Check out my previous blog on the Battle of Plataea, 479 BC
With Xerxes in full retreat back to the empire following his defeat at the Battle of Salamis, his general Mardonius was left in Greece, in charge of a vast army. While the Greek army campaigned to put him down, the victory at Salamis gave control of the seas back to the Greeks, thus a Greek fleet sailed eastward towards Samos to take a counter-offensive to the empire. The goal was to free Greek peoples living in western Asia from Persian rule. Several battles across the eastern Mediterranean were fought, and the biggest and most decisive was fought in Persian-held land, supposedly on the very same day as the decisive Battle of Plataea, off the coast of Asia Minor, under the shadows of Mount Mycale.
Welcome to the final blog post on the Second Greco-Persian War.
PLANS AND DELEGATIONS
[ABOVE: Greek and Persian movements throughout the Second Invasion, towards Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis and Plataea]
On his retreat, Xerxes wintered at Chios, before the fleet headed for the island of Samos, where some more Persian soldiers had spent the previous winter fearing a possible second Ionian Revolt. At Samos, they discussed strategies while keeping an ear open for how Mardonius and his army were doing in Greece. Mardonius’s movements in Thessaly, however, stirred the Greeks into activity, and while it was too early for the Greek land forces to muster, the Greek navy, now some 110 ships strong, mustered at Aegina.
[ABOVE: The Aegean Sea islands of Salamis, Aegina, Delos, Chios and Samos]
The fleet commanders were the co-ruler of Sparta, Leotychidas, and Xanthippus of Athens, who led the Athenian contingent. At Aegina, the Greeks were met by a six-man-strong Ionian delegation, who told the fleet that their intention was to assassinate Strattis, the tyrant of Chios, where Xerxes was currently positioned, and that the mere sight of their fleet alone would rial the Ionian Greeks up into revolt once again. Their ploy was discovered, however, after a member of the once-seven-man strong delegation betrayed the others to Persia. The fleet, however, was weary of travelling into mainland Persian territory, but were convinced to travel as far as the island of Delos, when the Ionian delegation said that they would offer themselves as prisoners aboard the Greek ships if they thought they were leading them into a trap. Leotychidas asked the Samian delegate who spoke to the fleet what his name was: “I am Hegesistratus,” he said. Before he could continue, Leotychidas asked for the Samians word that they would aid them in their fight. They immediately accepted, swearing a treaty of alliance. Considering his name auspicious, Leotychidas asked Hegesistratus to sail ahead with the fleet towards Samos.
[ABOVE: A piece of Ostracon belonging to Xanthippus, from 484 BC, now held in the Ancient Agora Museum, Athens]
Reaching the Samian coast of Calami, the Greeks dropped anchor there, near to a temple of Hera, and prepared the troops to prepare for another battle at sea. Their movements didn’t go unnoticed by the empire; the Persians set their own ships to sail, but headed for mainland Asia, instead of pursuing the Greek navy; since Salamis, the Persians decided that their fleets stood no chance against the Greeks fleet, so, under Xerxes’s orders, the fleet set sail for the mainland, stopping at Mycale off the coast of, and to guard, Ionia. They stopped here to protect a land army stationed nearby, led by a man named Tigranes, whereupon they docked and set up a defensive stockade.
[ABOVE: The location of Mount Mycale, with the isle of Samos shown to the far left]
This left the Greek fleet stumped: They were left in the water deciding whether to go to the Hellespont and burn Xerxes’s bridge down, return home to Greece already victorious, or pursue the Persian navy to Persia itself, and one-eighty the whole war by going on the offensive, and they eventually decided on the latter. They made preparations in taking everything they’d need for a sea battle, including plenty of boarding planks, and set sail for Mycale.
Approaching the Persian camp, the Greeks couldn’t see any ships approaching them; only ships stationed inside a stronghold, and a large army stretched across the horizon. Many of these Persian soldiers would have been fellow Greeks from Ionia. Knowing this, Leotychidas ordered his ship to sail up and down the coastline, so that he could shout the following to his fellow Greeks stood in Asia:
When battle is joined, you must first remember your freedom, and then bear in mind our watchword, “Hebe”. When you hear this message, pass it on to anyone who hasn’t.
Like Themistocles’s messages left on the rock faces after the Battle of Artemisium, this message would either convince the Ionians to join the Greek cause while the Persians wouldn’t be able to understand, or it would cause the Persians to distrust their Greek-speaking contingent enough to disband them, swinging the chances of victory closer towards the Greeks. This plan must have worked, since the Persian commander disbanded his Samian contingent before the battle. These Samians had even caught some Athenian captives, and when they were disbanded, they simply let these Athenians return home. The Persians even sent another of their Greek contingents, the Milesians, to watch over the passes of Mount Mycale, supposedly to watch their back and, as they were locals to the area, they would have known the area better than the Persians, but really because the Persians couldn’t trust them either.
THE BATTLE OF MYCALE
It was afternoon, and Leotychidas’s fleet now disembarked onto the beach and lined up for battle, facing the Persian’s wickerwork shield wall. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Persians numbered 100,000 men in total. Modern estimates put their numbers at a more reasonable 60,000, with the Greeks at 40,000. As the Greek line advanced, word reached them that Mardonius had been defeated and killed at Plataea that morning. This greatly boosted the Greeks' morale, as they now marched forward with more haste. The Persians now knew that their holdings in the Hellespont and the Aegean islands were at great risk, likely weakening their morale.
[ABOVE: Deployment and movements of the Greek (red) and Persian (pink) battle lines at the battle of Mycale]
The Athenian-led wing moved forward across the flat beach line, reaching the enemy first, while the Spartan-led wing moved across the rougher inland terrain. As a brief stalemate ensued with the Athenians and the Persian shield wall, the Spartans were catching up to the fight. Keen to not have the Spartans take all the glory, the Athenians bravely charged as one altogether, eventually breaking through the Persian line and chasing the enemy back to their fortified camp, which the Athenians breached. Fighting in this push was tough, and a Greek commander, Perilaus, even fell. While most of the enemy now retreated, the native Persian contingent remained, putting up stout resistance. Of their four commanders, the two naval commanders retreated and lived, while the two army commanders died fighting. The Spartan wing eventually joined in the fight, only too late to help mop up what was left of the army and chase down any stragglers. The disbanded Ionian and Samian contingents even rejoined the fight once they saw that the Greeks were winning. What remained of the Persian army now fled towards their Milesian contingent, who they’d left in the mountain passes of Mycale to show them the way out - they did the exact opposite, leading the Persians into a trap, where they were pounced on by local Ionian soldiers.
The Persian army was completely wiped out, and their stronghold and all their ships were burnt and destroyed - another great Greek victory had been achieved. Diodorus puts Persian casualties at at least 40,000. Learning of the joint defeats at Plataea and Mycale, Xerxes left Sardis packed with armaments for future conflicts, before he himself set off towards Ecbatana, deep in Persia itself.
A NEW ALLIANCE
While the Persian commander, Artayntes, fled back to Persia and received great scorn, the Greeks put to sea once again, setting sail for Samos, once they had taken the loot from the Persian camp. Samos was still under Persian control, but the Greeks - presumably confident with how the war was turning - used the island anyway as a base to discuss their future strategies. They discussed what to do with the Ionian people now that Persian control of the region had been severely reduced. The main argument that persisted was a mass evacuation to mainland Greece, since they thought that they wouldn’t be able to maintain a strong enough hold over Ionia while Persia would inevitably wish to punish them again. Peloponnesian leaders suggested depopulating market settlements belonging to Greeks who had sided with Persia and repopulate it with Ionians instead. The Athenians vehemently rejected this idea, stating they did not want to see their colonists punished in any way, and the Peloponnesians backed down. This act of defiance by the Athenians in defence of the Aegean islanders led the island nations - including Samos, Chios and Lesbos - to agree to an alliance with Athens, pledging honour to them and abiding to Athens’s word and agreeing not to secede.
This was the start of an alliance that would dominate the Aegean for the next century to come, and eventually throw Athens into a golden age.
THE SIEGE OF SESTUS
[ABOVE: Location of Sestus (marked with a red dot) in the Greek Chersonese peninsular]
The Athenian navy now set sail for the Hellespont, ready to dismantle Xerxes’s pontoon bridge, and after some rough storms blew them off course, they eventually reached Abydus. Expecting to find the bridge, they came across its ruins instead. As the bridge was the main reason for them sailing to the Hellespont, Leotychidas and his Spartans sailed back home, while Xanthippus and his Athenians chose to stay and attack the Chersonese, besieging the major city of Sestus. At the time, Sestus was likely the most well fortified city in the region, and was then populated heavily with Persians among its locals, and when other locals from neighbouring regions heard that Greeks had come to the Hellespont, they moved there en mass.
Autumn came by as the siege carried on. Away from home for several months, many Athenians wished to return home, but were denied so by their commanders, keen to take the city or try until the state recalled them. Citizens - local and Persian alike - were now starved to the point of resorting to boiling down leather bed straps to eat. Local satraps even escaped during the night by climbing down the city’s sheer walls. Made aware of this loss of leadership the next morning by Greek loyalists on the city walls, Sestus’s gates were opened and one of the fleeing satraps was rounded up and taken back to Sestus, with the other being captured by local Thracian tribesmen as he attempted to flee back over the Hellespont, as Sestus was reclaimed from Persian hands. Cables from Xerxes’s pontoon bridge were also captured, brought back to Athens and dedicated as trophies in their sanctuaries. Athens’s allies soon sailed back to their homes.
CYPRUS AND BYZANTIUM
[ABOVE: Location of Byzantium, modern-day Istanbul]
Meanwhile, Pausanias, the Spartan commander who led the Greeks to victory at Plataea, was now sent out for a final mission: to attack Cyprus and Byzantium. Sent with 20 ships and joined by 30 Athenian ships and some more allies, the campaign in Cyprus proved successful, as much of the island was quickly subdued. What this means exactly isn’t clear, but it’s likely that a series of raids for loot took place, rather than a reclaiming of territory. Not long after, Byzantium too was forced to surrender back to the Greeks, during which some of Xerxes own family members within the city were captured, who were soon returned to Persia. Byzantium stood right at the edge of Europe, looking out over the Hellespont towards mainland Asia only a couple of miles away, and with the recapturing of Sestos and Byzantium, the Persians were finally kicked out of mainland Europe, being forced to surrender Macedon too.
FALL OF A HERO
[ABOVE: An 18th century painting of Pausanias]
Pausanias, however, despite his great deeds, soon fell out of favour with his fellow Greeks. He was reported as being too oppressive to those he was meant to be liberating, and freeing Persians he was meant to be fighting, being recalled soon after the siege of Byzantium back to Sparta. He was even accused of siding with Xerxes himself, with the aim of having all of Greece conquered by Persia and becoming its ruler under the Persian king. While at Byzantium, he was accompanied by an Eretrian named Gongylus, who he had instated to rule Byzantium. Pausanias also tasked Gongylus to send a message to Xerxes, and it read as follows:
Pausanias, the leader of Sparta, wishes to do you a service and sends back to you these captives of his spear. I propose, if this meets with your approval, to marry your daughter and bring Sparta and the rest of Greece under your control. I believe that I have the ability to achieve this in collaboration with you. If any of this is pleasing to you, send down to the sea a trusted man to be the intermediary in our further discussions.
Delighted with this, Xerxes ordered for a man, Artabazus, to take over as governor of Dascylium in place of its then-governor, and ordered Artabazus to take all orders from Pausanias. Artabazus did as commanded, and was given a letter by Xerxes to give to Pausanias, stating that he was pleased with his taking of Byzantium, and that he wished to fund him with as much money as he needed to go about conquering Greece for Persia. Being held in such high esteem by both the Greeks, for his victory at Plataea, and by the Persian king himself, Pausanias’s ego was lifted even more; when he would leave Byzantium, he would dress up in Persian clothing, guarded by Persian and Egyptian guards, and at meal times he would be served traditional Persian cuisine. He also treated others around him with violence, keeping himself very much to himself.
This was all the final straw in cementing the Aegean islands’ pledge of allegiance to Athens and not Sparta. Back home, Pausanias was stripped of command and charged with war crimes against individuals, but acquitted of his major allegations, the main of which was supposed collaboration with Persia. In his place of command, Sparta sent out other commanders with small armies, but the allies didn’t like this new arrangement, so the commanders returned to Sparta, who would now not send out any more forces; Sparta always feared corruption when confronted with foreigners, as had supposedly taken place with Pausanias, and they wished to end hostilities with Persia anyway, knowing Athens and her new formal allies could and would handle those foreign affairs. Athens accepted this position of Greek hegemony, and having gained much loot from the Persians in the war, they decided which Greek states should aim to fund future wars against Persia, and which should aim towards funding ships. In this discussion, the “Treasurers of the Greeks” office of Athens was made, to receive tributes for such purposes, and the tribute was settled at 460 talents. The treasury would be held on the island where this meeting took place, and would give this alliance its name: Delos.
The Delian League was formed.
Come 477 BC, Pausanias was once again recalled to Sparta after he took a small fleet towards the city of Hermione without their permission. The Spartan Ephors lost all patience with him, and sent out a messenger to retrieve him, under threat of war should he refuse. Wishing to remain as unsuspicious as possible, he returned to Sparta again, whereupon he was thrown in prison, although he would later offer to stand on trial instead if he needed to be questioned. Not enough evidence was actually present for the Spartans to punish a member of the royal household, however his evident Persian dress code and customs, the letter he had sent to Xerxes earlier, his defacing of the tripod which the Greeks ha dedicated at Delphi after the battle of Plataea, and his railing up of helots to join him in revolt all told the Spartans that he wasn’t ready to accept his Spartan duties. However the final straw for the Spartans, who weren’t keen on legal punishments of their own people without the hardest of evidence, came when the messenger who Pausanias had sent to Xerxes with his letter of reply approached. This man was supposedly a former lover of Pausanias, and he had noticed that none of the previous messengers Pausanias had sent to Xerxes ever returned. It turned out that these messengers would be killed when their messages were relayed to avoid any word getting out. On his way to delivering the letter to Xerxes, he opened it and found that it contained instructions for this own death at the end. For further definitive proof, the ephors agreed to conceal themselves in a temple outside of Sparta, where the man privately invited Pausanias to talk about the reason for him being there. Pausanias blurted out the truth to this man whom he trusted, and the ephors heard it all.
The ephors allowed Pausanias to return to Sparta, where they would formally arrest him. Noticing the expressions on their faces as they approached him, Pausanias fled to a temple, declaring that he could not be harmed while on sacred ground. Agreeing, the ephors bricked up the entrance to the temple to starve him to death instead. They eventually dragged his weakened self out, whereupon he finally died. Consulting an oracle, the ephors were told to bury him where he had died.
[ABOVE: An 1882 painting of Pausanias being pursued by the Spartan Ephors]
A hero may have fallen, but Greece itself was now safe. Their armies could now take the fight deeper into Persian territory, allowing the rest of Greece to prosper. This prosperity would lead the now-centre of the Greek world - Athens - into its infamous Golden Age, a period that would see some of history's greatest philosophers, historians, authors, poets, scientists and politicians come to prominence; Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Hippocrates, Xenophon and Socrates himself... these great figures, and more, will be covered, as Greece officially moves into the Classical Age.
NEXT BLOG: THE BATTLE OF HIMERA, 480 BC: The 1st Sicilian War
- Herodotus, "The Histories"
- Thucydides, "The Peloponnesian War"
- Diodorus Siculus, "Library of History"
- Tom Holland, "Persian Fire"
(I do NOT own this video)
"The Battle of Mycale 479 BC (3D Animated Documentary) Greco-Persian wars" by "Hoc Est Bellum"
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