Battle P

By Periklis Deligiannis

Read Part I:  THE BATTLE OF PLATAEA, 479 BC (Part I)


The Greek combatants were exhausted because of the continuous ‘hammering’ of the Iranian cavalry, and this situation resulted on a disruption in their units. They finally relocated again to new (third) positions but without organization and order. This confusion led to the dispersal of the forces of the Alliance and the occupation of positions that were not those which were decided in the last military council (see part I). The units of the center of the battle order (Megarians, Corinthians, Fliasians and others) were the ones who suffered most from the attacks of the Persian cavalry. Their men wandered and eventually took positions on the Heraion, near the walls of Plataea. The Athenians began to move to the north, opposite to the direction which the Lacedaemonians followed. Herodotus says that the former were annoyed by the latter because “the Spartans were talking differently from the thinks that they were thinking.”
I believe that this behavior of the latter had nothing to do with any lack of confidence or estimation of them for the Athenians: it had to do with the standard Lacedaemonian policy of secrecy and concealment of as much as possible information about the tactics that they followed, even if the ones that were annoyed by this secrecy were their Greek comrades. It was a standard policy of the Spartan army in order not to demonstrate its superior strategy and tactics to the other city-states. It was a protective measure for the Lacedaemonian hegemony in Greece.
The Athenians, feeling sick and tired of the general lack of strategic coordination, took the brave and dangerous decision to move towards Asopos River, in the lowlands of Parasopia. It seems that they wanted to fight the enemy only by themselves (an enemy that they knew well from their victory at Marathon) and thereby gain a new triumph that would give them the opportunity to question the Spartan hegemony.
The Lacedaemonians were rather wiser following the opposite course to the South, eventually establishing themselves at the foot of Cithaeron. Thus they were protected from the Iranian cavalry. Herodotus quotes that Amompharetos, the commander of the Spartan battalion of Pitane (Pitanatos lochos) initially refused to give ground to the enemy but when the rest of the Lacedaemonian army departed, he had to follow with his company to the new protected location. The “Amompharetos’ incident”, despite the fact that the Spartan senior commanders tended to undertake independent initiatives different from the decisions of the Commander in Chief, does not seem to have happened in reality. It has been hypothesized that it was rather a story made to explain the late retreat of the Pitanatos company (rather a battalion according to the modern standards).
The Pitanatos battalion was probably a rearguard which covered the Spartan relocation to the new positions. Furthermore, Amompharetos’ battalion seems to hold an even more important and risky mission: to lure Mardonios in an attack against the Spartans. The Persian commander, watching a battalion being cut off from the rest of the Spartan army, would believe that the latter was generally in a state of confusion and disorder. Additionally if he decided to attack the Pitanatos battalion, he would have the opportunity to easily destroy a part of the formidable Lacedaemonian army. It is characteristic that the Spartans used similar tactics at the Battle of Thermopylae, when they pretended retreat in front of the Asiatic warriors so that the latter would be lured in a disorderly attack. When this did happen, Leonidas’ men stopped abruptly their retreat, regrouped on the spot and attacked the unorganized Asiatics winning the day.

bell-muscle  cuirass
Archaic Greek cuirasses of the intermediate phase between the bell-type cuirass and the muscled one. This type developed into the muscled cuirass of the Late Classical and the Hellenistic period.
The Greeks completed the occupation of their new positions when the sun rose. Then the Persian cavalry crossed again the Asopos to carry out its daily attacks on the army of the Alliance. The Persians found out that the enemies had abandoned their previous positions and saw only Amompharetos’ company moving slowly towards the foot of Cithaeron.
The Iranian horsemen informed Mardonios for the relocation of the enemy and the delay of the Spartan retraction. As mentioned above, the Persian commander was eager to give battle. When he saw the opportunity that was presented, did not hesitate to order a general attack. His decision did not seem to have been wrong. The enemy army was divided into three abstracted portions, while the Spartan army – the elite Greek Corps – had not yet retracted in total on ground protected by the Persian cavalry. Mardonios obviously felt that it would be very difficult for the Lacedaemonians to regroup and defend themselves or fight back, when they would be under the attack of his cavalry and infantry. However, he did not know or consider their tactical ability to execute the maneuvers that the Asiatic commanders considered as impossible to be accomplished.
We mentioned above the ethnic composition of the three sections of Mardonios’ army, being the two wings and the center. The Persian commander sent those three sections against the respective three sections of the Greek army, following the initial design (see Part I). But Herodotus quotes that the Medes faced the Spartans along with the Persians, thereby it seems that he dispatched the Mede and Hyrcanian units from the center of the imperial battle order and attached them to his left wing, in order to further strengthen it against the Spartans. The latter were framed only by their own perioikoi (vassals) and their Tegean Arcadian neighbors.
Mardonios probably thought that if the elite Corpses of his army, being the Persians and the Medes, defeated the elite Corps of the Allied army, the Spartans, he would also secure the imperial victory for the other two separate conflicts. If this was his plan, he had forgotten Marathon and the Athenians. However, he rather cannot be blamed for his decision because the Spartans were indeed the strongest fighting men in Greece and at that moment he had given the (false) impression that they were retreating disorganized.

A detailed map of the battle of Plataea, describing among other data, the successive positions of the two armies.
Due to the division of the two opposing armies into three sections, the Battle of Plataea was essentially a sum of three separate minor battles that took place at some distance between them. Mardonios’ warriors crossed Asopos and began to move against their opponents. The Persian cavalry began to chase Amompharetos’ battalion, which barely managed to unite with the rest of the Spartan army before suffering the attack of the former. The Spartan commander Pausanias asked for the help of the Athenians, being evidence which suggest that his army had not yet managed to reach ground unsuitable for the enemy cavalry and had been exposed to the Asiatic horsemen.
However, the Lacedaemonians managed to repulse them and finally reach the high ground. This is concluded from Herodotus’ narrative, in which he suddenly mentions the Persian infantry attacking the Spartans instead of the cavalry which launched the offensive. This means that the Persian infantry replaced in the attack the cavalry because of the rough terrain. Plutarch who was an indigenous of Boeotia and therefore had accurate information and personal knowledge on the Battle of Plataea, quotes that the conflict between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians took place at the foot of Cithaeron, that is in ground unsuitable for the cavalry. This means that the Spartans during their retreat, managed to repulse the attacks of the enemy cavalry and it was probably Amompharetos’ battalion (Pitanatos lochos) the one that made the strongest effort for this repulsion.
The Athenians were marching behind the hills of the Asopos Ridge (see the detailed map), thereby they were not perceived by the Persian cavalry and thereby the latter did not attack them.
Mardonios rapidly moved along with the infantry of his left wing and the Medes against the Spartans in order to prevent them to occupy higher ground on the slopes of Cithaeron. The imperial infantry stormed against them yelling loudly, believing that this would bend them over. The Iranian warriors were mostly unarmored archers (bearing not even a helmet) and their only protection was a large but weak shield made of braided wicker. In a Mêlée conflict, they would have no chance against the Spartan and Tegean armored hoplites.

A fine reenactment of an Achaemenid Persian ‘Immortal’ by Ardeshir Radpour. The Immortals were one of the few units of the Achaemenid infantry that probably bore elementary  body armor. Some scholars believe that a number of Immortals fought at Plataea, others do not mention this probability (copyright: Ardeshir Radpour).

When the Persians approached the Lacedaemonians within striking distance, they stopped their charge and cemented their wooden shields on the ground. Thus they formed a shield wall, behind which they launched a storm of arrows to the Spartans according to their usual tactics. But this storm despite its density could not do much against the large surfaces and compact construction of the brazen hoplite shields. When a hoplite was under a storm of arrows, he used to kneel and take cover behind his shield, according to his military training. Its large size was sufficient enough to cover the whole body of a man while its bronze surface provided full protection against the Asiatic arrows. Only a few Spartans and Tegeans were injured by them.
However, Pausanias gave no order for a counterattack. Herodotus says that the Spartan regent was waiting for favorable omens to order a charge. In reality, the skilful and experienced Greek commanders like Pausanias were not seriously taking into account the omens. They actually used to interpret them as they pleased in order to justify their decisions, which were not easily understood by the common fighting men and even by their allied commanders. Pausanias was possibly deliberately delaying the Spartan counterattack to give enough time to Mardonios to accumulate behind his Persian shield wall, all of his infantry units which because of their large numbers were still coming to take positions in the Iranian battle order. The accumulation of such a large number of men on this small area would obviously ‘barricade’ their flight when they would be attacked by the hoplites, and would give more ‘food’ to the Lacedaemonian and Tegean spears and blades.

A detailed German map of the battle of Plataea.


The Tegeans stormed first against the Persians and the Medes, luring the Spartans with them; but it is considered to be certain that they followed Pausanias’ order for an attack and did not act spontaneously. The Iranian warriors tried in vain to repulse them on their wall of wooden shields. The Greeks broke it because of their superior equipment and thereby the battle turned into a general massacre of their opponents. The Persians and Medes fought bravely, protecting their reputation in this final conflict which took place in the south of the Sanctuary of Demeter near the site of Argiopion (probably in the south of the modern Church of St. Demetrius). Plutarch specifically quotes that it took place near the temple of Eleusinian Demeter, at the foot of Cithaeron, which is clearly ground unsuitable for the operations of the Persian cavalrymen. Therefore they were not able to help their fellow infantrymen who were massively annihilated by the Spartans and the Tegeans, having lost their rudimentary protection of their wooden shields. The Lacedaemonians finally broke the formations of the Corps of Mardonios’ Thousand elite warriors, that is to say his personal Guard. When the Spartan Arimnestos slew Mardonios, his warriors were demoralized abandoning any effort to resist and began to flee towards the Asopos. Those who survived the new carnage that followed, crossed the river and took refuge in their fortified camp at Skolos.
As we have mentioned above, Pausanias called the Athenians to help him against the Persian cavalry. They responded to the call of the Lacedaemonian regent changing the direction of their march. However they lost the coverage of the Asopos Ridge and were revealed to the enemy units. The Greek allies of Mardonios were in front of them. Herodotus quotes that all of them except the Thebans, pretended cravenness apparently in order not to fight their fellow countrymen. After all, Mardonios’ Greek vassals would have already seen the forthcoming victory of the Alliance, and they wanted to avoid any reprisal of the Allies.
The Thebans alone fiercely attacked the 8,600 Athenian and Plataean hoplites, and fought them bravely. This fact is not surprising. The Thebans were not interested in helping the Persians, but in defeating their age-old enemies, the Athenians and Plataeans. However they were very few compared to them: according to my calculations mentioned above (see Part I) the Thebans would not have numbered more than 2,500 hoplites and 500 cavalrymen (if the Theban cavalry was there and not with Mardonios’ units). This was the case because according to Herodotus who mentions only the Thebans, the other Boeotians were among the Greeks who refused to fight the Athenians. The Thebans were defeated, leaving 300 dead on the field and quickly retreated to their city.
The Spartans crossed the Asopos River hunting down their defeated enemies and finally reached the Persian camp at Scolos. It was probably at this last phase of the battle, that many servants and non-combatant followers of the Persian army were hastily armed, thus bringing the total figure of Mardonios’ men who fought at Plataea up to 100,000. But maybe some of them would have been armed earlier, in the local battle of the Sanctuary of Demeter to bear as much pressure as possible to the Spartans there.
Now the Spartans could not storm the camp at Scolos because they still had no considerable experience of sieges. Thereby they called the Athenians who were renowned as skillful in wall fighting and sieges. Indeed, the courageous Athenians managed to demolish a part of the camp wall, after a bloody wall-fighting against its defenders. The Tegeans were the first to rush through the breach made in the wall, followed by the Spartans and the Athenians. According to Herodotus, all the Asiatics sheltered in the camp were massacred by the Greeks.

hoplite beauty

A rare representation of hoplite armory by the Australian Association Ancient Hoplitikon, which include among others a Chalkedic-type helmet covered with bronze scales, based on Athenian and Argive vase-paintings of hoplites.
Herodotus quotes that the Greeks of the center of the Alliance battle order (Megarians, Fliasians, Corinthians and many others) who had taken positions in front of the town of Plataea, did not fight in the final conflict. Moreover Artabazos, the commander of the Persian center that was going to confront them, preferred not to engage in battle (it is also possible that his Corps acted as a reserve on the rear of Mardonios’ wing which was fighting the Spartans, and hastily retreated after Mardonios’ rapid defeat). On the other hand, there is evidence that the center of the Greeks fought in the final battle, albeit to a limited extend. But even if they did not fight in it, it is wrong to consider that they had no share in the victory. As we have mentioned above, these units gave a significant death toll in the second position of the Alliance army when they were the only ones that were lined up at open ground and suffered the unbearable hammering of the Persian cavalry. After the defeat of the two wings of the Persian army, those Greeks of the center moved to help in the chase of the defeated enemies. It was then that an isolated division of them was suddenly attacked by the Theban cavalrymen who killed 600.
Artabazos’ Corps (the center of the imperial army) joined with some survivors of Mardonios’ wing and hastily retreated to Phocis (in the west of Boeotia). From there he returned to Asia by crossing the former vassal to the Persians countries which were now hostile to them. This residue of the Persian army was attacked by the former vassals and had additional losses. Specifically the blow that it suffered at the Strymon River by the Macedonian army, was particularly bloody.
In the Battle of Plataea, the Greeks had a total of a few losses (most likely about 1,000-1,500 men) while the Persian imperial side counted several or many tens of thousands dead, among whom were Mardonios and Masistios. Eleven days after the battle, the Greek allies began the siege of Thebes. After 20 days the Thebans handed over the leaders of the pro-Persian faction who led the city in Medizing. The pro-Persian leaders were brought to the Isthmus where they were executed, Timagenidas being one of them (see Part I). The most serious consequence of the pro-Persian policy of Thebes for her, was the official dissolution of the Boeotian League in which the Thebans were the dominators. This retaliation seems to have been designed by the Athenians who from now on could easily intervene in Boeotia, expanding their politico-military influence there.

α2A Saka (Scythian) archer bearing his distinctive clothing and weaponry. Note the quiver. The Sakas (Sacae) were an elite Corps of the Persian imperial army (reenactment by the British Hoplite Association).



In conclusion, it seems that Mardonios tried to gain victory by crushing the elite Corps of the Greek army, the Spartans. But he lost the battle because eventually the opposite happened: the elite Corps of his army, the Persians and the Medes, was crushed by the Spartans and Tegeans. The complete victory of the latter was largely due to Pausanias’ great strategic skillfulness. The Spartan general and regent has been criticized by later historians that he made errors before the final conflict, mainly in the selection of the second positions of the Greek units. But it must be remembered that Pausanias had not any cavalry that could confront the Iranian cavalrymen and it was natural that this unsolved problem of him forced him to take some not very successful decisions.
The important thing is that in the critical phase of the conflict Pausanias managed to trap Mardonios using tactical maneuvers, and to lure the Persian army on ground suitable for his own army. The neutralization of the enemy cavalry due to the maneuvers of Pausanias is sufficed to demonstrate his strategic intelligence. Amompharetos is another very important commander of the battle. He was the one who executed with remarkable skillfulness the operation for the neutralization of the enemy cavalry and his battalion was the ‘bait’ for the Persian army to be lured on rough terrain.
The large victory of the Alliance at Plataea belonged mainly to the Spartan army. It is characteristic that the Athenian Aeschylus alludes that in a tragedy of his on the Persian Wars. His tragedy was displayed repeatedly before the Athenian audience which is evidence for the recognition by the Athenians that the victory at Plataea was due primarily to the Lacedaemonians. Moreover Athens had already enjoyed her own “lion’s share” against the Persian invaders, in the victories of Marathon and Salamis. Sparta and Athens would eventually collide in a war of extermination. There could be only one.

Periklis Deligiannis

eee map

• Herodotus HISTORY
• Diodorus Siculus: HISTORICAL LIBRARY
• HISTORY OF the GREEK PEOPLE, Athens Editorial 1970
• THE CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY, New edition, Cambridge 1989-1999
• Chrimes K.M.T. : SPARTA. A RE-EXAMINATION OF THE EVIDENCE, Manchester 1949 (Republished, Oxford 1999)
• Sekunda, N. and McBride, Ang.: THE ANCIENT GREEKS, Oxford 1990