The Battle of Plataea: A Decisive Victory that Changed History

The Battle of Plataea was the last land battle of the 2nd-Greco Persian War and was the nail in the coffin for the Persian invasion.

May 10, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

battle of plataea


In 480 BCE, the Second Persian invasion of Greece saw intense fighting, starting with the Battle of Thermopylae, which set the tone for dogged resistance that the Greek city-states would throw at the superpower that was the Persian Empire. King Xerxes I of Persia was determined to conquer Greece, a prize that had eluded his father, King Darius, 10 years before when the Persians were defeated at Marathon. The entire campaign only lasted for a year, as Greece won a string of important victories, but also suffered massive destruction of their lands, including the destruction of the city of Athens.


Eventually, the two armies maneuvered to a place called Plataea, where almost 200 000 men formed up to do battle and decide the fate of Greece. The Battle of Plataea was the last land battle of the Second Greco-Persian War. It was a massive contest not just physically, but for what it would mean for the futures of Greece, Persia, and, indeed, the known world.


Prelude to the Battle of Plataea

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The Battle of Salamis (featuring Artemisia with a bow), by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868, via Bayerischer Landtag


After the action at Thermopylae, the Persian army ransacked Boeotia, burning the cities of Plataea and Thespiae before moving southwest to capture the city of Athens, which, by then, had been evacuated.


The ensuing naval Battle of Salamis was a crushing defeat for the Persians and gave the Greeks, especially Athens, the key to deciding the future of the war. The Greek alliance was fragile, and in-fighting resulted in the Athenian fleet — by far the largest — leaving the naval alliance. This led to the Persians making overtures to try and get the Athenians to switch sides. Making sure the Spartan delegation was also present, the Athenians rejected the Persian request. This action led to the Persians burning the city, upon which the Athenians fled to the Island of Salamis.

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Again the Persian general Mardonius gave the Athenians a chance to surrender, but the Athenians, along with the Megarians and the Plataeans, sent a messenger to Sparta to demand assistance and threatened to accept the Persian terms. The Spartans responded in force and marched thousands of hoplites north to deal with the Persians.


The Persians and the Greeks Deploy

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The Spartan king Pausanias conducts an animal sacrifice before the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE), from The illustrated history of the world for the English people, 1881, via


When Mardonius heard that the Spartans were marching north, he hastily finished the destruction of Athens and moved northwest in the direction of Thebes toward open ground, which would be suitable for the use of cavalry. With a force of approximately 100 000 soldiers, he encamped on the north bank of the Asopus River near the town of Plataea. The Persian army consisted of a massive array of soldiers from all over the Persian Empire and beyond, from Egypt all the way to India.


The Spartans numbered approximately 10 000, and were reinforced by hoplites and other soldiers from around 20 other city-states. Most notable of these were the Athenians, who supplied 8 000 hoplites, Corinth, which supplied 5 000, Megara, and Sicyon, each supplying 3 000 hoplites. In total, the Greek army was under 40 000 soldiers and was outnumbered by about 2.5 to 1.


Under the leadership of the Spartan General Pausanias, the Greeks took up position on a hill to the south of the Asopus River, and held a commanding view of the surrounding area.


The Battle Begins

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The initial deployment of the Greek and Persian forces at Plataea, via Ian Bull/The Past


The opening phase of the Battle of Plataea saw the Persian cavalry trying to lure the Greeks down into the open field. Using hit-and-run tactics, and under the command of Masistius, they achieved moderate success until an archer shot the flank of Masistius’ horse, causing the commander to fall to the ground. The Athenians rushed forward and slayed him, with the killing blow being a stab through the eye.


Both armies moved toward each other and took up new positions. The Spartans and the Tegeans took up the right flank on the edge of the Asopus Ridge, while the Athenians took up the left flank on a hill. Between them, their allies took up positions on slightly lower ground, which still held a commanding view of the enemy force which had advanced to the edge of the river.


For eight days, the two sides stared each other down, with both sides having maneuvered into a deadlock. Mardonius eventually sought to break the impasse and sent cavalry forces to the passes through Mount Cithaeron to the rear of the Greek forces. By doing so, they struck a blow to the Greek forces by capturing vital supplies.


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The Greek retreat causes the line to fragment, and the Persians take advantage of the chaos to press the attack, via Ian Bull/The Past


Two days later, the Persian cavalry advanced and captured an area to the south of the Athenians, blocking access to the Gargaphian Spring, which was the only source of water for the Greek army. Facing this supply crisis, the Greeks decided to fall back to the town of Plataea, which they decided to do at night to avoid being attacked by the Persian cavalry. The retreat, however, was a disaster. Poor communication led to confusion, and the Greek forces ended up in disarray. By daybreak, the Persians realized the Greek line was fragmented and took the opportunity to press the advantage.


The Heavy Fighting Begins

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Hoplites, battle scene from the Nereid Monument, 390-380 BCE, via British Museum


The Persians advanced, crossed the river, and began the attack. The Spartans came under attack from Persian cavalry, and then infantry while the Athenians were occupied with a Theban phalanx (the Thebans were Greek, but had allied with the Persians on this occasion).


The Spartans withstood barrages of arrows and eventually decided to go on the offensive. Slowly pressing forward, the Spartans and the Tegeans pushed into the Persian lines. Comparatively, the individual Persian soldiers were at a severe disadvantage. They had wicker shields, cloth armor, and short spears. In contrast, the Greeks were clad in linothoraxes and bronze breastplates, while wielding wood and bronze shields, and longer spears. The Persians tried to overcome the longer spears by grabbing them, but the Greeks compensated by using their swords when this happened. The Persians were overwhelmed by the superior arms and armor of their enemies.


The Persians stood their ground, inspired by the presence of General Mardonius, who rode about upon his white horse. But the Greeks pushed forward slowly until a Spartan soldier named Arimnestus killed the Persian commander. With this huge blow to the Persian army, morale plummeted, and they began to panic and flee. Plunging morale spread like wildfire through the Persian army, and the rout became general, with the vast majority of the Persian army now attempting to flee.


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The Greeks advance against the poorly equipped Persians, via Yale University Press


On the left flank of the Greek army, the Athenians had fought hard against the Theban phalanx and had emerged victorious. The Thebans retreated, and the Athenians allowed them to leave unharassed. Buoyed by these successes, the Greeks pressed forward, forged the river, and surrounded the Persian camp. After a short attempt to defend the camp, it was breached, and the Greeks slaughtered the tightly-packed Persians. The Battle of Plataea was over, and the Greeks had turned a disaster into a stunning victory.


Meanwhile, the Battle of Mycale Takes Place

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The Battle of Mycale, via


Far to the east, on the Ionian shores, the Persians had put ashore and assembled an army of 60 000 men. Pursued by the Greeks, they built a palisade to protect their fleet at the foot of Mount Mycale.


Although inferior in number, and attacking from the sea, the Greeks, numbering 40 000, attacked the Persian camp and won a decisive victory. The Battle of Mycale took place on August 27, allegedly on the same day as the Battle of Plataea. This is according to the Greek historian Herodotus, who was known to have exaggerated the truth on many occasions. Nevertheless, the double blow to the Persians put an end to Persians ability to invade Greece. With their entire fleet either destroyed or in Greek hands, they had no naval option at all.


The Aftermath of the Battles of Plataea and Mycale

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The inside of a cylix depicting a Greek hoplite slaying a fallen Persian, 460 BCE, National Museums Scotland


Following the disintegration of the Persian offensive, the war entered a new phase of Greek counter-offensives. Headed by Athens, the Greeks attacked Persian possessions, liberating areas of Macedon and Thrace to the north of Greece. They also liberated the Aegean Islands one by one and retook the former Greek colonies in Ionia on the western coast of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey.


In 449, the Peace of Callias formally ended the Greco-Persian Wars and ended the threat of any Persian invasion of Greece. Greece would not enjoy peace for long, however. Less than two decades later, the attrition between the city-states of Greece would lead to a struggle for dominance between Athens and Sparta known as the Peloponnesian War.


As Sparta stamped its dominance on Greece, conflicts would continue right up until the invasion of Greece by the Macedonians and the defeat of the Greeks at Chaeronea in August 338 BCE.


Why the Battle of Platea Is Significant?

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The plains of Plataea today. Image via the Department of Classical Studies, University of Western Ontario


The Battle of Plataea is not as well known as the Battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, or Salamis, but along with the Battle of Mycale, it was just as significant, perhaps even more so. It set the stage for Greek ascendancy and marked a point of decline for the Persian Empire. It set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to Alexander the Great’s campaigns and his complete conquest of Persia.


The Battle of Plataea also proved the effectiveness of superior armor, weaponry, training, and drill. This combination resulted in soldiers that, together, were worth far more than the sum of their parts, and far more effective than their Persian counterparts. This revelation would be built upon in the decades to come and would result in the ascendancy of the phalanx as the Greek superweapon. It also led the Persians to rely more heavily on Greek mercenaries and less on their own troops in future conflicts.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.