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The Battle of Plataea

Everyone knows the inspiring and glorious story of the Spartans’ heroic last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. King Leonidas with his 300 courageous Spartans and their allies held off the invading million man army of the Persian Empire for three long days causing horrific damage in both casualties and morale to King Xerxes’ men. “Remember Thermopylae!” would be the Greeks’ rally cry for freedom and the Spartans thirst for revenge would not go unquenched for long.

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At the same time as Thermopylae off the coast protecting the Spartan flank, the allied Greek fleet, though heavily outnumbered held it’s own in the sea battle of Artemision, bloodying the huge Persian navy.

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Upon hearing that the pass at Thermopylae had finally fallen the Athenian admiral Themistokles had the Greek ships sail for Athens to evacuate the citizens there and prepare for one more final confrontation at sea.

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With the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae breached the gateway to Greece was now wide open for Xerxes’ massive army to sweep down and destroy everything in it’s path, burning crops and villages and sacking entire cities including Athens. Led by Themistokles and the Spartan admiral Eurybiades the allied Greek war fleet destroyed the Persian navy in the great sea Battle of Salamis.

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With his Royal Navy severely damaged but his Imperial Army still undefeated King Xerxes headed back to Persia with a large contingent of troops leaving the bulk of his forces behind to finish the conquest of Greece. Leading the army was his best general, Mardonios. Mardonios, a hard-line, hawkish soldier and King Xerxes’ cousin was not only a great strategist but a skilled diplomat as well. His initial attempt to break apart the alliance between Sparta & Athens through bribery, gold & promises of kingdoms thus dissolving Greek unity failed and he was forced to abandon Athens and march north to spend the winter in Thessaly. The stage was being set to decide the fate of Greece and ultimately all of Western European freedom.

The Spartans appointed Pausanias, a nephew of King Leonidas as regent for his young son Pleistarchos who was too young to command an army. A brilliant military commander, Pausanias marched north from Sparta with 5,000 full Spartan warriors and thousands more perioikoi and helots as well as thousands of other Peloponnesian hoplites in what was the largest Spartan force ever fielded.

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Meanwhile Sparta’s other half of the dual monarchy King Leotychides took command of the Hellenic fleet and sailed across the Aegean Sea pursuing after the fleeing Persian ships limping into Mykale.

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Aristeides, the commander of the Athenian contingent also marched north with thousands of Athenian hoplites. By August 479 B.C., one year after the Battle of Thermopylae almost 40,000 allied free Greeks inspired by the bravery and sacrifice of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans, met on the plains of Boiotia near the tiny city of Plataea to fight for their freedom. Facing them according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus were over 300,000 soldiers of the Persian Empire determined to conquer the insolent Greeks once and for all. To strengthen their resolve every Warrior of Greece took the following solemn vow known as the Oath of Plataea:

“I will fight to the death and not count my life more precious than freedom. I shall not dishonor these sacred weapons, nor leave the man stationed beside me in the battle line either dead or alive. I shall follow the orders of those above me and I will never withdraw unless my commanders lead me back. I will defend and not hand over my country. I will bury the dead of those who have fought beside me as allies on the field and will not leave one of them unburied. I will honor the ancestral cults and if I keep well this oath may my city have good fortune always. My witnesses to this oath I swear upon my life are the gods Ares, Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Herakles and the boundaries of my homeland.”

The Greek army took a strong position on the northern slopes of Mt. Kithairon facing the Persians who established a well fortified camp across the river Asopos on the open plains which was more suited to their cavalry. For a week the Spartan Commander Pausanias and the Persian leader Mardonios faced each other like two boxers waiting for the other to attack. Each side had received omens from the gods telling them, “If you attack you lose, if you defend you win.” They each also had other reasons for waiting. Pausanias as usual was heavily outnumbered and waiting for more reinforcements while Mardonios was concerned about his diminishing supplies for his huge army. The Persian navy could no longer resupply them because they were being blockaded at Mykale by the Greek fleet. Mardonios had his cavalry continue to prod and probe the Greek lines trying to lure them out into the open field for battle with curses, insults, javelins and arrows.

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The Greeks were taking some casualties from the Persian bowmen but led by Spartan discipline they held firm and did not fall into the trap. The Persian cavalry also disrupted Greek supply lines and managed to foul the well which was the Greek’s main source of drinking water. Arrogant and impatient, Mardonios finally ordered his cavalry to attack the Greeks in force. Led by the distinguished Persian officer Masistus riding a splendid stallion with a bridle of gold the cavalry attacked in successive squadrons inflicting some losses on the Greeks.

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In response Pausanias called up a contingent of archers and as the Persian cavalry commander led another charge his horse was struck by a Greek arrow, reared up and threw the Persian nobleman off.

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The Greeks swarmed out killing Masistus on the ground. There was a terrific fight over the body as the Persians tried furiously to retrieve it for it was a grave disgrace to lose the body of a commander in battle. At this point Pausanias led a group of charging Spartan hoplites out to face down the attacking cavalry.

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Confronted by this heavily armored bronze wall of interlocking shields and bristling hedge of razor sharp spears the Persians called off the attack and withdrew, leaving the body of their commander behind.

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The wails of grief in the Persian camp over the loss of such a high-ranking officer, second in popularity only to Mardonios himself, could be heard throughout the plains causing great distress. Now with his own food and water running low due to the constant harassment of his supply lines by the Persian cavalry, Pausanias held a war council at his headquarters where it was decided to withdraw the troops at night and move closer to the city of Plataia where there were ample supplies of food & water. A Spartan regimental commander named Amompharetos absolutely refused to retreat in the face of the enemy considering it a disgrace to Spartan honor. The Greeks used to vote using small pebbles as their ballots and legend has it that Amompharetos picked up a huge rock with both hands and threw it down at Pausanias’ feet shouting, “There is my vote against fleeing before the enemy!”

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His unwavering obedience to Spartan law threatened the division of the Greek forces and was costing precious time. Pausanias’ kinsman Euryanax and other Spartan commanders finally convinced him that it wasn’t a retreat but a movement to another position so Amompharetos agreed to be the rearguard during this night maneuver. Due to this delay, when morning came parts of the army were further back than others and the Persian scouts informed Mardonios that the Greeks were leaving in disorder. The seemingly untidy retreat encouraged Mardonios to order a full attack of all infantry and cavalry hoping to engage the Greeks before they could properly form up for battle. The Spartans were the closest to the Persian lines and thus bore the brunt of the main force on their own. Being so outnumbered the odds were against them but the Spartans were better trained and equipped for close quarter fighting than their Persian adversaries and they excelled in disciplined fighting as a cohesive unit.

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This was what the scarlet and bronze clad warriors of Sparta were bred from youth for. As Plutarch put it, “Suddenly there came over the whole phalanx the look of some ferocious beast, as it wheels at bay, stiffens its bristles and turns to defend itself, so that the barbarians could no longer doubt that they were faced with men who would fight to the death.”

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The Persians now knew what it was like to face the most formidable warriors in the world. Just like at Thermopylae, after luring in the recklessly charging Persians the Spartans wheeled around in precise unison at the last possible moment and formed up in their invincible phalanx—and the slaughter began.

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After vicious combat the Spartans forced the enemy back and according to Herodotus, “slew Mardonios, conspicuous on his white charger surrounded by his thousand Persian troops, the flower of the army.” Mardonios was killed by a distinguished Spartiate named Arimnestus not with a spear or sword but with a stone which crushed his skull.

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As news spread of Mardonios’ death, panic set in amongst the Persians and they fled back to the sanctuary of their camp, protected by a strong stockade. The Spartans gave chase followed by the Athenians and the rest of the Greeks who stormed the Persian defenses capturing and killing many in a total rout that was a complete and crushing victory for the Greeks.

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Combined with the destruction of the remnants of the Persian navy at Mykale by the Spartan King Leotychides and the Greek fleet, the threat of Persian domination was at last eliminated. With the Persians defeated and King Leonidas’ death avenged Spartan vengeance was almost complete.

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After Thermopylae the Spartans put a price on the head of the traitor Ephialtes. He fled north to Thessaly in fear for his life and was eventually killed by another man from Trachis in a private quarrel. The Spartans nevertheless paid his killer the bounty anyway. Greece was free, the Persians were defeated, King Leonidas was avenged and Spartan vengeance was complete.

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