ABOVE Persian warriors of the Great King, as depicted on a frieze formed of glazed brick in the Pergamon Museum. The Persian Empire was the largest yet known, with vast resources of manpower and treasure. But the Greek military system, based on the hoplite phalanx, proved superior to the Persian army.

The Persian Wars

In his second article, Paul Rahe analyses Sparta’s response to the mortal challenge posed by the Persian invasions of the early 5th century BC.


In or quite soon after the mid-540s BC – when Cyrus, son of Cambyses, and his Persians conquered Lydia in Anatolia – the Spartans first became aware that the grand strategy they had articulated for the defence of their regime and way of life might not be adequate. It was then that they first sized up their future foe and realised that the resources commanded by the Great King (as the Persian emperor was known) dwarfed those that their Peloponnesian alliance could deploy.

In consequence, in the half-century that followed, they for the most part exercised caution, hoping that the gaze of the Mede would not come to rest on the southernmost reaches of the Balkan peninsula. They eschewed provocation while, nonetheless, discreetly attempting to place obstacles in the Persian monarch’s way and trying to prevent cities on the Greek mainland from forging alliances with him.

ABOVE Persian warriors of the Great King, as depicted on a frieze formed of glazed brick in the Pergamon Museum. The Persian Empire was the largest yet known, with vast resources of manpower and treasure. But the Greek military system, based on the hoplite phalanx, proved superior to the Persian army.
Persian warriors of the Great King, as depicted on a frieze formed of glazed brick in the Pergamon Museum. The Persian Empire was the largest yet known, with vast resources of manpower and treasure. But the Greek military system, based on the hoplite phalanx, proved superior to the Persian army. Photo: mshamma/CC BY 2.0.

When the Persians subdued the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast, the Spartans considered their plea for help and baulked at the prospect. When the former took to the sea and roped in the islands along that coast, Sparta remained quiet.

When Darius, son of Hystaspes, extended his dominion on the European mainland westward into Thrace and Macedonia, the Lacedaemonians still did nothing. And when his Ionian subjects launched a great rebellion and sought their help, the Spartans once again refused to come to the aid of their fellow Hellenes.

It was not until 490 BC, when Darius chose to attack Athens in mainland Greece, just a few miles from the gates of the Peloponnese, that the Lacedaemonians bestirred themselves – and even then they were slow, for they reached Attica a day too late.

It is telling that the soldiers dispatched from Lacedaemon to Athens at this time insisted on visiting the battlefield at Marathon to survey the carnage. The Persians were land-lubbers, renowned for their pre-eminence in battle on land. The Lacedaemonians knew that, if Athens’ infantry really had bested an Achaemenid army of considerable size, they could do so in similar circumstances themselves.

The Persian army

The infantry was not the strongest branch within the Great King’s army. Ordinarily, the Persians employed archers on foot and on horseback as a species of primitive artillery to break up enemy formations; then these same horsemen were used as shock cavalry to rout and massacre the scattered footsoldiers who remained; and, finally, spearmen (most of whom doubled as archers) cleaned up.

The Greeks, by way of contrast, rarely employed cavalry and did not deploy bowmen in any number. They relied, instead, on a phalanx of hoplites – well-armoured spearmen deployed in serried ranks eight-men deep, bearing capacious, interlocking shields. If caught on a broad plain and surrounded or outflanked by a much larger army organised on Persian lines, such a force was liable to be massacred.

But if it was positioned on uneven ground, where the Great King’s cavalry could not easily manoeuvre, it could withstand an artillery barrage and fend off his spearmen. Even more to the point, if, for one reason or another, Persia’s cavalrymen were absent, a properly disciplined body of Greek hoplites would have a considerable advantage, as the Athenians demonstrated at Marathon.

Persian soldiers

In battle, the gerrophoroi within the ranks of the Persian infantry carried, as their Greek name suggests, gerra – wicker shields faced with leather. With these, which were tall and rectangular, they were in the habit of constructing a barricade.

Behind this protective wall, those of their colleagues who were armed with bow and spear would then fire volleys of arrows into the enemy ranks. If this barrage failed and the enemy managed to reach and push through the barricade of wicker shields, there was apt to be a battle royal.

below A Greek hoplite and a Persian warrior depicted in hand-to-hand combat on a red-figure vase painting.
A Greek hoplite and a Persian warrior depicted in hand-to-hand combat on a red-figure vase painting.

Those among the Persians, Medes, and Cissians who were armed with bow and spear, though they may well have been equipped with body armour as well, bore as individuals no shields at all. And if the Achaemenid army fielded at Marathon included a force of dedicated infantrymen, as is certainly possible, these spearmen had nothing with which to protect themselves apart from body armour and bucklers mounted on their left arms or held by a handle at arm’s length.

This is what Herodotus had in mind when he described the Persian footsoldiers engaged in a later battle as ‘naked’ and spoke of them pointedly as ‘lacking the hoplite shield’.

If, in a battle against such an army, each of those who punched through the protective barricade set up by the gerrophoroi bore a capacious shield, and if the spears carried by these assailants were also longer and heavier than the spears borne by the infantrymen of the Great King, as would be the case if the latter were up against hoplites from mainland Greece, there was apt to be a slaughter – even if the Persian soldiers greatly outnumbered their Greek opponents, as they did at Marathon.

Learning lessons

This is what the Spartans learned when they visited the battlefield at Marathon, and it was this that they mulled over when they contemplated the possibility that the Mede would return to Hellas with a considerably larger force.

Had Darius mounted an expedition within three or four years of the Persian setback at Marathon, as he intended, he might well have conquered Greece. But there was a rebellion in Egypt, then another in Babylonia, and Darius died in the interim, leaving his son and heir Xerxes with much to do before he could even think about tackling the recalcitrant Greeks. The Spartans, their allies within the Peloponnese, the Aeginetans off the coast of the peninsula, and the Athenians all profited enormously from the delay.

The Persians had not come to Marathon on foot. Theirs was an overseas expeditionary force – the first in human history to convey marines, cavalrymen, and their mounts any considerable distance by sea. If they returned, they were likely to come again by sea; and even if they sent infantry and cavalry by land, they would have to deploy a fleet.

left An Athenian trireme of c.400 BC. The trireme revolutionised naval warfare and represented a mortal threat to Sparta since the Persian fleet might have outflanked the Isthmus at Corinth and landed a Persian army on the Peloponnesian coast. BELOW The Leonidas monument at Thermoplyae, where 300 Spartans fought to the death to defend the pass that led into central Greece.
An Athenian trireme of c.400 BC. The trireme revolutionised naval warfare and represented a mortal threat to Sparta since the Persian fleet might have outflanked the Isthmus at Corinth and landed a Persian army on the Peloponnesian coast. Photo: Lenormant Trireme Relief/Marsyas/CC BY-SA 2.5.

An army of footsoldiers and cavalrymen could cross the Hellespont and march through Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, Locris, Phocis, and Boeotia to Attica. But if the army was large, the logistical challenge would be almost insuperable – unless the soldiers marching by land could be supported by a fleet of galleys and the round sailing- ships called ‘bathtubs’ that might convey provisions. But no such merchant fleet could operate unless it was convoyed by warships capable of protecting it.

The trireme: a revolution in naval warfare

The warships required were triremes. Invented, as far as we can tell, in the 6th century and first known to have been deployed in the 520s BC, the trireme was to naval warfare in the last third of the 6th century what the dreadnought was to be in the decade preceding the First World War. It was powerful, fast, and impregnable to attack by lesser craft; it rendered all previous warships obsolete; and it revolutionised warfare at sea.

This graceful vessel was shaped like a wineglass, and, in the manner of the bi-level penteconters that preceded it, it sported a prow equipped with a bronze-sheathed ram. Its ram, however, had not one, but three horizontal cutting blades, capable of slicing through the hull of virtually any vessel equal or smaller in mass that it struck amidships or in the stern.

When fully manned, each trireme was powered by 170 oarsmen facing the stern, each plying a single oar 14ft in length, using as a fulcrum a tholepin to which the oar was tied by a well-greased leather oarloop.

The rowers, who slid back and forth on cushions of fleece to get maximum leverage from the muscles in their legs as they pulled the oars, were organised on three levels – with at least two-thirds of them enclosed within the hull and unable to see their own oars.

The Leonidas monument at Thermoplyae, where 300 Spartans fought to the death to defend the pass that led into central Greece. Image: Dennis Jarvis/CC BY-SA 2.0 (cut-out from original photograph).

When fully manned – as it had to be if it was not to be underpowered, slow, hard to manoeuvre, and unlikely to survive a contest – this new-fangled ship was a formidable fighting machine. When supplemented by merchant galleys and gauloi bearing grain, fresh water, and other provisions, it opened up – for the first time in human history – the possibility that a truly magnificent empire could be instituted over the briny deep, and from there project power over the surrounding lands.

The threat of the Persian armada

The Spartans were probably not the first to recognise the strategic significance of trireme warfare for the Achaemenid monarch’s plans. That was almost certainly the achievement of Athens’ Themistocles, who took advantage of a silver strike to persuade his compatriots to build 200 of these galleys.

The Lacedaemonians were not, however, slow on the uptake. In 480 BC, when Xerxes’ armada did make its way from Asia Minor to the southern Balkans on both land and sea, they posted their Agiad king Leonidas with a hoplite force at Thermopylae to interrupt his progress, and also dispatched a flotilla of triremes to Artemisium to intercept his fleet and prevent it from landing marines behind the Greek lines.

And when, after Leonidas’ situation became untenable, this fleet retreated to Salamis, just off the coast of Attica, its Spartan naval commander fought stubbornly and, in the end, successfully to hold the Greek coalition together as Themistocles, who commanded nearly half the ships in the allied fleet, pressed his fellow Hellenes to take on Xerxes in the shallows between Salamis and Attica, where the numerical superiority of the Persian fleet would be a positive disadvantage.

Had it not been for the leadership provided by the Spartans, the Hellenic League would never have come together, and at this time, under the pressure of circumstances, it would have splintered.

The victory achieved when Themistocles tricked Xerxes into fighting in the channel between Salamis and Attica opened up the possibility that the Persians might be expelled from Hellas, but it did not guarantee that result. Xerxes may have returned to Asia in the autumn of 480 BC, but he left Mardonius with the bulk of his army in Greece to finish the job that he had begun.

LEFT The Battle of Plataea, 479 BC, showing the initial dispositions of the allied Greek army (TOP) and the new positions taken up following night-marches designed to ease logistical strain and secure communications with Athens (BELOW).
The Battle of Plataea, 479 BC, showing the initial dispositions of the allied Greek army (above) and the new positions taken up following night-marches designed to ease logistical strain and secure communications with Athens (below). Maps: Ian Bull.

In 479 BC, when the Athenians capitalised on their role at Salamis to compel the Spartans to deploy their hoplites, the latter found themselves forced to do the one thing that they had hoped to avoid – which was to risk everything on the field of battle.

The decisive battle

Plataea, not Salamis, was the decisive conflict of the Persian Wars. When the Spartans set out and their Peloponnesian allies gathered at the Isthmus of Corinth, Mardonius pulled back from Attica, which he had occupied, to southern Boeotia, and lined up his forces on the northern bank of the River Asopus – a stream easily forded.

The Hellenes, led by the young Agiad regent, Pausanias, son of Cleombrotus, followed suit, marching through the Megarid and Attica, then over the Cithaeron massif separating Attica from Boeotia, and settling down on the southern bank of the river. For more than ten days, there the two armies sat, eyeing one another.

It was a war of nerves. The commanders on both sides knew that if a battle was fought, the result would be determined by the terrain on which it took place. If it took place in the relatively flat, gently rolling plains to the north of the River Asopus, the Persians would be able to deploy their cavalry and their superior numbers to advantage; and the Greeks would almost certainly be massacred.

If, on the other hand, the Persians were drawn onto the rougher ground in the foothills to the south of the River Asopus, where their horsemen could not so easily operate, the odds would be against them, notwithstanding the fact that they greatly outnumbered the Hellenes. As is often the case in war, everything turned on manoeuvring the opponent into fighting on unfavourable ground.

Logistical strain

The need for provisions provided both sides with leverage. The Persian force was enormous, and food had to be imported in vast quantities from Thessaly well to the north. The Greek army was the largest hoplite army ever assembled. It included 38,700 hoplites, 35,000 helots from Laconia and Messenia, and another 34,000 light-armed troops from outside Lacedaemon. It, too, had to be supplied from afar.

It was, moreover, high summer. It was hot, and the Persian archers prevented the Greeks from securing water from the Asopus. The only place where they could safely draw water was the spring of Gargaphia.

The Greeks relied on a guerrilla army of Phocians, holed up on Mount Parnassus, to obstruct the Persian supply-line. Mardonius sent his cavalry across the river up- or downstream and directed them to circle around behind the Greek lines and cut the supply-line of the Hellenes across the Cithaeron. Eventually, he also directed them to foul the spring of Gargaphia. As time went on, both sides were under pressure to bring matters to a decision.

The Greeks felt the pressure most. They were increasingly short of provisions. Now they had no access to fresh water. When their commanders met with Pausanias, they reportedly agreed on two things: they had to move somewhere where abundant fresh water could be found, and they had to reopen the route by which they received their supplies.

So they resolved to redeploy in separate units under cover of night at the second watch, when they would be less vulnerable to assault, and then to dispatch a part of their army later in the night to convoy their provisions down from Cithaeron.

right Spartan hoplites approach the Persian wicker-shield barricade.
Spartan hoplites approach the Persian wicker-shield barricade. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library.

Night marches

The account by Herodotus of the Greeks’ attempt to do this is confused and confusing – in large part because the veterans whom he interviewed had little or no understanding of their commanders’ intent. The Spartans were, he pointedly tells us, justly famous for saying one thing and doing another – and what they did on this occasion appears, in fact, to have been an elaborate charade.

In the days before the retreat, they shifted back and forth in the Hellenic line in such a fashion as to suggest panic and an unwillingness to confront the Mede directly. Then, quite late in the night, they staged an ungainly retreat – in which a subordinate commander is said to have challenged the authority of Pausanias and to have refused to withdraw, paralysing the Lacedaemonian force and delaying its departure.

At dawn, we are told, in desperation, Pausanias led out the unit including the Lacedaemonians and the Tegeans, hoping that his subordinate and the men under his command would follow, as in time they did. Pausanias and his men then headed, not in the direction of the town of Plataea, as purportedly planned, but in the opposite direction – towards the carriage road running from Attica through the Glyphtokastro pass past the town of Hysiae.

In an apparent attempt to avoid the Persian cavalry, this part of the Greek army crossed to the foothills of Cithaeron and marched towards the sanctuary of Eleusinian Demeter near Hysiae.

When Mardonius realised that his stratagem had succeeded and that he had forced the Spartans and the other Hellenes to descend from the Asopus Ridge and retreat, he gloated. He may have presumed that the Greeks visible in the foothills near Hysiae were in full flight, making for the Glyphtokastro pass, whence they had first entered Boeotia on their march from Attica – for, at this point, he rolled the dice, ordering not only his cavalry but also the Persian footsoldiers to ford the Asopus and pursue the retreating Hellenes. Herodotus tells us that the rest of his barbarian troops followed in considerable disorder, intent on storming the position occupied by the unit composed of the Spartans and the Tegeans.

The Spartan line

By this time, the Spartans and the Tegeans were situated on high ground at the end of what is now called the Pantanassa Ridge. The javelins thrown and the arrows shot by the Persian cavalry were for them an irritation. But, thanks to the terrain, Persia’s horsemen could neither draw near nor approach them from the rear, and they were not at this point any real threat to the Lacedaemonians and Tegeans.

The footsoldiers amassed by Mardonius were another matter. Down below, within range of the Greeks, the gerrophoroi in the front ranks of the Persian army set up, in the customary manner, a barricade made of wicker shields. From behind it, the ordinary infantrymen shot volleys of arrows at the Lacedaemonians and Tegeans on a scale that threatened over time to do real damage.

While this was happening, the Lacedaemonian and Tegean hoplites sat down and sheltered themselves behind their capacious hoplite shields, while Pausanias, with the assistance of his seer, gamely conducted the sacrifices, hoping for favourable omens. None, we are told, were to be had.

In the part of his army situated on the Pantassa Ridge, Pausanias possessed a formidable force – something in the order of 13,000 hoplites and 30,000 to 40,000 light-armed troops.

As he looked westward towards the sanctuary of Hera at Plataea and prayed to the goddess for support, the Tegeans, no longer able patiently to tolerate the artillery assault, stood up and edged forward towards the barricade of wicker shields. At this moment, Herodotus tells us, the omens suddenly became favourable (as they were apt to do on such occasions), and Pausanias unleashed the Lacedaemonians.

The Spartan attack

In the face of their attack, the Persians, Medes, and Cissians who had followed Mardonius – all or nearly all of them similarly armed – cast down their bows and took up their spears, as they were wont to do.

Once the Spartans broke through the barricade, it was only a matter of time before their superior armour, shields, and spears proved decisive. Image: akg-images/Osprey Publishing/Plataea 479 BC/Peter Dennis.

For a long time, we are told, the struggle went on about the wicker barricade. But eventually push came ‘to shove’, as happened often enough in ordinary hoplite battles, and the barricade collapsed.

At this point, the Great King’s footsoldiers found themselves, as they had 11 years before at Marathon, at a distinct and serious disadvantage. They were, Herodotus observes, ‘unfamiliar’ with hoplite warfare. Their spears were shorter than those borne by the Greeks, and though at least some of them wore body armour, as individuals, they were ‘bereft of hoplite shields’. If there were any dedicated infantrymen among them, they may have borne bucklers, but as previously noted, from Herodotus’ perspective they were naked. Nonetheless, in desperation – with great courage and determination, and despite tactics that were ill-suited to their situation – the Persians and their allies fought on as best they could.

When, however, a Greek notable named Arimnestus or Aeimnestus managed to hurl a great stone at Mardonius and bring him down, and when the Lacedaemonians overwhelmed the picked men in his bodyguard, all resistance collapsed, and the Persians fled in disorder to a great stockade, which their general had built at Scolus on the northern bank of the Asopus. There they were surrounded, and, after the Greeks scaled the stockade walls and opened its gates, slaughtered – almost to a man.

The reason why

Mardonius lost for one simple reason. He crossed the Asopus, abandoned the broad plains to the north of the river, and sent his footsoldiers onto terrain on which his cavalry could not operate to full advantage.

In the Hellenic imagination, Odysseus loomed almost as large as Achilles. The Greeks took pride in their capacity for trickery, and they were exceedingly well-practised in the art of deception. It is this that appears to have happened at Plataea – for Plutarch tells us that two of the Hellenic commanders had carefully scouted out the Pantassa Ridge before the army of the Hellenes descended from Cithaeron to the River Asopus, and that they had paid particular attention to the advantages it afforded an infantry force deployed against an enemy superior in cavalry.

In short, Pausanias appears to have baited a trap, and Mardonius to have fallen into it. It was, the Spartans supposed, far more glorious to achieve victory by a ruse than in an ordinary pitched battle. •

Paul A Rahe holds the Charles O Lee and Louise K Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author of The Spartan Regime: its character, origins, and grand strategy and of The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: the Persian challenge, both published by Yale University Press.