Of all the battles fought between Greeks and Persians during the Second Greco-Persian War, the most famous are undoubtedly Thermopylae and Salamis, with Platea somewhat lesser-known. Even less known, despite its significance, is the battle where the Greeks definitively ended the enemy's campaign.

This battle, fought at the same time as the Platea one according to legend, resulted in the end of the conflict, the start of the second Ionian revolt against the Persian Empire, and the beginning of the period known as the Pentecontaetia. This is the Battle of Mycale (479 B.C.).

The Pentecontaetia didn’t mark the end of the struggle between the Greek world and Persia, as there was still a third war to come. During this, King Artaxerxes I had no choice but to agree to a peace with conditions dictated by his opponents: he had to renounce his intention of conquering Greece and refrain from sailing in the Aegean Sea, in exchange for the right to trade with the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. This marked the end of 43 years of open hostilities, which had begun in 492 B.C. with Darius I, after the Ionian city-states revolted against his authority and Athens sent half its fleet to help these non-mainland Greeks.

The Athenian army destroyed Sardis, but the Persians later defeated them, leading to Darius’s revenge. He gathered a powerful force and sent it to conquer Athens. As we know, this force was crushed on the same plains where it landed, at Marathon, by the strategos Miltiades, who then quickly returned to his city to confront another attack by the enemy fleet. His timely return, along with the defenses constructed by Themistocles, made the invaders abandon their plans.

Relief portrait traditionally attributed to Xerxes (it is possible that it is actually Darius I)
Relief portrait traditionally attributed to Xerxes (it is possible that it is actually Darius I). Credit: Darafsh / Wikimedia Commons

A decade later, tensions resumed because Xerxes, Darius’s son and heir, aimed to succeed where his father had failed by exploiting the age-old divisions among Greek city-states. His massive army, which Darius had started assembling, crossed the Hellespont via two pontoon bridges and crushed Leonidas’s Spartans and their allies at the pass of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), while the Persian fleet prepared to do the same to the Athenian fleet at Salamis. However, things didn’t go as planned, and Themistocles managed to turn the enemy’s overwhelming numerical advantage against them.

Xerxes returned to his country, fearing his rear might be cut off, but he left his cousin Mardonius to continue the campaign after the winter. In 479 B.C., forty-five thousand Spartans reinforced by eight thousand Athenians, led by Pausanias (Leonidas’s nephew), met Mardonius’s forces at Platea. Upon finding the enemy well-entrenched, they decided to retreat. However, the Persians, thinking they were surrendering, came after them, only to find that the Greeks turned back and offered battle.

Mardonius died in combat without knowing that, according to dubious legend, at the same time, forces led by the Spartan king Leotychidas II were also fighting those led by his admiral Artayntes near Samos. The Persian fleet was weakened after the disaster at Salamis, and although it still had numerical superiority (about 300 ships versus between 110 and 250, depending on the source), the situation was balanced by the veteran status of the Greek sailors.

Greek triremes reconstruction
Greek triremes reconstruction. Credit: Tungsten / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It’s likely that the numbers aren’t entirely accurate, given the tendency to exaggerate in ancient times, and the primary sources—Thucydides, Plutarch—are based on books VIII and IX of Herodotus, with later contributions from Diodorus of Sicily’s Bibliotheca Historica, which followed the writings of the Greek historian Ephorus of Cyme. This last source assigns 40,000 Greeks to face 60,000 Persians.

In any case, the Greek fleet was mainly Laconian, as tensions had re-emerged with the Athenians, leading them to withdraw their units to protect Attica. In fact, Alexander I of Macedon had transferred to Athens an offer of peace, self-government, and territory from Mardonius. Not only was it rejected, but it also led the Spartans to unite their fleet with that of the Athenian Xanthippus to hunt down the Persians.

Although neither side wanted a naval battle—both considered land warfare the key—Leotychidas and Xanthippus set out from Delos, while the enemy admiral Artayntes departed from Samos. According to Herodotus, Artayntes was heading to Ionia, believing he could never defeat the Greeks at sea, as indicated by his willingness to let the Phoenician contingent go. As the author of The Histories explains:

This decision arose from their assembly’s resolution on two things: not to engage the Greek navy in combat, as they felt their naval forces weren’t proportional, and to retreat to the mainland to be protected and supported by the land army stationed at Mycale. This force of 60,000 men had been left by Xerxes to serve as a garrison in Ionia, under the command of General Tigranes, the most outstanding of all the Persians in terms of stature and stature.

Location of Mount Mycale in the bay of Miletus, now filled in
Location of Mount Mycale in the bay of Miletus, now filled in. Credit: Eric Gaba (Sting) / Wikimedia Commons

Be that as it may, Artayntes grounded his ships near the Dilek Peninsula, on the central coast of Anatolia, between the rivers Menderes and Cayster. There, Mount Mycale, standing 1,265 meters tall, provided the backdrop where Tigranes’ army was stationed to protect the coast. Artayntes joined forces with Tigranes, creating a fortified wooden stronghold where he intended to wait for the Greeks.

They took their ships ashore and enclosed them within a barrier made of stones, thatch, and fruit trees cut from nearby orchards, surrounding the enclosure with a strong fence.

When the Greeks arrived in Samos and saw that the enemy had left, they decided to pursue. Upon arriving at the base of Mycale and seeing that the enemy fleet wasn’t moving, they landed, and Leotychidas sent a message to the Ionians, encouraging them to attack the Persians from behind, forcing the Persians to watch two fronts. Artayntes ordered the disarmament of the Samians, fearing treachery, and sent the Milesians (from Miletus) to guard the passes.

The second precaution the Persians took was to send the Milesians to occupy the passes leading to the top of Mycale, under the pretext of being the most skilled at traversing those paths, but with the real intention of keeping them out of the Persian army… After this, they entrenched themselves behind their ‘gerras’ or wicker parapets in preparation for battle.

Mount Mycale with the ruins of a Roman theater
Mount Mycale with the ruins of a Roman theater. Credit: Pedro Lassouras / Wikimedia Commons

According to Herodotus, the Greeks coincided in their arrival with the news of victory at Platea, which many authors consider unlikely, though others suggest the possibility of signal fires. Regardless, in an age where omens were considered significant, this news boosted the Greeks’ morale and confidence. Combined with the Persians’ tactical missteps, this turned the tide in the Greeks’ favor, if not outright in their direction.

The Persians had avoided naval combat, believing they were stronger on land due to their numbers and defensive fortifications. However, they relinquished these defenses out of overconfidence, a mistake comparable to the one Mardonius made at Platea.

Their troops emerged onto the beach to confront the Greek forces advancing toward them: Athenians, Corinthians, Sicyonians, and Troezenians formed the Greek right flank and launched a frontal attack.

Schematic development of the battle of Mycale
Schematic development of the battle of Mycale. Credit: Marco Prins and Jona Lendering / Wikimedia Commons

The rest of the allies, led by the Spartans on the left flank, maneuvered to encircle Artayntes and Tigranes’s forces. The Persians, recognizing that the Spartans would be the hardest to defeat, went after the right flank to attempt to defeat it before dealing with the other. However, their lines couldn’t withstand the Greek hoplites’ advance for long, and they encouraged each other to achieve victory without waiting for the Spartans. Herodotus adds an interesting detail:

In this battle, the best-performing Greeks were the Athenians, and among them, an athlete well-known for his skills in pankration, Hermolycus, son of Eulinos, distinguished himself. This same champion, during the subsequent war between the Athenians and Carystians, unfortunately died in battle at Cyrnus, in the territory of Carystia, and was buried at Genestus.

Only the Persian core troops—while the rest were allied contingents—maintained their formation. As the disorganized forces tried to escape, they retreated into their camp to avoid the Greek onslaught, but at that moment, the feared left wing of the enemy, which had encircled the perimeter and entered from behind, appeared. This was also when the Ionian and Samian auxiliaries rebelled, joining the Greeks, and the Milesians abandoned their mountain positions to attack the defenders.

The exact number of casualties isn’t known, though Herodotus mentions they were numerous. Diodorus of Sicily claims there were 40,000 Persian deaths, including the infantry generals Tigranes and Mardontes, though this might be an exaggeration. It does seem that the Greeks, particularly the Sicyonians, suffered considerably, with their general Perilaus dying in battle. Artayntes managed to escape and guide the survivors to Sardis, where the Persian court was located, and where he would have to report. He likely belonged to the Achaemenid royal family, which explained why he was trusted with the mission and also why he dared to raise his sword against Masistes, Xerxes’s younger brother.

Map of the Greco-Persian Wars
Map of the Greco-Persian Wars. Credit: Juan José Moral / Wikimedia Commons

Masistes, who had also fought in the battle, accused Artayntes of cowardice (specifically stating that he was more cowardly than a woman). Enraged, the admiral drew his sword to kill Masistes, but was stopped by Xenagoras of Halicarnassus, a Carian serving the Persians. Due to his swift action—grabbing Artayntes by the waist and slamming him to the ground—Xenagoras was named satrap of Cilicia. This incident typifies the discord resulting from defeat; particularly severe in this case, as it marked the de facto end of Persian hopes to conquer Greece.

In fact, despite Leotychidas’s suggestion to evacuate the Ionian cities to avoid Xerxes’s reprisals, it was decided to leave them because they had been there for a long time, and their culture was Greek. Moreover, at the end of the conflict, they would be incorporated into the Delian League. Before this, the Athenians attacked the Chersonese on the Hellespont, besieging and conquering Sestos. They didn’t need to destroy the famous pontoon bridge because the Persians had already dismantled it, foreseeing a Greek counterattack. However, this didn’t prevent the Delian League from gradually expelling the Persians from Macedonia, Thrace, and the Aegean islands over the next three decades.

The Peace of Callias agreed upon in 449 B.C. (if it really existed, as no formal signature has been found) brought a definitive end to the conflict. Until the time of Alexander the Great, there were no direct battles between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire, among other reasons because the Persians acknowledged the superiority of hoplite phalanxes and tended to hire mercenaries of this nature for military actions (the Expedition of the Ten Thousand was the best example).


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 10, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Mícala, la gran victoria griega ante los persas que puso fin a las Guerras Médicas

Sources

Heródoto, Los nueve libros de la Historia | Diodoro de Sicilia, Biblioteca histórica | Plutarco, Vidas paralelas (Arístides y Catón) | Ctesias de Cnido, Pérsica | Hermann Bengtson, Griegos y persas. El mundo mediterráneo en la Edad Antigua | Chester G. Starr, Historia del Mundo Antiguo | Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars | Javier Jara, Las Guerras Médicas. Grecia frente a la invasión persa | Tom Holland, Persian Fire. The first world empire, battle for the West | Juan Manuel Roldán Hervás (et al.), Historia de la Grecia Antigua | Wikipedia


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