Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the Battle of Plataea

The Spartans pitched their camp at the Isthmus, whither came the other men of the Peloponnese also, so many as followed the good cause, not being willing to be left behind when the Spartans went forth to the war. And from the Isthmus they marched to Eleusis. Here the Athenians, having crossed over from Salamis came up with him. When they saw that the barbarians were encamped on the Asopus, they ranged themselves over against them on the slope of Mount Cithæron. Here Mardonius sent his cavalry under Masistius their captain to attack them. This Masistius was in great repute among the Persians, and he rode on a horse of Nisa, that had a bit of gold, and was otherwise richly adorned. The horsemen charged the Greeks by squadrons, and did them much damage.

Now it so chanced that the men of Megara had been set in the place where the cavalry could most easily approach; and these, as they received much damage, sent a message to Pausanias, saying, "Send over and help us, for without help we can not hold our place." Then Pausanias inquired whether any would take the place of the men of Megara, but none were willing, save the Athenians only. Of these, three hundred chosen men, having with them the archers, took the place of the men of Megara. And after a while, the barbarians still charging by squadrons it chanced that an arrow struck the horse of Masistius on the flank, he being a long way in front of the others. And the horse reared by reason of the pain and threw off its rider; which when the Athenians saw, they ran forward and slew Masistius where he lay. For a while they could not kill him, for he had a breast-plate of scales of gold and a tunic of scarlet over it, and this could not be broken through by any blows; which when one of the soldiers perceived he drave his weapon into the man's eye and so slew him. When the Persians saw that he was dead they charged with their whole force, seeking to get back his dead body, and the Athenians, on the other hand, called to their comrades to help them. So the battle waxed hot; and while the three hundred were alone they could not hold their ground; but the others coming up, the Persians turned their backs, and, being now without a leader, returned to the camp.

Mardonius and the Persians made a great lamentation over Masistius, cutting the hair from their heads, and the manes from their horses and beasts of burden, and making all Bœotia resound with their crying, for they had lost a man whom the army honored next after Mardonius himself. But the Greeks put the dead body in a cart, and caused it to be carried through the army, and indeed it was worthy to be looked at, both for beauty and for stature. The cause why it was thus carried was that the men would leave their ranks to look at it.

After this it seemed good to the Greeks to leave their place on the slopes of Cithæron and to come down to the territory of the Platæans. Here they set themselves in array, nation by nation, nigh to the fountain of Gargaphia and the precincts of the hero Andocrates, and they stood partly on certain small hillocks and partly on the plain.

But while the army was being set in array there arose a very sharp contention between the Athenians and the men of Tegea, who should be set on the left wing. The men of Tegea affirmed that this place had always been theirs of right, saying, "When first the sons of Hercules came back to the Peloponnese we, with others that then dwelt therein, went forth to meet them. Then Hyllus the son of Hercules said, 'There is no need to put these two armies in peril. Let the men of the Peloponnese choose a champion that he may fight with me.' And an agreement was made, 'If Hyllus slay the champion of the Peloponnesians, the children of Hercules shall return to their inheritance; but if the champion of the Peloponnesians slay Hyllus, then will the children of Hercules swear an oath that they will not again seek to return for the space of a hundred years.' Then Echemus, that was King of Tegea, offered himself for champion, and slew Hyllus in battle. For this cause we have always had our place in one of the wings when the men of the Peloponnese go forth to battle."

To this the Athenians made answer, "We are come hither not to make speeches but to fight against the barbarians. But as the men of Tegea will have a comparison of deeds we must of necessity set forth our claims. To the children of Hercules, whose leader they affirm themselves to have slain, we alone of all the Greeks gave shelter; and when the Thebans would not give up for burial the bodies of the Argives that had been slain in the siege of their city, we took them and buried them at Eleusis, and we fought against the Amazons, and in the war of Troy were not one whit behind any. But why should we speak of ancient things? Surely for what we did at Marathon, when we, alone of all the Greeks, fought against the Persians, and conquered them, putting to flight forty and six nations, we are worthy to have this honor, yea, and many other honors also. Nevertheless—for at such a time it is not fitting to dispute about places—we are ready to do as ye command, ye men of Sparta, and take our place wheresoever ye will, and there quit ourselves like men."

Then all the Spartans cried out with one voice that the Athenians were the more worthy to have the place.

The whole number of the Greeks was of heavy-armed men thirty-eight thousand and seven thousand, and of light-armed sixty and nine thousand.

Mardonius also set his battle in array. Over against the Spartans he set the Persians; and since these far excelled the Spartans in number he drew them up with their ranks deeper than common, and also so ordered it that they stood opposite to the men of Tegea; only the best of them he set to deal with the Spartans. Next to the Persians he set the Medes, and next to the Medes the Bactrians. These stood over against the other dwellers in the Peloponnese. But against the Athenians he set such of the Greeks and Macedonians as had joined themselves to him.

Both armies being now ready for battle, the soothsayers offered sacrifice. The Spartans had with them one Tisamenus, a man of Elis. To this Tisamenus, inquiring about his childlessness, there was given an oracle that he should be the winner in five very great contests. This he understood of the contests of the games. But when he had exercised himself for the fivefold contests at Olympia but had failed, being vanquished in wrestling by a man of Andros, the Spartans perceived that the oracle spake not of contests in sport but of contests in battle. Then they sought to hire the man that he might go with them to battle. But he said, "Give me the citizenship of your city." This they could not endure, but when the fear of the Persians hung over them they sent to him again. And Tisamenus, perceiving that they were changed, said, "Ye must give the citizenship not to me only but to my brother also." To them only have the Spartans given their citizenship. So Tisamenus offered sacrifice, and the signs were for good luck if the Greeks staid in their place, but for bad if they crossed the Asopus.



To Mardonius also were given the same signs when he sacrificed before the battle. For he too had a soothsayer, who divined after the Greek manner, a certain Hegistratus of Elis. This man had been taken by the Spartans and condemned to die, but set himself free in a marvelous way. The Spartans had set him with one foot in the stocks, these being of wood, but bound with iron. But some one giving him a tool of iron, he cut off with his own hand so much of his foot that he could draw that which was left through the hole. And after making his way through the woods, for he was watched by watchmen, he escaped to Tegea, traveling by night and hiding himself in the woods by day. And though the whole people of the Spartans sought for him he came safe on the third night to Tegea; for Tegea was in those days at enmity with Sparta. And now he served Mardonius right willingly, partly for gain, and partly for hatred of the Spartans.

And for eight days the two armies sat over against each other doing nothing, save that the horsemen of the Persians laid hands on a convoy of five hundred beasts that brought food from the Peloponnese to the Greeks.

Again they sat quiet for two days. On the eleventh day the Persians held a council. Then Artabazus, a man held in high esteem among the Persians, said, "Let us break up our camp, and bring our army to Thebes, where is a fenced city, and food in plenty for ourselves and our beasts. And when we are there, seeing we have gold, coined and uncoined, in abundance, and silver, and cups, let us take of these without stinting and send gifts to the Greeks, especially to them that bear rule in the cities. Speedily will they give up their freedom."

But Mardonius, being of a contrary opinion, was very fierce and obstinate, saying, "We are much stronger than they. Therefore let us fight as speedily as may be. As for the signs of the soothsayer we will not heed them, but will give battle as the Persians are wont to do." And the opinion of Mardonius prevailed, for it was he that was captain of the host.

That night came Alexander of Macedon to the camp of the Greeks and desired to speak with the generals. Then ran some of the guards and said, "Here is come a horseman from the camp of the Persians, who would speak with the generals, naming them by name." And when these had gone to the outposts they found Alexander, who said to them "Men of Athens, tell to no man, save to Pausanias only, what I shall say unto you. For surely I had not come but that I had a great love for Greece; and indeed I am a Greek by descent, but would fain see this land free rather than enslaved. Hear, therefore. Mardonius can not get the signs as he would have them; else he would have given battle long since. But now he is minded not to heed the signs any more but to fight. Be ye not then taken unawares, but make ready to receive him. But if he still delay, then abide in your place, for he can not long hold out, having but a few days' provision. And if the end of this war be as ye would have it, remember me and the kindness I have done you. I am Alexander the Macedonian." When he had so spoken he rode back to his own people.

After this Pausanias said to the Athenians, "It would be well that you should deal with the Persians, of whom ye have had experience, having prevailed over them at Marathon, and we with the Bœotians and the other Greeks. For we know nothing of the Persians and of their manner of fighting, but the Greeks we know well. Let us therefore go to our place in the line, and ye shall come to yours."

The Athenians answered, "We had this very thing in our minds, and would have spoken ourselves, but that we doubted whether it would please you. But now let it be done."

So Pausanius, it being now morning, began to lead his men to the left wing. But the Thebans perceiving it, told it to Mardonius, who changed his order also, which, when Pausanius saw, he led the Spartans back and stood as before. Then Mardonius sent a herald to the Spartans, saying, "Ye said that ye are braver than other men, never leaving your place, but remaining till ye slay your enemies or are yourselves slain. But this we now see to be false; for ye leave your place before ever the battle is joined. But come now. Will ye fight with an equal number of Persians, ye for the Greeks and they for the King?" When the herald had waited a while, and no man answered him a word, he departed.



Then Mardonius, being greatly puffed up by this victory of words, commanded his horsemen that they should charge the Greeks, This they did, doing much damage with the throwing of javelins and the shooting of arrows, for they used the bow while they rode, so that the Greeks could not deal with them hand to hand. Also they choked the fountain of Gargaphia, from which all the Greeks drew water. The Spartans only had their place near to the fountain, but all the Greeks used it, for the horsemen and the archers of the barbarians kept them from the river. Then the captains held a council; and it seemed good to them, if the Persians should not fight that day, to change the place of their camp to the Island. This is before the city of Platæa, and men call it the Island because a certain river, coming down from Mount Cithæron, divides here into two streams which flow for a space three furlongs apart, and after join together again. So all that day they stood in their place, suffering grievously from the horsemen of the barbarians, and when it was night they began to change their place. And when the greater part of the Greeks had departed—but they went not to the Island, but fled straight to Platæa, and encamped by the temple of Here, which is before the city—Pausanias commanded the Spartans that they also should depart. The rest of the captains were willing to obey, but one Amompharetus, that led the men of Pitana, would not move, saying, "I will not fly from the strangers, nor bring disgrace upon Sparta." Pausanius took it very ill that the man should not obey his command, yet he would not leave him and his company alone, lest they should be destroyed. For this cause he kept the Spartans and their army in its place, and sought to persuade Amompharetus. And when the Athenians saw that the rest of the Greeks had departed, but that the Spartans remained, knowing that it was their custom to think one thing and say another, they sent a horseman to inquire whether they were minded to go or to remain. When the horseman came he found them in the very heat of the dispute, for Amompharetus took up a very great stone with both his hands and laid it at the feet of Pausanias, saying, "With this pebble I vote not to fly from the strangers" (for the Greeks give their votes with pebbles), and Pausanias affirmed that he was a fool and mad. And turning himself to the Athenian horseman, he said, "Ye see how things are with us; go and tell this to your captains." So the men departed; but the Spartans ceased not to dispute till the day began to dawn. And then Pausanias gave the signal to depart, expecting that Amompharetus, when he found that they had departed, would also leave his place and follow them. And in this he judged rightly, for the man, thinking that he had been in truth forsaken, commanded his men that they should take their arms and follow the rest of the army. This they did, and came up with them in the space of ten furlongs, near to the temple of Demeter of Eleusis; for the army had waited for them there. The Athenians also left their place, but these marched all along the plain, while the Spartans kept to the hill for fear of the horsemen of the Persians.

When Mardonius heard that the Greeks had departed in the night, and beheld their place that it was empty, he called the sons of Aleuas, and said to them, "What say ye now, seeing this place is empty? Ye would have it that the Spartans fled from no man; yet ye saw before how they would have left their station, and now in this night now passed they have fled altogether. You indeed I can excuse, for ye know nothing of the Persians; but I marvel at Artabanus that he feared these men, and would have had us follow a coward's counsel, even to break up our camp, and to suffer ourselves to be besieged in the city of Thebes. Verily the King shall hear of this matter. And indeed we must not suffer them to do as they would, but must pursue after them till we overtake them, and exact punishment for all the wrong that they have done."

When he had thus spoken he led the Persians across the Asopus, and followed the Spartans at full speed, as if they were verily flying from him; the Athenians he saw not, for they were hidden from him by the hills. And the other barbarians, when they saw the Persians moving, took up their standards and came after them, as quickly as they could, without any order, as though they would have swallowed up the Greeks.

When Pausanais saw that the horsemen of the Persians were pressing him hard, he sent a messenger to the Athenians, saying, "Now that the hour is come when we must fight for Greece, whether she shall be enslaved or free, we and you, men of Athens, are all alone, for our allies have fled. We must therefore help the one the other as best we may. If these horsemen had fallen on you, then had we and the men of Tegea—for they are faithful to Greece—have helped you; and now must ye help us; and because we know that ye have been more zealous than any other nation in this present war, we ask you with the more confidence."

When the Athenians heard these words they made ready to go to the help of the Spartans; but the Greeks that fought for the King fell on them and hindered them. The Spartans therefore being left alone, made ready to fight against Mardonius and the Persians. But for a while the signs did not favor them, and while they tarried many fell, and many more were wounded, for the Persians had made a rampart of wicker shields and shot their arrows from behind it, troubling the Spartans grievously. But still the signs were evil, till Pausanias, lifting up his eyes to the temple of Here of Platæa, cried aloud, "O goddess, disappoint not the hopes of the Greeks." And as he prayed, the men of Tegea ran forward, and the Spartans—for at last the signs favored them—advanced also. The Persians left shooting and came to meet them. First there was fighting at the rampart of the wicker shields; and when this was broken down a very fierce battle by the temple of Demeter, wherein they fought against each other hand to hand. Many a time did the barbarians lay hold of the spears of the Greeks, seeking to break them; for in courage and strength the Persians were not one whit behind the Greeks, only they, had not armor of defense, and were unused to battle, nor any match for their enemies in skill; but running forward, now one by one, and now in companies of ten, or, it might be, of more or less, threw themselves upon the Spartans, and so perished. Where Mardonius himself fought, riding on a white horse, having about him the thousand who were the bravest of all the Persians, the Greeks were hardest pressed. So long indeed as Mardonius lived his men held out, and smote down not a few of the Spartans; but when he had fallen and his companions with him, the rest of the Persians fled before the Greeks, for their equipment, being without armor, was a grievous hindrance to them. And indeed they were light-armed men, fighting with heavy-armed.

Thus did Mardonius and his host pay due penalty for the death of Leonidas, and Pausanias won a victory more glorious than any man had ever won before. As for Mardonius himself, he was slain by one Aeimnestus, that perished afterward, he and three hundred Spartans with him, fighting against the whole host of the Messenians.

The Persians, being now put to flight by the Spartans, fled without any order to their camp, to the defense of trees which they had made. As to the precinct of Demeter, though many fell round about it, none fell within it, or so much as entered it, the goddess, it is to be supposed—if it is lawful to suppose any thing about the Gods—herself keeping them from it, because they had burned her dwelling at Eleusis.

Artabazus having sought to hinder Mardonius from giving battle, when he found that he could not prevail, took counsel for his own safety. He commanded his men, of whom he had forty thousand, to follow at such speed as they should perceive him to use. Then he made as if he would have joined the battle, but seeing the Persians already in fight, he turned round and made with all speed for the Hellespont.

As for the Greeks that fought for the King, they all played the coward of set purpose, saving the Bœotians. These fought very fiercely with the Athenians, so that three hundred of them were slain.

Of the rest of the barbarians some stood against the Greeks, but fled so soon as they saw the Persians giving way. Nevertheless the horsemen, both Persian and Theban, did good service, coming between them that fled and the Greeks.

As for the rest of the Greeks, none did good service save the Spartans, and the Athenians, and the men of Tegea only. For when they heard that Pausanias prevailed, they hastened from Platæa with great haste and without order, which a captain of the Theban horsemen perceiving, he charged the men of Megara and of Phlius, that were marching along the plain, and slew six hundred of them, and drave the rest to Mount Cithæron. So these men perished without honor.

The men of Mantinea and of Elis came when the battle was now finished, greatly lamenting that they were late. These, when they had returned to their cities, banished their captains.

For none of the Greeks fought in this battle of Platæa save the Spartans and the Athenians and the men of Tegea only.

Now the Persians that had fled to the camp were able to climb into the towers before the Spartans came up; and being there, they held the wall as best they could. And indeed before the coming of the Athenians the barbarians kept back the Spartans,who are but little skilled in fighting against fortified places. But after the coming of the Athenians the wall was attacked yet more fiercely than before. These after a while prevailed, climbing to the top of the wall, and making a breach, so that the Greeks could enter in. And of all the Greeks the first to enter were the men of Tegea. These spoiled the tent of Mardonius, taking therefrom the mangers of brass from which his horses had eaten. And so the barbarians held out no longer, but were slaughtered as sheep, so that of the whole host there were left three thousand only. But Artabazus had taken with him forty thousand. Of the Spartans there perished ninety and one; of the men of Tegea sixteen; of the Athenians fifty and two.

Of the barbarians the bravest were the Persians among the foot soldiers, and the Sacæ among the horsemen; but of all Mardonius fought the best. Among the Greeks the Spartans excelled, and among the Spartans Aristodemus, that had come back from Thermopylæ, and Posidonius and Philocyon and Amompharetus. But of Aristodemus the Spartans said that he had manifestly sought for death by reason of his disgrace, and they paid no honor to him; but to the others that had not desired to die they paid honor.

As for Callicrates, that was the goodliest man not among the Spartans only, but among all the Greeks, he was slain, but not in the battle. For while Pausanias was sacrificing, and he sat in his place in the ranks, an arrow smote him in the side. Therefore, when his comrades went forward to the battle, men carried him out of the battle, being very loth to die, for he said to a Platæan that stood by, "It does not trouble me that I die for Greece, but that I die without putting my hand to the fight, or doing such worthy deeds as I had desired." Of the Athenians the bravest was Sophanes of Decelea, of whom they say that he had an anchor fastened to his belt by a chain of brass; and that when he came near to the enemy, he threw out his anchor so that he might not be able to be driven from his post; and that when the enemy fled, he took up his anchor and pursued. But others say he had the device of an anchor on his shield.

Of Pausanias they tell this story, that coming into the camp of the Persians, he found the war-tent of Xerxes, for Xerxes had left it with Mardonius. And when he saw it with its furniture of gold and silver, and adorned with hangings of divers colors, he commanded the bakers and the cooks that they should prepare a feast as they were wont to do for Mardonius. And when he saw the couches of gold and silver with their dainty coverlets, and tables of gold and silver, and all the furniture of the feast very rich, he was astonished; and for mirth's sake bade his servants prepare a dinner in the Spartan fashion. When they had so done, Pausanias laughed, seeing how great was the difference between them; and, sending for the other captains of the Greeks, he said to them, "I have brought you here that I may show you the folly of these Persians, who, having such fare as this, came to rob us of our poverty."