Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE BATTLE OF PLATAEA
 MARDONIUS stayed with his troops in Thessaly during the winter months.
But in the spring of 479 B.C. he determined to win Athens
from the league which she had formed with the other Greek
states, or if he failed to do this, to drive the citizens
once again away from their city and occupy it himself.
So he sent an ambassador to the Athenians to offer, in the
name of Xerxes, not only to repair all the harm that the
Persians had done to Athens and to the country round about
the city, but to give them new lands and to treat them as
independent allies, if they would make a treaty with the
The Spartans were afraid that the Athenians would accept so
generous an offer, and they knew that alone they could not
hope to conquer the large Persian army which Mardonius
commanded. So they sent to the Athenians to beg them to be
true to the league, promising that if they were so, Spartan
soldiers would be sent to help them against the attacks of
But the Athenians did not need to be entreated to refuse the
offer of the great king, for they loved their city and their
"Tell Mardonius," they said to the ambassador whom the
Persian general had sent, "so long as the sun moves in his
present course we will never come to terms with Xerxes."
After receiving this defiant message, Mardonius marched with
his army against Athens. The Spartans, in spite of
promises, sent no troops to defend the city, and the
Athenians were forced once again to take refuge at Salamis.
Then they reproached the Spartans, and in bitter anger they
declared that if an army was not sent at once to Attica to
attack Mardonius, they would be forced to make an alliance
with the enemy.
Again the Spartans grew alarmed for their own safety.
Without further delay they sent a force of five thousand
citizens, each attended by seven helots. Other troops soon
followed, and all were under the command of Pausanias, who
was a relation of Leonidas, the hero of Thermopylae.
The Persians had reached the province of Boeotia and were
encamped on the plain of Plataea, while the Athenians and
the Spartans set up their camp on a hill above the enemy.
Masistius, the favourite and most famous officer of the
Persians, led his cavalry against the cavalry of the enemy
and soon a fierce conflict was raging. Only after their
leader fell wounded from his horse and was slain, were the
Persians repulsed. The armour of Masistius could not be
pierced by any weapon, but a spear which was thrust into his
eye caused his death. In vain the soldiers tried to recover
the body of their general, again and again they were driven
"Then there was a great mourning throughout the army of the
Persians, for all lamented for Masistius, shaving themselves
and their horses, and their beasts of burden. And there was
a great cry through all the host, and the sound of it went
through all Boeotia, as for the death of one who next to
Mardonius was of most note among the Persians and with the
As for the Greeks, after having driven the Persian cavalry
from the field, they "became much more bold and cheerful,
and putting the dead body of Masistius on a car, they drew
it along their ranks; and so wonderful was it for
stature and its beauty, that the men left their places and
came forward to look upon Masistius."
Pausanias now determined to lead his troops down to the
plain. Here he encamped, opposite the Persians, with only
the little river Asopus between the two armies.
The oracles had foretold that the side which began the
attack would be conquered; so day after day passed, neither
army daring to move.
But although the Persians dared not attack the Greeks, they
did them all the harm that they could, for they filled up
the springs to which the enemy went for water, and cut off
several convoys with provisions.
Pausanias was in despair when the water supply was stopped,
and he determined to withdraw and take up a position nearer
to Plataea, where both food and water would be secure.
Discipline had grown slack in the Greek camp, and the
retreat, which began at night, was carried out in a
One company set off in haste, but did not halt where
Pausanias had arranged that it should. The Spartans refused
to move at all. One of their captains, "lifting a piece of
rock with both hands and flinging it at the feet of
Pausanias, cried, 'Thus do I cast my vote against the
counsel of flying from strangers.' " Only when the retreat
was nearly ended did the Spartans tardily obey the order to
withdraw. This was how it happened that, when morning
dawned, the Persians found that the enemy had disappeared,
all but the Spartans, whose captain had delayed to follow
the orders of Pausanias.
When Mardonius caught sight of the loiterers he ordered his
men to set out in pursuit of them, and before the Spartans
could get into position the Persians were upon them. But
Pausanias soon learned what was taking place in his rear,
and he hastened back with the troops that were with him to
aid the disobedient Spartans.
 The Persians had thrust their shields into the ground to
form a rough barrier between them and the Spartans, while
they sent shower after shower of arrows upon the loiterers.
The Spartans soon tore down the breastwork of shields, and
with their swords in their hands advanced upon the enemy.
Mardonius did all he could to encourage his men, but they
had no armour to protect them from the blows of the
Spartans, and they were forced back toward the river,
throwing into confusion those of their own army who were
In the thick of the battle Mardonius rode on a white horse,
surrounded by ten thousand chosen Persians. He was easily
known by his white charger, and many were the spears that
were aimed at him by the angry Spartans. At length one
smote him so that he fell dead to the ground. "Thus," says
Herodotus, "Mardonius paid the recompence for the murder of
No sooner was their leader slain than the Persians fled in
utter confusion, all but forty thousand who were led off the
field by one of the generals, and these marching north
reached the Hellespont and crossed over to Asia in safety.
Those who fled from the field took refuge in their camp,
where the Spartans attacked them. But the barricades were
strong, and the camp was not taken until the Athenians had
returned and joined in the assault.
As the Greeks swarmed into the camp they slaughtered the
enemy without mercy. So severe was the defeat of Plataea
that the Persians were utterly crushed.
The spoil in the camp was enormous. Gold and silver dishes
were there in abundance, rich carpets too, and weapons
inlaid with precious stones. Horses, camels, mules were
captured in great numbers.
It is told that the great king had left his own magnificent
war camp for Mardonius to use.
When Pausanias saw it "all blazing
with gold and silver
embroidered hangings, he commanded the cooks and bakers to
make ready for him a banquet, as they had been used to do
When all was ready, he saw couches and tables of gold and
silver, all fairly spread and a banquet splendidly set
forth; and then, marvelling at this magnificence and glory,
he charged his own servants, by way of mockery, to prepare a
So the meal was made ready, but it looked not much like the
other, and Pausanias laughed, and sending for the generals
of the Greeks, pointed to the two banquets, saying, "Men of
Hellas, I have brought you together that ye may see the
madness of the Medes, who faring thus sumptuously came to
rob us of our sorry food."
While the battle of Plataea was being fought, the Greek
fleet was lying at Delos, an island in the Ægean Sea. The
Persian fleet was near Samos, which is not far from the
coast of Africa, while close at hand, at Cape Mycale, the
Persian land forces were encamped.
The Samians were afraid when they saw the Persian army, and
begged the Greeks to come to their aid. This they readily
agreed to do, and sailing to Cape Mycale they landed and
attacked and burned the Persian camp. The victory would
have been harder to win had not the Ionian Greeks who were
with the Persians deserted and fought with those of their
Both the victory of Plataea and that of Mycale were said to
have been gained on the same day in August 479 B.C.
Bands of Persians had still to be driven from some of the
islands of the Ægean and from some of the Greek cities in
Asia. But the victory of Mycale freed the Ionians from the
rule of the great king, ended the Persian war, and laid the
foundations of the Athenian Empire.