Text #73"Battle of Plataea", in .
The Battle of Plataea was the final land battle during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place in 479 BC near the city of Plataea in Boeotia, and was fought between an alliance of the Greek city-states, including Sparta, Athens, Corinth and Megara, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I.
The previous year the Persian invasion force, led by the Persian king in person, had scored victories at the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium and conquered Thessaly, Boeotia, Euboea and Attica. However, at the ensuing Battle of Salamis, the Allied Greek navy had won an unlikely but decisive victory, preventing the conquest of the Peloponnesus. Xerxes then retreated with much of his army, leaving his general Mardonius to finish off the Greeks the following year.
In the summer of 479 BC the Greeks assembled a huge (by ancient standards) army and marched out of the Peloponnesus. The Persians retreated to Boeotia and built a fortified camp near Plataea. The Greeks, however, refused to be drawn into the prime cavalry terrain around the Persian camp, resulting in a stalemate that lasted 11 days. While attempting a retreat after their supply lines were disrupted, the Greek battle line fragmented. Thinking the Greeks in full retreat, Mardonius ordered his forces to pursue them, but the Greeks (particularly the Spartans, Tegeans and Athenians) halted and gave battle, routing the lightly armed Persian infantry and killing Mardonius.
A large portion of the Persian army was trapped in its camp and slaughtered. The destruction of this army, and the remnants of the Persian navy allegedly on the same day at the Battle of Mycale, decisively ended the invasion. After Plataea and Mycale the Greek allies would take the offensive against the Persians, marking a new phase of the Greco-Persian Wars. Although Plataea was in every sense a resounding victory, it does not seem to have been attributed the same significance (even at the time) as, for example, the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon or the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae. […]
In some ways the run-up to Plataea resembled that at the Battle of Marathon; there was a prolonged stalemate in which neither side risked attacking the other. The reasons for this stalemate were primarily tactical, and similar to the situation at Marathon; the Greek hoplites did not want to risk being outflanked by the Persian cavalry and the lightly armed Persian infantry could not hope to assault well-defended positions. […]
According to Herodotus, only 43,000 Persians survived the battle. The number who died, of course, depends on how many there were in the first place; there would be 257,000 dead by Herodotus’ reckoning. Herodotus claims that 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 Siculus tally the Greek casualties to over 10,000. […]
According to Herodotus, the Battle of Mycale occurred on the same afternoon as Plataea. A Greek fleet under the Spartan king Leotychides had sailed to Samos to challenge the remnants of the Persian fleet. The Persians, whose ships were in a poor state of repair, had decided not to risk fighting and instead drew their ships up on the beach at the feet of Mount Mycale in Ionia. An army of 60,000 men had been left there by Xerxes and the fleet joined with them, building a palisade around the camp to protect the ships. However, Leotychides decided to attack the camp with the Allied fleet’s marines. Seeing the small size of the Greek force, the Persians emerged from the camp but the Greek hoplites again proved superior and destroyed much of the Persian force. The ships were abandoned to the Greeks, who burned them, crippling Xerxes’ sea power and marking the ascendancy of the Greek fleet.
With the twin victories of Plataea and Mycale, the second Persian invasion of Greece was over. Moreover, the threat of future invasion was abated; although the Greeks remained worried that Xerxes would try again, over time it became apparent that the Persian desire to conquer Greece was much diminished.
The remnants of the Persian army, under the command of Artabazus, tried to retreat back to Asia Minor. Travelling through the lands of Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace by the shortest road, Artabazus eventually made it back to Byzantium, though losing many men to Thracian attacks, weariness and hunger. After the victory at Mycale, the Allied fleet sailed to the Hellespont to break down the pontoon bridges, but found that this had already been done. The Peloponnesians sailed home, but the Athenians remained to attack the Chersonesos, still held by the Persians. The Persians in the region, and their allies, made for Sestos, the strongest town in the region, and the Athenians laid siege to them there. After a protracted siege Sestos fell to the Athenians, marking the beginning of a new phase in the Greco-Persian Wars, the Greek counterattack. Herodotus ended his Histories after the Siege of Sestos. Over the next 30 years the Greeks, primarily the Athenian-dominated Delian League, would expel (or help expel) the Persians from Macedon, Thrace, the Aegean islands and Ionia. Peace with Persia came in 449 BC with the Peace of Callias, finally ending a half-century of warfare.
Plataea and Mycale have great significance in ancient history as the battles that decisively ended the second Persian invasion of Greece, thereby swinging the balance of the Greco-Persian Wars in favour of the Greeks. They kept Persia from conquering all of Europe, although they paid a high price by losing many of their men. The Battle of Marathon showed that the Persians could be defeated, and the Battle of Salamis saved Greece from immediate conquest, but it was Plataea and Mycale that effectively ended that threat. However, neither of these battles is nearly as well known as Thermopylae, Salamis or Marathon. The reason for this discrepancy is not entirely clear…
A bronze column in the shape of intertwined snakes (the Serpent column) was created from melted-down Persian weapons, acquired in the plunder of the Persian camp, and was erected at Delphi. It commemorated all the Greek city-states that had participated in the battle, listing them on the column, and thus confirming some of Herodotus’ claims. Most of it still survives in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), where it was carried by Constantine the Great during the founding of his city on the Greek colony of Byzantium.
Herodotus (1920). The Histories. with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. At the Perseus Project of the Tufts University.
Ctesias, Persica (excerpt in Photius’s epitome)
Diodorus Siculus (1967). Library. in Twelve Volumes with an English Translation by C. H. Oldfather. Cambridge, Mass.; London.
Holland, Tom. (2005) Persian Fire. Abacus, 2005.
Green, Peter. (1998) The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970; revised ed., 1996 (hardcover).
Shepherd, William (2012). Plataea 479 B.C.; The most glorious victory ever seen. Osprey Campaign Series #239. Osprey Publishing.