Forget Thermopylae, This Is The Battle That Actually Won The war


The battle of Plataea is not an event that gets instant recognition like the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. It often gets overlooked for many reasons, primarily because it was a battle of immense confusion and it is hard to see definite tactics at play. Others focus on the naval battle at Salamis as the defining turning point in the war. While Salamis was indeed an amazing victory for the Greeks, the near simultaneous land and naval victories at Plataea and Mycale were the battles to end the possibility of Persian victory. After the defeat at Salamis, the Persian navy still outnumbered the Greeks and the land army was still larger than any force the Greeks could field and was further bolstered by Greeks fighting for the Persians. The Greeks still had one major battle left to wipe away their fears of Persian domination.

After the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, which decimated the Persian navy, Xerxes sailed back to Persian territory because he was concerned that the Greeks would seize the opportunity to destroy the pontoon bridges over the Hellespont and trap his land army in Europe. This was not at all a reduction of the war effort as Xerxes left the skilled general, Mardonius, in command of 80,000-120,000 handpicked troops, including a large number of pro-Persian Greeks such as the Thebans. Mardonius was able to sack Athens for a second time and sought open battle with the Greeks, but only on flat ground where he could utilize his cavalry effectively.

A good overview of the Greco-Persian Wars
A good overview of the Greco-Persian Wars

A strategic stalemate ensued when the Spartans and their allies withdrew to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and would not risk leaving and being caught in Mardonius’ ideal flat terrain. Mardonius also would not risk assaulting such a defended area. Mardonius focused his energy on the displaced Athenians and attempted to diplomatically take them out of the war. Athens sent delegates to Sparta to warn them that they may just accept these terms if Sparta did not march out to attack. The Spartans realized the magnitude of this ultimatum and marched out with great haste to meet Mardonius.

The Greeks were able to communicate and raise a force of three mostly equal contingents: the Athenians, the Spartans and a collection of all other city-states sending troops. The number of Greek troops reported by Herodotus is worth investigating. His count of 38,700 hoplites from the various city-states is generally accepted however Herodotus claims that there were seven helots per Spartan hoplite, so 35,000 slaves under 5,000 Spartans. With such a history of helot uprisings some people have argued that the helots would not have been able to be controlled on the march, vastly outnumbering their Spartan masters. On the other hand it is possible that the number is correct and the helots were brought in such numbers to lower the likelihood of a revolt while the army was gone. Either way the Greek army totaled over 80,000 men when including slaves who largely acted as squires. However only the 38,700 hoplites are credited with having any impact during the actual battle.

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