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Battle of Plataea (479 BCE)

View of the plain of Plataea, seen from Mount Cithaeron in the south. Photo Jona Lendering.
Plataea and the battlefield, seen from the south
Battle of Plataea (479 BCE): decisive battle in the Persian War in which the Greeks overcame the Persian invaders.

In 480, the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece. After victories at Thermopylae and Artemisium and a minor setback in the straits of Salamis, it seemed as if he would return to Greece to finish the job in the summer of 479. However, the Persian commander in Europe, Mardonius, had insufficient troops to overcome the Greek army that united at the Cithaeron mountain range and was commanded by Pausanias, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Map of the battle of Plataea. Design Jona Lendering.
On the plain north of Plataea, the decisive battle took place, and the Persians were defeated. Both sides feared to cross the river, which would break their array and make them vulnerable. Therefore, the Greeks first held the line of sources in the south, hoping to lure the Persians to the mountain feet, where their cavalry would be useful. When Mardonius did not swallow the bait, the Greeks advanced to the river, but were repelled by the Persian archers. When the Greeks retreated, the Persians believed they had already won the day, crossed the river, and were defeated by the superior phalanx of the Spartans. The Athenians captured the Persian camp.

Pausanias. Bust at the Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Pausanias (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

The main sources for the engagement is Herodotus' ninth book (Histories, 9.1-86), which is written from the perspective of the soldiers, who must have found the marching up and down very confusing. There is little attention to Pausanias' role, and the outcome is presented as a victory of Spartan stubbornness. Herodotus' battle of Plataea is very much a soldiers' battle.

In fact, some of the complex Greek maneuvers may have been intended by Pausanias to give the Persians the impression that their opponents were insecure, poorly-commanded, and afraid to fight. This might have lured the invaders across the river. The fact that Pausanias fell from grace shortly after this battle will have done little to do him justice - still, he was one of the few Greeks to defeat an imperial Persian army in open battle, and commander of the greatest Greek army the world had ever seen.

After their victory, the Greeks erected the Serpents' Column in Delphi. Constantine the Great brought this victory monument to the hippodrome of Constantinople, where it still stands. The column once carried a golden tripod with the inscription, that is dubiously attributed to the poet Simonides:

This is the gift the saviors of far-flung Hellas upraised here,
Having delivered their states from loathsome slavery's bonds.
[Diodorus, History, 11.33.2]

A satellite photo of the town can be found here and this is the battlefield.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 30 August 2008
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other