Herodotus' Histories, book 9

summary and comments by Jona Lendering


Twenty-sixth logos: the battle of Plataea (9.1-89)

When Mardonius learns that the Athenians are not willing to come to terms, he mobilizes his army and marches to Athens. Again, the city is deserted: its inhabitants have settled on Salamis. They send envoys to Spartans, reproaching them for the fact that they have not come to their aid; they have to discover that the Spartans are working on the construction of the wall across the Corinthian isthmus. Only when the Spartans understand that their aloofness will force the Athenians to make common cause with the enemy and that no wall can protect the Peloponnese against a naval attack, they send an expeditionary force. Its commander is Pausanias, the son of Cleombrotus, who had died during the winter. On hearing this news, Mardonius orders the destruction of Athens; when the old city is burning, he and his army return to the Boeotian plains. Greek soldiers from almost every city gather on the Isthmus and then march to Eleusis in the northeast, where they have a rendez-vous with the Athenian contingent. Finally, the allies move to the north, across the Kithaeron mountains, the southern border of Boeotia.
Archaeologists have been able to corroborate Herodotus' statement about the destruction of Athens by Mardonius. On the acropolis, they discovered a large depository (known as the Perserschutt), containing lots of broken and partially burnt statues - mostly representing priestesses. All of these were made in the sixth century and first decades of the fifth century. After the great fire, these sacred statues were buried on the temple domain.
    Mardonius' force was smaller than the giant army of Xerxes; consequently, it was more mobile and easier to supply. Modern historians estimate its size at 120,000 soldiers plus some 30,000 men for supply services and for the guarding of the lines of communication. It was still a large army and it could not move far from the Asopus river that divides the Boeotian plain. The Greek army counted some 110,000 soldiers; almost every Greek able to carry weapons had come Boeotia. For example, the Athenians had manned only a few galleys; all rowers and marines were now on Mount Kithaeron. This Greek army was unable to move into the plain, because they could not afford to go far beyond the sources. After all, the Greek summer can be very hot. Since no side dared to advance, a war of nerves started.

Herodotus describes several engagements that take place on several days. A Persian cavalry squadron tries to provoke the Greek contingent from Megara, but is defeated. After this success, the Greeks decide to leave the mountains and to descend into the plain between the river Asopus and a small town called Plataea (see picture), where a large source will refresh them. As usual, the Greek leaders find a cause to quarrel about: this time about the honor to fight on the left, defensive wing. The Spartans assign this responsible task to the Athenians; Pausanias rules that his countrymen will occupy the other, offensive wing. Meanwhile, the two armies refrain from attacking because they receive the same omens: they will be victorious when the other side attacks first (and moves away from its water supply).
    However, Mardonius is in a hurry. His supplies are running out, he can see the Greek army growing every day and one of his advisors has already suggested to return to Thessaly and use gold and silver to bribe the Greek leaders. Mardonius will have none of it: he overrules his seers by quoting one of the responses of the Greek oracles he had consulted during the winter (above). To stop the growth of the other army, he unexpectedly and successfully attacks a large supply train in the Kithaeron. Short cavalry charges are meant to provoke his enemies into battle, but the Greeks wisely resist these temptations.
    One night, the Macedonian king Alexander visits the Athenians, telling them that the Persians will attack at dawn. Immediately, the Athenian officers inform the supreme commander of the Greeks, Pausanias (picture to the right). He understands that if the Persians attack, it is saver to have the well trained Spartans on the defensive left wing to counter the Persian main force, and to post the experienced Athenians -already victorious at Marathon- on the offensive right wing. At dawn, the two contingents change positions, but Mardonius' spies tell him what has happened, and he changes his wings too. When Pausanias hears this, he orders his troops to go back to their original posts, a measure that is copied by Mardonius. A Persian messenger insults the Spartans: they are cowards if they leave all the fighting to the Athenians. Pausanias' men do not respond to the provocation.
    In this way, the day passes without fighting, and Mardonius becomes even more anxious to attack. During the night, he attacks the source between Plataea and the Asopus, forcing the Greek troops to go back to the south, where they can use the sources on the slopes of the Kithaeron mountains. They stand their ground during the day -being continually harassed by Persian archers- but during after sunset, they retreat to the wells.
    At dawn, Mardonius learns that his opponent have fled, and thinking he has already won the battle, orders the pursuit and attacks the Spartans. Pausanias sends a messenger to the Athenians who start to move from the plain immediately north of Plataea to the east, where the Spartans are under pressure. However, they are intercepted by Mardonius' Greek allies. The Spartans are in great danger, but suddenly, with the divine help of the goddess Hera, they can regroup attack the Persian contingent in front of them; the latter stand their ground, until Mardonius is killed. Soon, the Persians take their heels. Their reserve, commanded by the coward Artabazus, immediately leaves the battlefield and returns to the Hellespont.
    When the news of the Persian flight reaches their allies, they retreat to their camps on the boards of the Asopus. Herodotus describes the fighting in the Persian camp at great length, pointing out that the Spartans are unable to take it until the Athenians have arrived. After it has been looted and the dead have been buried, the Greek allies move north, to the city of Thebes, which had supported the Persians. After a three week's siege, the leaders of the pro-Persian party (cf. above) are handed over to the Greeks and tortured to death.

There are many strange elements in Herodotus' story. In the first place, the visit of Alexander. His information led to great turmoil: the two main contingents of the Greek army have to change position. It is possible that Mardonius actually sent the Macedonian king, who was a loyal ally of the Persians, on his mission: his opponents must have been exhausted of the unexpected movements. Moreover, it seems as if the nightly retreat of the Greeks to the sources on the Kithaeron foothills was a flight for the everlasting harassment by the Persian mounted archers.
    Actually, it seems as if the Persians were indeed victorious: the Greeks were pushed back and unable to maintain their lines of communications. Herodotus does not deny that Spartan discipline was almost breaking down and that at least one contingent of the Persian army reached the Kithaeron in its pursuit of the Greeks. The decisive moment in the battle seems to have been the death of Mardonius, who must have died as a happy man, knowing that his army was victorious.
    Herodotus' comment that Artabazus was a coward who fled before the battle was over and went posthaste to the Hellespont is unfair. Probably, Artabazus managed to lead a large Persian contingent back under very difficult circumstances. (Herodotus' sequence of the events is confused; it is likely that Artabazus left the battlefield at a later time.) In fact, the Persian commander never crossed the Hellespont, because the Greeks had already destroyed the bridges when he arrived in Thrace. In a later section, Herodotus tells us that Artabazus' contingent crossed the Bosporus at Byzantium. He was duly rewarded for saving the survivors of Mardonius' army.
    The engagement took place in the summer of 479, perhaps in the week of August 15. It was the last battle the Greeks had to fight against the Persians at home; the next battle took place in Asia.

Twenty-seventh logos:the liberation of Asia Minor (9.90-113)

While these events took place at home, the small Greek navy under command of the Spartan king Leotychides (above) was still at Delos. One day, three envoys from Samos arrive, asking for assistance by the liberation of the cities of the Ionian Greeks in Asia. They promise that the Ionians will revolt as soon as they see the navy of the allies. The omens are favorable and Leotychides agrees to move to Samos, and when they arrive, the Persian garrison sails away to he mainland, to the Mycale peninsula, where they join forces with the army that Xerxes had led back to Asia (above).
    Even though Samos is now liberated, the escape of the Persians is a disappointment to the Greeks. They wonder what to do: return to Delos or move to the Hellespont? They decide to pursue the enemy, sail along the south coast of Mycale and disembark some kilometers east of the Persian camp. Meanwhile, the Persians send away their Ionian allies: e.g., the soldiers from Miletus are ordered to guard the passes in the mountains and the men from Samos are disarmed. (Herodotus explains that the Persian commanders distrusted these allies.)
    Having landed on the Asian shores, the Greeks start to march against their enemies. As usual, the Spartans occupy the right wing; the other wing is occupied by the Athenians, who enjoy an easy walk on the beach. During their advance, they find a herald's scepter - a strange object to find on the seashore, and they think that it is a divine sign, signifying that the other Greeks had been victorious at Plataea. The Athenians are the first to reach the Persian camp, and the incite each other to attack before the Spartans reach the site. Soon, they are master of the camp; the Persians try to save their lives by fleeing into the mountains, but they discover that the Milesians who guard the passes have become their enemies. Some Persians survive and reach Sardes.
    When the battle is over and the Spartans have arrived, the camp is looted and the Persian navy destroyed. Then, the Greeks return to Samos, where they discuss their next moves. The Spartans propose the evacuate the cities of the Ionian Greeks and bring the population to the Greek mainland; the Athenians object and accept the Ionian Greeks in a league against Persia.

Concluding logos: the foundation of the Athenian empire (9.114-122)

After the victory at Mycale, the Greek navy sails to the Hellespont, where the Greeks discover that the bridges have already been destroyed. According to Leotychides, this means that they can go home. The Athenians decide to stay where they are, and lay siege to Sestus, a small but important citadel at the entrance of the Hellespont. Their commander is Xanthippus, and after some time he takes the city. The Persian commander Artayctes tries to escape but is caught and crucified on the spot where the abutment of Xerxes' bridges had been.
    This short logos ends with an anecdote on one of Artayctes' ancestors, Artembares, a contemporary of the great king Cyrus. When the latter had defeated the Median king Astyages, Artembares had suggested to migrate to a more fertile country. Cyrus had objected, saying that rich soils produce weak warriors.
Book 1   Book 2    Book 3  Book 4    Book 5  Book 6  Book 7    Book 8