For the Greeks, victory would secure autonomy— defeat would mean Persian domination.
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.