The Battle of Plataea—A “Bear” Brought to Its Knees
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GREECE
A FEW silent temple ruins. Abandoned carved stones and gravel paths. An empty plain between rolling foothills on the banks of the Asopós River, 30 miles [50 km] northwest of Athens, Greece.
Nothing betrays the fact that we are standing on the very location where one of the last acts of the Persian-Greek armed conflict was played out some 2,500 years ago. This was the scene of the largest land battle of the Persian Wars—the Battle of Plataea.
Hints of Confrontation
Like a well-written script, Bible prophecy foretold the rise and fall of world powers centuries in advance. True to prophecy, the Medo-Persian world power, symbolized by a bear and by a ram, seized new territories in what was mainly a westerly expansionist drive. (Daniel 7:5; 8:4) In their campaign against Greece, however, Persian forces under King Darius I suffered a crushing defeat at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. Four years later, Darius died.
Daniel’s prophecy spoke further of “three kings standing up for Persia” and then of a fourth Persian king, who would “rouse up everything against the kingdom of Greece.” That king evidently was Darius’ son Xerxes. (Daniel 11:2) Endeavoring to retaliate for the Persian defeat at Marathon, Xerxes launched massive forces against the Greek mainland in 480 B.C.E. Following a costly victory at Thermopylae, however, his forces finally met bitter defeat at Salamis.*
Mardonius—A Reluctant Fighter?
An embarrassed Xerxes hurried off to Lydia, leaving behind 300,000 of his men under the command of the seasoned campaigner Mardonius, charged with policing the conquered regions of Greece. From his winter camp in Thessaly, Mardonius sent an envoy to Athens with a proposal that offered Athens a complete pardon, the rebuilding of the burned temples, the restoration of territory, and an equal alliance as an autonomous free city. However, the Athenians spurned the proposal and turned to Sparta for military help.
Mardonius was advised by dissident Greeks sympathetic to him that he could win over the recalcitrant Greeks by bribing their leaders. But Mardonius disdained using such means. He was still trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the Greeks, and he again offered to allow the Athenians to surrender on favorable terms. However, they remained adamant in their refusal.
The Final Act
Hence, the final episode of the confrontation between Persia and Greece was acted out at Plataea, in August 479 B.C.E. There, about 40,000 Greek infantrymen—which included Athenians, Spartans, and forces from other Greek cities—under General Pausanias of Sparta confronted the 100,000 strong troops of Mardonius.
For three weeks the main bodies of the two armies, both dreading a head-on encounter, skirmished indecisively across the Asopós River. Legend has it that both armies had been promised victory by their respective soothsayers if they remained on the defensive. However, the Persian cavalry harassed the Greeks continually, capturing a necessary provision train and poisoning the wells that the Greeks depended on for water.
To Mardonius, the end of the war seemed imminent. But this Persian commander had underestimated the fighting ability of the opponent. The general was lured by hope of an immediate and spectacular victory. Thus, he moved his army across the river quickly and struck.
The Persians set up their wall of wicker shields and from behind it showered volleys of arrows upon their opponents. The 8,000 Athenians were assaulted by the dissident Greek allies of the Persians, whereas the bulk of Mardonius’ forces attacked the 11,500 Spartans. To defend themselves from the cloud of arrows, the Spartans stooped beneath their shields. But, then, as a phalanx they launched a disciplined counterattack. With their longer spears and in heavier body armor, they bore down on the Persians.
Taken aback, the Persians retreated. Meanwhile, the Athenians had overpowered the Greek traitors. Mardonius’ army—with the protection of their cavalry—hurriedly returned across the river. Mardonius was knocked from his mount and slain. The Persian army, deprived of its leader, broke and ran.
At the same time, on the Ionian shore of Mycale across the sea, the Greek fleet scored a major victory over the Persian navy, which had barely managed to survive the defeat at Salamis a year earlier. The combined forces of the mighty Persian army had been dealt a decisive blow.
A Crippled “Bear”
Persia’s military forces would never again fight on European soil. The Persian army was utterly destroyed as a fighting machine. Thereafter, according to the book A Soaring Spirit, “Xerxes retired to his capitals and the delights of his harem. From time to time he would rouse himself to push forwards his father’s construction projects, adding palaces and monumental halls to the Persian ceremonial capital, Persepolis. But he accomplished very little else of significance.”
Protected behind the safety of court life, the once ambitious conqueror let his interests narrow down to a petty circle of political maneuvering and court gossip. Even there, however, he was disappointed. In 475 B.C.E., a cabal of plotters had him murdered in his own bed.
A Soaring Spirit comments: “In the succession of Persian kings that followed—at least in the view of Greek writers who would be the chief source of information about the empire in this period—none displayed the energy or brilliance of Cyrus or Darius. Under Xerxes’ son, Artaxerxes I, money, not troops, became the principal instrument of Persian imperial policy. He used the coin of the realm to meddle in Greek affairs, paying first one [city-state] and then another to stir up trouble . . . The coins, gold darics, bore an image of Darius holding a bow and quiver of arrows; the Greeks referred to them derisively as ‘Persian archers.’”
Conspiracy and murder would continue to tarnish the royal house of the Persian Empire with blood until its eventual demise. The empire slipped into steady decline, and the Persian dynasty began to lose its grip on power and its ability to govern.
Despite last-ditch efforts to strengthen the regime, the royal house was ready to topple by the time Alexander the Great—a man whose imperialistic vision and ambitions matched those of Cyrus—began to march through the empire’s vastness in the fourth century B.C.E. Once again, Bible prophecy would be fulfilled right down to the last detail.
For further details, see “The Battle of Marathon—Humiliation of a World Power,” in the May 8, 1995, issue of Awake!, and “A Bitter Defeat for Xerxes,” in the April 8, 1999, issue of Awake!
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Medo-Persia and Greece—Two Centuries of Confrontation
500 B.C.E. Greeks of Ionia (Asia Minor) rebel against Persian rulers
490 B.C.E. Athenians repel Persians at Marathon
482 B.C.E. Xerxes ‘rouses up everything against Greece’ (Daniel 11:2)
480 B.C.E. Costly victory of Persians at Thermopylae; Persians are routed at Salamis
479 B.C.E. Athenians and Spartans triumph against Persians at Plataea
336 B.C.E. Alexander becomes king of Macedonia
Procession of Greek cavalry
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum
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The Final Outcome of All Human Power Struggles
“In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.”—Daniel 2:44
[Picture on page 25]
The battlefield of Plataea, where the Persian fighting machine was destroyed