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Key Battles of History Part 2: Thermopylae and Plataea

In this series of blog posts, we are considering some of the key battles in history. These battles are not merely 'interesting' for the sake of being interesting, but are battles which have shaped the course of history as we know it. Some battles are complex and amazing because of the troops involved, that tactics employed, or the characters we visualize in the conflict, yet, those battles may not take on a larger significance in the grander scheme of history. Those battles may be covered in a future series of posts. This series, however, is to provide an analysis of uniquely influential battles in history.

 

The first post looked at the Battle of Salamis in 480BC. You can read about that battle by clicking here. However, as was mentioned in that post, Salamis cannot rightly be seen as a battle that shaped the world on its own. Rather, it forms the nexus, in my view, of a series of conflicts that culminated at Plataea, but which truly began 10 years prior, at the Battle of Marathon, in 490BC. Together, these battles created the Western World as we know it, and, arguably, resulted in Western Civilization. Thus, it can barely be expressed that the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea have served to shape the world as we know it like no other conflict. 

 

This post will not recount all of the context covered in the previous post. We will briefly consider some critical contextual points, but for a deeper contextual retelling, I urge you to read the earlier post on Salamis. This post will cover both Thermopylae and Plataea. I have chosen to take these two battles together, rather than Salamis and Plataea, because they feature the Spartans more centrally. However, it must be emphasised that the entire campaign functions as one conflict in this interpretation. We will consider the importance of Thermopylae, key events, and important implications of this battle, then we will do the same with Plataea. This post will conclude with some reflections on the importance of these conflicts in terms of history.

 

Please leave any comments and thoughts you may have. I hope you find this enjoyable.

 

Thermopylae

Geopolitical Context

As mentioned in our previous post on this conflict, the major players in the world at this time tended not to consider the states of the Aegean as major powers; they were smaller city states and typically involved in internecine wars amongst themselves. When we think of Ancient History ourselves, our minds tend to flit between Babylon, Israel, other ANE empires, Akkad, Egypt, and only later eventually make our way down to Greece and then Rome. 

 

Persia

Yet, when the might of the enslaving Persian Empire met on the banks of Marathon, near Athens, the raw recruits and enforced warriors of Darius I found themselves humbled, beaten, and decimated by the ranks of organized, well-armoured, and free Athenian hoplites. The Persians had a bloodied nose. Darius retreated but fully intended to return with an army the like of which the world had never seen, to destroy the Greeks for their impudence, arrogance, and refusal to submit to his rule.

 

Unfortunately (for Darius) he died shortly thereafter, and his son, Xerxes became King of Kings of the Persian Empire. He shared his father's vision, hoping to do more than Darius by taking the Greeks prisoner himself. After putting down rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, he began preparations for war. Eventually, in 480, he crossed the Hellespont and began his march south. Towards Athens. Towards the city states of the Peloponnese. Towards victory.

 

Athens

The Athenians had developed something of a reputation under the leadership of Themistocles. Although not a monarchy, it is the blight of all democracies that the popular tend to dominate the headlines. Themistocles was, at this stage, wildly popular and extraordinarily efficient. He oversaw preparations for the building of a large Athenian navy that would be manned by freemen, not slaves. This would create a patriotic desire to defend their homelands. After all, it would be their families, their homes, their inheritnances that would be at risk should fear overtake them and cause them to leave their post. This was a masterstroke and demonstrates a critical understanding of humanity that Xerxes could not comprehend. His slaves would not fight for their master, even on threat of torture or pain of death, with the same zeal as a man will fight, and die, for his homeland, his home, his wife and children.

 

However, Xerxes was coming with more than a navy. He had amassed a huge army. Athens couldn't fend off both. So, the city states held a conference where they accepted Spartan leadership over the endeavour. Sparta and Athens were not on friendly terms, but they were in a situation where a common enemy brought them together. For now. At that council, the Corinthian contingent adamantly refused to turn over their navy to Athenian leadership for they (rightly, as it turned out) feared Athens was intending to become a dominant player after the war. Thus, it was agreed that Sparta would be the leaders of the allied response against Xerxes.

 

Sparta

Of course, Sparta was not a sea-faring nation. To be sure, their hoplites were the envy, fear, and scourge of all Greece. No one willingly chose to stand against the Spartans without a good reason. The Spartans were raised to be warriors from the earliest of ages, and it was ingrained in their minds from childhood that the highest honour was to die for the state. But they weren't sailors.

 

So, although Sparta was given control, I believe there was a wink-wink-nudge-nudge alliance between the Athenian and Spartan contingent. Whilst leadership of the entire expedition would fall to Sparta, in reality it would be a council of two. On land, Athens would defer to Spartan superiority, and on sea Sparta to Athenian skill. It would be a subtle ploy, but one which worked, Herodotus maintains, prior to the Battle of Salamis.

 

Sparta, as a city state, was not like Athens. Indeed, Sparta was considered primitive, violent, uncouth, uncultured, and unappealing. Despite their warlike skill (revered by all), they lacked the finer side of Greek life: discourse, culture, poetry, and philosophy. Indeed, they were a hardened race, enslaving a massive Helot population who would serve as their armour-bearers, fieldsmen, and servants, under constant threat of violence. 

 

The Spartans lacked the nous of the Athenians. Yet they had a military prowess that was understood to be incredible. And this tale of Thermopylae would only increase their reputation. 

 

Setting the Scene

Xerxes has crossed the Hellespont. 

 

The Greeks had a two pronged plan. The navy and army would travel in sync, thus when the army was in need of evacuation, they could embark, but it also meant that the army couldn't be outflanked by the Persian navy, because the Greeks would harry them, enabling the Greek hoplites to retreat, should the need arise. Together, they would hold a spot of tactical and strategic genius, with the intent of forcing Xerxes to fight on their terms. After all, a large army is nothing more than a large stomach. Xerxes needed to win swiftly less sickness, disease, and rebellion brew amongst his troops.

 

There was a problem, however. The map of the Greek coastline is difficult to grasp, but where Athens resides is called Achaia (part of a larger area called Attica). It is fertile, and it has a natural harbour for her navy. To reach Corinth, or Sparta, or the rest of the Peloponnese, however, you have to cross a very narrow stretch of land called an Isthmus. Think of a piece of paper. When you wrap an elastic band around it, it forms a narrow neck. This was the 'entrance' to the Peloponnese. The Greek contingent were divided by those who were willing to defend the Isthmus of Corinth (i.e., the Peloponnesians) and those who wanted to fight outside the Peloponnese because their lands were threatened (i.e., the Achaeans). There was a general distrust amongst the Achaeans concerning the Spartan willingness to defend any land that was not under their hegemony (dominance). The Spartans dominated the Peloponnese. So, for the Spartans, it was said by detractors, it suited them well to let Athens fall, and utilize the Athenian-led navy to force the Persians to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth. It would be a win-win for Sparta. Athens would fall, they would preserve the Peloponnese and would, theoretically, leave the conflict out and out leaders of Greece. Provided, of course, the Persians were beaten.

 

This was, as it turned out, deeply unfair to the Spartans. It is true that they tended not to leave the Peloponnese. And it is true that they were wary of Athenian influence growing, especially within their domain. But the Spartans were up for the fight and did not take the threat of Persia lightly. This required a massive, joint, unified, effort. I tend to be quite sympathetic to the Spartans even as I admire Themistocles and the Athenian contingent. I care less for Corinth.

 

In 480BC, the council had argued that the Allies should take a stand near the Hellespont, in the northern reaches of Thessaly. However, it was revealed upon arrival that such a position would not benefit the Greeks for it could easily be flanked. Thus, the Greeks, through the wisdom of Themistocles, decided to take their stand at Thermopylae. The land forces would block the Persian army and the navy would fight off the coast at Artimisium. However, plans were made for a retreat behind the Isthmus of Corinth should the pass fall: Athens would be evacuated and the Peloponnesians would fight to the death at the Isthmus of Corinth.

 

The pass of Thermopylae is often said to have been exceptionally narrow. This is incorrect. It was between 90-100 metres wide. As this is the case, with the Greeks numbering about 7000 men, it would have been almost impossible for the Greeks to hold the pass against a sustained attack. The difficulty for the Persians, however, is that this was Greece. Grecian lands are notoriously rugged, hewn by the torrential rain, winds, and waves. 

 

The Persians had never fought in these conditions, nor in such a confined area of land where their superiority in cavalry was completely nullified. On one side, a spring ran down, causing the stonework to be exceptionally slippery, and the soil to be very wet and marshy. On the other side of the path were steep slopes that would send a man tumbling. In armour, he would pick up speed swiftly and probably fall to his death or serious injury. These topographical features were vital: it forced the troops to converge towards the middle and thereby nullify their numerical advantage. In fact, they would become laboured down by the marsh, disorganized by the pushing and thrusting of men fearing the slopes, and would lose formation. The consequence? An army became a rabble. And the Greek hoplites would be ready for any who finally broke through.

 

Battle Stations

Xerxes continued his march south. Towards the Greeks at the Pass of Thermopylae. But he was slow. So slow, in fact, that the Spartan were celebrating their religious festival, the Carneia. It was considered deeply sacrilegious for the Spartans to go to war during the Carneia. Doubly sacrilegious, however, was the fact that the Olympic Games was also being held. During the Olympic Games there was a Grecian period of peace that should not be violated. 

 

However. Needs must, as they say. The Ephors (leaders like a counsel of elders) decided that it was of paramount that the Persians not break through the pass. Consequently, they instructed one of their two kings (for they had two kings in an effort to thwart vainglorious monarchic despotism), Leonidas to take his personal bodyguard of 300 elite solders to block the pass. To gather as many soldiers as possible and fight until the games and Carneia ended and the rest of the Persian army arrived.

 

Leonidas obeyed. He gathered his 300 men and began his march north. He stopped by many cities intending to gather enough soldiers to create a large enough vanguard who could hold Xerxes at bay until the soldiers of Sparta arrived en masse

 

In the movie, 300, the Ephors and the other Greeks tend to get an unfair treatment. For one, the ephors are pictured as deformed, inbred, mutants. But, according to Herodotus, they were instrumental in this historic moment. They sent Leonidas and his men to gather a force and hold the pass.

 

While Xerxes' army of slave-soldiers marched south.

 

It is also unfair to remember the battle as having been only between the 300 Spartans and the Persians who probably numbered around 150,000 (in my opinion that figure does not include the naval forces). It should be noted that some historical sources suggest Xerxes had a million men but that seems unlikely. At the pass there were between 6000 and 10,000 Greeks, led by Leonidas and his elite bodyguard.

 

The 300 men that Leonidas took with him were men who had left a lineage of living sons. This suggests, according to Herodotus, that he did not expect to return but was anticipating death. Their legacy would continue through their children, and, by dying, they would prove to the Greeks across Attica and the Peloponnese that Sparta took this fight seriously. Blood was spilled on soil not their own, to fight a war for all of Greece. It was to be a rousing call of war.

 

Leonidas and his band of around 7000-10,000 men arrived and began rebuilding the wall that had previously been built by the Phocians long ago, which, itself, told of other conflicts long since passed and forgotten. There was, Leonidas heard from his scouts returning from reconnoitering the land, a goat herd pass that could be used, if discovered, to flank the middle gate pass. In response to this news, Leonidas sent 1000 Phocians to defend it and warn him if the Persians were able to utilise it.

 

Then, as they rebuilt the fortifications, they waited. Xerxes was coming. And the Greeks were ready.

 

Eventually, after much waiting, building, training, and looking back hoping to see more troops from Greece, the Persians were spotted by the scouts. They wheeled their mounts back and informed Leonidas. They were here. To his right flank, the navy was preparing to hold Artimisium and keep the troops in the pass safe from a rear attack. 

 

Leonidas called the generals and leaders of the various Greek factions beside him for a council of war. Together they hashed out their battle plan. Initially he had to ensure they would not abandon the pass, and, having convinced the Greeks that the Spartans would stand and fight, they made plans for battle. Perhaps awed by the size of the force that they saw arrayed before them, I suspect Leonidas called this meeting to gather the temperature from his men and those under his command. Not all were as willing to die for Sparta, for Greece, as his own men. But they were willing to die for their own lands. And that was good enough for him.

 

Xerxes, almost angered by the puny force he saw facing him, sent an embassy to the Greeks. 'Become a friend of Persia, submit to me, and I will give you lands more fertile than you can imagine, and prosperity under my good pleasure.' Leonidas and the Greeks preferred laborious freedom over prosperity at the bottom of a bent knee. A second embassy returned, this time with a written decree from Xerxes: 'Surrender your arms and you shall live.' Leonidas' response has lived on in lore these 2500 years: 'Come get them.'

 

With that, battle was inevitable. Shocked, offended, confused, and angry, Xerxes waited for four full days, expecting the Greek bravado to diminish and their troops to desert, diminish, and disappear. Of course, the longer they waited, the more hopeful the Greeks became that new troops would arrive. The delay worked for them. However, Xerxes' patience grew thin and, on the fifth day, he commanded battle be joined. This would be the first of three days of fighting. And it would lead to one of the greatest stands in history.

 

Day one was, for Xerxes, an unmitigated, absolute, unequivocal disaster. He sent his archers, numbering 5000, to 'thin the herd' before he launched his first assault. However, their arrows were weak, many not being able to travel the 100 yards to the Spartan front line, and those that did had spent most of their force. The wooden, bronze-covered shields easily deflected them.

 

After the barrage of arrows, the Greeks stood in front of the repaired Phocian wall and formed their famed Phalanx. This was an interlocking shield wall with their long spears jutting out. It was a formidable sight, especially considering that the Greeks held this position well, being used to fighting against each other in this formation. It was their natural default for fighting a land battle. The Persians were not accustomed to such a tight field, nor to fighting against this formation. They were about to find out just how disastrous this lack of reconnaissance was to cost them.

 

Xerxes ordered 10,000 of his Medes and Cissians to attack in waves. It was expected that 10,000 would be able to make the Greeks prisoners by day's end. However, they had to slowly navigate the pass, and by the time they arrived, their ranks were disorganized and facing them was a wall of steel and men who knew how to use it. They died by the thousand. 

 

To prevent exhaustion, the Greeks rotated divisions in and out of the front line. This minimized needless casualties due to fatigue, ensure that the burden was equally borne by all, and resulted in a growing sense of belief. After the Medes retreated, the Greeks looked around in surprise. They had expected a fight. They were here to die. Yet, barring a few scattered deaths here and there, the ground was red only with Persian blood. Suddenly morale skyrocketed and the Greeks began to wonder...just maybe they might win.

 

They cleared a path through the corpses to allow the Persians another attempt. Of course, the further narrowed the pass again. Xerxes, having seen his Medes decimated, and having stood up out of his throne in agitation no less than three times, quietly grunted his admiration for the Greeks. When they, finally, submitted to his rule, he would have an unstoppable army with these Greeks added to his troops!

 

Perhaps in a show of appreciation for their courage, fight, spirit, and skill, he next summoned his personal bodyguard, the famed Immortals. This unit was a frightening military force. They were the elite of the Persian forces, always kept at exactly 10,000 men and were utterly loyal to the king. They were strong, armed to the hilt, and feared throughout the Persian empire. Perhaps the Spartans could have joined their ranks.

 

Except that they humiliated them instead. Just as the Medes before them, the famed Immortals were beaten bloody by the Greeks guarding the middle gate of the Pass of Thermopylae. This time, the Spartans came forward to meet them in combat, and then, feigning defeat and rout, fled back towards the wall. Used to seeing armies crumble before them, Xerxes smiled as his Immortals gave chase. This, of course, opened their ranks and, as soon as the Spartans stopped, turned, and made their Phalanx, the Immortals were cut down like grass under the scythe.

 

Xerxes watched on, his face implacable, but his rage incessant. Day two would come. Tonight, however, the laughter and mocking noises from the Greek camp haunted his dreams.

 

Meanwhile, the navies were facing off in the straights as well. The Greeks at Artimisium were holding up fast though losses on both sides were mounting. So long as the land forces survived, the navy would remain in support.

 

Day two was not a good day for Xerxes, either. His troops marched forward as they had the day before. And, as they had the day before, they were cut down in embarrassing numbers and with insulting ease. The Greeks were barely picking up steam, barely breaking a sweat. Xerxes assumed that damage had been done towards the Greeks the day before. Perhaps his generals tried to placate his wrath by saying that, though they retreated, they had weakened the enemy. Perhaps he was living in his delusions. Either way, however, he sent his troops in and they were slaughtered.

 

Seeing his troops retreat, bloodied and injured, Xerxes called a halt to action. He was perplexed, confused, angry, and terrified. If he was stopped here, by this paltry force, his army would likely disintegrate. His empire would be at risk. Two nations fell into rebellion shortly after he ascended the throne, Egypt and Babylon. Imagine what would happen when news of this humiliating defeat reached those regions, and others, who resented his rule, his taxation, and his soldiers.

 

He couldn't embark upon ships and simply sail around them. The Greek navy was there, and, although there was no victory at Artemisium yet, they posed a threat. He couldn't march around them because the mountains were there. He couldn't retreat because emperors do not retreat. Food would become scarce. Mutiny and revolt could develop. What to do?

 

Suddenly, outside his tent, he heard a commotion. His advisers brought in a scraggly-bearded man from Trachis, a nearby city. He spoke of a way to win the battle, but he would only grant knowledge of this way to win to Xerxes for a huge reward. Having been promised a stupendous reward indeed, Ephialtes from Trachis offered to lead a Persian contingent around the pass in a pincer that would trap the Greeks and kill them from both sides. 

 

The king sent Hydarnes, the leader of the Immortals with about 20,000 men. He was taking no chances. Together, under Ephialtes' guidance, they made the long, treacherous, journey through the mountains. They marched through the night.

 

On the path, however, were the 1000 Phocians placed there by Leonidas to guard the pass. Surprised to see the Persians, they hastily armed, and prepared for battle on a nearby hill. Hydarnes, however, taking little consideration for them, endeavoured to get to his ordered attack point as soon as possible, lest the trap fail by his late arrival. The trek through the night had already taken longer than anticipated. He merely sent a volley of arrows their way, then marched on, to the bemused, confused, and then horrified faces of the Phocians. They sent a runner to inform Leonidas. But it was going to be too late for a retreat.

 

Meanwhile, Leonidas, having eventually received the runner, called a council of war. At this council, Leonidas permitted those who desired to leave to do so. They would, he expected, fight again. But he resolved to remain and fight to the death. There are numerous proposed theories why he chose to do this. Some suggest that he was eager to fulfil the prophecy of the oracle which would, he believed, save his country. Others suggest that retreat was either illegal for a Spartan (and so he would be killed upon his return anyway) or too humiliating for a Spartan king to bear. Still others, rightly, argue that by his sacrificial stand he provided essential time for the retreating Greeks to flee. Thus they would not be hunted down, but would escape to fight again another day. Why lose 7000 when you only need to lose 2000?

 

Myself? I suspect that he understood his death to be a clarion call for Greece. He had proven that, with brain as well as brawn, the Persians could be bested. His death would prove to the Greeks that they could win. And, more importantly, that Sparta was fully engaged: they had left one of their kings on the field to prove it. But. We don't know his reasoning. Perhaps it was a mixture of all these views?

 

Regardless, what is known is that 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and the Helots (Spartan slaves) remained. They marched into the open field where they all prepared to make their final stand.

 

Xerxes gave libations to the gods as he waited for his immortals to descend the hill and envelop the Greeks. The tiny Greek force marched forward and fought valiantly. Xerxes sent in light cavalry which were cut down by the long spears of the hoplites. The Greeks fought with all their energy. As their energy depleted, their weapons were damaged, and their numbers thinned. 10,000 against 2000. And yet the Greeks continued to fight.

 

At one point, however, the Thebans left the field of battle and surrendered to the Persians. They were subsequently branded by the king's mark, forever revealing their failure and treachery. Leonidas was killed by archers and a fight developed to reclaim his body. The Greeks won that fight and retreated to a nearby hill where they fought with swords, fists, and teeth until they were beaten. Then, under a rain of arrows, any who had survived to that point were killed at last. Xerxes had his victory. But at such a cost. About 20,000 from the Persian army had fallen.

 

So furious at the delay and humiliation of his army, he had Leonidas mutilated and crucified in a final act of savagery unbefitting for both kings.

 

At sea, news arrived that the Persians had won. There was no need to remain without the army and so they raised anchor and set sail for Attica. The way for the Persian advance was clear.

 

Implications

The battle of Thermopylae was not the end of the war, as you know. It led to the Battle of Salamis which, in turn, led to the Battle of Plataea. However, the localized import of this battle is difficult to overemphasize. Just as the entire conflict would turn the tide of history, so Thermopylae would act as the catalyst to inspire the Greeks when it seemed fear would win out. 

 

For the Greeks, it proved a number of things that were essential for the rest of the campaign. Firstly, it demonstrated that the Persians were very much a beatable army. Yes, they had numbers, and, currently, a navy. But they were not better than the Greeks. In fact, a compartively small Grecian army, through the use of clever tactics and greater skill, had utterly humiliated an army about 20 times its size. The Grecian armies throughout the cities were emboldened. The war wasn't over, but it was winnable.

 

Secondly, it demonstrated that the Spartans were willing to leave everything on the field. Marathon had proven that Athens was willing to do so. Now, with Sparta willing to fight to the death for the liberty of Greeks, and with Athens still ruling the seas in her triremes, the Greeks believed that they could win. Sparta and Athens could fight together, supporting one another, and provided they weren't encircled by the Persian navy, time would, ultimately, be on their side. 

 

Thirdly, the legacy of Leonidas and the Spartan mythos developed. Regardless of Spartan law prior to Thermopylae as to whether or not retreat was punishable by death, it soon became the threat of Greece: do not go to war with Sparta for only one side will leave the field. Spartans were willing to die in a lost cause. The myth of Spartan power would rage throughout Greece for another 80 years until Athens forced a small contingent into surrender in a pointless fight. But it would, ultimately, last for millennia beyond. Today we have spartan races, tanks, heroes in our games, etc. To be a spartan means to be unnaturally strong, courageous, and single-minded. It is a complement, today, where once it was an insult. Thus, although he was defeated, he died a hero. 

 

Fourthly, it has to be acknowledged that Thermopylae was a defeat. We tend to lose sight of this because we love the story and we know what happens next. But the reality is that the objective was to hold the Pass of Thermopylae and the Straits of Artimisium until the relief forces arrived. The plan was never to sacrifice a king, lose Attica, and fight at Salamis and Plataea. The Greeks lost many good soldiers in this fight. Had they been able to avoid treachery, they could have held that pass for months, forcing the Persians to retreat due to lack of food and water. In fact, after this defeat, Xerxes conquered most of Greece in a very short period of time. He reduced most of Greece to either rubble or submission. In the immediate aftermath of Thermopylae, the battle was a defeat. It would be rescued by Salamis and Plataea.

 

What is, however, important is that, although it was a defeat for the Greeks, and disastrous for the start of the campaign, it did create a sliver of hope. Yes, things looked dire. But they had the oracle's prophecy, and they had the example of a free Greece. While Xerxes probably thought that a 10 day delay was negligible, the Greeks were thinking that it was evidence that Persia could be stopped. The reason why Thermopylae is, culturally at least, regarded as a victory is because it slots into the larger array of battles as an essential stepping stone. It was not the ideal outcome for the Greeks, but it served its purpose. 

 

Finally, Ephialtes. Just as Judas has become synonymous with treachery due to his betrayal of Christ, the name Ephialtes had a similar effect in ancient Greece. His name would live on as a nightmare in Greek history. He was a failure, a traitor, a murderer, and his legacy would be one of scorn and hatred. 

 

Aftermath

Victory had come, though it had been costly. Xerxes took his revenge on the cities of Plataea (of more, below) and Thespiae for their refusal to submit to him. He then continued his march south into Attica and found the city of Athens abandoned and empty (bar a few souls who interpreted the oracle differently than Themistocles). They burned it and attempted to raze it.

 

The Greeks, however, crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, destroyed the road and built a wall, much like at Thermopylae. There they would make their stand, so long as the Greek navy could hold off the Persian navy and prevent an encirclement. Themistocles, however, convinced the admirals to fight. And so, at Salamis, the left hand of Xerxes assault felt the hammer of the Athenians, and they were defeated in a disastrous naval battle that would turn the tide of the war. 

 

Thermopylae was the catalyst that would inspire the Greeks to fight on despite the odds. Salamis would be the catalyst that would turn the tide of the war. It would fall, finally, to the Battle of Plataea to send the Persians packing. 

 

Meanwhile, however, Xerxes was sacking cities throughout Greece and, for the next month, he did indeed do better than his father. He was lord of Thespiae, Attica, Boetia, and most of Greece. One final push and he would take the Peloponnese and be lord of Europe, just as he was lord of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Media, Palestine, and countless other nations. He was unprepared for what would happen next.

 

The Battle of Salamis turned the tide of the war. Without Salamis, Thermopylae would have lived on merely as an heroic last stand; but with Salamis happening so swiftly after Thermopylae, fear began to echo throughout the massive army of Persia. Yes, it was thought, Xerxes commanded a larger army...but 20,000 had fallen at Thermopylae, and now, at Salamis, the Athenians had proven they could outfight the Persian navy. This was a second massive demonstration of confidence in the Greek ability to win the war.

 

This also left Xerxes with significant military issues as well. Athens clearly ruled the sea, and, with the Greek ships accompanying Themistocles and his Athenians, the Persians now risked being cut off from Asia. If the Greeks sailed to the Hellespont they could destroy the bridges and leave Xerxes stranded. If they, then, adopted a scorched earth policy, the Persian army would be swiftly destroyed by hunger and disease. 


Further, a loss of the navy, or a weakening of the navy to be more precise, resulted in disrupted supply chains from Asia; food would be less likely to make it through a naval barricade should the Greeks decide to create one. The size of the navy didn't matter so much; if the Athenians were able to defeat the Persians at sea, the supply lines, and lines of retreat, were dangerously threatened.

 

Finally, too, if the Persians could not launch a joint amphibious attack around the south of the Greek position on the Peloponnese, then they would be forced to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth, on Greek terms, against a vastly larger force than Leonidas had produced at Thermopylae. Only the treachery of Ephialtes had defeated the Greeks, so it did not bode well for the increasingly frustrated and antsy Xerxes.

 

Thus, after Salamis, taking these things into consideration, he decided to retreat back into the safety of the territory of the empire and leave the 'mopping up' of the Greeks to his trusted general, Mardonius. Mardonius was a battle-hardened, skilled commander, a veteran of many campaigns. It is suggested that he thought little of Xerxes as a military leader and was willing to finish off the Greeks with the forces that Xerxes would leave him.

 

Another interpretation, one which I do not favour but feel it has enough merit to be mentioned, is that Xerxes had grown overly confident. Yes, Salamis was a problem and it threatened his retreat. But, by this time he had conquered all of Grecian territory bar the Peloponnese, and it had only taken one battle. Granted, he had lost many men, but in two days he had become master of Greece. The expense in terms of supplying wages and provisions for the men was no longer needed as the Greeks were basically defeated. Further, he had fulfilled his ambition to sack Athens. He had, in his mind, begin counting his chickens. Mardonius would oversee the hatching.

 

This interpretation can indeed be argued, but I think that it undermines the witness of Herodotus and the strategic and tactical realities that Salamis forced Xerxes to realize. Thermopylae may not have meant much to Xerxes were it to be an isolated incident; the fact that Salamis proved the Greeks were able to defeat the Persians in battle as well as in the battle of the mind games, suggests to me that Xerxes blinked first and decided to salvage what he could, and hopefully Mardonius could do the rest.

 

Which brings us to Plataea. We will spend less time on Plataea.

 

Plataea

Setting the Scene

The following year, having left Mardonius with a large force, Xerxes settled back into Persian life, expecting to hear tales of the final destruction of the Greeks and the terms of their subjugation. He had overrun Boetia, Thessaly, and even Attica. It was all but a signed and finished deal.

 

This battle was a resounding victory for the Greeks. By the end of the battle (and the naval battle of Mycale, occurring on the same day according to some sources), Mardonius lay dead, the Persians slaughtered, and the Greeks prepared to go on the offensive. Yet this was not considered the greater victory. Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis all held greater respect in terms of the repercussions and significance. This is probably for three reasons: firstly, Mardonius, although he outnumbered the Greeks, did not have the entire army at his disposal as in the previous battles. The numbers were significantly reduced thereby suggesting the victory wasn't as 'great' because of the odds. Secondly, the absence of the great king, Xerxes, immediately makes this conflict less dramatic. He had already left. Thirdly, the Greeks, by this stage, knew that they had the skill and prowess to beat the Persians manno-a-manno. 

 

The scenes in the build up to this battle are more interesting than the battle itself and reveal how unlikely this victorious campaign actually was. After Xerxes retreated, Mardonius remained in the north, in Thessaly, for the winter. The Athenians returned to Athens in Attica and resettled their sacked and looted city. It was a tough winter. And the Athenians felt that they had lost the most out of the remaining Greek contingent.

 

They sent emissaries to the Greek states in the Alliance and demanded that the Alliance take oaths to move north and prevent another sack of their city. They had sacrificed just as much as the Spartans, it was felt. The other Greeks, however, were safer behind the isthmus (and as yet perhaps did not know of the retreat by most of the Persian army). Thus, they declined to guarantee that they would indeed march north and take the fight to the Persians.

 

This led to a fracture in the Alliance; Athens refused to send her navy to the Allied forces the next year, leaving the Allied navy severely short in numbers and under the command of the Spartan king. He was a Spartan, but the Spartans were not a naval power. He kept his ships off the coast of Delos where they refused to fight with the Persians and faced a naval stalemate, with neither side confident in seeking battle. The cost of defeat would be too severe.

 

Meanwhile, as the campaign season began, Mardonius knew he could not assault the Isthmus of Corinth; his men would be soundly defeated. He could not flank the Peloponnesians for his navy could not get around the Greek navy (or what was left of it). So he resorted to diplomacy. He offered terms of surrender to the Athenians (who he now knew were not part of the Greek Alliance, at least in praxis). These terms included the right to self-governance, territorial expansion, and peaceful prosperity within the Persian territories. This overture was sent by the client king of Macedon (Alexander's homeland) perhaps as a demonstration of how great life could be under the thumb of Xerxes.

 

The Athenians received this embassy, presumably in the Agora, ensuring that the Spartan envoy was present to hear the terms and the force of Athens's refusal. They would not submit because they valued their liberty too highly.

 

Mardonius was not impressed. He thus marched south and, again, the Persians entered the city of Athens to find it evacuated. This time, however, the Athenians sheltered on the Isle of Salamis where they sent envoys to the Spartans demanding that they march to war. Mardonius sent another ambassador to the Athenians, now on Salamis, offering peaceful terms and the privilege of entering their city once more. The Athenian contingent (of other Grecians from Attica) demanded that Sparta march towards war. Or else they would accept the peace terms.

 

And yet, amazingly, Sparta prevaricated. They understood the tactical importance of being behind the Isthmus. It would be a foolish decision to leave that security without a clear plan. Further, it was another religious celebration season, so they refused an answer. It took the wise counsel of a visitor, a Tegean, to convince that Spartans that they needed Athens. Greece would be in jeopardy without her ships. It would be suicide to let Athens surrender for then her triremes, so influential at Salamis, would be under the command of Mardonius, who would in turn vastly outnumber the Allied fleet and could finish the war.

 

The Greeks needed Athens, and Athens needed the Greeks. So. The next day the Spartans received the Athenian envoys again, and heard their pleas, and listened to their ultimatum: 'Prepare for war, now, or we will surrender.' To their amazement, the Spartans smugly informed these Athenians that the Spartans were already on the march. Out from the Peloponnese. Out to battle with the Persians.

 

The number of troops is truly difficult to grasp; Herodotus, although a fine historian, enjoyed a flair for the dramatic and his number of 300,000 Persians is rarely accepted. I suspect Mardonius had probably around 70,000-100,000 depending on how you count the light infantry. 

 

The Greeks probably brought about 40,000 hoplites to the battlefield, the largest contingent of which was Sparta, who contributed 10,000 (and, according to Herodotus, 7 armed Helots to assist one single Spartiate). Athens contributed 8,000, Corinth, 6,000 and so on all the way down to the smallest states of the Alliance, providing all they could.

 

Although the numbers are disputed, it is clear that the Greeks were outnumbered but not terribly so. Further, this was probably the largest Spartan army that ever was assembled, before or after. That fact alone makes this battle rather unique. 

 

In conjunction with the counsel, it was agreed that operational command would fall to Sparta under the regent Pausanias (he had a fascinating life), though the battle itself was an example of the dangers of devolved leadership. Each contingent probably had their own commander who was meant to follow the orders of the council of war, chaired by Pausanias. The battle proves that operational command meant little in the heat of the conflict.

 

Regardless, I can only imagine how amazing this sight must have been. Such an array of shining bronze helmets and swords and spears moving north with the sole ambition of sending the invaders running. One thing noticeably lacking from the Greek army was cavalry. They didn't have many at all, and thus they would not fight in the open plain where the Persian horses would be able to wreak havoc on their lines. Nor did the Greeks have many archers, seeing that weapon as cowardly. They wanted to fight in a Phalanx.

 

Battle Stations

Mardonius heard that the Alliance had taken march and so he finished destroying Athens and moved north, back towards Thessaly where he intended to pick a battlefield that would enable him to utilize his cavalry in the battle. The Athenians and Plataeans sent their forces to join the Greeks and, together, they all marched north, following the Persians.

 

Choosing his position in Boeotia, he built fortifications to ensure that his camp was secure. He then waited for the Greeks to arrive. Pausanias chose to face Mardonius, but made his camp on the high ground. They would not make camp on exposed territory where the cavalry could get into a full gallop.

 

Nevertheless, Mardonius initiated a harrying order where the Persians attempted to pull the Greeks into a chase, thereby forcing them to leave the high ground and follow the cavalry in a disorganised fashion. The Greeks were too canny and instead the only result of this was the death of the Persian cavalry commander. Not a good start for Mardonius.

 

This minor victory encouraged the Greeks who moved their camp across the higher ground, closer towards the Persians who, in turn, arrayed for battle. However, neither side was to launch an attack, aware that a slight misstep would lead to defeat. The repercussions of the defeat would be disastrous and end the entire conflict, one way or the other. A stalemate ensued. 

 

The battle lines were as follows: on the right of the Greek line were the Spartans, facing the Persian soldiers. These were the best of both armies, and the right side was the place of honour. On the left were the Athenians, who had supplied the second largest number of hoplites. Facing them were the Greek turncoats, who fought for Mardonius. In the middle were the other Greek contingents facing the Bactrians, and other Median units.

 

The Greeks were in an exposed position and dependent upon the water from a nearby spring. Mardonius employed his superior numbers of cavalry to harass and harry the Grecian supply chain and eventually to cut off access to the spring. This plan worked and Pausanias felt he had to retreat. His Spartans were on the right, the Athenians on the left, and the rest of the contingent in the centre of the line. They planned to retreat during the night so as not to be attacked by the cavalry.

 

The plan did not go well. Everyone got their retreat wrong; the smaller Greek contingents failed to stop where they were meant to, the Athenians refused to go where Pausanias ordered, and the Spartans ended up having to offer a rearguard on their own. The Persians awoke to see the Greeks in disarray and, possibly, in full retreat. 

 

At this news, Mardonius ordered his crack Persian troops to up arms and march towards the Spartans. The Persian cavalry began to assault the Spartans slowing their retreat and causing them to stop and defend in waves. This furthered weakened the Greek battle lines. All the while, the Persian infantry was moving forward to the fight. In due course the archers launched their barrage at the Spartans.

 

Pausanias, sensing the grave danger, ordered the Athenians to attend to his flank, but they were engaged by the Theban phalanx and unable to assist. They were fighting Greek against Greek. Due to the arrows, the Greeks had to decide what to do. Pausanias refused to march forward due to poor omens, but the Tegeans blinked first and started to run towards the Persians who were firing arrows at them. The line now breaking, Pausanias was forced to march his Spartans forward.

 

The Spartans on the right were able to fight as a phalanx. This shield wall bristled with the long spears whose heads were bronze-tipped. Their shields were covered in bronze and thus were vastly superior to the wooden shields of the Persians. The Persian spears, too, were shorter. The Spartans and Tegeans, although the battle was fierce, managed to carve their way through the Persian heavy infantry right through to Mardonius and his 1,000 man bodyguard. All of whom were destroyed. Mardonius was killed by Arimnestus, a Spartan, and, with their general now dead, panic set in throughout the Persian ranks and they began to flee. Most retreated to their fortification on the hill, where the Greeks attacked and, eventually, breached the wall and killed all within.

 

On the left, the Athenians eventually triumphed over the Thebans who also retreated. Their retreat took a different direction from the Persians thus their casualty list was smaller than the Persians who lost as much as 80% of their army (although, of course, it is difficult to assess casualties as the figures are so hotly disputed). Regardless, it is clear that the Persians lost many, many more men than the Greeks.

 

Herodotus suggests that the Greeks who fought for the Persians intentionally fought poorly. This is tough to imagine, in my opinion; they were facing fellow-Greeks intent on killing them, and if the Alliance won there would be punishment for the defectors. At any rate, the Allied forces were victorious on all fronts and chased the Persians out of Greece.

 

Artabazus, a commander under Mardonius, tried to retreat towards the Hellespont with his men as soon as it became clear the battle was lost. He eventually made it back to Asia but his own forces were reduced by harrying attacks, sickness, hunger, and fatigue. His forces were all that remained of Mardonius' great army.

 

Meanwhile, the Spartan admiral, King Leotychides, decided to supplement the effort of the ground forces by attacking the Persian navy who, fearing annihilation, retreated to Mycale where they beached and joined with another unit left by Xerxes. Not to be outdone by Pausanias or Leonidas, Leotychides decided to fight and took his marines, made a beachhead and fought the Persians there. Despite being heavily outnumbered (a recurring theme), the Greeks routed the Persians and set fire to their ships. This was a really bad day for Mardonius. 

 

Thus, the sea power was nullified and the Greek fleet was clearly superior. The Greek army was victorious and the Persians were in full flight. The Greeks had won despite the odds.

 

Implications

Immediately after the battle, the Greeks chased Artabazus but failed to catch him. They decided to burn the Hellespont only to arrive and find that it was already destroyed (probably by the Persians). Victory had been achieved and so, with that, the Spartans returned to their homeland victors and assured that the threat was nullified.

 

Athens, on the other hand, continued the fight and besieged the remaining Persians in the stronghold of Sestos where they eventually succeeded in fighting the Persian presence in Greek territory. This siege marked the beginning of the Greek counterattack that would reshape the political balance in Europe for millennia.

 

The Greeks, under Athenian leadership (specifically, because of the Athenian navy) created the Delian League which would continue to fight against pockets of Persian presence for the next thirty years. This would, in turn, lead to the Athenian Empire and would, eventually, lead to warfare between Athens and Sparta over who had hegemony in Greece. Athens continued the fight against Persia but this eventually brought her into conflict with other Greeks and, in turn, ultimately led to her own defeat.

 

The implications of Plataea are difficult to assess; without the other two battles it may not have been all too significant. Together, however, they formed a perfectly-arranged domino effect of defeat and fear. The Greeks exposed the inherent weaknesses of the doctrine of an empire. Too unwieldy for a quick response, too reliant upon compliant kingdoms, and too dependent upon victory, the Persians found that the cost of defeat ran deeper than merely the blood spilt on the battlefield. 

 

Further, the freedmen of Athens and the other Greeks who fought for their 'liberty' (as they understood it, of course) was always going to be more violent in comparison with the Persians who fought out of fear. Not to diminish fear as a motive; but when one is fighting to protect one's family, property, and inheritance, there is a ferocity that cannot be reproduced merely by desire. Liberty was a strong motivator for the Greeks and it proved a powerful one.

 

The military superiority of the Greeks (as a whole) cannot be undermined either. Although numerically outnumbered, the Greeks were vastly superior in terms of weaponry, tactics, zeal, and strategy. They had better armour and relied on their discipline and strength rather than the weapons of distance or shock troops, such as cavalry charges. This reliance upon proximity weapons meant that they were less likely to be impacted by cavalry for they would not allow themselves to be drawn into a battle where their weaknesses were exposed to such a charge. This mean that the numerical superiority of cavalry was, effectively, useless. It was lazy thinking from Mardonius that expected the Greeks to be so foolish.

 

They also employed the phalanx which revealed that importance of bronze weapons and shields, and also the benefit of the longer spear shaft. They were able to kill at a good foot's length longer than the Persians, and their shields were stronger. These little details were essential for the Greek victory.

 

Disunity, however, was also revealed. Sparta was not willing to risk themselves for Athens unless absolutely necessary. The Greeks were not a united front; they were fighting a common enemy but that didn't make them friends. They were each independent nations who had often been at war with one another. These tensions were exposed prior to Plataea. This was also seen in the treatment of the Thebans and other Greeks who had fought for the Persians. Mercy was not given.

 

In terms of the larger narrative, the entire campaign kept the Eastern Empires at bay from Europe. Rather than spreading the ideology of absolute monarchy, the Greeks maintained a level of independence that would shape Western Civilization for the next two thousand years.

 

The hoplite was seen to be the strongest unit in this era of warfare. This was solidified by this conflict and ensured Greek victory. This truth would lead the Greeks to turn the tide of the entire war against the Persians and instead move to attack the Persians, eventually resulting in Alexander's great war against the Eastern empires.

 

For us, today, the Battle of Thermopylae holds the highest eminence culturally, while Salamis is held as the most important battle in Western history, while the battles at Plataea and Mycale are largely forgotten. This reflects the Greek understanding also, but does suggest that the entire conflict is misunderstood.

 

Each battle cannot be taken on its own but must be seen as part of the entire war. Marathon was important because it revealed that the Greeks could win against the Persians and it rankled the Spartans that the Athenians received so much glory while they turned up late. Thermopylae showed the Greeks the necessity of tactics and strategy, but also proved that Sparta was willing to sacrifice for the Greeks to the extent that they would leave one of their kings on the field. Salamis saved the Greeks from immediate assault in the Peloponnese and damaged the Persian navy, leading Xerxes to leave with most of his army. Plataea and Mycale began the Greek expansion which would eventually spill into Asia, and lead to Alexander, whose legacy would inspire Caesar and the Romans.

 

The art, poetry, logic, rhetoric, language, religion, and architecture of the Greeks would influence us through the ages. They survived, and were able to grow, because of the freedom that these battle provided. In turn, we are the legacy of Themistocles, Leonidas, Pausanias, and the victors of these battles.

 

Without them, our world would be very different. There is no greater, nor more influential, series of conflicts than the Greco-Persian Wars.

 

If you have any comments or thoughts, let me know in the comments!