As in dark forests, measureless along
the crests of hills, a conflagration soars,
and the bright bed of fire glows for miles,
now fiery lights from this great host in bronze
played on the earth and flashed high into heaven.
- Homer, The Iliad, Book II
The Greek army at Plataea was the largest single force an alliance of the Hellenic city-states had ever fielded. It was a powerful symbol of the potential of the Greeks if they could only unite under a common cause. The cause in this case was the most powerful of all: their own freedom. The battle fought at Plataea is less well-known than the other great battles of the conflict1, but it is still a momentous point in history: the final defeat of the Persians in Greece. Never again would they return.
Through the winter of 480 - 479BC, the Peloponnesians had stayed behind the system of fortifications they had built at the Isthmus of Corinth. The rest of Greece was essentially at the mercy of Mardonius, commander of the Persian army. Athens was not occupied, but it was crippled, and had been sacked twice. When Mardonius led his army from its wintering grounds in Thessaly (an area in northern Greece) to sack Athens again in the spring, the city's inhabitants once again retreated to the island of Salamis just off the coast. It was in the straits of Salamis that the Greek navy had defeated the Persian fleet the year before, but now the two fleets were far away, eyeing each other across the Aegean.
Finally, having decided the time was ripe, Sparta led a huge army2 out of the Peloponnese to confront Mardonius. The Persian retreated north to the flatlands of Boeotia (just north of the Athens territory of Attica), where his large cavalry contingent and superior numbers could take their toll. The Hellenic League's army stopped at Eleusis to allow time for the Athenian army under Aristeides to join it. In addition, 600 men of Plataea joined themselves to the force. Their city had been sacked by the Persians the year before, just after the Battle of Thermopylae, and since then they had been living in exile with their close allies, the Athenians.
Meanwhile, in Boeotia, Mardonius was preparing for battle. He fortified the Asopus river and waited for the Greek army to arrive, which it did soon enough. Mardonius had hoped that the Greeks would attack quickly to allow his cavalry to cut them down on the floodplain of the Asopus, but instead the army stayed in the foothills of the mountains to the south. They made a camp opposite Mardonius, seven miles east of the ruins of Plataea. Mardonius's army stayed on the other side of the river, protected by the waters and by the huge stockade they had erected on their side.
Mardonius would need these defences because he had not thought that the Greeks could bring such numbers to bear against him. He had presumed the fractious nature of the relations between the cities of Hellas would mean only a few cities would commit to the Hellenic League's offensive, but he had been wrong. However, he still had two aces up his sleeve: aces which had worked time and time again against the Greeks. First, horsemen, with their superior mobility, whose hit-and-run attacks could tear a phalanx army to pieces; and second, subterfuge and the careful use of bribes to sow seeds of disunity and treachery.
The Greek Army
Herodotus's list of the hoplite3 contingents, totalling 38,700, is considered accurate:
- 10,000 men from Sparta4
- 8,000 from Athens
- 600 from Plataea
- 3,000 from Megara
- 4,000 from Corinth
- 1,500 from Tegea
- 300 from Potidaea
- 600 from Arcadia
- 3,000 from Sicyon
- 800 from Epidaurus
- 1,000 from Troezen
- 200 from Leprea
- 400 from Mycenae and Tiryns
- 1,000 from Floia
- 300 from Hermione
- 600 from Eretria and Styra
- 400 from Chalcis
- 500 from Ambracia
- 800 from Lefkas and Anactorium
- 200 from Cephalonia and
- 500 from Aegina
The army also brought light troops: 35,000 Helot slaves from Sparta, 1,800 Thespians and a mysterious 34,500 from other cities. The very presence of these men at the battle is disputed, as it makes for a massive army. Even if they were present, they had no major role in the engagement since they are hardly mentioned in many sources.
The Persian Army
Herodotus's figure for Mardonius's army is 300,000 men. This has been rejected by modern historians, some of whom claimed only 50,000 men were present. General consensus is that the army numbered around 100,000 men. Herodotus tells us the stockade in which the army was housed was 2,000 square metres, enough for 70,000 to 120,000 men. Several thousand Greek allies were also in the army. The total muster of the Greek cities under Persian rule is estimated at 30,000, but it is more likely there were around 10,000 Greeks, mostly Thebans, on the Persian side.
The core of the Persian force was cavalry, especially Saka, who could fire a hail of arrows at the ponderous hoplites, but also devastate phalanxes with a charge of heavily-armoured men and horses. The infantry present was the heaviest available to the Empire, probably including some Immortals. Even this infantry was not up to a head-on clash with hoplites, but it was to be the cavalry who would win Mardonius's battle.
Mardonius knew that among the Athenians, who had suffered so greatly during the months of war, there were those who would support him. He had been in contact with these traitors before, but had lost this when he withdrew from Athens to Boeotia. So he planned to use his two greatest weapons simultaneously. As a cavalry contingent harried the Greek camp, his agents would infiltrate the Athenian bivouac to encourage the potential turncoats. However, it did not go according to plan. The Greeks fought off the cavalry raid and killed its leader, while Aristeides's own agents uncovered the traitors' plot and ordered the arrest of eight of the most prominent Athenian conspirators. Two fled, but the other six were released so that they might prove themselves in battle. From then on the Athenians were far less divided about the Persian issue. They would all fight in this last great battle.
This emboldened the army's leader, Pausanias of Sparta5, to take up a new position, closer to the enemy. The Persian cavalry shadowed the army on the other bank, but the Greeks, guided by the Plataeans who knew the country, stayed up on the rocky hills and ridges. Pausanias's Spartans were stationed on a ridge on the Greek right, with the Athenians on a hillock guarding the left. The hoplites of other cities had to make do with the lower ground in the centre. Even there the terrain was not ideal for cavalry, and so Mardonius waited. There was ideal flat ground near the river, and he only had to tempt Pausanias towards it for him to have his victory. The Persian army was well-supplied with food from Thebes, a Greek city about five miles away which had thrown in its lot with the Persians at the start of Xerxes's invasion.
However, reinforcements kept coming in for the Greeks; men from other cities who, hearing of the already formidable size of the army, suddenly saw victory as a real possibility. After eight days Mardonius grew tired of waiting and ordered a contingent of his cavalry to attack the supply wagons crossing the mountains to the south. A huge amount of supplies were carried off, then the cavalry returned to harry Greeks collecting water at the river, driving them off with their arrows. There was a spring near the Spartan camp, but that had to supply the whole army. Men from the other end of the line had to walk three miles to collect water. The horsemen continued their attacks, wearing the Greeks down, until one day they managed to get behind the line and find the spring. They smashed the wells and choked the spring, so that the Greeks now had no supply of water. With no food due to the cavalry in the mountain passes, and now no water either, there was no choice left for the Greeks except to withdraw. During the day the Persian horsemen would easily be able to cut them down if they attempted to move, so the operation had to take place at night. A new position was decided upon: two miles east of Plataea, with plentiful water and secure passes over the mountains for supply.
The night retreat very nearly lost the Greeks the battle. The centre of the army ended up next to Plataea, where they displayed very little initiative, and set up their tents for the night instead of trying to find their allies. The Athenians, Spartans and Tegeans were on rearguard detail, and due to the chaotic nature of the centre's retreat, they were still in position at dawn. An Athenian messenger to Pausanias found the Spartans deciding who should be left behind to slow the Persian pursuit. Many men competed for the honour, but eventually a man named Amompharetus was given a small contingent of men to hold the ridge. The last three groups could finally move off. When the sun rose, Mardonius saw the strong Greek formation scattered across the fields of Plataea. The Spartans were isolated, and he knew that if he could surround and overwhelm them, the core of the army would be destroyed. He acted quickly and ordered the advance.
Pausanias realised that he stood no chance of joining up with any of his allies, so he headed south and slightly west, up to a temple on the crest of a hill, to make his stand. Aristeides saw the Spartan predicament and tried to reach them to reinforce the position, but he was over a mile away and the Persian army was already nearly upon him. The Thebans turned to attack the Athenians and when the two phalanxes clashed, Aristeides had little time to think about what was happening at the temple. Amompharetus, seeing that his holding force was being ignored by the Persians, raced them to the temple, and arrived just before the armies closed. Only around 11,500 Spartans and Tegeans faced the entire Persian army.
The Persians did not attack immediately, but bombarded the phalanx with arrows for a long time. The hoplites protected themselves with their large shields, but some of the missiles found their mark. Pausanias sacrificed many animals to the goddess of the temple, Artemis, to seek her favour in the fight. The line had to withstand the arrows for a long time before Pausanias found the answer he wanted in the guts of the sacrifices. Just before Pausanias ordered them forward, the Tegeans charged, infuriated by the stinging rain from the Persian archers. With them also went one Spartan: Aristodemus. He who had been rejected by his city as a 'trembler' for following Leonidas' orders and leaving the field of Thermopylae, now redeemed himself in a berserk fury. He died after hacking a hole in the Persian line and, as his former friends agreed afterwards, reclaimed his honour. Then the Spartans crashed into the Persian line and kept up their advance deep into the mass of men. This was the first time the Persians experienced the might of the Spartan war machine. They had seen the courage and skill of the 300 at Thermopylae, but only now did they see the sheer power of the phalanx and the skill of the men in it. Mardonius, while trying to rally his flagging men, was killed by a Spartan who threw a rock at his head and smashed his skull.
The elite who formed the Persian general's bodyguard stood their ground and were killed to the last man, slaughtered by Spartan blades. About 40,000 men, led by Artabazus, escaped north to Thessaly. The others fled back to the fort, where the Greeks massacred them. The Athenians, having routed the Thebans, joined the Spartans and Tegeans in cutting them down. Only 3,000 were spared.
Plataea did not go to plan for the Greeks. Half the vast army did not even fight; but it was a victory nonetheless, and ended the defensive stage of the war for them. Now they would be able to take the battle to the Persians. The price the Greeks paid for this is unknown. Herodotus claimed only 159 Greeks died. Plutarch is considered a little more accurate with his figure of 1,360. There is much debate about the fate of the numerous contingents which made up the centre of the Greek army. Herodotus claimed they did not fight at all, and that is the generally accepted view, however implausible it may seem.
The 40,000 men under Artabazus were attacked and defeated at the estuary of the Strymon river by the army of King Alexander of Macedon on the way back to Asia. The defeat at Plataea gave people subjected to the Persian might everywhere a new hope for freedom.
Some of the plunder from the Persian camp was used to make a bronze column in the shape of intertwined snakes, listing all the cities who sent men for the battle. It was then offered as a gift to the Oracle of Delphi. The surviving fragment now resides in the Hippodrome in Istanbul, taken there by the Roman emperor Constantine when he founded the city. Among the lavish plunder was the royal tent of Xerxes himself. It had been left with Mardonius when Xerxes went back to Asia. Pausanias is said to have ordered two meals to be prepared: one a typical Persian meal by Mardonius's cooks, and the other a traditional Spartan black broth6. Then he invited his fellow commanders to observe. Men of Greece, he said, I have invited you so that you can appreciate for yourselves the irrational character of the Mede, who had a lifestyle such as you see here laid out before you, and yet who came here to rob us of our wretched poverty.