Battle of Plataea

Battle of Plataea

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Plataea
partof=the Persian Wars

caption=Map of the battlefield at Plataea
date=August 27, 479 BC
place=Plataea, Greece
result=Decisive Greek victory.
territory=Persia loses control of Attica.
combatant1=Greek city-states
combatant2=Achaemenid Empire
strength1=110,000 (Herodotus)
100,000 (Pompeius)
(Modern Consensus)
strength2=300,000 (Herodotus)
120,000 (Ctesias)
50,000 - 70,000 [Peter Green, "Xerxes at Salamis", 1970.] [Tom Holland, "Persian Fire", 2006. ISBN: 0385513119.] [Julius Beloch, "The Greco-Persian Wars".]
(Modern Consensus)
casualties1=10,000+ (Ephorus and Diodorus)
1,360 (Plutarch)
759 (Herodotus)
casualties2=43,000 survived (out of an original force of 300,000) (Herodotus)

The Battle of Plataea was the final major battle of the Greco-Persian Wars in southern Greece. It took place in 479 BC between an alliance of the Greek city-states Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Megara and others against the Persians.


After the disastrous defeat of his navy at the Battle of Salamis, Xerxes I, the king of Persia, retreated home leaving his general Mardonius in charge of the conquered Greek territories. Mardonius (through Alexander I of Macedon) first sought a truce with Athens, offering autonomous government and Persian aid in rebuilding their destroyed city. The Athenians rejected this offer and instead sent an envoy to Sparta asking for Spartan assistance in securing their city and driving the Persian army out of Greece. The Spartans however appeared to be more interested in protecting their homeland (to which end they were building a wall across the isthmus of Corinth, gateway to the Peloponnese). Mardonius recaptured Athens and again made the same offer of peace but the Athenians once again rejected his offer outright.

Athens, Megara and Plataea sent emissaries to Sparta demanding assistance. The Spartans hesitated, using the celebration of the Hyacinthia religious festival as an excuse. In the end, Chileos of Tegea convinced the Spartans of the grave danger they would face if Athens made peace.

According to Herodotus, the Spartans sent 45,000 men under the command of Pausanias: 5,000 Spartiates (full citizen soldiers), 5,000 Perioikoi and 35,000 helots; this was the largest single Spartan fighting force ever to appear in battle. When Mardonius learned of the Spartan force, he completed the destruction of Athens, tearing down whatever was standing and covering it with soil. He then retreated to Thebes, hoping to lure the Greek army there [Herodotus 9, 1-18] .


Mardonius fortified the Asopus river in Boeotia, hoping that the Greeks would be unable to unite against him. However, the Athenians sent 8,000 men and marched with the Spartan force to the pass over Mount Cithaeron, where they could successfully defend themselves from Persian raids. Mardonius sent cavalry charges led by Masistius to attack the Greeks, hoping to lure them onto the plain or to check whether his cavalry could successfully attack a phalanx on hilly terrain. [Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους (History of the Greek nation) vol. Β', Ekdotiki Athinon, Athens 1972] Masistius met resistance from the Megarans and Athenians under the command of Olympiodorus, in the centre of the Greek formation. Masistius was killed and his cavalry retreated. The Greeks began to move away from the pass towards the plain of Plataea where Mardonius had built a fortified camp, and where the Greek hoplites could fight more easily. The Athenians formed the left wing of the army, with the Spartans on the right and the Tegeans in the center. By this point, the Greek army had been reinforced by many other city-states, giving them a total strength of 110,000 men, consisting of 38,700 hoplites and 71,300 light troops, according to Herodotus. The hoplites came from the following city-states (with the corresponding number of men contributed by each): Sparta, 10,000; Athens: 8,000, Corinth: 5,000, Megara: 3,000, Sicyon: 3,000, Tegea: 1,500, Floia: 1,000, Orchomenus: 1,000, Troezen: 1,000, Anactorium and Lefkas: 800, Epidaurus: 800, Arcadia: 600, Eretria and Styra: 600, Plataea: 600, Aegina: 500, Ambrakia: 500, Chalkis: 400, Mycene and Tiryns: 400, Hermion: 300, Potidaea: 300, Cephalonia: 200, and Leprea: 200—for a total of 38,700.

Of the light troops, 35,000 were the aforementioned helots, 1,800 were Thespians and the other 34,500 are simply said to be from the other cities, about one per hoplite. The number of helots is disputed because it implies seven helots for every Spartan. Some historians have accepted these numbers and used them as a population census of Greece at the time. Others have claimed that the numbers are bloated. The battle near Mycale is supposed to have taken place at the same time, accounting for at least 25,000 men (mostly Athenians but also many Spartans) on the Asian front, which means the Greek coalition could have numbered around 80,000 men. Other historians have rejected the idea that there were any light troops at all, only hoplites. Considering that Pausanias tried to bring political reform to Sparta by giving the helots some rights, it is more likely than not that he had seen them in battle. Furthermore, if the whole Spartan hoplite force had indeed been sent to Plataea, it would have been risky to have left such large numbers of able-bodied helots at home; therefore having them present at the battle as auxiliary troops would have arguably been the more prudent choice.

The Greek formation, according to Herodotus, was arrayed in the following order (from right to left): Spartans, Tegeans, Corinthians, Potideans, Troezenians, Lepreats, Mycenians and Tirynthians, Fleiasians, Hermionians, Eretrians and Styrians, Chalcideans, Ambracians, Lefkadians and Anactorians, Palians from Cephalonia, Aeginians, Megarans and Athenians.

Mardonius, on the other hand, according to Herodotus, had 300,000 Persians, of which 50,000 under Artabazus did not take part in the battle because their leader disagreed with Mardonius' tactics. Ctesias who wrote in the 4th century BC a history of Persia based on Persian archives, claimed 120,000 Persian and 7,000 Greek soldiers, but placed the battle before Salamis. This discrepancy is probably due to the fact that his work did not survive and what is known of it is a fragment in the Myriobiblos, which was compiled by the Ecumenical Patriarch Photius in the 9th century AD.

The figure of 300,000 has been doubted by several modern historians, who have given figures as low as 50,000, beginning with Ctesias' number [] [] [] [] [] . JAR Munro and Macan [Cambridge Ancient History vol IV 1929] note that Herodotus mentions by name six superior military commanders and 29 "μυριαρχοι" (muriarchoi), that is commanders of a baivarabam. The baivarabam was the tactical unit of the ancient Persian infantry that numbered 10,000 men. [Papademetriou Konstantinos Περσικό Πεζικό: Η δύναμη που κατέκτησε τη νοτιοδυτική Ασία (Persian Infantry: The force that conquered southwest Asia), Panzer magazine, issue 22 September-October 2005 Athens, Periscopio edition] While it is possible that Xerxes, on leaving Greece after the battle of Salamis accompanied by probably 60,000 troops, [Garoufalis Demetrius Η "ναυμαχία της Σαλαμίνας : Η σύγκρουση που άλλαξε την ιστορία" (=The battle of Salamis, the clash that changed history, Στρατιωτική Ιστορία (=Military History) Magazine, issue 24 August 1998, Athens] did leave his formations undermanned, it would have been unwise to leave a small force since he knew that Persian archers could defeat hoplites only with superior numbers. Also, Mardonius did have a force of allied Greeks - all Greek states north of Athens - especially the ever-"medizing" (i.e. allied to the "Medes") Thebans and allies from Thessalia. Ancient sources say they numbered perhaps 50,000, and while this may seem exaggerated, the northern states were certainly able to field 30,000 hoplites. British historian N.G.L. Hammond accepts that there were 300,000 Persians at Plataea, though he claims that the invasion force that was gathered in Doriskos one year earlier was smaller.

The Persian formation pitted the Persians against the Spartans and Tegeans, Medes against Corinthians, Potideans, Orchomenians and Sicyonians, Bactrians against Epidaurians, Troezenians, Lepreats, Tirynthians, Mycenians and Floiasians, Indians against Hermionians, Eretrians, Styrians and Chalcideans, Scythians against Ambraciotians, Anactorians, Leucadians, Palians and Aeginians, the Greek allies of the Persians against Plateans and Athenians. There were however other forces in the Persian camp: Frygians, Mysians, Thracians, Paonians, Ethiopians and Egyptians who were only lightly armed (if at all).

Both armies camped in front of each other for 10 days with the Greek force repeatedly attacked by the Persian cavalry, one such skirmish by the Persian cavalry against Greek lines saw the death of the Persian cavalry officer Masistius, greatly raising the morale of the Greeks [Herodotus, "The Histories", BK 9] . However, with no sign of either side beginning the battle due to unfavourable omens on both sides [Herodotus, "The Histories", Bk, 9, 36] the Persians forced the Greeks hand by fouling the Greek water supply and capturing a convoy with 500 oxen, so the Greeks were forced to find a new camp. Finally Mardonius, after a council where Artabazus suggested retreating to Thebes where they had many supplies, decided to attack. According to traditional accounts, during the night, King Alexander I of Macedon crossed the Asopus river, and appeared before the Athenian generals (Aristides only according to Plutarch) and said the following:Thus knowing the long awaited battle was now at hand, the Greeks made their plans accordingly. Owing to previous Athenian experience in fighting Persians at the battle of Marathon, the Athenians and Spartans switched positions so that the Athenians would defend against the main Persian force while the Spartans would fight the Greek subjects within the Persian army. Seeing this, Mardonius, delighted at the apparent cowardice of the fabled Spartan army, switched his formation too. Then, on the 12th night from founding the second camp and owing to lack of water and provisions, the Greeks decided to move. This was done with some confusion. On discovering the Greeks had abandoned their positions, Mardonius, now doubly convinced of Spartan cowardice and of his correct judgement in deciding to fight them here and now, chased after them. Seeing that the Greek formation was divided in three and judging them to be in flight, he decided to attack, without realising he was sending his force into a trap. The Persian cavalry and archers first came upon the Spartans who were still moving, and the infantry arrived soon after. The Spartans retreated higher in the mountains where they were protected from cavalry attacks. The cavalry and archers did little damage and withdrew when the infantry arrived. The Spartans asked the Athenians for help, but they were unable to send any because they were being attacked by the Thebans.

The numerically superior Persian infantry were of the heavy (by Persian standards) sparabara formation that was still much lighter than the Greek phalanx. The Persian defensive weapon was a large wicker shield, compared to the heavy bronze shield of the phalanx. The Persians formed a shield wall and started firing volleys of arrows against the Spartans and the Tegeans. After suffering these volleys for some time, the Tegeans attacked, forcing the Spartans to follow suit. The Greek long spears gave them a tactical advantage over the Persian short spears and swords, and the battle soon turned into a slaughter. The Persians were annihilated; Mardonius himself was killed by a Spartan named Aeimnestus. In the meantime, while the Spartans were still suffering from the arrows, the Athenians moved to help them, but found themselves facing the Persians' Greek allies. While most Greeks feigned cowardice, the Thebans attacked and fought bravely, being repelled with 300 casualties. Herodotus claims that the rest of the Greek and Persian forces did not fight, something very dubious. Unfortunately, no other ancient source with a full description of the battle has survived to say otherwise.

The Persian Artabazus, who had unsuccessfully tried to convince Mardonius to avoid a pitched battle, then took command and immediately retreated, allowing the Greeks to capture their camp. According to Herodotus, only 43,000 Persians survived the battle, while the Greeks as a whole lost only 159 men. Furthermore, he claims that only Spartans, Tegeans and Athenians died, since they were the only ones who fought. Plutarch, who had access to other sources, gives 1,360 Greek casualties, while both Ephorus and Diodorus tally the Greek casualties to over 10,000. However, historical records of the period are notoriously biased or inaccurate and the real number of casualties will never truly be known. Use of any of the ancient casualty figures places Plataea in the list of the most lethal battles in world history, and it may have been more lethal than any preceding battle.


According to tradition, the Battle of Mycale occurred on the same day, with the Greek fleet destroying the Persian fleet in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Ionia. The Persian army, under the command of Artabazus tried to retreat all the way back to Asia Minor. Most of the 43,000 survivors were attacked and killed by the forces of Alexander I of Macedon at the estuary of the Strymon river. This ended the defensive phase of the Persian War, although the Persians continued to interfere in Greek politics until they were conquered in the 4th century BC by Alexander the Great. However, this was the last time the Persians tried to invade the Greek mainland with the goal of total conquest.

A bronze column in the shape of intertwined snakes (Serpent column) was created from the melted-down Persian weapons acquired in the battle plunder of the Persian camp and was offered at the oracle of Delphi, which commemorated all the Greek city-states who participated in the battle. Part of it still survives in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in present-day Istanbul, where it was carried by Constantine the Great during the founding of his city on the Greek colony of Byzantium. It lists all city-states that took part in the battle, confirming Herodotus' account (but not his numbers). The Greeks also took Mardonius' payroll money and other treasure. The Greeks are recorded to have marvelled at the splendour of the Persian camp, asking why being so wealthy, the Persians wanted to conquer their relatively poor peninsula.

Another important and longer-lasting aftermath was that after the Persian wars the Persian empire started recruiting and relying on Greek mercenaries. Eventually, especially after the March of the 10,000, their superior fighting ability (due to their armor and battle tactics) was demonstrated, leading the way for Alexander the Great's conquests.

Some accounts of individuals

* Aristodemus - Among the men considered to have fought most valiantly that day was one Aristodemus, the lone Spartan survivor of the slaughter of the 300 at the Battle of Thermopylae. A year of disgrace and reproach had attended him upon his return from that previous engagement. He is said to have appeared to be "courting death" in his brave actions, leaving his place in line and "acting like a madman" and ironically for this very reason was given no special honors accorded the others who also fought with distinction but with not quite the same valor.
* Callicrates - Considered the "most beautiful man, not among the Spartans only, but in the whole Greek camp" Callicrates was eager to distinguish himself that day as a warrior but was deprived of the chance by a stray arrow that pierced his side while standing in formation. When the battle commenced he insisted on making the charge with the rest but collapsed within a short distance. His last words: "I grieve not because I have to die for my country, but because I have not lifted my arm against the enemy." [Herodotus 9,72]

In popular culture

*The Battle of Plataea is mentioned in "The 300 Spartans", when the spoken epilogue explains that the Persians were ejected from Greece through the Battles of Salamis and Plataea.
*In the 2007 film "300" directed by Zack Snyder, the movie's final scenes reference the battle of Plataea. The Greek to Persian ratio is given as 1:3 ("Good odds for any Greek" he said.) with the Greek force numbering 40,000 against 120,000 Persians. [Frank Miller (comics)]

ee also

*Amompharetus A Spartan company commander in the battle of Plataea
*Battle of Thermopylae
*Battle of Marathon


External links

* [ Livius Picture Archive: the battle of Plataea (479 BCE)]
* [ Mardonius and the battle of Plataea]

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