling every building in the town and covering the ruins with dirt.

Meanwhile, Sparta had begun assembling a great Greek army after the Athenians spurred them to action by threatening to turn their fleet over to Mardonius. Nearly every city in Greece not already under Persian domination contributed units to the army, which numbered about 100,000 men. The Greeks marched towards Athens in the summer of 479 bce .


Mardonius met the Greeks near the town of Plataea and a game of brinkmanship began. Neither side wanted to initiate the attack. Although his Greek allies suggested using the gold and silver of northern Greece to bribe his enemies, Mardonius was looking for a battle.

He finally got one when he misinterpreted Greek troop movement for a retreat and ordered his army forward. He personally led a cavalry attack on the Spartan-held right, and it was at some point during the fighting that Mardonius was killed.

It is perhaps a mark of his personal leadership qualities that as soon as Mardonius perished, his army began to fall apart. The Spartans drove back their attackers and a general retreat was soon sounded. The Greeks had triumphed and the greatly reduced Persian army limped back to Asia Minor along the old invasion route.

Several towns near the battlefield competed for the honor of burying Mardonius. It was a sign of respect for the Persian general that the Greeks would want to do such a thing, but it was an ironic end for Mardonius. As a Zoroastrian (follower of the traditional relgion of Persia, Zoroastrianism), he would have preferred his body to be left for the vultures and would have seen burial as sacrilege.

Decision at Plataea, 479 BC

Marathon and Miltiades, Salamis and Themistocles, Thermopylae and Leonidas—such names resonate in the annals of the 5th century BC Greco-Persian Wars. But few outside academia recognize the name Plataea, let alone the Spartan victor Pausanias or his stubborn commanders. Yet it was this battle, not the naval victories off Artemisium and Salamis nor the legendary doomed stand of the 300 at Thermopylae, that finally brought King Xerxes to his knees.

In the summer of 479 BC on a riverine plain below this small Boeotian city, an allied Greek army utterly crushed the remnants of the 100,000-strong Persian invasion force and scattered its turncoat Greek allies, ending the threat of absorption posed by the behemoth empire to the east.

In the wake of the Greek defeat at Thermopylae in 480 BC, the major north-central city-states defected to Persia. Thebes, perennial source of hardened hoplites, was by far the most important of these, as her disciplined phalanx would substantially reinforce the Persians’ lighter infantry forces. Almost as important were Pherae and Larissa, powerful horse-breeding centers on the northeastern plain of Thessaly that fielded the best cavalry in Greece. Even in the heart of the Peloponnesos, Xerxes, through clever diplomacy and perhaps bribes and/or hints of preferential treatment, managed to secure the neutrality of powerful Argos.

Following his unexpected defeat at Salamis, Xerxes withdrew with the bulk of his forces. But the great king was not about to accept humiliation and cede the field to the Greek alliance. Indeed, his experience in the campaign had led him to place his best hope of victory in fracturing the unity of the Greek states. Xerxes was encouraged in this belief by the Spartan exile Demaratos, who had accompanied the king on his Greek expedition and suggested that the glitter of Persian coins might be more persuasive to the leaders of city-states than the glint of Median spears.

Opposing Xerxes, the ad hoc Greek alliance headed by Sparta and Athens had shown signs of internal stress even before Salamis. While the Athenians had abandoned their city to the Persians, their pride would not countenance a prolonged occupation. In fact, the crucial naval victory in the straits off Athens essentially had been forced upon the Greeks by subtle Athenian threats to switch sides if their allies would not commit to a major naval action.

That victory did not fundamentally alter the strategic and political circumstances faced by the Greek alliance. While Xerxes and most of his forces had withdrawn, the city-states of Thebes, Pherae and Larissa remained loyal to Persia. And Xerxes had left behind his royal cousin Mardonius with about 100,000 Persian troops, including a substantial cavalry. This force, once augmented by Theban and Locrian infantry and Thessalian cavalry, would potentially outnumber the united forces of the Greek alliance.

By early spring 479 BC, the Peloponnesian Greeks had almost completed a fortified wall across the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, while a primarily Athenian fleet protected the isthmus from amphibious assault. Thus ensconced, the Peloponnesians had little desire to venture forth and engage the Persians and their turncoat supporters.

But Athens lay north of this line of defense, alone and exposed to attack. Mardonius first dispatched an envoy to negotiate with the Athenian democratic assembly. “Join the cause of the king and prosper,” the envoy reportedly urged. “Continue to resist and be utterly annihilated.” The Spartans and Peloponnesians, rightly worried, sent their own ambassadors to Athens. The Athenian leaders made a blustery public show of refusing Mardonius’ offer of alliance, but behind the scenes they appreciated the strategic weakness of their position. If their land was to be free of the threat of Persian reoccupation, they must crush the main body of enemy forces. But to do that, they would have to persuade the Peloponnesians to abandon their fortifications and venture north.

Immediately following the rejection of his peace offer, Mardonius sought to force the Athenians’ hand, moving south with his army to reoccupy the now abandoned city of Athens. The fed-up Athenians sought help from their Spartan allies. “Either help us protect our land, as an ally should,” they pleaded, “or we will be forced to look to our own needs.” The implied threat of defection completely unhinged the basic tactical and strategic position of alliance forces on the isthmus. Backed by the Athenian fleet, the Persians could easily have swept aside what remained of the allied fleet and landed with impunity at many points along the Peloponnesian coast. As Herodotus shrewdly observed, Persian naval supremacy would have crushed Sparta’s allies one by one, until “the Spartans would have stood alone, to perform prodigies of valor and to die nobly.”

While the Father of History provided this analysis before the Battle of Salamis, he did so to emphasize the indispensable Athenian contribution to the Greek navy. That centrality had not changed in the months since then, and after a short delay the Spartans acceded to Athenian demands, committing 10,000 heavy infantry and an even larger force of light troops under the command of Pausanias, the Spartan king’s young regent.

Allied forces mustered on the isthmus, soon joined by contingents from across the Peloponnesus. Herodotus tellingly remarks that many cities sent troops only after the Spartans were on the march, another indication of how Greek opinion remained divided on the best course of action, even in the face of foreign domination. Larger cities like Corinth, Tegea and Sikyon accounted for the bulk of the non-Spartan Peloponnesian forces, but the contribution of the smaller cities was even more remarkable: Tiny Mycenae and Tiryns sent a combined 400 heavy infantry, likely constituting the vast majority of their male citizenry. Altogether, nearly 30,000 heavy infantry and an even greater number of light troops were concentrating on the isthmus—by far the largest Greek army to ever take the field, perhaps 100,000 strong. But not all answered the call. Conspicuously absent were Argos and Mantineia, traditional Peloponnesian rivals of Sparta, as well as the wealthy city of Elis, steward of the Panhellenic sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, all of whom stood to benefit from a reshuffling of influence in the wake of a Persian victory.

The original Athenian plan was for the allies to advance north through Megara and hopefully draw the main Persian force onto the Thrian plain near the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis. Mardonius, wisely, did not take the bait, but retired north toward Boeotia and Thebes. As Herodotus puts it: “His reason for abandoning Attica was that it was poor country for cavalry moreover, had he been beaten in an engagement, his only way of retreat would have been by a narrow defile, which could have been held by a very small [Greek] force. And so, his plan was to fall back to Thebes, where he could fight in good cavalry country near a friendly city.” But before Mardonius left Athens, he put the abandoned city and its territory to the torch, laying waste a Greek center that had stood largely untouched for centuries.

Mardonius, trusting in the lead of his Greek confederates, arrived safely near Plataea. Nestled on the northern slopes of Mount Kithairon, just outside Attica, this modest city cultivated part of the plain watered by the Asopos River, which today runs 2 to 3 miles north of the ancient site, dividing Attica from central Greece. Here was the cavalry country the Persian commander had been seeking here he would await the allied Greek army. And come they must, he knew, not out of strategic necessity, but due to an ugly political reality: If they allowed Mardonius safe haven just north of Attica and the Peloponnesos, the king’s gold would find its way into the hands of leading men in Athens and the Peloponnesos, likely accomplishing what force had not—the dissolution of the Hellenic League and absorption by the Persian Empire.

Smoke rising from the ruins of Attica’s homes, farms, and temples streaked the sky to the northeast as the Peloponnesians marched north from the isthmus through the territory of Megara, whose 3,000 hoplites further swelled their ranks. The Peloponnesians made for still-smoldering Eleusis, in Attica, where they finally joined with the Athenian phalanx—8,000 hearts burning with righteous indignation.

Having learned of Mardonius’ retreat, the allied army pursued him northward. As the Greeks crested Mount Kithairon, east of Plataea, the plain of the Asopos lay before them, the river running roughly east-west. Opposite them, on the north bank, sprawled the Persian camp, enclosed by a newly built wooden stockade.

As Pausanias led his army down to the foothills near the settlement of Erythrai, he no doubt received disturbing news— not only were the Theban and Thessalian armies present in the Persian camp, but also large numbers of fellow Greeks from all over central and north-eastern Greece. Boeotians, Locrians, Phokians and Malians, numbering perhaps 50,000 men, had joined the Persian force of 100,000.

Realizing his forces were outnumbered, Pausanias took up a defensive position and awaited reinforcements that were en route from other Greek cities. No doubt he also calculated that the large Persian army, its supply lines stretching back to distant Thebes, could not provision itself indefinitely in its present position. The Greeks, on the other hand, could expect support from the nearby towns of Erythrai, Hysiai and Plataea, as well as regular resupply from the rich Attic countryside around Eleusis, just over the mountain to the south. Pausanias arrayed his force along the northern foothills, from Erythrai about 3 miles west past Hysiai toward the Moleis River.

Mardonius immediately grasped the strategic strength of Pausanias’ position and tried to displace him, launching a strong cavalry assault on the Greek position. Each Persian cavalry squadron, wielding javelins and the formidable compound reflex bow, would advance to within firing distance of the Greek position, let fly its terrible hail of missiles into the Greek phalanx, then wheel to regroup while the next squadron followed suit. Each assault, Herodotus tells us, inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks, despite their superior defensive armor and heavy shields, which were apparently vulnerable to the force of Persian arrows. The successive charges would have raised dust clouds that drifted over the battlefield, obscuring the Greeks’ vision and parching their throats. Troops in the Greek center came under particularly heavy attack. Unable to withstand the onslaught, they sent word to Pausanias for help, but the Spartan commander hesitated, loath to leave the high ground and risk even more troops.

An Athenian captain and 300 chosen hoplites finally volunteered to march in relief of their desperate countrymen. Accompanied by Greek archers, the relief column managed to stabilize the Greek front despite continued Persian cavalry attacks. During one of those attacks, a Greek archer found his mark, felling the horse of Masistios, the Persian cavalry commander, who pitched hard into the dust before the Greek line. In the fog of battle, his squadron overlooked him and rode off to regroup. Immediately, the corps of Athenian volunteers surged forward and cut down the unfortunate leader.

Recognizing their loss, the Persian horsemen gathered for a charge to recover Masistios’ body. Anticipating the attack, the Athenians signaled the rest of the Greek force for support, but before it could arrive, the Persian storm broke upon them. Sorely pressed by the ferocious attack, the Greeks lost possession of Masistios’ corpse. Finally, the main Greek infantry arrived to disperse the now disorganized Persian horsemen, who returned to camp to mourn their fallen leader.

The Greeks had won the first engagement, but Pausanias could not have been pleased. The Persian horse had so severely mauled his forces that he had been forced to leave the foothills and descend to level ground. If the main body of enemy infantry had been deployed across the river in support of its cavalry, the outcome could have been disastrous for the Greeks.

The allied army desperately needed a new position, one better protected from Persian cavalry attacks and sufficiently supplied with water. So Pausanias led his forces westward along the Kithairon foothills to the spring of Gargaphia, situated between two hills, most likely the modern peaks of Agios Ioannis and Agios Demetrios, about a mile from Plataea. The eastern hill (Demetrios), steeply sloping down to a tributary of the Asopos River, would provide a secure and well-watered position for anchoring the line with the Spartans on the right. Over the objections of his Peloponnesian allies, Pausanias awarded the other place of honor, the left wing, to the Athenians, who had already faced and defeated a Persian army at Marathon 10 years earlier. Herodotus describes the Athenian left as “hard by the Asopos,” The Greek line, then, would have stretched some 2.5 miles from Demetrios northwest over Ioannis to the juncture of a stream fed by the Apotripi spring and the Asopos River.

Mardonius evidently respected the strength of the new Greek position, for he did nothing for eight whole days. A look at the terrain from the Persian side of the river explains why: A frontal assault uphill against the deadly Spartan and Tegean phalanxes would only result in disaster. Nor could Persian forces hope to cross the river and deploy on the flat between the two hills without precipitating a Greek attack while the Persians were still forming up. Yet if Mardonius tried to force a crossing farther west, toward the Greek left, the Athenians, stationed much closer to the river than the Spartans, would be able attack his forces as they attempted to cross.

But if Mardonius could not or would not force the issue, neither could Pausanias for the same basic reasons. The Persian camp, occupying the plain on opposite side of the Asopos, was effectively immune to Greek infantry assault. Any attempted advance across the river by the allied Greek army would have easily been checked by the Persians’ powerful cavalry force. But it must have seemed that time was on Pausanias’ side, as large numbers of allied reinforcements arrived daily. After more than a week, the forces on each side were nearing parity.

Again, Mardonius had to act. He could not allow the number of Greeks opposing him to grow unchecked. Their defiance might encourage others to join the allied cause or defect from the Persians. Dissident elements from Locris, nominally a Persian ally, were already harrying his patrols and stretched supply lines. Once again, Mardonius called on his elite cavalry to dislodge the Greeks. Topography precluded direct action, so instead, one cavalry contingent harried the allied front while other riders skirted the Greeks’ east flank to intercept reinforcements and supplies. These Persian raids proved devastating, as horsemen destroyed Greek columns en route, effectively cutting the supply line and, equally important, fouling the Greek water source at Gargaphia spring.

After two days of attacks, Pausanias knew he must again redeploy, this time to secure water and supplies immediately northeast of Plataea. On the Greek side, the plan was to gather the allied army under cover of darkness at a place called The Island, probably one of the strips of land wreathed by tributaries of the Oreoe River. But then things went awry.

The Greek center moved out first, but did not redeploy to The Island, instead falling back near the walls of Plataea. Worse yet, the Spartan command was in disarray, with at least one regimental commander, Amompharetos, dramatically refusing to “retreat” before the enemy. Pausanias ordered the remaining Spartan commanders, along with the Tegeans, to redeploy and sent word to the Athenians to move toward him and attempt a juncture of their forces. But the delay was costly. Persian reconnaissance had detected the movement of the allied army, and Mardonius, sensing his moment, hastily committed his entire force into an attack on the redeploying Greeks. A large phalanx of hardy Theban hoplites slammed into the Athenians, preventing them from joining the Spartan formation. On the right, the dissident Amompharetos had finally decided to join his compatriots, no doubt influenced by the large Persian infantry force following hard on his heels, their arrows flying thick and fast into the Spartan ranks.

The wings of the allied Greek army were now isolated from one another and facing superior numbers. The time for strategy and maneuver had passed, and Pausanias had lost the initiative tactical options were limited. Now the issue would be decided by equipment and training. On the right the Persians, lightly armored with wicker shields and short spears, played to their strength and from behind a barrier of their shields rained death on the Spartan and Tegean phalanx. And yet, Pausanias did not give the order to close with the enemy—the sacrifices were not propitious. The Persian onslaught, Herodotus says, took a toll on the Greeks. “Many of their men were killed, and many more wounded, for the Persians…were shooting arrows in such numbers that the Spartan troops were in serious distress.” Many Spartans surely must have imagined their fate was to be that of Leonidas at Thermopylae, surrounded and overwhelmed by Persian missiles. But then the Tegeans let loose a battle cry and surged toward the enemy, and the Spartan phalanx followed their lead.

Herodotus’ description of the fighting on the right wing cannot be improved: First there was a struggle at the barricade of wicker shields, then, the barricade down, there was a bitter and protracted fight, hand to hand, hard by the temple of Demeter, for the Persians would lay hold of the Spartan spears and break them. In courage and strength, they were as good as their adversaries, but they were deficient in armor, untrained and greatly inferior in skill. Sometimes singly, sometimes in groups of 10 men—now more, now fewer—they fell upon the Spartan line and were cut down.

When Mardonius himself fell dead, Persian morale collapsed, and the Spartans pursued them with great slaughter. Arriving back in camp, the Persians rallied, but then the Athenians, having routed the Boeotians on the left, began to breach the Persian defenses. “The fight for the palisade was long and violent,” Herodotus continues, “until by courage and perseverance, the Athenians forced their way up and made a breach, through which the rest of the army poured.”

What followed was simple butchery. Herodotus estimates that just 43,000 of the original 100,000 Persians survived. With the exception of the Boeotians, the Greeks under Persian command had fled when the Persians broke and took no part in the latter stages of combat. Allied Greek casualties were light, totaling less than a thousand.

Far from inevitable, the Greek victory at Plataea was not the result of superior strategy or even tactics but flowed from the brutal calculus of skillfully wielded bronze and ash against wicker and leather. Herodotus called it “the most noble victory of all those that we know,” and the outcome bears him out. Defeat would have doomed the independence of the Greek city-states. But the allied armies had decisively destroyed the invaders, thus preserving Greek autonomy for the ages.

For further reading, Matthew Gonzales suggests: The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia, by George Cawkwell, and Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, by Andrew Robert Burn.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

Thebes Archaeological Museum / Greece Private Tours

The Archaeological Museum of Thebes is one of the most important museums of Greece since some of its collections are rare or unique. The exhibits originate from excavations all around Boeotia and cover a long chronological period spanning from the Palaeolithic to the Post Classical, Byzantine & Ottoman periods. We have included in our Herodotus Tour.

The Persian Army at Plataea Fields.

The vast Persian Empire stretched from the Danube to Egypt and from Ionia to Bactria, and Xerxes was able to draw on a huge reserve of resources to amass his huge invasion force. Overall command was now taken by Mardonius, the son-in-law and nephew of Darius and cousin of Xerxes. By his side was Artabazus (a cousin of Darius) who led the Parthian and Chorasmian contingents.

Our numbers for the soldiers involved in the battle come principally from Herodotus who wrote an account of Plataea in his Histories however, the absolute accuracy of Herodotus&rsquo estimates are disputed amongst scholars. According to Herodotus, the Persians fielded 350,000 troops against the Greek forces of 108,200. The figures for the Persians may have been exaggerated in order to make the Persians into a more formidable opponent, and perhaps in reality they fielded a very similar number of combatants to the Greeks. However, even with a more conservative estimate, the battle involved some 200,000

armed men, the largest such battle Greece had seen and a figure comparable with the battles of Waterloo and Gettysburg. The Persian force was divided into units of the various nationalities involved but, unfortunately, Herodotus does not specify the strength of each. However, approximate estimates are:

Persians (the best troops) 40,000

Bactrians, Indians & Sacae 20,000

All of these groups supplied cavalry, creating a combined force of perhaps 5,000 horsemen.

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The Greek Army at Plataea Fields.

The Greek army was led by Pausanias, the nephew of King Leonidas who fell at Thermopylae, and regent for the young king, Leonidas&rsquo son Pleistarchus. Secondary commanders included the two Athenian generals Aristides and Xanthippus, the father of Pericles. According to Herodotus the Greek hoplite forces were divided as follows:

The Greeks had no cavalry at Plataea and only the Athenians had a contingent of archers. Herodotus also numbers the non-hoplite forces which are (conveniently) exactly the same as the number of hoplites each city provided. The exception is Sparta which supplied some 35,000 helots in addition to their 5,000 hoplites.

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Herodotus History - Plataea the Final Battle

The Battle of Plataea was the final land battle during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place in 479 BC near the city of Plataea in Boeotia, and was fought between an alliance of the Greek city-states, including Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Megara and others, and the Persians Empire of Xerxes I.

The previous year, the Persian invasion force, led by the Persian king in person, had scored victories at the Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, and conquered Thessaly, Boeotia and Attica. However, at the ensuing Battle of Salamis, the Allied Greek navy had won an unlikely victory, and therefore prevented the conquest of the Peloponnese. Xerxes then retreated with much of his army, leaving his general Mardonius to finish off the Greeks the following year. In the Summer of 479 BC, the Greeks assembled a huge army (by contemporary standards), and marched out of the Peloponnese. The Persians retreated to Boeotia, and built a fortified camp near Plataea. The Greeks, however, refused to be drawn into the prime cavalry terrain around the Persian camp, resulting in a stalemate for 11 days.

In July the Spartan army moved towards Plataea and met up with the other Greek contingents at Eleusis before all moved into position, forming a 7 km long front just 3-4 km opposite the Persians, below the low hills of Mount Cithaeron.

Persian General Mardonius, son of Gobryas, nephew of Darius I, and general of the Achaemenid force in Greece, drew up his force on the opposite bank of the river Asopus. Against the Lacedaemonians he placed the Persians, against the Corinthians he placed the Medes. Against the Athenians Mardonius placed the Boetians, Locrians, Malians, Thessalians, Phocians all of which were Greek city states that were either conquered by Xerses on his passage through to Attica, or who otherwise decided for themselves to join the Persian host. Cavalry forces sat slightly back, one group on each flank.

Along the Greek front, the Spartans, Tegeans, and Thespians held the right flank and the Athenians, Megarians, and Plataeans the left flank, with everyone else in the center. All troops now in position, the two sides proceeded on the following day to give sacrifice to the gods before the battle begin. After two days of stand-off when each side clung to the terrain best suited to their fighting tactics - the Persians on the plain and the Greeks in the broken terrain near the hills - Mardonius finally sent in his cavalry and in particular attacked the Megarians and Athenians. In the skirmish, only the presence of Athenian archers seems to have allowed the Greeks to hold their lines and the Persian cavalry commander Masistius was killed, a great morale booster for the Greeks.

The Greeks then advanced to the northwest, just south of the river on the Pyrgos ridge, to obtain a better water supply, but this movement brought no response from Mardonius. Both sides then held position for another week or so, once again reluctant to abandon their advantageous terrain. This is also a possible hint that the two forces were evenly matched in size and no commander wanted to risk outright battle. Mardonius did send his cavalry on a mission around the right flank of the Greek forces, and there they met a large supply column. The Persians slaughtered the poorly-armed Greeks and burnt the supplies - a serious blow to the enemy&rsquos logistics, as with so many men in the field, they were struggling to provide sufficient quantities of food and water, especially as Persian archers meant the river was out of bounds.

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Two more days passed before Mardonius finally unleashed his cavalry in a full frontal attack on the Greek lines. Causing great havoc amongst the Greeks, the invaders even managed to spoil and block the Gargaphia spring which was the Greeks&rsquo main source of water. It is quite probable that the Persian cavalry was also now harrying the enemy rear, cutting off their supply lines.

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Pausanias, in order to protect his flanks and rear and in an effort to reach a water supply, now, under the cover of darkness, moved the Greek center back to the base of the Cithaeron hill, just in front of Plataea. After some delay, caused either by confusion or disagreement with the decision to withdraw, the Greek right followed suit, while the left flank held position and, therefore, became isolated. When the left flank also retreated they were attacked from all sides by the pro-Persian hoplites, and the left Persian flank crossed the river in pursuit.

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At this point the cavalry had withdrawn, probably to re-arm themselves with fresh arrows. Just as the Persians looked like they were getting the upper-hand, though, the Greek right flank of Spartans and Tegeans counter-attacked. When the Greek left flank joined them, the Persian forces, boxed in by their own centre coming in behind them, lacking a disciplined formation and finally, inadequately defending themselves behind a barricade of wicker shields, were routed. Even more significantly, Mardonius was felled by a rock thrown by the Spartan Arimnestus and killed. The superior weapons and armor of the hoplites in the end proved decisive. The remnants of the Persians were forced back across the river in some disarray, their retreat only prevented from turning into a disaster by the cover offered by the Theban cavalry which allowed them to re-occupy their fortified camp. The pro-Persian Greek hoplites on the right flank were also forced to retreat under pressure from the Athenians, taking position behind the walls of nearby Thebes.

The Greek center, no doubt inspired by the Spartan success, also entered the fray but did so without strict discipline of formation and so was outflanked by the pro-Persian cavalry and suffered heavy losses. Meanwhile, the Athenians, Spartans, and Tegeans were now at the Persian camp which they eventually stormed, causing more heavy casualties amongst the invaders. A large portion of the Persian army was trapped in their camp, and slaughtered.

The battle of Plataea - 479 BC

The battle of Plataea decided the final defeat of the Persian army in Greece and the definite liberation of all Greece. It was the greatest land battle which took place in Greece during the 5th century BC. Approximately 150,000 men participated in the battle from both sides and it lasted for about 15 days. Considering that the Greek heavy infantry included more than 35,000 hoplites, it was one of the greatest battles of all times involving heavily armoured infantry forming a phalanx. Moreover, the battle was decided on very delicate tactical moves.

After his defeat in Salamis, king Xerxes retreated to Minor Asia with the bulk of his army leaving in Thessaly his brother in law Mardonius in charge of a smaller but strong force. Herodotus reports that the total Mardonius’ army numbered 300,000 soldiers including cavalry. Although this number is probably an exaggeration, his cavalry was at least 10,000 strong including the light and the heavy units. This gave him a great advantage over the alliance of the Greek cities which was lacking any considerable cavalry. In the spring of 479 BC, Mardonius invaded S. Greece and established his camp in Thebes, Boeotia.

Initially, the Spartans hesitated to take action outside Peloponnese, and remained behind their fortifications in Isthmus. However, under pressure by their non-Peloponnesian allies, Athens, Megara, and Plataea, they finally decided to dispatch a strong force of 5,000 Spartans assisted by a large number of helots and 5,000 perioeci hoplites in support of Athens. This army, which roughly corresponded to half of the total manpower of Sparta, marched to Isthmus. The leader of the Spartan army was Pausanias, who was replacing as regent and army commander his cousin, king Pleistarchus, son of Leonidas, who was still underage. There, they were joined by other Peloponnesian allies, who wished to participate in the expedition and fight for the freedom of Greece. The Peloponnesians marched from Isthmus to Eleusis, where they met 8,000 Athenian troops, and after crossing Cithaeron Mountain all together, entered Boeotia.

As soon as the two armies faced each other, Mardonius attempted to irritate the Greeks by a vehement cavalry attack in order to lure them to advance into the plain. After a fierce battle between the Persian cavalry and the hoplites of Megara and Athens assisted by archers, the commander of the Persian cavalry Masistius fell off his horse and was killed. The Persians were left leaderless and decided to retreat to their camp. The victorious Greeks advanced cautiously in the lower hills towards Plataea.

Mardonius was under pressure to take the offensive since his position was strategically weak. He knew about the Greek naval campaign to Ionia. If that expedition succeeded to set Hellespont under Greek control, his communication and supply lines would have been terminally cut. However, Mardonius was not succeeding in luring the Greeks to make a wrong move. Therefore, he had no other option but to delay his attack. The stalemate lasted for seven days with the two armies facing its other along Asopos River.

Then Mardonius’ Theban allies suggested him to try to cut the supply routes of the Greek army at Cithaeron hoping that such an action would irritate the Greek commanders and provoke a counterattack in the plains along the two roads Plataea-Thebes or Erythrae-Thebes, where the Greek phalanx would be vulnerable to cavalry. The Persian cavalry was successful in capturing a supply train of the Greek army at one of the Cithaeron passes. Then the Greek commanders attempted to block the charging route of the Persian cavalry by a much extended hoplite array. This tactic was successful for a couple of days but the long front of the Greek army allowed the Persian cavalry to find gaps and destroy the spring which was supplying the Greeks with water.

The successes of the Persian cavalry brought the Greek army under serious pressure forcing them to retreat towards Cithaeron. Although Herodotus presented the battle of Plataea in length dedicating most of his ninth book to its details, his narration is vague and self-contradicting in many points. In particular the events of the last day of the battle are difficult to explain. A careful analysis of Herodotus’ exact words may help to understand the battle tactics and reason the outcome. However, alternative interpretations are possible. A reasonable explanation of the events of the last day of the battle is the following:

At that critical moment when the Greek army came under serious pressure by the Persian cavalry, the Greek commanders instead of loosing courage devised an ingenious stratagem for trapping the Persians in a region of the battlefield which was not suitable for cavalry attacks. The main concept of this complex strategic plan was that the Spartan regiment assisted by the Tegeans was separated from the bulk of the Greek army assuming the role of bait, while the Athenians guided by the Plataeans hid among the hills of Asopos Ridge. The Persians not seeing the Athenians took the risk to attack the isolated Spartans in a region of the battlefield which was unfavourable for the cavalry expecting that their numerical superiority was sufficient for the victory. When the hiding Athenians attacked, the Persian line collapsed, Mardonius was killed, and the Greeks won a brilliant victory.

Map 1: The battlefield of Plataea. The green area represents land below the 310 m elevation above sea level. It represents flat terrain (altitude 270 – 310 m), which was most suitable for cavalry charges. The hilly region of Asopos Ridge, which is marked with dark texture, rises 20-60 m above the plain. The two main roads connecting Thebes with Plataea and Erythrae-Hysiae respectively are marked with yellow lines.

For further details on this topic you may read a more extended article at The Battle of Plataea

Bronze helmet of the ‘Corinthian’ (all-over) type, of the period of the Battle of Plataea. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The official monument dedicated by the victorious Greeks to Apollo at Delphi (subsequently removed to Constantinople/Istanbul, where its partial remains subsist in the old Hippodrome) took the form of a triple-coiled, triple-headed snake, whence ‘Serpent Column’ above the snakes’ heads originally was perched a golden cauldron. Vanni/Art Resource, NY.

Plataea, battle of

The battle, which finally put paid to Xerxes' attempt to conquer Greece (see persian wars), falls into three stages. In the first, the Greeks, commanded by the Spartan, Pausanias (1) , clung to the lower slopes of Cithaeron (the mountain range which separates this part of Boeotia from Attica), and fought off the Persian cavalry, killing its commander. This encouraged them to move down towards the river Asopus, where water-supplies were better, but exposed them to continuous harassment by Persian cavalry, eventually leading to their being denied access to the Asopus, and the choking up of the Gargaphia spring (now Retsi?). A planned night withdrawal then went disastrously wrong, leaving the Athenians isolated on the left, the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and Tegeates (see tegea) on the right, and the centre just outside Plataea itself. This perhaps tempted the Persian commander, Mardonius, to order a general attack, but his Asiatic troops were decisively beaten by the Spartans and their comrades, and his Boeotian allies by the Athenians.

Battle of Plataea, August 479 BC

The battle of Plataea (27 August 479 BC) was the decisive land battle during the Persian invasion of Greece (480-479) and saw the Persian land army left behind after the failure of the 480 campaign defeated by a coalition of Greek powers (Greco-Persian Wars).

The campaign of 480 BC had seen a massive Persian army and fleet led by Xerxes I in person reach all the way to Athens after defeated a small Greek force at Thermopylae. Athens had been sacked, but a few days later the Persians suffered a major naval defeat at Salamis. Xerxes decided to return home, but left a large army under his brother-in-law Mardonius in Thessaly, with orders to continue the campaign in the following year.

Over the winter of 480-479 Mardonius's army was split. He had 240,000 men with him in Thessaly. Another 60,000 were sent to escort Xerxes to the Hellespont, and on their way back they became caught up in a three-month long siege of Potidaea in Chalcidice, which must have lasted until the spring of 479.

The Greeks were also split in two. The Athenians were still in exile on Salamis, unable to safely return home. The Peloponnesians had returned to an earlier plan to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, and were busily improving the defensive wall they had built across the Isthmus. The Athenians were faced with the problem of how to convince the Peloponnesians to come and fight north of their defensive wall. Their main bargaining counters were their fleet, which was probably withdrawn from the main Greek fleet at this point, the threat of moving their entire population to a new city, or even the possibility of their changing sides and supporting the Persians.

The Diplomatic Background

Mardonius was certainly interested in exploring that last possibility. He sent King Alexander of Macedon to the Athenians with a peace offer. If Athens would submit to Persia and join her military alliance she would be granted autonomy, have all of her territory restored to her and be allowed to expand into new areas and Xerxes would help pay for the restoration of the temples he had destroyed in the previous year. Alexander added his support to this offer, on the grounds that the Greeks couldn't hope to defeat the Persians permanently and the best that Athens could hope for would be to a constant battlefield.

The Athenians used this offer to force the Spartans to come and fight. They made sure that Alexander's embassy was delayed until an embassy from Sparta had reached them. The Spartans offered to support the women and non-combatants of Athens for the duration of the war, but didn&rsquot make any concrete offers of military assistance. According to Herodotus the Athenian response to Alexander was they loved freedom too much to ever accept Persian rule. The Spartans were thanked for their offer of financial support, which was turned down, and then urged to send their army out of the Peloponnese to deal with the Persians.

The Campaign Begins

Once Alexander had delivered the Athenian refusal to the Persian camp Mardonius prepared to march south. He reached Boeotia, where the Thebans tried to convince him to stay there and rely on bribery to break up the Greek coalition. Mardonius disagreed, and instead moved on to Attica, where in mid-summer he occupied an empty Athens. Most of the population was still on Salamis, and the rest was manning the fleet. While he was at Athens Mardonius sent another envoy to the Athenians, but this second offer was also refused. The mood was now so hostile to the Persians that when Lycides, a member of the council, suggested referring the offer to the Athenian people a mob stoned him, his wife and his children to death.

As the Persians were approaching Attica the Athenians sent an embassy to Sparta to plead for help. They arrived while the Spartans were celebrating the Hyacinthia, a religious festival. The Spartans kept putting off their answer, eventually delaying for ten days. Eventually they decided to send an army, worried that the Athenians might actually change side. The first contingent, 5,000 Spartans and 35,000 Helots, was sent out secretly on the day before the Athenian delegates were due to make their final appearance. Command of the army was given to Pausanias, then acting as guardian for Leonidas's young son Pleistarchus. The Athenian ambassadors were startled to discover what the Spartans had done, and were then sent home with another 5,000 Spartan troops, this time made up of perioeci, free men but not Spartan citizens. This odd behaviour on the part of the Spartans appears to have been due to a distrust of their Peloponnesian rivals in Argos, who when they learnt that the Spartans were on the move sent a message to Mardonius to warn him.

When this message reached Mardonius he decided to retreat from Athens to Boeotia, and make his stand near Thebes. Before leaving he destroyed what was left of the city. Soon after leaving Athens the Persians learnt that an advance guard of 1,000 Spartans had reached Megara, on the coast west of Athens. He decided to try and catch this advance guard before the rest of the Spartan army could join it, and turned south. His cavalry was sent ahead, and ravaged the area, but they were unable to catch the Spartans. Mardonius then discovered that the main Peloponnesian force had reached the Isthmus and was heading his way, so decided to return to his original plan. He moved to Decelea in northern Attica, then to Tanagra and from there to Scolus in the territory of Thebes.

Mardonius took up a position along the River Asopus, which runs north-east across Boeotia, from the vicinity of Plataea, past Thebes (which is west of the river), reaching the sea on the north coast opposite Euboea. The Persian lines ran from Plataean territory in the south-west to a position opposite Erythrae, a distance of around 5 miles. Behind his lines he built a square wooden stockade 10 stades (just over 1 mile) on each side. The army was posted to block the main passes from the south into Boeotia, the stockade as a refuge in case the battle went wrong.

The morale of the Persian army doesn't appear to have been high. Herodotus recounts two incidents to support this. At a dinner party in Thebes one senior Persian officer told his Greek dining companions that most of the Persians would soon be dead. The second concerns the reception given to a contingent of 1,000 hoplites from Phocis, who joined the army on the Asopus. Soon after they arrived they were surrounded by the Persian cavalry, and for some time tensions were high. Eventually the Persian cavalry withdrew.

Once the Spartans were on the move they were joined by other contingents from the Peloponnese. The combined army moved up to Eleusis, where they were joined by the Athenians. The Greeks then moved to Erythrae in Boeotia, where they found the Persians facing them on the Asopus. The Greeks took up apposition on the foothills of Mount Cithaeron, facing the Persians across a plain between the mountains and the river.

Herodotus gives a detailed order of battle for the Greeks during the second phase of the battle, the stand off near the River Asopus. On the right were 10,000 Lacedaemonians, including 5,000 Spartans. This force was supported by 35,000 lightly armed helots. The rest of the Greek contingents were stretched out across the line, which ended with 8,000 Athenians. This gave a total of 38,700 hoplites, 35,000 helots and 34,500 other light troops from across Greece, for a total of 108,200 armed troops. Herodotus then added a suspiciously neat 1,800 unarmed survivors from Thespiae, sacked by the Persians, to bring the total to 110,000.

The entire army was commanded by Pausanias. The Athenian contingent was commanded by Aristides the Just, and we get more details of the battle from his biography in Plutarch.

Greek Hoplite Contingents (from right to left)

Arcadians from Orchomenus

Herodotus then gives us Mardonius's deployment in response, which gives us some idea of the possible size of his army.

On the Persian left the Persians themselves faced the 11,500 Spartans and Tegeans on the Greek right, who they were said to heavily outnumber.

Next came the Medes, who opposed the 8,900 men from Corinth, Potidaea, Orchomenus and Sicyon.

On the Persian centre-right the Bactrians faced the 3,400 from Epidaurus, Troezen, Lepreum, Mycenae, Tiryans and Phleious

Next came the Indians, who faced the 1,300 troops from Hermione, Eretria, Styra and Chalcis.

The Sacae (Scythians) faced the 2,000 men from Ambracia, Anactorium, Leucas, Pale and Aegina.

Finally, on the Persian right facing the 11,600 Athenians, Plataeas and Megarians were the Boeotians, Locrians, Malians, Thessalians and Phocians. The Macedonians were probably on the far right, facing just the Athenians.

Herodotus gives a figure of 300,000 Persians and 50,000 Greek allies for this force. This deployment only includes the infantry.

Before the battle the Athenians took an oath that the temples destroyed by the Persians in 480 would remain in ruins, as a reminder of their impiety. This oath remained in force until the end of the war in c.449, when Pericles began his great building programme on the Acropolis.

The battle fell into several phases. Both sides needed to draw the other away from their preferred positions - the Persians wanted to fight on level ground to get the best use out of their cavalry, the Greeks wanted to fight on the hills, where the cavalry would be less effective.

Mardonius made the first move, sending his cavalry under an officer called Masistius to harass the Greeks. At first the Persian attack was disciplined, with each cavalry regiment attacking in turn. The Greeks suffered severe losses during this phase of the battle, and struggled to cope with the tactic. The Megarians were suffering particularly badly, and sent a message to the Greek high command asking for help. 300 Athenian hoplites under Olymiodorus son of Lampon and a formation of archers volunteered for the role. The Greek reinforcements allowed the Megarians to hold on, but this phase of the battle was decided by chance. Masistius's horse was hit by an arrow, reared up, and he was unseated. The Athenians closed in on him, and managed to kill him, despite his impressive golden armour. Once they realised he was dead the Persian cavalry abandoned their careful attacks and charged in a single block. The Athenians called for reinforcements, and the Persians were eventually forced to retreat. Lacking a leader the survivors fell back towards the main Persian position.

The Persians reacted to this setback by going into mourning, shaving off their own hair and the manes of their horses. The Greeks paraded Masistius's body in front of their army, apparently because he had been so impressive everyone wanted to see him.

Pausanias now decided to abandon his position on the foothills and move nearer the river and to his left. The new Greek position had better fresh water, from the Gargaphian spring, and was a mix of level ground and hilly outcrops. This move caused a row within the Greek forces. The Spartans got the position of highest honour, on the right of the line. He allocated the second most honourable position, on the left of the line to the Athenians. Tegea, Spartan's oldest ally, felt offended by this and justified their case with a prolonged historical argument. The Athenians responded with an equally lengthy case, even including the defence of Attica against the Amazons. Pausanias solved the row by putting the Tegeans directly on the Spartan's left, where they could share the honour of being at the right of the line.

Mardonius responded by moving his army to face the new Greek position. His Persian troops faced the Spartans on one flank, and his Greek and Macedonia allies faced the Athenians on the other.

Both sides now resorted to their seers, and both sets of seers advised their commanders to stand their ground and not risk an attack.

It was probably at this point that Aristides received an oracle he had asked for, promising victory if the battle was fought on Athenian soil, on the plain of Eleusinian Demeter. When the army moved into Boeotia it had left the Eleusinian plain, and when it moved to the new position it left Attica and entered Plataean territory. The first part of the oracle was explained away by the discovery of a temple to Eleusinian Demeter on the foothills of Mt. Cithaeron. The second was solved by the Plataeans, who moved their boundary to place the battlefield in Attica. Many years later the Plataeans were rewarded for this by Alexander the Great.

The incident of the oracle is recorded in Plutarch, as was a plot that took place within the Athenian ranks. A group of aristocratic Athenians, unhappy with their loss of wealth and influence since the war began, decided to try and overthrow the democracy, and if that failed to switch sides. The discontent appears to have spread quite widely through the Athenian contingent, and Aristides decided to take a delicate touch. He arrested eight of the key conspirators, allowing the two guiltiest men, Aeschines of Lamptrae and Agesias of Acharnae to escape. The others were then set free and told to redeem themselves in battle. This apparently ended the plotting. Plutarch places this incident before the early cavalry battle, but also places it in Plataea, so it is more likely that it took place during the standoff on the river.

Quite a lengthy standoff now followed, with the two armies facing each other across the river. The seers were consulted on the day after the Persians moved into place.

Over the next eight days the two sides stayed fairly static. The Greeks were receiving reinforcements and supplies over the mountain passes across Mt Cithaeron (known as the Three Heads pass to the Boeotians and the Oak Heads pass to the Athenians. Eventually a Theban in the Persian army, Timagenidas, suggested sending troops to capture this pass. Mardonius agreed, and on the night of the eighth day sent his cavalry to the pass. This raid intercepted a supply convoy, and threatened to cut off the Greek army, which had moved too far to its left to be able to defend the passes.

This was followed by another two quiet days, with the main activity being Persian cavalry raids against the Greek positions. On the eleventh day Mardonius held a council of war. Artabazus son of Pharnaces, one of his key commanders, suggested that they withdraw into Thebes where there were plentiful supplies and let the Greek army fall apart outside the city. Mardonius disagreed with this, and decided to attack the Greek position on the following day.

That night Alexander I, king of Macedon, who spent the entire war attempting to win favour with both sides, made a personal visit to the Greek lines to warn them of the upcoming attack. The true purpose of this visit is uncertain - Alexander might genuinely have been trying to help the Greeks, or he could have been sent by Mardonius to try and make sure the Greeks didn't retreat as he was crossing the river. Whatever its aim had been, it did cause some chaos in the Greek army. Pausanias decided to swap the Spartan and Athenian positions around, apparently because the Spartans had no experience of fighting the Persians while the Athenians had defeated them at Marathon. The Greeks carried out this manoeuvre, but the Persians spotted it and matched it themselves, swapping the Persians and their Greek troops. Seeing that his plan had failed Pausanias reverted to his original deployment, as did the Persians. Mardonius was certainly encouraged by this performance, interpreting as a sign that the Spartans were afraid to fight his Persian troops.

This rather pointless manoeuvring does appear to have taken up some time, as Mardonius didn&rsquot carry out his planned attack on the twelfth day after all. Instead he sent his cavalry across the river in large numbers to harass the Greeks. The cavalry won a notable success, forcing the Spartans to abandon the Gargaphian Spring. Persian archery also prevented the Greeks from reaching the river, so they were now cut off from their supply of water, as well as from their food supplies.

The day ended with a Greek council of war. They were now in quite a dangerous position. The Persians were clearly still blocking the mountain passes, and had now cut off the main water supply. If the Greeks stayed where they were, they could soon have been starved out. They decided to move to a third position, nearer to the city of Plataea, and further to their left. The new position was an area called 'the Island', as it was between two branches of the River Oëroë. Once they had reached the island half of the army would then be sent back to secure the mountain passes (presumably moving along a road further back from the river). The move was to be carried out on the night of the twelfth-thirteenth day.

The plan was for the troops in the centre to move first, leaving the Athenians, Spartans and Tegeans to hold position on the flanks. Once the centre was in place, the wings were to follow. Herodotus describes the first part of the move as going badly wrong, with the centre moving much further than planned, ignoring the island, and ended up almost at Plataea. However it is possible that this was actually the plan - the centre was the half of the army allocated to the move the mountain passes, and this was the first part of that move. The Athenians and Spartans remained in place to protect this move, and were then to move to the Island. In either case one can argue with the wisdom of splitting the smaller Greek army in half in the face of a powerful enemy.

The real problems came later in the night, when it was time for the Athenians and Spartans to move. Astonishingly Amompharetus, one of the Spartan commanders, refused to obey the order to move, on the grounds that Spartans didn't retreat. He hadn't been involved in the council of war, and is generally represented as not understanding the Greek plan, but Spartan stubbornness could just have easily been to blame. The Spartans thus remained in place while their commanders attempted to convince Amompharetus to move.

The Athenians also remained in place, because they wanted to be sure that the Spartans were actually going to move. When no such movement was observed they sent a messenger to find out what was happening, and he reported the arguments.

The deadlock was finally solved at dawn when Pausanias decided to call Amompharetus's bluff and begin the move. The Athenians moved directly towards the island on a line across the plains in the river valley, while the Spartans moved a little further towards the mountains and advanced through hilly terrain. Once it was clear that the main force was indeed leaving him Amompharetus lost his nerve and ordered his contingent from Pitana to join the main force. Pausanias halted at a sanctuary to Demeter of Eleusis on the River Moloeis to allow Amompharetus to catch up.

The Greeks were now split into three, with the Spartans on the right, nearest to their original position. The centre had pulled back almost to Plataea. The Athenians, on the left, were moving towards the Island.

This rather chaotic Greek movement was greeted with jubilation in the Persian camp. Mardonius believed that the Greeks were in full retreat and ordered his Persian troops to cross the river and pursue the Greeks. He could only see the Spartans and Tegeans, but assumed that this was the entire Greek force. Most of the rest of the Persian army saw this advance begin, and crossed the river in some disorder in an attempt to take part in the pursuit.

When Pausanias realised that he was about to be attacked he ordered his troops to prepare for battle. Herodotus gives him 50,000 men - 13,000 hoplites, 35,000 helots and the rest made up of other light troops. He sent a message to the Athenians to ask for help, but they were soon engaged with the Persian's Greek allies, and were too busy to assist.

Both Herodotus and Plutarch agree that the Spartans took up a defensive position while Pausanias attempted to get the right result from his sacrifices. The early attempts produced bad omens, and so the Spartans stayed put behind their shields, while the Persians set up a wall of wickerwork shield and began to pepper the Spartans with arrows. Pausanias may have been using the seers to allow him to time his attack, or may have been genuinely pious. In either case the Tegeans eventually couldn't take the pressure any more and charged the Persians. At this point the omens suddenly turned positive, and Pausanias ordered a general assault.

The first part of the battle took place at the wickerwork barricade. Once this had been broken the fighting moved to the area of the sanctuary of Demeter. This soon degenerated into a very short range melee, after the Persians broke most of the Greek spears. At this stage both sides were fighting well, but the heavily armoured Greeks had the edge. Mardonius played a major part in the battle, leading an elite force of 1,000 men. The turning point came when Mardonius and his elite troops were killed. Mardonius was killed by a Spartan called Arimnestus, who crushed his head with a stone, a sign of how brutal the fighting had become. After the death of Mardonius the surviving Persians broke and fled back to their wooden encampment on the opposite side of the river.

On the other flank most of the pro-Persian Greeks didn't put up much of a fight, but the Thebans were more determined. Herodotus reports that their 300 best men were killed in the battle. When the news arrived of the Persian defeat on the other flank the Athenians allowed the remaining pro-Persian Greeks to escape, with most retreating back to Thebes.

The rest of the Persian army didn&rsquot make any contribution to the battle. Most of the Persian centre never came into contact with the Greeks, and fled once it was clear that the battle was lost. One contingent, under Artabazus, kept its discipline, and indeed may never have reached the battlefield. When it was clear that the battle was lost Artabazus ordered his men to retreat away from Thebes and towards Phocis, the start of a successful retreat to the Hellespont.

The Greek centre also responded to the news of the victory, this time by rushing forwards in some disorder. One contingent, made up of the Megarians and Phleiasians, were caught by the Theban cavalry and suffered 600 casualties, but this was the only real success on the Persian side.

The last phase of the battle took place around the large Persian wooden stockade. The Spartans were first to arrive, but they were unable to make any progress as they lacked siege skills at this time. The deadlock was broken after the Athenians arrived and stormed the walls. The Athenians made a breach in the walls, allowing the Tegeans to break into the interior (where they found Mardonius's impressive pavilion). Once the Greeks were inside the walls the battle turned into a slaughter,

Plutarch recorded the Persian casualties as 260,000 out of the 300,000, with only Artabazus's contingent escaping. Herodotus says that around 3,000 of the 260,000 escaped. Neither figure includes the Persian's Greek allies.

Greek casualties were lower. Plutarch says 1,360. The Athenians lost 52, all from the Aeantid tribe. The Spartans and other Lacedaemonians lost 91 and the Tegeans lost 16. This gives us 159 deaths amongst the heavy troops involved in the main fighting, along with the 600 killed by the Theban cavalry. Herodotus agrees on the 159 deaths in the main battle, but gives no other casualty figures. Amongst the Spartan dead was Aristodamus, one of the two survivors of the battle of Thermopylae, who had been determined to redeem himself.

Plutarch gives us two Greek dates for the battle, with the Athenians placing on the fourth day of the month Boëdromion and the Boeotians on the 27th day of the month Panemus. This places the battle in late July or early August

On the very same day the Persian fleet in Asia Minor suffered a heavy defeat at Mycale. These two defeats ended the Persian threat to mainland Greece, and saw the war transferred to the Aegean, Asia Minor and other outlying regions.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle two more Greek contingents, from Mantinea and Elis, reached the field. The Greeks buried their dead in a series of separate mounds, and then advanced to besiege Thebes, the main pro-Persian city. After three weeks the main pro-Persian leaders surrendered, saving the city from a prolonged siege. They were quickly taken away and executed.

Over the next few years leadership in the war against Persian passed from Sparta to Athens. The anti-Persian Delian League slowly turned into an Athenian Empire, and the former allies of the Persian War became the bitter enemies of the First Peloponnesian War and Great Peloponnesian War. At the same time the war against Persia continued, and the Greeks won further victories, most significantly at the Eurymedon River in 466 BC. Peace was probably agreed in c.450-448 by the Peace of Callias, in which the Greeks agreed not to interfere in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persians agreed to accept the autonomy of the Greeks of Asia Minor.

Who led the Greeks in the Battle of Plataea?

Similarly, where is Plataea in ancient Greece? ˈtiː?/ Ancient Greek: &Pi&lambdaά&tau&alpha&iota&alpha), also Plataeae or Plataiai (/pl?ˈtiːiː/ Ancient Greek: &Pi&lambda&alpha&tau&alpha&iota&alphaί), was an ancient city, located in Greece in southeastern Boeotia, south of Thebes.

Herein, how many Spartans were at the battle of Plataea?

Greeks. According to Herodotus, the Spartans sent 45,000 men &ndash 5,000 Spartiates (full citizen soldiers), 5,000 other Lacodaemonian hoplites (perioeci) and 35,000 helots (seven per Spartiate). This was probably the largest Spartan force ever assembled.

Why was the battle of Plataea a turning point for Greece?

Battle of Plataea (479 BCE): decisive battle in the Persian War in which the Greeks overcame the Persian invaders. In 480, the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece. When the Greeks retreated, the Persians believed they had already won the day, crossed the river, and were defeated by the superior phalanx of the Spartans.

Siege of Potidaea, 480-479 BC

The siege of Potidaea (480-479 BC) was an unsuccessful Persian attempt to capture the strongly fortified city in the aftermath of Xerxes's retreat from Greece, and is notable for the first historical record of a tsunami.

After the Greek naval victory at Salamis, Xerxes of Persia decided to return to Asia, leaving 300,000 men under his brother-in-law Mardonius in Thessaly to complete the conquest of Greece in the following year. Xerxes marched overland to the Hellespont, accompanied by Artabazus, son of Pharnaces with 60,000 of Mardonius's men (perhaps suggesting that Xerxes didn&rsquot entirely trust the rest of the army). Once Artabazus had safely delivered Xerxes to the Hellespont he turned back and began the return trip to Mardonius.

On his way back Artabazus discovered that the inhabitants of Pallene, the western-most of the three peninsulas of Chalcidice, had revolted against the Persians the moment Xerxes and his army had retreated past them, having earlier provided troops and ships for his expedition. The rebels were defending the city of Potidaea, at the narrow northern end of the peninsula. Artabazus decided to lay siege to Potidaea, suggesting that the Persians weren't suffering from the serious supply problems suggested by Herodotus and other Greek sources.

The siege can be dated to the winter of 480-479 BC. The battle of Salamis took place in late September 480. After the battle Xerxes stayed in Attica for a few days, and then took 45 days to return to the Hellespont, taking us to mid-November 480 at the earlier. The Persians then had to return to Chalcidice, taking us into December at the earliest. The siege lasted for three months, so can probably be dated to December 480-February 479 or January-March 479.

Potidaea was a very difficult city to besiege. The walls stretched across the entire peninsula. Artabazus had no ships, and so was unable to move any part of his army onto Pallene. As a result the Potidaeans were able to receive supplies and reinforcements from the entire peninsula. Artabazus was also besieging the nearby city of Olynthus, which he suspected of supporting the revolt, so his forces were divided. Only after the fall of Olynthus was he able to focus all of his efforts on Potidaea.

One of the most reliable ways to capture an ancient city was treachery within the ranks. Artabazus came close to success in this way, after opening communications with Timoxenus, commander of the contingent from Scione, one of the communities of Pallene. The plot was discovered when their method of communication went wrong. They were sending each other messages wrapped around arrows that were fired at a pre-determined location. One of these arrows hit and wounded a Potidaean bystander. When the people nearby rushed to his aid, the message was discovered attached to the arrow. The message was taken to the council of leaders controlling the defence of the city, who discovered Timoxenus's guilt. The plot was foiled, although Timoxenus's role in it was kept secret for some time in order not to stigmatize the town of Scione.

After three months Herodotus reports an incident that appears to be the first historical account of a tsunami. He describes a very low tide that created shallows along the coast. The Persians decided to try and sent troops around the city using these shallows, but when they were only half way around the water came back, in the biggest tide every seen by the locals. Many Persians couldn't swim, and were drowned, while others were killed by the defenders, who took to their boats to kill the swimmers. The Potidaeans gave the credit for this to Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes. In the aftermath of this disaster Artabazus abandoned the siege and returned to the main Persian camp in Thessaly. Potidaea retained its freedom, and was able to send a contingent of 300 men to the Greek league that fought at Plataea.

Herodotus's account fits very well with a tsunami. First the sea recedes, as in a very low tide, but after a short period it returns suddenly and violently, what used to be known as a tidal wave. Recent research suggests that this part of the Greece is indeed vulnerable to tsunamis, supporting Herodotus's account.

Watch the video: The Battle of Plataea 479 BCE (January 2022).