The Battle of Platea 2.5K, Spring 2022

Conference Abstracts

The Clash of Shield-Walls at Plataia

Paul Bardunias (Florida Atlantic University)

Our understanding of ancient Greek warfare has been hampered by irreconcilable visions of the mechanics of hoplite combat. I have made use of a combination of experimental archaeology, the physics of weapons use and movement in crowds, and the biology of group behaviors in humans, to present an evolution of hoplite warfare from the Archaic to the Classical period. This view attempts to satisfy as much as possible the disparate opinions of modern scholars on elements of combat such as the level of training and drill required, the spacing of men in battle, and the concerted push of othismos. My reading of Tyrtaios suggests that the Archaic Greeks fought in shield-walls, where hoplites opened battle by throwing spears, backed by a mass of missile troops akin to those seen in а late Roman shield-wall as well as in Saxon and Norse formations. The missile component of this blended formation failed to meet the challenge of the Achaemenid barricades of large shields backed by numerous and powerful archers. As a result of the experience of the Persian wars, hoplites changed their tactics, foregoing missile combat for a charge from long range and severing the mass of light troops from their formations. At the battle of Plataia, we see not only the clash of Greek and Achaemenid shield-walls, but the bloody birth of the classical phalanx.

Thebes, Boiotia, and the Battle of Plataia. Perspectives from the Kadmeia

Hans Beck (University of Münster, University of Montreal)

Recent research on Archaic Thebes showcases the engagement of the city in the Asopos Valley and the direction of Plataia. Indeed, new epigraphic discoveries document the lively entanglement with the communities to the south and east of Thebes, towards the Saronic region and the Euboian Gulf respectively. In the decades prior to the arrival of Persian army, then, this region was shaped by the interactions between many settlements. The Thebans were clearly the most powerful stakeholder in these exchanges and they pursued their own agenda of aggrandizement. In my talk, I will place the Battle of Plataia in the context of the corresponding local and regional rivalries, violent and non-violent. I will argue, in a nutshell, that experiences in the second half of the 6th century were critical to how communities positioned themselves in the Persian War – and on a battlefield that was located in the very center of their former quarrels. In the aftermath of Plataia, their local motivations were of course buried under all-pervasive discourses of freedom of the Hellenes and allegations of betrayal of their cause.

Re-Visiting the Serpent Column: Weapons, Armies and Significance

Michael Charles (Southern Cross University)

The Serpent Column remains one of the most curious artefacts from classical antiquity. Not only does this artefact have a recorded literary history dating back to not long after the fabrication of the Column itself, but also it can be seen today in Istanbul, albeit without the three original serpent heads being intact, nor the golden cauldron dedicated to the god Apollo at the home of his oracle at Delphi. Ancient sources, including Herodotus, Thucydides and Pausanias, concur that the Column was fabricated, along with other valuable items, to thank the gods for the part they played in allowing the Greeks to defeat the remaining Persian forces under Mardonius at Plataea (479 bce). This paper proposes to re-visit the Column, together with similar votive artefacts that have not survived, to shed light on two issues relating to the battle, the first being the degree to which soldiers in the Persian army were without armour, as is alleged by Herodotus, and the second being the amount of precious metals that the Persians still had with them at this point in the campaign. Together, such information might allow to gain more insight into what sort of force the combined Greek army was facing at Plataea. Finally, we look at what the choice of three intertwined serpents signified, and what significance this has for our understanding of the battle of Plataea and its aftermath.

Amompharetos and the Unruly Sparta at Plataia

Paul Christesen (Dartmouth College)

The Battle of Plataia brought the Spartiates en masse out of Lakonia and into the full view of large number of other Greeks for an extended period of time and involved them in an event that was remembered in some detail. As a result, Plataia gives us an invaluable glimpse of a fundamental dynamic in Sparta that is otherwise largely hidden. The dynamic in question is a tension between what I call a disciplinary Sparta, a place inhabited by a highly disciplined and highly unified group of Spartiates who put a special premium on obedience and subordinating personal interests to the well-being of the group as a whole, and an unruly Sparta, a place inhabited by a group Spartiates wont to dissolve into a mass of highly atomized, self-seeking individuals who were at best disobedient and at worst ungovernable. The unruly Sparta is particularly evident in Amompharetos’ behavior at Plataia, but it is also apparent in how Spartiates leaders, especially kings and regents, behaved and how they were treated. If our sources do not often show us the unruly Sparta, that is because Spartiates were adept at concealing it from the outside world, but that does not diminish its importance to our understanding of ancient Sparta.

The Greeks at Plataea. Managing ‘Multinational’ Armies in the Classical Period

Fernando Echeverría Rey (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)

At the battle of Plataea, the Greek alliance faced the Persian forces under Mardonios with the largest army ever assembled on Greek soil. Never before (or after) the Greeks were able to congregate so many allies under the same banner and gather so many troops for a concerted effort. They had previous experience of multinational enterprises, but never on such scale, so the mobilization, organization, and deployment of such vast numbers of men from dozens of different communities proved to be a serious challenge for the Spartan leaders of the campaign. Then, as it is widely known, coordination failed at the battle and the Greek formation faced the Persians with a battlefront broken in multiple pieces and barely operative. This has been generally regarded as an example of poor leadership on Pausanias’ part and of the lack of discipline on the part of the Greeks, but that is not completely fair to the nature of military alliances and Greek military leadership at the beginning of the fifth century BC. Considering how the Greeks conceived and approached their collaboration with their allies is instrumental to understand why events unfolded the way they did at Plataea and why it was a pretty much expected (or at least a very likely) scenario, not only during the Persian Wars but also throughout the whole Classical period.

Harmony on the Cadmea: Persians, Thebans, and the Battle of Plataea

Samuel Gartland (University of Leeds)

The co-ordination of forces before and during at the battle of Plataea marks a highpoint of effective co-operation between Persians and mainland Greeks. Most conspicuous was the relationship between Thebans and Persians: they eat together, fight together, and ultimately lose the battle together, but this last part should not obscure from view the brief flourishing of a remarkable relationship. In this paper I will consider this partnership as an impressive and productive achievement, borne of opportunism on both sides but which provided the Persians with an able and willing partner in southern-central Greece, and the battle with its distinctive form.

The Command of Mardonius and its Achaemenid Political Context

John Hyland (Christopher Newport University)

Mardonius, the Persian commander at Plataea, serves as the principal villain in Herodotus’ narrative of Xerxes’ Greek expedition. This paper seeks to contextualize his place in the Histories by examining Mardonius’ family and career within the early Achaemenid context. It argues that his alleged responsibility for the origin of the Greek campaign is exaggerated due to the influence of a Persian tradition that sought to exculpate the king for military setbacks by blaming the general assigned to command in his place. This negative tradition about Mardonius arose in part because of the general’s death at Plataea, the historicity of which should be accepted despite a recent argument to the contrary involving ambiguous Babylonian evidence.

From Singularity to Recurrence: The Battle of Plataea and the Greek War of Independence in the Anglo-American Imaginary

K. Scarlett Kingsley (Agnes Scott College)

Abstract: This paper considers British and American receptions of the battle of Plataea at the advent of the Greek War of Independence. It identifies an intensification in the use of the battle as an exemplum of emancipation in this period and argues for a shift in its temporal conceptualization as a unique, singular event to one conceived of as recurrent. The cyclical time of Plataea treats the landscape of the field as one of regeneration and renewal, encouraging an identification between modern and ancient Greece as well as the Ottoman and Persian empires. Commitment to the repeatability of the battle of Plataea is bought at the cost of the elevation of the present to rival the classical past. As a whole, the paper contributes to a deeper understanding of Romantic notions of the past and their use in the present.

The Spartan Army at Plataea. Demography and Tribal Order

Marcello Lupi (The University of Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”)

According to Herodotus, five thousand Spartiates, that is the youth (neótes) of the city, took part in the battle of Plataea and his testimony is probably the main information we have on the number of Spartan citizens in the age of the Persian wars (Hdt. 9.10.1; cf. 7.234.2). At the same time – and although some recent studies have largely undermined the foundations of this theory – the idea is still widely held that the Spartiates fought at Plataea divided into five battalions (lóchoi), each representing one of the five villages (óbai) alleged to constitute the city of Sparta. As this paper aims to show, once the theory of this presumed obal army has been rejected, it is much easier to assume that the Spartan army in this period was still organized according to the three Dorian tribes and their subdivisions. The implications of some ancient sources (the New Simonides; Demetrios of Skepsis fr. 1 Gaede) as well as Herodotus’ figures on Spartan demography during those years appear to support this reconstruction.

Professionalism at Plataea

Sean Manning (independent scholar)

Herodotus’ account of the Persian wars is full of bumbling, indecision, and selfishness. Yet in modern discussions of the Persian Wars, the concept of professionalism comes up again and again. To some scholars, the Spartans are stand-ins for heroic Latin Christians facing down natives and orientals, while to another group of writers, the Persians are a mighty imperial war machine prepared to roll over the free cities of Greece. Recent research has showed that this picture of the Spartan army is hard to reconcile with the evidence, especially the evidence before Thucydides and Xenophon. There has been less discussion of why researchers compare the Persians to these later armies, and whether this analogy is useful.

In this talk, I will show that while Xerxes’ armies had an impressive range of capabilities, these capabilities did not come from anything like the European armies of the 19th and 20th centuries (or from something exactly the same as the army of the Roman emperors). The discourse about professionalism comes from the politics of the Atlantic world in the 19th and 20th centuries, and from the use of the Persian Wars in political rhetoric. If we see Achaemenid armies as part of the Achaemenid world, and not as stand-ins for our own armies or enemies, we can understand them better. But we can also understand armies better, and the many different ways in which societies build and maintain military capabilities.

The Persian Armaments Through Greek Vases

Margaret Miller (University of Sydney)

The name vase of the Athenian Painter of the Oxford Brygos (Oxford 1911.615) is famous for its accurate depiction the Persian gerron and quilted corselet. Yet the painter gives us more, in differently equipping each of the three “Persians.” Herodotus’ account of the imperial contingents includes elements like those depicted here. They are also paralleled by the graphic arts of the Persian empire or are documented by finds. Problems of understanding the quilted corslet and the anaxyrides have been aided by modern experimentation. The painter truly has given a snapshot of the range of troops that participated at Plataea.

The Other Greeks: Toward Understanding the Plataea Narrative’s Compositional Context(s)

Ian Oliver (Regis University)

Drawing on the theory that Herodotus’s composition of the Histories was greatly affected by his participation in a culture of oral performance, I will propose that the Plataea narrative’s disproportionately positive portrayal of not only Athens, but also Phocis and Macedon, can best be explained by the narrative’s origins in an early stage of the Histories’ pre-publication, possibly dating back as far as the mid-5th century BCE and the context of the First Peloponnesian War.

The Topographical Quest for the Battlefield of Plataea

J. Z. van Rookhuijzen (Leiden University)

This paper revisits the topography of the battle of Plataea. After a short introduction on the traditional way of studying the topography, I give some theoretical considerations into topographical narratives, focusing on Jan Assmann’s concept of mnemotope (place of memory). I then discuss the stories and sites of three ‘landmarks’ at the battle of Plataea: the Gargaphia spring, the temple of Hera, and the temple of Demeter. With this exploration, I aim to show that the topography of Herodotus’ account of the battle of Plataea was densified into a series of mnemotopes around which stories crystallized. The several positions of the Greeks were ‘concatenated’ into a series of ‘points’ on the map. In addition, it reveals the belief that local divinities had influenced the outcome of the battle (as is also apparent from other Herodotean battle narratives).

Searching for Persian Perspectives on Plataea

Christopher J. Tuplin (University of Liverpool)

The full version of my paper (which there will not be time to present in full in the online session) embraces four main sections. (1) Some Greek versions of Persian perspectives on Plataea. Aeschylus and Ctesias have nothing significant to offer. Herodotus constructs a version heavily focused on Mardonius: this makes IX chime in general and specific terms with the opening of VII and deals with defeat by shifting blame to the dead leader. Dio of Prusa sketches a version which deals with defeat by denying its existence, a proposition with precedents in Herodotus. (2) Documents we do not have and people we perhaps cannot find addresses some texts that ostensibly have nothing whatsoever to say about Plataea or Xerxes’ version. These include Xerxes’ daiva inscription (a novel description of imperial suppression of disorder), documentary texts from Persepolis (business as usual in the imperial heartland), and business documents from Babylonia (a tantalising sign of Mardonius?) The last item prompts a wider search for Plataea-actors in non-Greek documents and raises a methodological question about Herodotean silences. (3) Edges of Empire argues that imperial frontier ideology is inscribed in the army that fought at Plataea. (4) addresses Perso-centric depiction of conflict with Greeks in early gem- and seal-stone images and provides the first public discussion of a remarkable new addition to the catalogue of such items.

The Victory Monuments and Celebratory Rituals at Plataea from the 5th Century BC to the 3rd Century AD

Shane Wallace (Trinity College Dublin)

The commemorative rituals at Plataea celebrating the battle of 479 lasted at least into the third century AD and saw the development of a Council of the Greeks, a penteteric festival named the Eleutheria, a four-yearly dialogos between the Athenians and Spartans, as well as annual sacrifices to Zeus Eleutherius and funerary rituals in honour of those who died at the battle of Plataea in 479. In tandem, the site of Plataea was monumentalised with the addition of tombs, an altar to Zeus Eleutherius, a trophy, and the addition of a cult to Homonoia of the Greeks. Such developments took place between the 5th and third centuries BC. In this paper, I examine the development of these rituals and monuments in their chronological context and emphasise the contemporary political milieu for the elaboration of new monumental and commemorative features at Plataea. Plataea was a lieu de mémoire for Greek freedom, but it was not a static tradition. Pulled between the hegemonies of Athens, Sparta, Macedon, and then the unipolar world of Rome and its emperors, the rituals and monuments at Plataea, not to mention Plataea’s own agency as an independent polis, reflect local Greek responses shifting power dynamics of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.

After Plataea: The Politics of Hegemony and the End of the Persian War

David Yates (Millsaps College)

In popular imagination (both then and now), the victory over the Persians at Plataea marked the end of the Persian War. Its place as the final battle of the war can seem deceptively obvious. Plataea witnessed the defeat of a massive Persian army that halted the offensive launched by Xerxes the year before. But the conflict with Persia did not end at this point. Rather, it continued for at least a year under Sparta’s leadership and then for decades more under that of Athens. How then did a battle that manifestly did not end the Persian War come to be given that distinction in memory? I argue that Plataea became the most recognized endpoint of the war because it served to isolate the glorious defense of Greece from its messy aftermath. Our surviving evidence speaks to the particular role of Sparta and Athens in this process. Both had a vested interest in giving the Persian War the sharp break it lacked in reality. From the start, Sparta’s campaign against the now penitent Medizers demanded a moment at which the true test of loyalty – the real war – had ended. The subsequent failure of its hegemony in the Aegean only served to reinforce the need to isolate earlier heroics from what followed. The Athenians proudly continued to prosecute the war, but were wary of emphasizing the awkward transition from Spartan to Athenian leadership. In the battle of Plataea, both Sparta and Athens found a convenient way to obscure the inconvenient realities that followed.

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