The Second Greco-Persian War was a major contest between the might of Persia and the disparate Greek city-states which had come together to fight a common foe. The Persian invasion was effectively crushed after the Greeks won a major victory at Plataea on the Greek mainland. However, it didn’t take long for the Greeks to go on the offensive. Almost immediately (by some accounts on the same day), the Greeks launched their own attack on Persian soil to cripple any possible Persian ability for a renewed offensive.
Background to the Battle of Mycale
In 482 BCE, King Xerxes I of Persia (Achaemenid Dynasty) invaded Greece. With possibly the biggest army ever assembled in the ancient world, the Persians laid waste to many parts of northern Greece.
The Greeks, severely outnumbered, attempted to stall the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium. At Thermopylae, a tiny force of a few thousand Greeks, led by King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 Spartans, held the pass of Thermopylae for two days before succumbing to the Persians on the third day. Meanwhile, off the coast, the naval battle of Artemisium was taking place to protect the Greek flank. 271 Greek triremes engaged a force of over 1 200 Persian ships. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks sank hundreds of enemy vessels, but it wasn’t without significant loss. The Greeks lost a hundred vessels of their own.
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Overwhelmed, and with the Battle of Thermopylae over, there was no point in the Greeks staying. So, they sailed to the straits of Salamis, where they prepared to draw the Persian fleet into a narrow strip of water off the western coast of Athens.
Again, heavily outnumbered, the result was a decisive victory for the Greeks under the leadership of Themistocles, who commanded the fleet. The Persian losses at Artemisium and Salamis were a huge blow to the Persians, who would no longer be able to support their massive land army from the sea. Fearing that the Greeks would destroy the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont and trap the Persian army in Greece, the Persians decided to retreat back to Asia Minor with the majority of the army. Still, they left a major force under the command of Mardonius, who was tasked with completing the conquest of Greece.
The Greek fleet was ascendant, but the Persian fleet was still a major threat that, under the right leadership, could turn the tide back in their own favor.
The Greek navy then sailed eastwards to the island of Delos, halfway between the Greek mainland and Asia Minor. Here, the Greek navy, now under the command of the Spartan king, Leotychides, linked up with the Athenian navy under the command of Xanthippus, who had succeeded Themistocles. They were approached by a delegation from the island of Samos directly east, off the coast of Ionia.
The delegation suggested that if the Greeks pursued and attacked the Persian navy near Ionia, the Greek city-states under the Persian Empire’s yoke would rise up in rebellion.
The Greek Fleet Sets Sail
There is little documentation of the Battle of Mycale. What we know today comes mainly from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus and, to a lesser extent, the Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus Siculus.
The Greek movements were not unknown to the Persians. When they heard the Greek navy was on the way to Ionia across the Aegean Sea, the Persian fleet sailed from Samos to the foot of mount Mycale on the coast of Ionia. A Persian army of 60 000 men under the command of Tigranes was camped there. When the Persian fleet arrived, they beached the ships and built a palisade around them.
Upon arrival at Samos in August 479 BCE, the Greeks discovered the Persian fleet had left, and they were unsure of what course of action to take. Eventually, they decided to set sail for the mainland, where they discovered the position taken up by the Persians. Leotychides sailed as close to the coast as possible, whereupon, according to Herodotus, the Greeks appealed to the Ionians to either take up arms against the Persians or at least not to join the fight against the Greeks. Herodotus also suggests the appeal may have been a ruse to make the Persians distrust their Ionian allies.
The Two Sides Prepare to Battle
The Greek allies beached their ships and began to disembark an army of marines. Mistrustful of the Ionians in their ranks, the Persians took measures to protect themselves from betrayal. The Samians (from Samos) were disarmed, while the Milesians (from Miletus) were sent to guard the passes over the mountain. Thus the Persians removed two of the immediate dangers. Nevertheless, with a massive army of 60 000 men and in a good defensive position, the Persians were understandably confident.
It is suggested that the Greeks at Mycale had been informed of the victory at the Battle of Plataea earlier in the month, and morale was boosted even further. For the Persians, the defeat at Salamis and their retreat from the Greek mainland would have led to them being dispirited. Nevertheless, they left camp and prepared to do battle.
The Two Forces Engage
The Greeks deployed in two wings. The right flank of the right wing was buttressed by the coast, and consisted of Athenians, Corinthians, Sicyonians, and Troezenians. The left flank of the left-wing pointed towards the slopes of Mount Mycale and consisted of Spartans.
The Persians formed up directly in front of their camp and directly ahead of the Athenian-led wing, leaving their right flank exposed. The Spartans thus attempted to outflank the Persians over the rocky ground at the base of Mount Mycale. The Athenians, according to Herodotus, engaged the Persians with intense ferocity as they wanted to achieve victory without requiring the Spartan contingent.
The Persians held firm for a short while before succumbing to the pressure from the Athenian wing and falling back to the safety of the camp. The Athenian wing pursued and re-engaged the flagging Persians, many of whom started fleeing the camp. Herodotus recounts that the ethnic Persians put up the most resistance while the other elements of the army fled.
Eventually, having traversed the broken, rocky ground between Mount Mycale and the Persian camp, the Spartans arrived. Completing the flanking maneuver, they entered the camp and attacked the rear of the remaining Persians. It didn’t take long for the Persians to break. With no cohesion left, the entire Persian army was routed.
Herodotus claims that the Samians joined the fight on the side of the Greeks, but without arms, it is likely they weren’t deployed near the main combat. The Milesians guarding the passes over Mount Mycale also turned on the Persians, either killing the fleeing Persians or redirecting them back toward the Greeks.
Herodotus does not go into detail about how many casualties each side took but states that the losses were heavy on both sides. The Persians suffered a loss in leadership with the death of their admiral, Mardontes, as well as the general, Tigranes. The Greeks also lost their general, Perilaus. Both Herodotus and Diodorus note that the surviving Persians escaped toward Sardis. Leotychides and Xanthippus both survived the battle.
Battle of Mycale: Conclusion
After the battle, the Spartans sailed home, while the Athenians stayed on to recapture Greek possessions, notably the Chersonese (now known as Gallipoli). They laid siege to the city of Sestos, which they eventually captured.
With the devastating losses at Plataea and Mycale, the Persian ability to invade Greece had been crippled. However, they still posed a threat to the Ionian cities that would rise in a second rebellion against their Persian overlords.
The significance of the Battle of Mycale cannot be overstated. While Salamis gained fame for saving Greece from immediate conquest, it was the battles of Plataea and Mycale which effectively ended the threat. The Battle of Plataea dealt a major blow to any hopes of conquering Greece with the forces that were already there, and the Battle of Mycale was the final nail in the coffin of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece.
The Greeks, however, kept their guard up, knowing that the Persian Empire was vast and could launch another attempt. Despite the ability to raise more armies, the Persians had lost the will to deal with the Greeks. They would focus on other things.
The Greeks, too, would focus on other things. The growing tension between Athens and Sparta would lead to the Peloponnesian War. The age where virtually the whole of Greece was united against a common enemy was over.