The Battle of Plataia
by Kurt L. Kuechler, Pieter Hartong, Michael O’Connell
Following the naval battle of Salamis in 480, where the Persians were defeated by the dominant Greek naval forces, Xerxes retreated with his navy and a large part of his army back to Persia, leaving behind his general Mardonius with nearly 70,000 troops. Having continued the sack of Athens after Xerxes’ withdrawal, Mardonius then marched his army up into southern Boiotia, where he made his base camp to the north of the west-to-east flowing Asopos River, on a level plain stretching towards the town of Thebes. There Mardonius awaited reinforcement from his fellow Persian Artabazos and his army which had been operating in northern Greece. It was now the spring of 479.
At this point a Greek army under the command of the Spartan Pausanias, also of approximately 70,000 men, advanced north by a main road which crosses the Kithairon mountain chain (south of, and parallel with the Asopos) by the pass of Gyphtokastro, about four miles to the east of the Boioitan town of Plataia. Mardonius then ordered his cavalry, led by Masistios, to intercept the Greeks as they emerged from the pass. Because of the rocky terrain, however, the Persian cavalry was not able to fight in an organized manner, and so withstand the strong frontal attacks of the Greek spearmen and archers. In fact, it was one of these archers who wounded the horse of Masistios, which inevitably led to his death and to the retreat of the Persian cavalry back to base camp.
Confident after his defeat of Masistios and the Persian cavalry, and also hoping to provoke Mardonius to attack in a decisive battle, Pausanias moved his army north-west to the Plain of Plataia, just north of the town of the same name, and south of the Asopos River. As a countermove, Mardonius advanced his infantry westward, and positioned it directly facing the Greek forces across the river. A twelve-day stalemate ensued as both the Greeks and the Persians decided to stay on the defensive. The Persian infantry, however, often harassed the Greeks by continually shooting arrows at those drawing water from the river, and the Greeks were forced to rely instead on a spring at Gargafia to their rear. On the twelfth day Mardonius, having learned of the Persian naval defeat in Ionia, decided to attack. Persian communications with their homeland were about to be cut, and immediate attack--and victory--were essential..
To strengthen the chances Persian victory, on the eighth day of the stalemate, Mardonius had sent his cavalry down along a tributary from the Asopos, to the opening of the Gyphtokastro Pass, in order to intercept the Greeks’ reinforcement supplies. Then on the twelfth day, when the infantry attacked on the river front, the cavalry, from the rear, attacked and drove off the Greeks defending the Gargaphia Spring, upon which they had depended as a source for water. Cut off now from their supply of water, the Greeks decided to withdraw during the following night to a new position near the town of Plataia. During the night the army became separated into three groups, the Spartans and Tegeans commanded by Pausanias on one flank, the center, and the Athenians on the other flank. The center moved on to the position at Plataia while the Spartans and Tegeans, after some delay, moved in that direction along the rocky base of the Kithairon ridge and the Athenians moved across the plain.
The Persian infantry was able to catch up with the Spartan and Tegean troops before they could link up with the other Greek forces. Approximately 3000 yards from the town of Plataia, the battle took place. Once again the Persian cavalry proved to be useless on the rocky terrain. The infantry, however, was able to hold off the Spartans and Tegeans with arrows and javelins until the Greeks charged and the heavier hoplites, charging down the slope at the base of the ridge, overwhelmed the more lightly armed Persians. Mardonius was killed in this battle along with many of his troops, and the remainder back to the base camp, north of the Asopos. The Greek center had earlier tried to join Pausanias' forces but had been intercepted by Theban cavalry -- the Thebans and their fellow Boiotians were now allied with Persia -- and were driven back to Kithairon with substantial loses. The Athenians, however, fought a separate battle with the Boiotians, who, after the loss of their best troops, withdrew to Thebes. The Athenians now joined the Spartans in attacking the Persian base camp, which they utterly destroyed. Surprisingly, the Greek losses totaled a mere 1,360. Some Persian infantry from the center of their line had managed to escape to the north under the command of Artabazos, as did the Persian cavalry, and would eventually have to be rooted out, but with the major loses at Plataia the Persian threat to Greece was effectively ended.