Monday, September 20, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Nine: The battle of Plataea begins

This map covers earlier battles, but it also provides the topography of the area surrounding Plataea (located just below the “oe” in Boeotia)
Picture source

After dinner, as they lingered drinking, the Persian on the couch with Thersandros asked him in Greek what country he came from, to which he replied, “Orchomenus.” The Persian then said, “Since you have shared with me a meal and libations, I would like to leave you with this insight of mine to remember me by, so that being informed in advance, you will be able to make plans to secure a favorable outcome for yourself. Do you see these Persians dining here, and did you see the army we left camping by the river? Well, of all these men, you will see only a few surviving within a short time.” And as the Persian said this, he began to sob and weep profusely. In amazement at what he had said, Thesandros asked, “But should you not tell this to Mardonios and to the other Persians who rank just below him in esteem?” The Persian then replied, “My friend, what has been destined to happen by the god is impossible for a mortal to avert by any contrivance, for no one believes even what trustworthy people say. And though many Persians know that this is true, we are bound by necessity to follow our orders. The most painful anguish that mortals suffer is to understand a great deal but to have no power at all.”

- from paragraph 16, all quotes and spellings are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis.

What is commonly called the battle of Plataea took place over two weeks. This section deals with the first day which saw fighting near Erythrai in the hills above Plataea. Two good summaries of the battle can be found at
and Ancient Greek Battles. I am covering through paragraph 32 of Book Nine for this post.

There are several troubling acts by various Hellenes in this section, starting with the opening paragraph. “[T]he leading men of Thessaly now provided even more encouragement for the Persians.” The Thebans provide probably the best advice given in The Histories to Mardonios on how to divide the Hellenes—bribe the most powerful men in each major city. Maybe leaders would accept the bribes or maybe citizens would believe the leaders did (even if they didn’t). Either action would create a crisis of confidence in the leadership.

This is at least the third time the Persians have been counseled to take an indirect approach in order to defeat the Greeks. Demaratos suggested sending part of the Persian fleet behind Sparta while Artemisia counseled indirect contact in sending troops to the Peloponnese. Fortunately for the Greeks, Mardonios ignored all advice, focusing on his desire to capture Athens instead. After he retakes an empty Athens, he sends the Athenians at Salamis the same offer extended earlier. When one of the Athenian council, Lykidas, proves to be receptive to the offer, he is dragged from the meeting and stoned to death. The Athenian women find out about what happened and go to Lykidas’ house where they stone his wife and children to death. I wonder about the reception of this story in Herodotus’ day. Athenian citizens should have had a trial and not be subject to mob rule. Would the listeners/readers believe that freedom trumps law? While they are fighting for their freedom, they are also fighting against such an arbitrary and lawless act as this. Lykidas' fate sounds like something Xerxes or Cambyses would have commanded. Is there a rebuke by Herodotus hidden in the story? Or possibly Herodotus commending the Athenian rough justice?

The actions of the Spartan leaders prove to be troubling as well. The Athenians beg the Spartans for help, outlining the offer from Mardonios they have rejected and contrast their behavior with the delay of the Spartans. The Spartans seem more interested in finishing their fortifications at the Isthmus of Corinth in order to protect the Peloponnese (and Sparta). Once one of their citizens makes the point that the wall will not protect them if the Athenians defect, the Spartans finally send men north to meet Mardonios’ troops. Why did the Spartans take so long? Their religious festivals were over and yet they stalled providing an answer to the Athenian envoys. Were they simply making sure the isthmus was fortified before joining the battle? Or is the answer more basic--they simply do things on their own timetable and in their own way?

Reactions to Spartan troops marching north proves to be good and bad for the Greeks. As other cities see Spartans joining the conflict their men flow into military camps to help defend Greece. When Mardonios hears the news, though, he demolishes what is left of Athens and heads to the plains of Boeotia (northwest of Athens) to provide more favorable terrain for his cavalry. The Greeks took their position in the foothills of Mount Cithaeron, initially refusing to engage in battle on the plain. Mardonios sends his cavalry under the command of Makistios to push and insult the Greeks in order to tease them out into open conflict. The Megarians were in the most vulnerable position that Makistios attacked and in reply to their call for assistance (the Megarians threaten to abandon their post if no help came...a common theme in these times) 300 Athenians respond. During the skirmish Makistios is thrown from his horse and killed, his Persian troops adrift without a leader (proving to be *major* foreshadowing).

Because of this victory, the Greeks move their camp to the plain near Plataea and debate over who should fight in the place of honor. The Athenians and Tegeans argue this point, each invoking their historic and recent fighting contributions. At the end of their speech the Athenians say they will fight in any position chosen for them, promising to be valiant regardless of the post. The entire Spartan camp agrees that the Athenians should occupy the left wing and Herodotus lays out the battle lines for both sides. For once, Mardonios does listen to the Thebans and puts “the most powerful part of his forces” to stand opposite the Spartans.

The mindset and attitude that Herodotus presents for the Greeks at Plataea are completely different than what was presented a year earlier at Salamis. At Plataea the Greeks are fighting over who gets the position of honor while at Salamis it was a battle to see who would sail away first. Greeks march into army camps every day to assist in the fight at Plataea while at Salamis almost everyone wanted to sail away. Maybe the knowledge that the Persians weren’t invincible, as shown at Salamis, provided most of the change. It wouldn’t have hurt that Xerxes fled to Persia after his loss at Salamis. In addition, Plataea provided soldiers that fought alongside Athenians at Marathon eleven years earlier, a convenient symbolic fact.

Stepping outside The Histories, but at a point where it adds an understanding of the mindset, comes the oath that anyone wanting to fight the Persians had to pledge. According to Diodorus, each soldier had to say this in order to join the fight:

The oath ran as follows: "I will not hold life dearer than liberty, nor will I desert the leaders, whether they be living or dead, but I will bury all the allies who have perished in the battle; and if I overcome the barbarians in the war, I will not destroy any one of the cities which have participated in the struggle; nor will I rebuild any one of the sanctuaries which have been burnt or demolished, but I will let them be and leave them as a reminder to coming generations of the impiety of the barbarians."

- The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, from 11.29

The inscription on the Plataea victory tripod that Athens dedicated at Delphi made clear that they believed they were fighting to free “their states from loathsome slavery's bonds” (Diodorus, 11.33). This oath and inscription mesh with and support the reasons the Athenians repeatedly gave when declining Xerxes’ and Mardonios’ offers.

More fighting at Plataea to follow…

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