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

 
 
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The Persians prepared to meet the Greeks by constructing a fortified camp just north of the Asopus River, leaving a favorable plot of flat land to the south were the Greeks were heading.  The Greeks saw this trap as they approached and set up their lines on Asopus ridge running parallel to the Persian lines. There was also a spring on the ridge behind the Athenian left which was able to supply the entire army. Another stalemate ensued and Mardonius may have attempted to spread dissention by sending different messages to the different commanders.

Map of the positions prior to battle. notice the hill occupied by the Greeks and their only source of water from the spring.
Map of the positions prior to battle. notice the hill occupied by the Greeks and their only source of water from the spring.

Mardonius continued to attempt to lure the Greeks into the plain by harassing them with his cavalry led by Masistius. The attacks which were meant to simply entice the Greeks to move were actually causing considerable damage to the Greek lines and Masistius, upon seeing that the enemy was struggling and on the verge of breaking, pressed the attack and was on the verge of routing the 3,000 Megarian hoplites when 300 Athenians supported by at least as many archers came to their aid.

The ensuing skirmish was hard fought on both sides and the tide turned when an arrow struck down Masistius’s horse and he was overcome and killed by a wave of Athenian hoplites. Herodotus goes into some detail about how impressive of a figure this man was; not only was he the cavalry commander but he was tall and strong and had a corslet of golden scales with a scarlet cloak.  It was important for both sides to secure the body as it was a morale booster for the Greeks and the Persian cavalry just wanted to give their commander a proper funeral. A fierce struggle for the body ensued which switched hands three times and ended up with the Athenians while the rest of the Persians were forced to withdraw.

An artist depection of the confusion and chaos at Plataea
An artist depiction of the confusion and chaos at Plataea

This was a huge blow to Persian morale as Masistius’s reputation was second only to Mardonius’s. Mardonius played it safe for several days and neither side wanted to commit, Mardonius fearing that his men’s morale was too weak and the Greeks fearing the Persian cavalry. Mardonius reverted back to the small scale, but effective, cavalry raids. The Greeks had no answer for the smaller scale cavalry engagements and they soon began disrupting their supply lines. On the eighth day a cavalry raid succeeded in disrupting the spring which supplied the water for the Greeks and the Greeks situation became dire. The Greeks were no essentially under siege with severely limited food and water especially considering the size of their force with the helots and other attendants.

A council was convened with all the significant groups represented under the overall command of the Spartan king regent Pausanias. It was decided that come nightfall the three separate contingents of Greeks would withdraw to an area in front of the town of Plataea which would provide water and raised ground for the whole army. After the meeting things did not go at all how the Greeks originally planned.

Herodotus explains that upon hearing the plan to retreat, Amompharetus, a Spartan company commander refused to retreat on the grounds that it was against Spartan law to run from the enemy. It supposedly took until dawn for Pausanias to decide to retreat without Amompharetus’s company and the Athenians had also not moved because they were unsure of the Spartans plans anymore. The Greek center of multiple city-states, however had gotten about to the town of Plataea by daybreak. Mardonius saw this staggered retreat and took it for a full rout and attacked with great haste.

 

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This shows how completely spread out the battle would become. The Greeks were scattered but this forced the Persians to scatter as well, allowing the three Greek formations to manage their own battles.

While this is a possible series of events as to how the Greeks wound up half retreated and scattered around the battlefield Peter Green in his book The Greco-Persian Wars thinks it is a “monumentally silly” story. According to Green there is no way that the acting king would take such insubordinate attitude from his own men and the matter would have been dealt with in minutes. Green then proposes that the Spartans remained behind to lure Mardonius into thinking that the other Greeks were fleeing.

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