Towards dusk Mardonius withdrew his cavalry. The Greeks waited for three hours. They had had a hard day, little food or water, and now they had an overnight march in front of them to take up their new positions. It was hardly surprising that under these circumstances there was a good deal of confusion but certainly not the panic among the allies, who had formed the army’s centre, that Herodotus suggests. One has to remember that he was writing some time after the events, that his account was based on Athenian camp-gossip from old men, and that it was related to him at a time when relationships had become embittered between Athens and many of her former allies - notably Corinth and Megara. He even tells an exceedingly improbable story of a Spartan commander, Amompharetus, refusing to obey the orders of Pausanias to withdraw his troops and arguing with his general, thus accounting for the delay in the movement of the Lacedaemonians. From everything that we know about the Spartans, and from the character of Pausanias alone, this is inconceivable.
One thing which is clear is that the Greek centre, which was formed out of contingents from twenty states (certainly a source of confusion), did go astray, and ended up by a temple of Hera outside the walls of Plataea. Rather than risk any further mistakes in the dark they gathered together there and waited for the dawn. At first light Pausanias, seeing what had happened, ordered the Athenians, who were on Pyrgos hill, to march down towards the Spartans. At the same time, he moved his own troops southward, leaving behind one battalion under the supposedly almost mutinous battalion commander to serve as rearguard. No sooner had the latter rejoined the main body under Pausanias - marching in disciplined and regular order - than the first of the Persian cavalry attacks began.
It was at this point that Mardonius made his fatal error. Seeing the ridges opposite him, which had formerly been occupied by the Greek troops, had been deserted overnight he came to the conclusion that, after the hammering they had taken the previous day, the Greeks were in full flight. Although Pausanias’ plan had gone awry owing to the troops forming his centre not having got themselves into the correct position, his main object had succeeded. By leaving the withdrawal of the best troops, the Athenians, and his Lacedaemonian and Tegean force until dawn, he had ensured that Mardonius would actually see him withdrawing and reach the conclusion that he did. Mardonius is said to have summoned three brothers from Thessaly, who were among the Greeks in his camp, and to have mocked them with the words: ‘Well, gentlemen, what will you say, now that you see that place deserted? You, who are neighbours of the Lacedaemonians, used to tell me that they were grand fighters, and never ran away!’ Mardonius had fallen for the lure just as some of Xerxes’ crack troops had done at Thermopylae. As Green points out: ‘The trick was a speciality of the Spartans… .’ What Pausanias was doing, only on a very large scale, was the same ruse as Leonidas had used. He was pretending to flee in order to draw the enemy within fighting distance; then wheeling about and presenting them with the bronze shields and the bristling ‘hedgehog’ wall.
‘… Mardonius gave the order to advance. His men crossed the Asopus and followed at the double in the track of the Greek forces, who, it was supposed, were in full flight.’ Actually, it was the Spartans and Tegeans only that Mardonius was after, for the Athenians, who had marched by a different route across the level ground, were hidden from sight by the intervening hills.
When the officers of the other divisions of Mardonius’ army saw the Persian contingent in hot pursuit, they immediately ordered the standards to be raised, and all the troops under their command joined in the chase as fast as their legs would carry them. Without any attempt to maintain formation they swept forward, yelling and shouting, never doubting that they would make short work of the fugitives.
There seems little doubt (though many eminent scholars dispute it) that the famous battle of Plataea ended up as a soldiers’ battle rather than one directed by the opposing generals - hardly surprising in days when communications were limited to runners or, at the best, horsemen. Pausanias had laid out what seems on the surface a neat entrapping strategy into which the Persians had blundered. In fact, the commanding positions of the Persian cavalry - the ‘Knights’ in the harsh game - more or less counterbalanced the careful withdrawal play of their opponents. There was only one way in which the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ could work things out and that was by the superiority of their arms, discipline, and morale. In this case, as always, the attacked were fighting for their homelands, crofts, wives and children. The invaders were far from home, and had been so for well over a year. Except for the pro-Persian Greeks, the hard core of the army that had come out of the East was long sick and disillusioned with the fate that had led them so far, and over so long a time, out of their familiar lands. In the wise words of old Artabanus, when he had counselled Xerxes against the whole expedition from the very beginning: ‘I venture a prophecy: the day will come when many a man left at home will hear the news that Mardonius has brought disaster upon Persia and that his body lies a prey to dogs and birds somewhere in the country of the Athenians or the Spartans - if not upon the road thither.’ Pausanias was now confronted by the main weight of the Persian cavalry and, formidable though the Spartan shield-line was, what he needed was archers. He sent an urgent message for the Athenians to close up on him, which Aristeides was in the process of doing when the Athenians themselves were hit by the cavalry of the pro-Persian Greeks, followed hard on their heels by the Boeotian hoplites. The preliminaries of Plataea then resolved themselves into two separate battles. Pausanias and the Spartans on the right wing against the Persians under Mardonius, and the Athenians to the left of him against the Thessalians and Boeotians. Meanwhile Artabazus with the Persian centre had had to struggle up the Asopus ridge and was late upon the scene. One suspects, perhaps, that he did not hurry his troops overmuch. He had long been against the whole concept of the Persians remaining in Greece, and certainly against this pitched battle which Mardonius had decided upon. It was Artabazus, it must be remembered, who had been in favour of withdrawing to Thebes and of allowing the Greeks time to quarrel amongst themselves, at the same time expediting their divisions by the generous usage of bribes. Looking down from his position on the ridge, Artabazus could see the two battles taking place below him and, while no doubt he was debating whether to cut down through the middle of them, he would have seen the large body of Greeks from Plataea, who should have formed the Greek centre, coming hard and fast to help their comrades. They divided into two main columns, one going to the aid of the Athenians and the other cutting round behind to lend strength to the left wing of the Spartans.
The hardest hit were the Greeks who formed the left-centre, for they crossed open ground in order to join up with the Athenians and were not to escape the attentions of the Theban cavalry. There were about 7000 of them in all, the main body formed of Megarians, the rest being small contingents, both Peloponnesian and non-Peloponnesian. Even if their discipline had been better than it probably was, their action, though brave, was somewhat foolhardy in open country. The Theban cavalry fell upon them and cut them to pieces, killing some six hundred and driving them back.
Herodotus, writing at a time when Megara and Athens were at loggerheads, makes the snide remark that ‘they perished ingloriously’. Far from it, their action had served to draw off the Theban cavalry - thus bringing relief to the Athenians, who could now proceed with a straightforward hoplite battle against the Boeotian infantry. Meanwhile on the right wing, harassed by the cavalry and by Mardonius’ infantry, who would not come to grips with those armoured men but ‘made a fence of their wicker shields and poured in showers of arrows’, the Spartans and Tegeans waited with the dogged discipline of superb soldiers. Before giving the orders for his men to advance, Pausanias, as was customary, was taking the omens. Inspection of the hearts and lights of the sacrificial animals failed to produce a satisfactory augury. It was necessary to go on then with further sacrifices before the general could order his men to advance. Even sheltered as they were behind their great shields, their armour and their helmets, ‘many men fell in this time’. Among them was Callicrates, accounted ‘the handsomest and tallest man in the Greek army’, who was hit by an arrow that pierced his lungs. After the battle was over, Arimnestus of Plataea visited him as he lay dying and tried to console him, saying that his death was not in vain and that he had died for Hellas. Callicrates’ response was that he did not mind dying for his country, but that he had not had a chance to strike a blow or ‘do anything worthy of himself’.
Some commentators have suggested that the continuance of the unfavourable omens may have been deliberate on Pausanias’ part; that he was waiting until the Persian rearguard came up behind the men who now confronted him and would thus prevent the front ranks from being able to turn in flight when at last the Spartan charge came. This seems very likely: the Spartans, as has been seen, were religious to a degree, but generals are also pragmatic. Then at last ‘Pausanias turned his eyes to the temple of Hera outside Plataea and called upon the goddess for her aid, praying her not to allow the Greeks to be robbed of their hope of victory. While the words were still upon his lips the Tegeans sprang forward to the attack…’ A moment later - and not a moment too soon - the omens were favourable. The Lacedaemonian bronze wall moved forward against the Persian line, and the latter, who had had the pleasure of killing their foe from a safe distance, now knew what it was like to face the most formidable warriors in the world. As Plutarch puts it, ‘… suddenly there came over the whole phalanx the look of some ferocious beast, as it wheels at bay, stiffens its bristles and turns to defend itself, so that the barbarians could no longer doubt that they were faced with men who would fight to the death’.
Herodotus takes up the account of that never-to-be-forgotten day when the power of Persia and the dream of Xerxes were extinguished on the field of Plataea.
First there was a struggle at the barricade of shields; then, the barricade down, there was a bitter and protracted fight, hand to hand, close by the temple of Demeter, for the Persians would lay hold of the Spartan spears and break them; in courage and strength they were as good as their adversaries, but they were deficient in armour, untrained and greatly inferior in skill.
This tribute to the courage of the Iranians is well deserved, but it could not be said that these crack troops were untrained. Certainly, no other soldiers were as skilled as the Spartans in warfare, but it was the technological difference between the two cultures that made the victory at Plataea possible, just as it had helped in the stand of Leonidas and his handful of men at Thermopylae. Those long-dead Greek bronze-smiths and armourers, who had evolved the techniques that gave the warriors of Homeric times their weapons and protection, played their part on that day.
Herodotus relates how the Persians,
… sometimes singly, and sometimes in groups of ten men -perhaps fewer, perhaps more - fell upon the Spartan line and were cut down. They pressed hardest at the point where Mardonius fought in person - riding his white charger, and surrounded by his thousand Persian troops, the flower of the army. While Mardonius was alive, they continued to resist and to defend themselves, and struck down many of the Lacedaemonians; but after his death, and the destruction of his personal guard - the finest of the Persian troops - the remainder yielded to the Lacedaemonians and took to flight. The chief cause of their discomfiture was their lack of armour, fighting without it against heavily armoured infantry.
The bronze soldiers of Sparta had conquered. No one - not even the finest warriors out of the whole Eastern world - could defeat men who had been raised since childhood to fight to the end. ‘Thus the prophecy of the oracle was fulfilled, and Mardonius rendered satisfaction to the Spartans for the killing of Leonidas; and thus, too, Pausanias, son of Cleombrotus and grandson of Anazandrides, won the most splendid victory which history records.’
Mardonius himself was killed by a distinguished Spartiate, named Arimnestus, not with spear or sword according to Plutarch, but by a stone which broke his skull. As soon as the news came that the Persian right wing had collapsed and was in full flight, the Boeotians on the left realised that their position was hopeless and took to their heels, their retreat being covered by the Theban cavalry. As for the wily Artabazus, in command of the Persian centre which had never been engaged at all, he withdrew with all possible speed and headed back north, ‘not to the barricade, or to Thebes, but direct to Phocis, in his desire to reach the Hellespont with the least possible delay’. He and the troops with him, apart from a few casualties in brushes with the Thracians on the way, were all ferried safely across to Asia by boats from Byzantium. Astonishingly enough,
perhaps, Xerxes did not have him executed for his apparent desertion - and Mardonius was the Great King’s brother-in-law -nor apparently censure him. This suggests a pragmatism in the king’s nature which is hardly apparent in Herodotus’ original portrait of an Oriental despot.
All the other Persians at first withdrew behind the stockade. Here they put up a fierce resistance, defying Pausanias and his Spartans, who were unable to get to grips with them. The arrival of the Athenians and the rest of the Greek army changed the balance, and the absence of Artabazus and his men probably meant that the defenders could not man all the defences. Finally the Athenians effected a breach and the Greeks, headed by the gallant men from little Tegea, stormed in, and an appalling slaughter took place. With their leaders dead or gone, the morale of the Persian army collapsed completely and the Greeks butchered them like cattle. The battle of Plataea was over. The vast shadow of the Great King, King of Kings, was lifted from Greece for ever. When the full extent of the defeat finally reached Susa one may imagine that Xerxes’ wise old uncle, Artabanus, was careful and circumspect enough to remain very silent.
The extent of the Persian and the Greek losses in the campaign and in the final battle has provoked many an argument among scholars. Certainly Herodotus grossly underestimates the number of Greek dead, as well as equally overestimating the number of Persian and pro-Persian Greeks who were killed. Most scholars seem to settle for the figure given by Plutarch of 1360 Athenian, Spartan and allied Greeks killed - this very probably being the figure for hoplites only. There were Helots, for instance, among the Lacedaemonians, and there can be no doubt they were in the thick of the action along with the Spartiates, but there is no record of their casualties, although Plutarch relates that they had their own burial-mound on the field of battle. As for the Persian losses there seems to be more or less general agreement, pace Herodotus, that they lost somewhere in the region of 10,000 men at Plataea. One of the reasons that Xerxes did not execute or disgrace Artabazus for his rapid withdrawal of the Persian centre was that he retired to Asia with the best part of an army corps, possibly some 40,000 men. After the disaster of Plataea, had he attempted to fight a rearguard action through country which, though nominally pro-
Persian, would probably have risen up against him, the losses would have been infinitely worse - or even total.
The Greeks encamped on the battlefield, burying their dead as well as garnering the spoils of war. These were considerable, for Persian armies did not travel light like the Greeks, who were relatively poor in any case, but with gold and silver vessels, silken tents, women, and slaves. All these had to be apportioned out, and Pausanias seems to have used his authority with considerable skill for, if he had not, one can be sure that later Athenian historians would have accused the Lacedaemonians of taking more than their fair share. Looting was forbidden on pain of death, and Helots were despatched all over the area to gather together the innumerable - and to them almost incomprehensible - valuables that had been left behind by the fleeing army. Of course, in the first hours of triumph, quite a lot of obviously precious things, like gold cups or ornaments, must have disappeared into many a private ‘kit-bag’ -but this has happened in every war. One cannot help suspecting that there must have been a good deal of cheating on the side, but it seems more than likely that had the commander-in-chief been an Athenian or a Corinthian there would have been very much more. The Spartiate class, at that time, corrupt though they were to become at a later date, were still so strictly indoctrinated with the iron laws of Lycurgus that they saw in wealth and golden objects the very things that caused corruption and softness amongst men and nations. To take one instance of correct and chivalric behaviour, Pausanias refused to allow the body of Mardonius to be desecrated - as that of Leonidas had been - but had it quietly and secretly buried at night. The Greek mistress of one of the dead Persian commanders, having carefully dressed herself up in her best clothes, and accompanied by her handmaids, fell at the feet of Pausanias, imploring mercy. Although, as his life was to show, Pausanias was very attracted to women, he had her sent back under escort to Aegina. He could not send her to her native island of Cos, because this was still under Persian domination. The colour of all later accounts of the whole of Xerxes’ invasion was to show the Athenians in the best of all possible lights, while denying to their allies any true evaluation of their particular contribution to the defeat of Persia. It is rather as if some future historian, searching through the records of the Second World War in our century, should only come up with the accounts of one of the victorious allies.
Despite a somewhat futile attempt to besiege Thebes and exact that tithe promised in the Oath of Plataea, the allies soon realised that, with the summer coming to an end, this would prove almost impossible. The exact date of the Battle of Plataea is difficult to ascertain, for calendars in those days varied widely between city and city, but it would seem to have been in mid-August of 479. To have proceeded to tithe not only Thebes, but all the other northern Greek states which had sided with the Persians, would have proved quite beyond the capabilities of the Greek allied forces. In any case, all had work to do in their native states. It was time for ploughing, while the Athenians, in addition, had yet again to start rebuilding their city. It is melancholy to record that only a very short time after this victory, which had temporarily united so many of the city-states of Greece, dissension between them all too soon began. Their brilliance, which still funds the whole of what is left of Western civilisation, stemmed from their anarchic individualism.
For the brief moment, though, in the elation of such a victory and in the mutual realisation of the danger from which they had escaped, they set up many memorials in honour of the event: a bronze Poseidon at the Isthmus of Corinth, for instance, and a Zeus at Olympia. Most famous of all these monuments was dedicated to Apollo at Delphi: a bronze pillar formed of three entwined serpents supporting a tripod of gold. It is hardly surprising that the golden tripod vanished long ago in one of the interminable, internecine Greek wars, but the column still survives. The visitor to modern Istanbul can see it in the dusty, tourist-occupied Hippodrome. Few recognise it for what it really is: a memorial to those ancient Greeks who, so many centuries ago, ensured that the patterns of freedom and individual liberty should survive in the West.