"These men left an altar of glory on their land,
shining in all weather,
When they were enveloped by the black mists of
But though they died
They are not dead, for their courage raises them
From the rooms of Hell."
Due to supply difficulties, Xerxes himself returned to Asia with about half his army but left Mardonius behind in Boeotia with the more efficient troops. In the summer of 479 B.C., a confederated Greek force of some 38,000 hoplites under the command of the Spartan King Pausanius marched north to seek battle with the invaders. They took up position in the foothills of Mount Cithaeron where they were attacked by the Persian cavalry. The Athenians with their small force of archers were effective in holding off these attacks and when the Persian cavalry commander, Masistius, was killed after being unhorsed, the Persians were clearly dismayed.
The Greek force then descended into the plain and ranged themselves on a series of ridges above the river Asopus. The position was relatively easy to supply and had a source of water, a fountain known as Gargaphia. The river Asopus was not suitable as a water source due to the attentions of the Persian cavalry.
The two armies now lined up opposite each other. The Spartans held the place of honour on the Greek right while the Athenians and Plataeans held the left of the line. The other Greek contingents including 5,000 hoplites from Corinth were in the centre.
The Greek army, according to Herodotus, totalled around 38,000 hoplites with double that number of light troops.The Greek army, which was in part composed of those who came at the first, in part of such as had flocked in from day to day, drew up in the following order:- Ten thousand Lacedaemonian troops held the right wing, five thousand of whom were Spartans; and these five thousand were attended by a body of thirty-five thousand Helots, who were only lightly armed- seven Helots to each Spartan. The place next to themselves the Spartans gave to the Tegeans, on account of their courage and of the esteem in which they held them. They were all fully armed, and numbered fifteen hundred men. Next in order came the Corinthians, five thousand strong; and with them Pausanias had placed, at their request, the band of three hundred which had come from Potidaea in Pallene. The Arcadians of Orchomenus, in number six hundred, came next; then the Sicyonians, three thousand; then the Epidaurians, eight hundred; then the Troezenians, one thousand; then the Lepreats, two hundred; the Mycenaeans and Tirynthians, four hundred; the Phliasians, one thousand; the Hermionians, three hundred; the Eretrians and Styreans, six hundred; the Chalcideans, four hundred; and the Ambraciots, five hundred. After these came the Leucadians and Anactorians, who numbered eight hundred; the Paleans of Cephallenia, two hundred; the Eginetans, five hundred; the Megarians, three thousand; and the Plataeans, six hundred. Last of all, but first at their extremity of the line, were the Athenians, who, to the number of eight thousand, occupied the left wing, under the command of Aristides, the son of Lysimachus.
Herodotus places the total number of forces under the command of the Persian
general Mardonius at 300,000. This, like all his tallies of enemy contingents,
seems inflated. Peter Connolly, author of Greece and Rome at War, conjectures,
based on the reported size of Mardonius' stockade, that the force could have
been as large as 120,000.
The Persian army, and the conscripts of the subject nations, were armed for speed and manoeuvrability. The bow, short lance, and dagger-like sword (akinakes) were the weapons available to the Persian infantryman. The elite units, such as the Immortals, may have had scaled armour corselets, but their shields would have been constructed of leather covered wicker-work, and helmets, if worn at all, would have resembled elegant bronze funnels that sat atop their heads.
Mardonius lined up his Persians on his left wing,1,000 Guard troops and the Immortals facing the Spartans themselves. Other contingents of Medes, Indians and Scythians formed his centre while opposite the Athenians he formed up his Theban "medizing" Greek hoplites. It appears from their performance in the battle that they were anything but unwilling.
Mardonius, from his frontlines on the Aisopos, sighted the Greeks and particularly the Megarians in their vulnerable spot along the road. Immediately, he ordered his elite cavalry to attack. They launched a punishing missile assault that pushed the Megarians to the edge of withdrawal. Their pleas for help were answered by a contingent of Athenian bowmen and the Persians withdrew to their side of the Aisopos.
What followed was an impasse. The Persians did not want to attack the strong Greek position while the Greeks did not wish to descend to the level plain where the Persian cavalry would be able to out manoeuvre them. This went on for eight days.
Mardonius then launched a series of cavalry raids which cut the Greek supply lines over the Megara pass. Still the Greeks waited. Mardonius' cavalry harried the Greek forces and managed to pollute the fountain which had been left undefended.
The final battle
The Greeks now held a council to decide what action to take. It was normal practice in the Spartan army for each of the Lochagoi or regimental commanders to be present at such a council. In this case, they were not probably due the number of Allied contingents present. The decision was made to withdraw to a better position. The aim was to withdraw at night. Meanwhile the Corinthians and other Peloponnesians who comprised the Greek centre fell back to the town of Plataea. In the plain between the town and Pyrgos Hill, the Athenians were overtaken by the Theban army. The intent was for the Spartans to do the same but one lochagos, Amompharetus, refused to withdraw his regiment claiming he should have been consulted before the decision was made. A protracted wrangle then ensued between Pausanius and Amompharetus which lasted almost until dawn when Pausanius marched the rest of the Spartan army off followed reluctantly at some distance by Amompharetus.
As day broke, Persian pickets sounded the alarm at the sight of the empty ridges to the south. Mardonius, encouraged by the news, and thinking he could catch the Greeks in a panicked retreat, ordered a full attack. By the time the Persians crossed the Aisopos and rolled over and around the ridge line, the Spartans, Greek centre, and Athenian contingents became dangerously separated into three distinct formations, unable to offer assistance to each other.
Pausanius held his troops on the ridge against, first, Persian cavalry then ever increasing numbers of Persian archers while he waited for the omens to be favourable. The disciplined troops held their line as volleys of arrows were directed at them. The Persian infantry stood behind a fence of shields and their depth and hence ability to manoeuvre steadily increased. Finally the Tegeans moved, inducing the Spartans to attack also. This long delay of the Spartans Herodotus attributes to unfavourable omens as Pausanias performed sacrifice after sacrifice. While it was true that no Spartan commander would initiate an attack without the gods' consent, Mardonius had struck first, relieving Pausanias of any such concern. It is more likely that he stalled his attack until the weight of the Persian reinforcements pressing forward provided a dense and immobile target.
According to Herodotus, "First there was a struggle at the barricade of shields; then the barricade down, there was a bitter and protracted fight, hand to hand... for the Persians would grab 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. Sometimes singly, sometimes in groups of ten—perhaps fewer, perhaps more, they fell upon the Spartan line and were cut down
But still the contest was in doubt. The Persian mounted troops, under personal command of Mardonius, began to push the Spartans back, and the battle might have been won by the Persians but for the strong arm of a Spartan soldier. With the toss of a stone, Mardonius was unhorsed. Without their leader the Persian formation began to lose its cohesiveness; the Spartans heaved forward. The troops who made up the Greek centre advanced on the run at the sight of the Persians reeling under the Spartan surge. Artabazos, seeing this also, retreated hastily with 40,000 troops.
The Greeks moved north relentlessly, crossed the river and closed on the Persian stockade. The Tegeans were the first to breach the fort and enter. By the time the battle ended less than 3,000 of Mardonius' troops survived. Herodotus recounts the Greek dead as follows: 91 Spartans; 16 Tegeans; 52 Athenians; 600 Megarians, Corinthians and Phliasians.