Plataea: A snippet of time in a decisive ancient battle.
Were the Spartans the great warriors we would believe?
So this is a problem I’ve been thinking about for a while.
It concerns this: That great, and somewhat underlooked, battle at Plataea. For a few insane minutes, a huge army of Spartans hunkered under their shields as a black sandstorm of arrows fell on them. The army stood on the knife-edge of destruction.
Herodotus, the revered ‘father of history’ and the first great world historian gives us a rough account of this decisive battle from over two millenia ago. He tells us that as the massed forces of the Persian warrior elite, the famous ‘Immortals’ thumped into view, they proceeded to bombard the Spartans with arrows. Rather than charging the Persians immediately (The Spartans weren’t so good at long-range skirmishing) they needed to consult their auguries, make sacrifices and generally go through several stodgy pre-battle rituals. But this account seems a little strange to me. The Spartans were professional warriors. No doubt rituals meant a lot to them as they did to most premodern peoples. But to stand there being hit by arrows while their priests tried to slaughter their animals for a ritual? This is a little difficult to believe.
So what happened?
So the year was 479 BC. The Persian Empire, the greatest the world has ever known, had invaded Greece, under its King-of-kings Xerxes. A relatively weak alliance of city states including the Athenians and Spartans has tried to put up resistance with mixed success. The Persians have overran the Spartans at Thermopylae, and destroyed Athens. But their fleet has gone and gotten itself destroyed at Salamis. Xerxes had fled home, leaving his chief commander, Mardonius, to finish the job.
A motley group of Greek city-states including Sparta and Athens had arrayed themselves up to fight Mardonius and hopefully kick his still-large army of elite Persian troops out of Greece. But if Mardonius won, or even just caused a stalemate, the Greek army would probably fall apart, leading in all likelihood to a Persian conquest of this, one of the starting points of western civilisation.
Historians have frequently ignored this Battle. But Persia, even though its army was probably reliant on sea power to project itself in the mediterranean, was primarily a land power. Any long-term Greek victory had to involve the defeat of the land army which had conquered most of Asia.
During the battle, the Spartans, who made up perhaps a third or even half the Greek army were busy arguing among themselves. They had just spent several days on the receiving end of hit-and-run horse archery tactics by the Persian cavalry which had been slowly battering them and wearing them out disrupting their supply lines and hitting them with arrows from long range from where the spear-and-sword armed Greeks could not effectively reply.
The Spartan commander Pausanius had decided to retreat the Greek army. And the Persians (or at least most of their elite cavalry and infantry troops under Mardonius, while at least one of his commanders had mysteriously fled) had gone in pursuit, thinking the Greeks were finished and they could destroy the alliance once and for all. Their cavalry nipped at the Greeks heels with arrows, threatening to turn the whole thing into a rout. To make things worse, at least one Spartan commander had stubbornly tried to stay behind to fight the Persians while the rest kept going. This endangered the whole army, which was strung out retreating.
It was at this stage that the slower Persian elite infantry, which had been pursuing them as well, thundered into view. As per the Persian Infantry doctrine of the time, they arrayed up in units ten ranks deep, with the first rank carrying large wicker shields arrayed next to each other like a huge wall. Few could have helped being impressed by this huge display of Persian tactics.
So the Arrow–storm started. What happened next?
Prior to the battle, the Greeks had tried hard to array their forces opposite those forces in the Persian camp whom their respective contingents were more familiar with. Since the Athenians had more experience of the Persians tactics, they should fight them, while the Spartans, being more experienced with hand-to-hand fighting against other Greeks, should fight the Thebans, the Persians Greek allies. But things didn’t turn out like that – the Persians fought the Spartans.
In other words, it seems (if we can trust a battle account that is 2,400 years old and handed down to us through several oral and written sources) the Spartans were surprised by that initial volley of arrows, and basically stood quivering there for the first few minutes. The Greeks at times used archery, but hardly on this scale and it is unlikely that the Spartans would have ever seen anything like it before.
The only Spartans who had actually encountered the Persians in a set-piece battle in living memory were at Thermopylae or Salamis. The elite Spartans at Thermopylae had all been slain (except for the immensely brave aristodemus, who would charge into the Persian ranks in this battle) by the time of Plataea. At Salamis, the small Spartan contingent took a backseat to the Athenians and were facing Persians who had been either rowing all night, unaccustomed to fighting at sea, or had their aim knocked off by the heaving triremes they were in.
Bear in mind that they were fighting against at least 10,000 Persians from the elite Immortals (and probably rather more), who heavily grounded their fighting expertise based on archery fire, either from horseback or on foot. These were amongst the very best Persian and Asiatic warriors, drawn from selected families amongst the Persian nobility – the equivalent of the best Spartan hoplites to some degree.
The fire would have been not unlike that at Agincourt or the river Sajo, with literally hundreds of thousands of arrows splitting sky in just those first few ghastly minutes. Anyone not completely covered by a shield and armour (incidently Persian archery could penetrate their armour at close range so there was no sure defence) could feel an arrows strike through hand, leg, groin or eyeball.
No wonder Callicrates ‘the most beautiful man in the army’ was amongst those who died with an arrow in his side without lifting an arm against the enemy to his ending regret. And no wonder this is recorded with such (apparent) accuracy: this would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which few on the Greek side had ever witnessed before or since.
So what was happening here? If we go by modern authors like Adrian Goldsworthy, many ancient battles worked essentially through complicated issues of crowd psychology. Trying to motivate an army to charge through such an arrow-storm against a strangely dressed unknown enemy (especially when many were Helot serfs who may not have had any particular investment in a Spartan victory) would have been difficult to do.
The Spartans just stood there quivering (in a most unSpartan way) for several minutes while the Persians shot arrow after arrow into them.
It was probably only after the battle that the ‘consulting the auguries’ myth was inserted, either consciously or unconsciously, to help keep the historical narrative in line with the myth of Spartan bravery. The Spartans had frequently used their rituals as an excuse not to do things – such as the battles of Marathon or Thermopylae, where the participation of their whole army in said battles (and not just a small force at the latter fight) could have made a big difference. And we know that the Spartans were vulnerable to missiles – Later on in the century, in the battle of Sphacteria (425 BC) against the Athenians, the use of slings and arrows would prove to be highly effective, causing a Spartan army to surrender. So all this is essentially an excuse for the fact that the Spartans basically stood there, unfamiliar with this devastating weapon and unable to get up the courage to charge for several crucial minutes, suffering serious losses in the process.
With the Spartans evidently unable to get up off their backsides, maybe the Persians archery, combined with cavalry and the likes, could have earned them the battle.
But this didn’t happen. Their Tegean allies, tired of the Spartans hesitation, were the ones who managed to break the psychological impasse, running on to fight the Persians hand-to-hand. Simultaneously the auguries suddenly became favourable (In other words, the Spartans were shamed into charging by the much smaller Tegean contingent) and the warriors joined in. Indeed, Herodotus notes that the ‘Valour’ of the Tegeans was at least equal that of the Spartans.
At the end of the day, the Spartans are only as good as they are recorded to be. They were efficient warriors, but they never had quite the versatility to conquer most of the Middle East like the supposedly militarily weak Persians did. Later on they would manage to conquer much of Turkey, but would ultimately fail to hold onto it, and were eventually defeated by the relatively minor Thebans. This makes me wonder if the Spartan’s military effectiveness is all it has been cracked up to be – by generational legions of historian-fanboys and, much later, books and several… regrettable films.
Anyway, the Spartans charged, and despite considerable losses to themselves as well as the immense bravery of the Persians, they eventually killed Mardonius, destroyed most of his elite troops, captured their camp in the midst of savage hand-to-hand fighting with the help of their Athenian allies who had demolished the Thebans. The Persians were kicked permanently out of Greece, their all-important land power destroyed.
Why did the Persians lose? This isn’t hard to see. They got lured into the sort of hand-to-hand combat that the Spartans excelled at but for which their training and equipment was only halfway designed. The Persians had to hold down an empire where they fought against a diverse range of enemies ranging from horsemen out on the vast steppes of the east, to camel-riding arabs, to infantry and so on. They could not completely match the Spartans in this particular grubbing infantry melee. It comes down, in other words, to skill-sets and equipment. Had the fighters met each other, say in an open field (as happened to the Greeks on other occasions during the Ionian wars) which was closer to the sort of skillset match that the Persians were proficient at, the Greeks would have probably lost.
The Persians were also defeated through a mixture of their own poor morale and internal divisions, the absence of many of their troops from the battle (some fleeing, some apparently never getting involved in the crucial fight between the Spartans and Immortals until it was already lost) not to mention a poorly-placed cavalry charge at the smaller Greek city states which I believe probably took most of their crucial mounted arm away from this main fight against the Spartans at precisely the wrong moment.
Nor should we place much stock by the supposedly light Greek casualties of only a couple of hundred versus tens if not hundreds of thousands of Persian dead if we took Herodotus literally. It is clear the Greeks suffered heavily through the battle, (probably more so in the less-well-armoured uncounted lower ranks and amongst allied and tributary states), and this was no one-sided fight, but a desperate battle to the finish where the stakes could not have been higher.
Frankly given the level of division and strife amongst the commanders while their enemy bore right down on them, it is only thanks to the fact that the Persians were even more divided and at each other’s throats and the terrain (largely by accident) in their favour that the Greeks saw victory in this most epic encounter battle of accidents.
Anyway, the moral of this story is: The Spartans were doubtlessly great warriors, yes. But were they the legendary, all-conquering warriors of the time? Were they immune to archery, or for that matter cowardice? Probably not. They proved themselves unmatched in a specific tactical situation – heavy infantry combat. The Spartans constructed their reputation not just on Thermopylae, but on their later victories at Plataea and so on, which made their survival – and the ensuing playing up of Thermopylae – possible. But these were not the clear-cut battles which demonstrated Spartan superiority in arms. In many cases, they were lucky, or had favourable circumstances going for them.
They did defeat the Persians. But only just.
Herodotus, Histories, translated by George Rawlinson. (Hertfordshire, 1996)
(Please note that there are multiple translations of this great work.)
Adrian Goldsworthy, The complete Roman army, (London, 2011)