Mardonius had already begun to withdraw into Boeotia when he received a message that an advance guard of a thousand Spartans was in Megara. Thinking that he might at least eliminate this enemy body without much difficulty, he detached part of his army - probably a fairly large cavalry unit - and sent them down to the area. The report, as it turned out, was false and some of his men were cut off and killed by the Megarians. This abortive raid was, in fact, the farthest to the west that the Persians ever got in the whole of Xerxes’ campaign in Greece. What had started out as the invasion of western Europe was now turning into a retreat with only the possibility of a massive victory in a pitched battle to procure any chance of Xerxes’ achieving even a part of his original dream.
Withdrawing by way of Decelea, the easternmost pass over the Parnes range, possibly choosing this route because he feared that an advance guard of Spartans or Athenians might have reached one or other of the easier routes and be lying in ambush for his forces, Mardonius was met by local guides. The army stopped for a night at Tanagra and then made for a village called Scolus which lay in Theban territory. Herodotus relates that ‘in spite of the fact that the Thebans were on his side he cut down all the trees in the neighbourhood - not as an act of hostility to Thebes, but simply for his own military need, for he wished to construct a palisade to protect his troops and to have somewhere to retreat to in the event of the battle going against him’. The encampment on the north of the river-line of the Asopus also commanded the roads leading to Thebes itself. It possibly extended for about five miles. Mardonius thus could maintain his friendly contacts and communications behind him. The Thebans, now aware of the size of the force that was soon going to break into their territory, and of how far they were committed to the Persian cause, would probably have been quite willing for the Persians to cut down almost every tree in their area if it would serve to protect them from the wrath of Athens and Sparta. (Incidents such as this, combined with many later wars in Greece, together with the eternal demand for wood for shipbuilding, contributed to that deforestation of the land which has never over all the centuries been successfully reversed.) The area of Mardonius’ camp, as carefully calculated by Burn, would probably have accommodated an army of ‘60-70,000 men, of whom 10,000 might be cavalry’. In any case, even after the addition of several thousands of Boeotians and other Greek allies, it is unlikely that Mardonius had any great superiority in numbers over the allied army that was marching to meet him. There can be little doubt he had come to believe that the Athenians would come over to the Persian cause, and that the Peloponnesians, entrenched behind their Isthmian wall, would never join up and march in a united front against him. He had calculated that, in the seemingly eternal inter-state rivalry and hatred of the Greeks, he could ‘Divide and Conquer’. What he, and Xerxes and all the Persian high command, had failed to understand was that these two Greek states - however much they might basically dislike each other - were united against any subjection by an autocratic foreign tyrant.
Evidence of the mistrust felt between the Greek allies, even in this moment of their greatest need for co-operation, is to be found in the famous Oath of Plataea. This was probably administered after the junction of the Athenians under Aristeides, and Pausanias with the Spartiates and other Peloponnesians, at Eleusis. After all the threats and counter-threats that had passed between the principal partners it is not so surprising that something like a sacred oath binding all parties to be true to one another in the hour of battle was considered necessary. There are various versions of the Oath of Plataea, but it is difficult not to sense an Athenian hand behind its construction. The version quoted here is a fourth-century transcription dedicated in Acharnae by one Dion, priest of Ares, the war-god, and of Athena, in her role of war-goddess. The reason one suspects an Athenian behind the Oath’s composition is that most of the military requirements itemised would have been familiar, and indeed automatic responses, to a Spartiate after ‘his first term at school’.
I will fight to the death, and I will not count my life more precious than freedom. I will not leave my officer, the commander of my Regiment or Company, either alive or dead. I will not withdraw unless my commanders lead me back, and I will do whatsoever the Generals order. I will bury the dead of those who have fought as my allies, on the field, and will not leave one of them unburied. After defeating the barbarians in battle, I will tithe the city of the Thebans; and I will never destroy Athens or Sparta or Plataea or any of the cities which have fought as our allies, nor will I consent to their being starved, nor cut off from running water, whether we be friends or at war.
And if I keep well the oath, as it is written, may my city have good health; but if not, may it have sickness; and may my land give increase; but if not, may it be barren; and may the women bring forth children like their fathers; but if not, monsters; and may the cattle bring forth after their kind, but if not, monsters.
The whole Greek army now moved out from Eleusis on the road to Thebes. The Athenians had hoped that Mardonius would give battle early, but it was now clear that he intended to make his stand farther north and force the allies to march up to meet him. It was now late July and the farther he could make heavily armoured men sweat over a dusty, burned-out plain the more chance there was of them arriving in an exhausted condition. After putting the plain behind them they had to climb up the slopes of Cithaeron and emerge at the top of the Eleutherae Pass. Ahead of them now lay the steep descent towards the Asopus, on whose northern bank lay Mardonius with his army entrenched behind his palisade. It was indeed good generalship on his part to have forced the allies to come to meet him, while his own men rested, rather than engage them earlier in the plain of Eleusis. The sight might have daunted the Greeks: the harsh way down, the shine of the river, the impressive stockade, the Persian forces deployed, the city of Thebes behind them, and then the great Boeotian plain, with Helicon and Parnassus shining in the far distance.
The Athenians are said earlier to have obtained an oracle from Delphi promising them success if they fought ‘in their own land, in the plain of the Eleusinian goddesses Demeter and the Maiden’. When they had been forced to advance into Plataean territory they must have felt some dismay, but the Plataean leader Arimnestus, supposedly inspired in a dream sent by Zeus, solved this problem by persuading his fellow Plataeans to take up their boundary stones on the side facing Attica, thus making a gift of all this Plataean land to Athens. (There is no record as to whether they ever got it back again.) The matter of achieving victory ‘in the plain of the Eleusinian goddesses’ was another matter altogether. This was solved by the discovery of an old temple of Demeter of Eleusis near Hysiae, at the foot of the Pantanassa ridge. It was an area which would be very favourable for the Greeks to take up their battle stations since the Persians would have little chance of deploying their cavalry. Mardonius watched and waited as the Greeks came down and took up their position in the foothills, hoping by a show of inertia to lure them out into the plain. When they showed that they had no intention of obliging him,
Mardonius sent his cavalry to attack them in force, under the command of the distinguished Persian officer Masistius … who rode a Nisaean horse with a bridle of gold and other splendid trappings. The cavalry advanced to the attack in successive squadrons, and at each assault inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks, taunting them and calling them women. It so happened that the point in the Greek line which was most open and vulnerable to a cavalry charge was held by the Megarians, who found themselves hard pressed by the repeated attacks.
It is possible that the division from Megara was astride the road to Thebes and there were no more than 3000 of them. Pausanias, receiving a call for help, very sensibly despatched not his own heavily armoured hoplites, who would have been of little use in the situation, but the Athenian regiment of archers. As was to be shown in many later wars over the centuries horsemen were particularly vulnerable to nimble men armed with the bow and arrow. Herodotus makes the imputation that Pausanias called for volunteers to back up the men from Megara and that only the Athenians responded. (This is clearly part of his later pro-Athenian bias.) He continues: ‘For some time the battle continued, until, during the successive attacks of the Persian squadrons, Masistius’ horse, which was in advance of the rest, was shot in the flank… .’ The horse reared up and Masistius fell to the ground where he lay as helpless as many a medieval knight, for he was wearing under a scarlet tunic a corselet of golden scales. The Athenians rushed upon him, but, despite futile thrusts at his armoured body, it was not until a soldier pierced him through the eye-slit of his helmet that the Persian cavalry leader was killed. The other members of his squadron had not seen him fall, for his horse was hit just at the moment when they were wheeling back before making a further charge. ‘It was only when they drew rein again that they missed him - for there was no one to give the commands.’ The whole of the Persian cavalry force at once lined up and charged all together, determined upon recovering Masistius’ body. It was now the turn of the Athenians to suffer heavy losses and to be forced back. At this point Pausanias and the main body of hoplites came to their support and, confronted by the armoured wall and the bristling hedge of spears, the Persians called off the attack and withdrew. They failed to recover the body of their leader - something that in those days was always considered a grave disgrace, and caused a corresponding loss of morale. Uncertain as to what to do, the cavalry reported back to Mardonius.
Mardonius and the whole army showed the deepest distress at Masistius’ death - a man more highly thought of, both by the king and his subjects, than anyone else in the Persian army except Mardonius himself; they shaved their heads, cut the manes of their horses and mules, and abandoned themselves to such cries of grief that the whole of Boeotia was loud with the noise of them.
The Greeks, naturally enough, were overjoyed at having killed one of Persia’s most famous men. (It was somewhat as if the British attempt to capture Rommel in the desert in the Second World War had succeeded.) They had repulsed a heavy attack by Persia’s most formidable arm, her horsemen - a great boost to their morale - and now they hoisted the dead Masistius on to a cart and paraded his body through the ranks. ‘It was certainly worth looking at, for Masistius was a tall and splendidly handsome man… Such is war.
Pausanias now decided to re-deploy his forces, coming down from the foothills and moving westwards towards the now-deserted city of Plateaea. His object was two-fold: first, he had a good water-supply from springs that flowed into the Asopus; secondly, he had a better position for his hoplites ‘in flat country rising here and there in low hills’. The generalship of the Spartan, trained since a boy in the military art, cannot be faulted. There can be little doubt that so experienced a soldier moved most of his troops along the foothills at night, for he would have been foolish indeed to come down into the open plain where the enemy cavalry could have so easily attacked him in daylight hours. He would also have left his right flank exposed. Although the whole army could not possibly have effected the movement during darkness, the hillocks of the Asopus ridge would have largely concealed them in any case. The spring known as Garagaphia (possibly to be equated with what is now known as Rhetsi) would seem to have formed the point for his right wing, where the Spartans, since their leader Pausanias was commander-in-chief, automatically held the post of honour. Next to them came the small contingent from Tegea (about 1500 men), as compared with 10,000 from Lacedaemon of whom 5000 were Spartiates. The right centre was held by the Corinthians with 5000 men and seven smaller states, making a total of over 11,000 men. The left centre, to which Megara made the major contribution of 3000 men, consisted of 7000, and the left wing where 8000 Athenians were stationed was augmented by 600 from little Plataea. The total Greek forces, then, amounted to something like 38,000 men (the figures are taken from Herodotus). Burn notes that in the composition of the battlefront noted enemies such as Corinth and Sicyon were separated from one another by the interposition of another unit (in this case 600 men from Orchomenus in Arcadia). These figures, so far as one can gather, refer only to hoplites, for Herodotus goes on to mention that for every Spartiate there were seven lightly armed Helots, making a Spartan contribution, therefore, of 35,000. Remembering always that, with the large shield on the left arm and the sword or spear in the right hand, the right wing was the attacking wing and, therefore, the Athenians on the left were in the most exposed position. Against them Mardonius opposed an army that would seem to have been somewhat similar in numbers but, if one takes into account the pro-Persian Greeks, a good deal larger.
Between the enemies lay the Asopus river, shallow enough in summertime nowadays but possibly deeper then; in any case a water-barrier to the hoplite, while of little consequence to cavalry. The Persian horsemen, who were also bowmen, had a considerable advantage. They could carry out lightning raids on the Athenians on the left, and did finally manage to deprive them of using the waters of the Asopus. For over a week the Greeks and the Persians faced one another - like boxers waiting for the first false move. Each had different problems. Pausanias was waiting for the arrival of further reserves, while Mardonius was concerned about his commissariat. Although he had friendly (and terrified) Thebes at his back, it was difficult to maintain adequate supplies for so many men. The army, which had largely relied on a great fleet in the previous year, now had no store-ships or grain-vessels. Their ships lay inactive at Samos, demoralised, and blocked by the larger Greek fleet at Delos. The Thebans and the other pro-Persian lands behind Mardonius could not for ever keep coping with his demands. Pausanias, on the other hand, had the resources of the Peloponnese behind him.
It was high midsummer; the ‘lion sun’ of the Mediterranean beat down; a time when, even under the best of circumstances, men’s nerves get frayed and heat-exhaustion can take its toll. It was during this period of waiting that Aristeides discovered a plot among his fellow Athenians to ‘subvert the democracy’. As might be expected they were all members of his own class, ‘men of leading families’. They met together secretly in a house in Plataea and were clearly prepared to ‘sell out’ to the Persians, so long as they could have an oligarchic constitution ensured at Athens. The fleet was far away; men like Themistocles were not present; and the democratic navy party might now be defeated in their absence. Out of a large number of suspects Aristeides had eight arrested, the two ringleaders ‘contriving’ to escape. What Aristeides - to his great credit - did, was to break up a dangerous cabal which, like so many others in the various states of Greece, was prepared to do anything so long as their own class and their own friends could hold the reins of power. The genius of spirit that was later to give Athens her golden fifty years was partly seeded by such idiosyncratic behaviour. One may, perhaps, feel that the disciplined Lacedaemonians (and particularly the Spartiate upper caste) were nobler in many respects than the landowners of Athens.
In this waiting game it was the Persians who were forced to make the opening move. Pausanias, having re-established his troops in a defensible position, could afford to sit and wait. Mardonius was now to find out the truth of the observation of Xerxes’ uncle Artabanus that his other great enemy was the land itself. Plutarch says that the priests on both sides agreed on one point - that Pausanias and Mardonius ‘would win a victory if they remained on the defensive, but would be defeated if they attacked’. However, after a stalemate lasting over a week, Mardonius, acting on the advice of a Theban named Timagenidas, decided to use his cavalry on a large scale to raid the northern end of the Dryoscephalae Pass.
There can be no doubt that Theban patrols had detected how reinforcements and provisions were regularly reaching the army of Pausanias by this route.
The movement was not without success; a train of five hundred mules bringing food from the Peloponnese for the army was caught, together with the men in charge, just as it was coming down from the hills. The Persian cavalrymen showed no mercy; they killed beasts and men indiscriminately, and drove the remnant, when they were sick of slaughter, back to Mardonius within their own lines.
Two more days went by, and no further action took place. Neither side was willing to begin the general engagement. The Persians provoked the Greek forces to attack by advancing right up to the river, but neither of them ventured actually to cross.
The Persian cavalry, however, seem to have kept up their harassing tactics, making the Greek supply-lines difficult to maintain. Nevertheless it seems that they could not prevent a steady stream of reinforcements getting through to swell the Greek army. At this point the strange two-faced Alexander of Macedon is said to have paid a visit to the Greek lines by night. He brought the information that Mardonius was also having supply problems and that it had even been suggested that the army should withdraw inside the walls at Thebes. Artabazus, apparently, was the advocate of this scheme, but Mardonius had rejected it and was eager for a trial of strength on the field.
Alexander, of course, was as usual sitting on the fence, and Aristeides can have been in little doubt of that. He was hardly likely to trust Alexander on the basis of his record, and he insisted that Pausanias should be informed of this unexpected visit. Aristeides had no intention of being party to any information that was not also immediately divulged to the Spartan commander-in-chief. This was now the night of the eleventh day since the two armies had faced each other across the little Asopus and, if Alexander was to be believed, it was the intention of Mardonius to attack on the following morning. It has sometimes been suggested that Alexander was sent across to spy out the land and to give the Greek leaders deliberate misinformation. This does not seem to square with the events, as the Persians did attack on the next day, although with their cavalry and not their foot-soldiers. One can but guess that Alexander, wily and astute as he was, had sensed a lack of morale among the Persians and, in order to secure his own position if the Greeks did in fact win, gave them the real information. If the Persians won, on the other hand, his secret visit to the Greeks would never be known. Like the dark horse that he was, he disappeared again into the night. Whatever the outcome of events Alexander of Macedon was doing his best to ensure that he was on the winning side.
If one is to believe Herodotus and Plutarch, Pausanias shifted the Spartans from the right wing over to the left, replacing them with the Athenians, who had more experience than the Spartans at fighting against Persians. Mardonius, accordingly, shuffled his pack of cards and moved his best Iranian troops back to face the Spartans. The story, although given by both authorities, seems unlikely. The Athenians were rightly proud of their history at Marathon, but even they would probably have conceded that the finest foot-soldiers in all of Greece were their allies - men who had been trained to fight, and nothing else, since they were boys. In any case, it matters little since, according to this version, both sides then moved their troops back again into their original position. Queer things happen in war, and generals often change their minds, but it seems somewhat unlikely that, at so late a moment, both sides should have embarked upon a major reorganisation of their positions. They had had days staring at one another, trying to assess the situation on the board. But still, even chess-masters with plenty of time on their hands do sometimes embark upon a flurry of movements that surprise the simple onlooker.
It was not in any case to be a day for the infantry. Mardonius decided to hold them back and, instead, to send over wave after wave of cavalry. He probably felt that he had the measure of the defence now and, so long as he kept his men away from the limited company of Athenian archers, they could inflict a great deal of damage on the foot-soldiers. His aim was to get the hoplites down off that ridge, for he knew well enough that, brave though they were, his Iranian infantry were not a match for the heavily armoured Greeks - especially if compelled to advance up a slope. ‘The Persian cavalry, being armed with the bow, were not easy to come to grips with; so when they moved forward, they harried all the Greek line with their arrows and javelins… .’ At the same time a detachment was sent round behind the Greek lines and ‘choked up and spoilt the spring of Garagaphia’, the Greeks’ principal source of water. One finds it difficult to imagine that in so short a time they can have done anything more with stones and rubbish than inconvenience their enemy for a limited time. It is comparatively difficult (or was in those days) to totally block and befoul a spring. In any case, in this first major engagement, there could be no doubt that the position of the Greeks was highly threatened. Unlike Thermopylae, whose narrow pass had precluded the use of horses, the mounted bowmen and horsemen with throwing javelins had a distinct advantage over the hoplite.
A conference of war was held at Pausanias’ headquarters on one of the knolls that form the Asopus ridge. The situation was very serious indeed. It was not only that their water supply had been threatened, if not temporarily destroyed, but they were down to one day’s ration of food. It seems incredible that Pausanias had let the Persian cavalry cut off their food-supplies to such an extent, and the Spartans were normally considered past-masters at army-supply. They were, however, unused to cavalry tactics, and accustomed to fighting fellow Greeks in situations in the Peloponnese where they always had their own main base behind them. Furthermore, Pausanias, like any other Greek general of his time, was not accustomed to handling large numbers of men. The Persians of Xerxes’ time were capable of thinking in hundreds of thousands, but to the average Greek city-state general 10,000 was a good-sized army. For them the art of logistics was in its infancy - one reason why Herodotus makes such a play with what he considers to have been the immense and arrogant designs of Xerxes.
There could be no question of withdrawal during those daylight hours, for the cavalry would have cut them to pieces, and any sign of retreat would undoubtedly have brought the Persian army swarming forward across the river. This was clearly what Mardonius hoped for, and one cannot help wondering whether Alexander of Macedon (if he was acting for the Persians and not for himself alone) had reported back that the Greeks were short on rations. It is not difficult for an experienced soldier to recognise the look, and the very atmosphere, of hungry troops.
It was generally agreed that they could not hold their current position for another day. The answer for them was to fall back overnight to an area a little east of Plataea which was known as ‘the Island’ because it lay between two arms of the Oeroe river. The area was far too small to accommodate all the army, but it would form a central base with a left wing spread out towards Plataea, and a right wing extended towards the Garagaphian spring. The plan was sensible enough: by moving westwards the army would be able to cover the descent of their supplies down the Dryoscephalae Pass while they would also have adequate water-supplies. Quite apart from necessity, there was another good reason for this withdrawal to the west. The Persian horsemen had had a good day, and it is possible that Mardonius now felt that he had a demoralised army against him. To withdraw is often - though not always - to show some semblance of defeat. Perhaps, as at Salamis, the Persians might be lured into a major assault?