Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Nine: Plataea

The Persians were not inferior in courage or strength, but they did not have hoplite arms, and besides, they were untrained and no match for their opponents in tactical skill. They were dashing out beyond the front lines individually or in groups of ten, joining together in larger or smaller bands, and charging right into the Spartan ranks, where they perished.

The place where the Lacedaemonians pressed their opponents the hardest was at the spot where Mardonios was fighting. He was mounted on a white horse and surrounded by 1,000 picked me, the best of the Persians, and for as long as he survived, the Persians maintained their resistance; and as they defended themselves, they struck down many of the Ladedaemonians. But when Mardonios was killed and the troops posted around him, who made up the most formidable division of the army, had also fallen, the other turned to flee and gave way to the Lacedaemonians. They were hurt the most by how they were equipped, namely by their lack of armor, for they were fighting as unarmed soldiers in a contest against well-equipped hoplites.

- from paragraphs 62 and 63, all quotes and spellings are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis.

This post covers the battle of Plataea after the first day of fighting as well as the immediate aftermath. I’ll link to these two good summaries of the battle again which can be found at and Ancient Greek Battles. I am covering paragraphs 33 through 89 of Book Nine for this post.

The lead-in to the battle (after the first day) takes on an almost comic tone at times. After the argument between the Athenians and Tegeans on who should take the place of honor in the battle line, omens for both the Persians and the Greeks prove to be favorable only for self-defense. So while neither side initiates an attack, the Persians harass the Greeks in order to provoke them to begin a fight. Meanwhile, a Theban alerts Mardonios to the Greeks pouring through the pass at Mount Cithaeron, adding to their ranks every day. Mardonios cuts the supply lines to the Greeks by sending some of the cavalry to this pass. In addition, he has their water supply fouled. Alexandros of Macedon informs the Greeks that Mardonios will attack immediately, causing the Greeks to reorder their lines. Mardonios finds out about the change so he changes the order of his line. After several shake-ups, the Greeks decide to move their army to a more defensible position where water would be plentiful and their supply lines could be reestablished. If the stakes weren’t so high, all of the dancing around the conflict would be funny.

Due to miscommunication and arguments within the Greek camp, their lines become spread out and apparently vulnerable. Mardonios misinterprets the Greeks’ relocation as a retreat and his cavalry harasses the Greek lines even more, eventually charging and attacking the Spartan section of the line. The Spartans maintain a defensive posture until the omens turn favorable, at which point they charge and wreak havoc on the Persian forces. The Spartans prove to be the better equipped and trained force, killing Mardonios and his guards. At this point, the Persians and their allies flee in panic but are cut down unmercifully. The Athenians, held up by conflict with Persian allies, eventually arrive at the Persian walled camp. They help the Spartans breech the wall and slaughter those in the camp.

The victory at Plataea immediately achieves legendary status. Greek troops that were at Plataea but did not engage in the battle (as the Spartans or Athenians did) tried to affect how history would remember them. Empty burial mounds were constructed to provide the appearance of participation by the troops of these poleis. The populaces of Mantineia and Elis, whose troops arrived after the battle was over, banish their military leaders. The Spartans don’t allow those that arrived late the privilege of chasing the fleeing armies. Everyone wanted to participate in the afterglow of the victory whether they actually helped or not.

The vaunted Persian cavalry finally makes an appearance at Plataea. The plain of Boeotia had been chosen by Mardonios specifically for cavalry operations, just as Marathon had been targeted because of its plain eleven years earlier. The skirmish on the first day, mentioned in the previous post, shows the cavalry effectively attacking the Megarians and Athenians, yet this force proved to be rudderless once their leader Makistios falls. While the Greeks were in the foothills the cavalry harassed them as well as blocked their supply trains. Once full engagement began, though, the Plataea plain becomes a killing field in favor of the Greeks. The Persian and Boeotian cavalry’s most notable contribution turned out to be providing “vital assistance” to protect fleeing troops from the pursuing Greeks.

Also notable at Plataea was the presence of Greek armies on the Persian side. Up to this point the medizing poleis’ contribution (voluntary or not) to Persia has mostly been in the form of providing information to Persian leaders in addition to facilitating logistics for the army and fleet, both of which were necessary for Persian success. At Plataea, Hellene versus Hellene took a bloody, palpable form. This section ends with the Greeks besieging Thebes and executing their leaders. The history of Greece is filled with skirmishes and battles between the various poleis, but never on this scale and never with the assistance of such a powerful ally as Persia on one side. When Herodotus seems to pine for the Greek unity displayed against Persia, it’s helpful to remember that many Greeks willingly fought on the Persians’ side. Herodotus notes in paragraph 67 that “most of the Greek allies of the King were behaving like cowards” (with the notable exception of the Thebans), but I can’t tell if he’s damning them for cowardice or providing them cover by saying they fought badly on purpose (most interpretations favor the latter). In addition, the Athenians and Spartans became separated during the relocation of troops. The Spartans take this as a sign of Athenian abandonment and request assistance since they bear the full brunt of the Persian cavalry. The Athenians were unable to assist the Spartans because of attacks by the Greek allies of Persia. Maybe Herodotus’ nostalgia and rebukes center on the display of Athens and Sparta fighting on the same side since overall Greek unity is not always a key selling point at Plataea.

Sparta’s many hesitations during the Persian invasions continue in one form or another even after the battle at Plataea begins since they delay any attack until the omens are favorable. Fortunately for the Spartans and the Greek allies the omens turn favorable during a full charge from the enemy. It almost seems like Sparta, despite having their entire culture set up to study and perfect warfare, avoids conflict as much as possible. Once engaged, though, they become a fearsome and effective killing machine.

The Spartans receive the most focus during and after the battle and they also provide the starkest contrast with the Persians. Herodotus highlights the differences explicitly when a Greek suggests to Pausanias that he should take revenge for the Persian’s defilement of Leonidas’ body (at Thermopylae) by impaling the corpse of Mardonios. Pausanias’ rejection of this advice highlights ideals the Greeks find worthy, contrasting these with the Persians’ abuse:

”My friend from Aegina, I commend and appreciate that you mean well and are trying to look out for my future interests, but this idea of yours falls short of good judgment. After you have raised me up on high, together with exalting my homeland and my achievement, you cast me down to nothing by encouraging me to abuse a corpse, claiming that if I did so, I would have a better reputation. But this is a deed more appropriate to barbarians than to Hellenes, though we resent them for it all the same. In any case, because of this, I could hardly please the Aeginetans or anyone else who approves of such deeds as this. It is quite enough for me to please the Spartans by committing no sacrilege and by speaking with respect for what is lawful and sacred. As for Leonidas, whom you urge me to avenge, I tell you that he and the others who met their ends at Thermopylae have already achieved great vengeance by the countless souls of those who lie here dead. As for you, do not ever again approach me with such a suggestion or try to advise me, and be thankful to leave here without suffering harm.”

(from paragraph 79)

Xerxes’ speech to his uncle Artabanos before the invasion of 480 BC begins (7.50) provides another contrast with the Spartans during the battle of Plataea. Xerxes admonishes his uncle, saying that it is better to act and suffer half of what is dreaded than to always fear and suffer nothing…success will only come to those that act boldly. The Spartans prove that it isn’t enough to act boldly but to do so at the appropriate time. Amompharetos, a Spartan captain, highlights one of the Spartan tenets while providing yet another divergence from the Persians. Having missed the strategy meeting of the previous night, he mistakes the relocation of forces as retreat. Upholding the Spartan belief that it is better to die than retreat, he initially refuses to budge. Amompharetos' stubbornness in standing his ground stands in stark contrast to the Persians’ flight once Mardonios falls.

I’ll close this post with one more quote comparing the Persians and Greeks, this time focusing on the difference between the lavish Persian lifestyle and …well…Spartan fare:

It is also reported that Xerxes ad left his tent to Mardonios when he fled from Hellas, and that when Pausanias saw these quarters of Mardonios and how they were furnished with embroidered draperies, he ordered the bread bakers and the cooks to prepare a meal for him like those they had made for Mardonios. When they had carried out their orders and Pausanias saw the golden and silver couches with sumptuous covering and the tables, also of gold and silver, all set out with a magnificent feast, he was struck with wonder at the good things lying before him, and then, as a joke, ordered his servants to prepare a Laconian meal. When the banquet was ready, the difference between the two were great indeed, and Pausanias laughed, and then sent for the generals of the Hellenes. When they had all come to him, Pausanias, as he pointed to each of the meals that had been served, said, “Men of Hellas, I have brought you here together, because I wanted to show you what an idiot the leader of the Medes was. This was his lifestyle, but he came to us, who have the miserable way of life, in order to deprive us of it.” That is what Pausanias is reported to have said to the generals of the Hellenes.

(paragraph 82)

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