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.

Regions of Ancient Greece
Regions of
Ancient Greece

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 Their main bargaining counters were their fleet, which was probably withdrawn from the main Greek fleet at this point, the threat of moving their entire population to a new city, or even the possibility of their changing sides and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’t 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

Battles of the Persian Invasions of Greece
Battles of the
Persian Invasions
of Greece

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.

The Armies

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)

Sparta

10,000

Tegea

1,500

Corinth

5,000

Potidaea

300

Arcadians from Orchomenus

600

Sicyon

3,000

Epidaurus

800

Troezen

1,000

Lepreum

200

Mycenae and Tiryns

400

Phleious

1,000

Hermione

300

Eretria and Styra

600

Chalcis

400

Ambracia

500

Leucas and Anactorium

800

Pale in Cephallenia

200

Aegina

500

Megara

3,000

Plataea

600

Athens

8,000

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. 

The Battle

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’t 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’t 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

Aftermath

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.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 July 2015), Battle of Plataea, August 479 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_plataea.html

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