Battle of Mycale, 479 BC

The battle of Mycale (479 BC) was a land battle that resulted in the destruction of the Persian fleet in Asia Minor, and that encouraged the Ionian cities to rebel against Persian authority (Greco-Persian Wars).

In the aftermath of their defeat at Salamis in 480 the Persian fleet returned to Asia Minor. Most of the fleet over-wintered at Cyme, on the mainland south-east of Lesbos, while the rest of the fleet rested at the island of Samos, further south along the coast. In the spring of 479 the two contingents came together at Samos. The combined fleet, now recorded by Herodotus as consisting of 300 ships, was commanded by Mardontes son of Bagaeus, Artayntes son of Artachaees and Artaynta's nephew Ithamitres. The fleet was given the task of guarding against the possibility of a fresh Ionian Revolt amongst the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Just before the battle the Phoenicians were sent elsewhere, reducing the size of the Persian fleet. The Egyptian contingent had been sent home earlier in the campaign, and so the Persians can't have had much more than 100 ships during the battle. Moreover many of them must have come from the Greek states under Persian control.

On the other side of the Aegean the Greeks mustered a fleet of 110 ships, under the command of King Leotychidas of Sparta. Both sides thus had smaller forces at their disposal than in 480. On the Greek side the difference appears to have consisted of the Athenian fleet, which was being kept for use as a bargaining counter in the negotiations about the land campaign of 479. On the Persian side the difference was caused by the heavy losses of 480, and probably by a dissipation of naval strength, with some contingents going home and others presumably supporting the army in Thessaly.

The Greek fleet moved south from Salamis to Aegina, where they were found by a delegation from Chios, asking to be liberated from the Persians. Leotychidas might have been sympathetic, but he wasn’t yet ready to risk crossing the Aegean, and could only be persuaded to take the fleet to Delos in the centre of the Cyclades. Meanwhile back in Greece the Athenians finally convinced the Spartans to come and fight outside the Peloponnesians. After ferrying their army across from Salamis the Athenian ships joined the fleet at Delos. Herodotus doesn't say how many ships were involved, but this must have at least doubled the size of the Greek fleet.

At about time a delegation arrived from Samos. The island was then ruled by the tyrant Theomestor, who had been given the post as a reward for his performance at Salamis. The three delegates, Lampon, Athenagoras and Hegeistratus, argued that the time was right for the Greek fleet to move to Ionian. Their arrival would trigger a fresh uprising against Persian rule. The Persians would probably not fight, and even if they did their morale was low and they would be an easy target. Events would show that morale in the Persian fleet was indeed low.

Build-up to Battle

The Greeks now decided that the time was right to go onto the offensive. Their fleet was now much larger than when they had first arrived at Delos, and they had been promised support by the very island where the Persian fleet was resting. On the day after the meeting they set sail, heading east towards Samos. The Greek fleet sailed along the southern coast of the island towards the town.

The Greeks were spotted by the Persians, who put to sea, but instead of coming out to fight, they were planning to retreat. The Persians turned east, and made for the Latmian Gulf, the great bay that once sheltered Miletus, but has since silted up. The Persian fleet split up. The Phoenician fleet was sent away (Herodotus doesn’t say where too), while the rest of the Persian fleet moved into the Gulf, and then landed on the slopes of Mt Mycale, on the northern side of the bay, where they were able to join up with the Persian land army in the area, 60,000 men commanded by Tigranes (at least according to Herodotus). The Persians beached their ships, and then built a defensive stockade.

The Greeks didn’t immediately follow. First they had a debate about what to do next, considering either going home or moving up to the Hellespont, before deciding to follow the Persians to the mainland. When they passed the Persian camp no ships came out to fight, and so Leotychidas ordered the fleet to move past the Persian camp, landed, and prepared for a land battle. On his way past he also attempted to spread dissension in the Persian camp by having a crier call out to the Ionians in an attempt to convince them not to fight. This may have had some impact on the Persian commander, for the force from Samos was disarmed, and the Milesians were sent to guard the passes north over Mt. Mycale.

Just before the start of the battle a rumour began to spread around that the Greeks had defeated Mardonius at a battle in Boeotia (battle of Plataea). Given that the two battles took place on the same day, the possibility of the news arriving is normally dismissed. However we do know that Mardonius had a system of beacons in place that would have allowed news of a Persian victory to reach Xerxes at Sardis. It is possible that the Greeks had a similar system, linking the mainland to Delos and extended onwards as the fleet advanced. It is also possible that the story was invented later, or perhaps most likely that is was the sort of rumour that so easily spreads through armies, and on this occasion happened to be true. Whatever the truth was, the news greatly encouraged the Greeks.

The Battle

Both sides were now keen for battle. The Greeks advanced west towards the Persians in two groups. On the left, nearest to the beach, were the Athenians, Corinthians, Sicyonians and Troezenians. On the right, following a slower route through the foothills of the mountain were the Spartans.

The Athenian wing arrived outside the Persian camp first. The Persian navy might have been demoralised, but the army seems to have been unaffected. They advanced out of their camp and fought behind a palisade of wickerwork shields. The battle at this palisade was hard fought, but the Athenians and their allies eventually managed to break through the Persian lines, encouraged by a desire to win the battle before Spartans could arrive.

The battle then moved back to the Persian stockade. The Greeks advanced in formation, and soon broke into the stockade. Probably at this state the Samians began to actively side with the Greeks. Most of the Persian's allies fled from the field, leaving the Persians themselves to fight on in small groups. Mardontes and Tigranes, the commanders of the land army, were killed in the battle. Artayntes and Ithamitres, the naval commanders, managed to escape, possibly by reaching their own ships. The Spartans arrived late in the day, but while fighting was still going on in the stockade, and helped to secure the Greek victory.

Those Persians who attempted to escape north across Mt Mycale ran into the Milesians, who had also decided to change sides. They guided the fleeing Persians straight into traps, and according to Herodotus were responsible for the most Persian deaths.

Herodotus doesn't record casualty figures for Mycale. He does say that the Greeks killed most of the enemy. Diodorus gives the Persian casualties as 40,000. On the Greek side Herodotus says that losses were very high, especially amongst the Sicyonians.

In the aftermath of the battle the Greeks destroyed the Persian stockade and burnt all of their ships. They then sailed back to Samos, where they debated what to do next. The initial plan was to evacuate the Greeks from Ionian and settle them on the lands of any Greeks on the mainland who had sided with the Persians. The Athenians were opposed to this idea, and eventually got their way. The Athenians then entered into a formal alliance with a number of Aegean islands, including Samos, Chios and Lesbos. The Greeks then moved north to the Hellespont to attack the Persian bridges. When they discovered that the bridges had already been destroyed, the Greek fleet split up. The Peloponnesian contingents returned home, while the Athenians remained in the area and laid siege to Sestus, the Persian headquarters in the Chersonese (the Gallipoli peninsula).

On the Persian side the survivors escaped to Sardis. Soon afterwards Xerxes decided to return home, leaving part of his army to continue the war. The conflict would drag on for another forty years, with the Persians on the defensive for most of that time).

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 July 2015), Battle of Mycale, 479 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_mycale.html

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