Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

PlatŠa's Famous Day

On a certain day, destined to be thereafter famous, two strong armies faced each other on the plain north of the little Bťotian town of PlatŠa. Greece had gathered the greatest army it had ever yet put into the field, in all numbering one hundred and ten thousand men, of whom nearly forty thousand were hoplites, or heavy-armed troops, the remainder light-armed or unarmed. Of these Sparta supplied five thousand hoplites and thirty-five thousand light-armed Helots, the greatest army that warlike city had ever brought into action. The remainder of Laconia furnished five thousand hoplites and five thousand Helot attendants. Athens sent eight thousand hoplites, and the remainder of the army came from various states of Greece. This host was in strange contrast to the few thousand warriors with whom Greece had met the vast array of Xerxes at ThermopylŠ.

Opposed to this force was the army which Xerxes had left behind him on his flight from Greece, three hundred thousand of his choicest troops, under the command of his trusted general Mardonius. This host was not a mob of armed men, like that which Xerxes had led. It embraced the best of the Persian forces and Greek auxiliaries, and the hopes of Greece still seemed but slight, thus outnumbered three to one. But the Greeks fought for liberty, and were inspired with the spirit of their recent victories; the Persians were disheartened and disunited: this difference of feeling went far to equalize the hosts.

And now, before bringing the waiting armies to battle, we must tell what led to their meeting on the PlatŠan plain. After the battle of Salamis a vote was taken by the chiefs to decide who among them should be awarded the prize of valor on that glorious day. Each cast two ballots, and when these were counted each chief was found to have cast his first vote for—himself! But the second votes were nearly all for Themistocles, and all Greece hailed him as its preserver. The Spartans crowned him with olive, and presented him with a kingly chariot, and when he left their city they escorted him with the honors due to royalty.

Meanwhile Mardonius, who was wintering with his army in Thessaly, sent to Athens to ask if its people still proposed the madness of opposing the power of Xerxes the king. "Yes," was the answer; "while the sun lights the sky we will never join in alliance with barbarians against Greeks."

On receiving this answer Mardonius broke up his winter camp and marched again to Athens, which he found once more empty of inhabitants. Its people had withdrawn as before to Salamis, and left the shell of their nation to the foe.

The Athenians sent for aid to Sparta, but the people of that city, learning that Athens had defied Mardonius, selfishly withheld their assistance, and the completion of the wall across the isthmus was diligently pushed. Fortunately for Greece, this selfish policy came to a sudden end. "What will your wall be worth if Athens joins with Persia and gives the foe the aid of her fleet?" was asked the Spartan kings; and so abruptly did they change their opinion that during that same night five thousand Spartan hoplites, each man with seven Helot attendants, marched for the isthmus, with Pausanias, a cousin of Leonidas, the hero of ThermopylŠ, at their head.

On learning of this movement, Mardonius set fire to what of Athens remained, and fell back on the city of Thebes, in Bťotia, as a more favorable field for the battle which now seemed sure to come. Here his numerous cavalry could be brought into play, the country was allied with him, the friendly city of Thebes lay behind him, and food for his great army was to be had. Here, then, he awaited the coming of the Greeks, and built for his army a fortified camp, surrounded with walls and towers of wood.

Yet his men and officers alike lacked heart. At a splendid banquet given to Mardonius by the Thebans, one of the Persians said to his Theban neighbor,—

"Seest thou these Persians here feasting, and the army which we left yonder encamped near the river? Yet a little while, and out of all these thou shalt behold but a few surviving."

"If you feel thus," said the Theban, "thou art surely bound to reveal it to Mardonius."

"My friend," answered the Persian, "man cannot avert what God has decreed. No one will believe the revelation, sure though it be. Many of us Persians know this well, and are here serving only under the bond of necessity. And truly this is the most hateful of all human sufferings, to be full of knowledge, and at the same time to have no power over any result."

Not long had the lukewarm Persians to wait for their foes. Soon the army of Greece appeared, and seeing their enemy encamped along the little river Asopus in the plain, took post on the mountain declivity above. Here they were not suffered to rest in peace. The powerful Persian cavalry, led by Masistius, the most distinguished officer in the army, broke like a thunderbolt on the Grecian ranks. The Athenians and Megarians met them, and a sharp and doubtful contest ensued. At length Masistius fell from his wounded horse and was slain as he lay on the ground. The Persians fought with fury to recover his body, but were finally driven back, leaving the corpse of their general in the hands of the Greeks.

This event had a great effect on both armies. Grief assailed the army of Mardonius at the loss of their favorite general. Loud wailings filled the camp, and the hair of men, horses, and cattle was cut in sign of mourning. The Greeks, on the contrary, were full of joy. The body of Masistius, a man of great stature, and clad in showy armor, was placed in a cart and paraded around the camp, that all might see it and rejoice. Such was their confidence at this defeat of the cavalry, which they had sorely feared, that Pausanias broke up his hill camp and marched into the plain below, where he took station in front of the Persian host, only the little stream of the Asopus dividing the two hostile armies.

And here for days they lay, both sides offering sacrifices, and both obtaining the same oracle,—that the side which attacked would lose the battle, the side which resisted would win. Under such circumstances neither side cared to attack, and for ten days the armies lay, the Greeks much annoyed by the Persian cavalry, and having their convoys of provisions cut off, yet still waiting with unyielding faith in the decision of the gods.

Mardonius at length grew impatient. He asked his officers if they knew of any prophecy saying that the Persians would be destroyed in Greece. They were all silent, though many of them knew of such prophecies.

"Since you either do not know or will not tell," he at length said, "I well know of one. There is an oracle which declares that Persian invaders shall plunder the temple of Delphi, and shall afterwards all be destroyed. Now we shall not go against that temple, so on that ground we shall not be destroyed. Doubt not, then, but rejoice, for we shall get the better of the Greeks." And he gave orders to prepare for battle on the morrow, without waiting longer on the sacrifices.

That night Alexander of Macedon, who was in the Persian army, rode up to the Greek outposts and gave warning of the coming attack. "I am of Greek descent," he said, "and ask you to free me from the Persian yoke. I cannot endure to see Greece enslaved."

During the night Pausanias withdrew his army to a new position in front of the town of PlatŠa, water being wanting where they were. One Spartan leader, indeed, refused to move, and when told that there had been a general vote of the officers, he picked up a huge stone and cast it at the feet of Pausanias, crying, "This is my pebble. With it I give my vote not to run away from the strangers."

Dawn was at hand, and the Spartans still held their ground, their leader disputing in vain with the obstinate captain. At length he gave the order to march, it being fatal to stay, since the rest of the army had gone. Amompharetus, the obstinate captain, seeing that his general had really gone, now lost his scruples and followed.

When day dawned the Persians saw with surprise that their foes had disappeared. The Spartans alone, detained by the obstinacy of Amompharetus, were still in sight. Filled with extravagant confidence at this seeming flight, Mardonius gave orders for hasty pursuit, crying to a Greek ally, "There go your boasted Spartans, showing, by a barefaced flight, what they are really worth."

Crossing the shallow stream, the Persians ran after the Greeks at full speed, without a thought of order or discipline. The foe seemed to them in full retreat, and shouts of victory rang from their lips as they rushed pell-mell across the plain.

The Spartans were quickly overtaken, and found themselves hotly assailed. They sent in haste to the Athenians for aid. The Athenians rushed forward, but soon found themselves confronted by the Greek allies of Persia, and with enough to do to defend themselves. The remainder of the Greek army had retreated to PlatŠa and took no part in the battle.

The Persians, thrusting the spiked extremities of their long shields in the ground, formed a breast-work from which they poured showers of arrows on the Spartan ranks, by which many were wounded or slain. Yet, despite their distress, Pausanias would not give the order to charge. He was at the old work again, offering sacrifices while his men fell around him. The responses were unfavorable, and he would not fight.

At length the victims showed favorable signs. "Charge!" was the word. With the fury of unchained lions the impatient hoplites sprang forward, and like an avalanche the serried Spartan line fell on the foe.

Down went the breastwork of shields. Down went hundreds of Persians before the close array and the long spears of the Spartans. Broken and disordered, the Persians fought bravely, doing their utmost to get to close quarters with their foes. Mardonius, mounted on a white horse, and attended by a body-guard of a thousand select troops, was among the foremost warriors, and his followers distinguished themselves by their courage.

At length the spear of Aeimnestus, a distinguished Spartan, brought Mardonius dead to the ground. His guards fell in multitudes around his body. The other Persians, worn out with the hopeless effort to break the Spartan phalanx, and losing heart at the death of their general, turned and fled to their fortified camp. At the same time the Theban allies of Persia, whom the Athenians had been fighting, gave ground, and began a retreat, which was not ended till they reached the walls of Thebes.

On rushed the victorious Spartans to the Persian camp, which they at once assailed. Here they had no success till the Athenians came to their aid, when the walls were stormed and the defenders slain in such hosts that, if we can believe Herodotus, only three thousand out of the three hundred thousand of the army of Mardonius remained alive. It is true that one body of forty thousand men, under Artabazus, had been too late on the field to take part in the fight. The Persians were already defeated when these troops came in sight, and they turned and marched away for the Hellespont, leaving the defeated host to shift for itself. Of the Greeks, Plutarch tells us that the total loss in the battle was thirteen hundred and sixty men.

The spoil found in the Persian camp was rich and varied. It included money and ornaments of gold and silver, carpets, splendid arms and clothing, horses, camels, and other valuable materials. This was divided among the victors, a tenth of the golden spoil being reserved for the Delphian shrine, and wrought into a golden tripod, which was placed on a column formed of three twisted bronze serpents. This defeat was the salvation of Greece. No Persian army ever again set foot on European soil. And, by a striking coincidence, on the same day that the battle of PlatŠa was fought, the Grecian fleet won a brilliant victory at Mycale, in Asia Minor, and freed the Ionian cities from Persian rule. In Greece, Thebes was punished for aiding the Persians. Byzantium (now Constantinople) was captured by Pausanias, and the great cables of the bridge of Xerxes were brought home in triumph by the Greeks.

We have but one more incident to tell. The war tent of Xerxes had been left to Mardonius, and on taking the Persian camp Pausanias saw it with its colored hangings and its gold and silver adornments, and gave orders to the cooks that they should prepare him such a feast as they were used to do for their lord. On seeing the splendid banquet, he ordered that a Spartan supper should be prepared. With a hearty laugh at the contrast he said to the Greek leaders, for whom he had sent, "Behold, O Greeks, the folly of this Median captain, who, when he enjoyed such fare as this, must needs come here to rob us of our penury."