About an hour and a half’s drive northwest of Athens, the quiet village of Plataea lies on the northern foothills of Mt Kithaeron with a vista stretching across the lush plains of the River Asopos, which conjures ghosts of a glorious, but gory past. Holding the fatal fascination that draws visitors to the site of any major battlefield, Plataea attracts us mainly for its symbolic role in Greek history as the venue of the final battle against the Persian invaders in 479 B.C. On top of this came the Siege of Plataea by the Thebans from 431–426 B.C. – the deciding factor which triggered the Peloponnese Wars. As we take a closer look at Ancient Plataea, we will find that it played its part in history over a millennium before these events, back to Neolithic times and the Mycenaean era. This city, named after Plataea, the Naiad-nymph daughter of the mythical river god Asopos, was built and rebuilt numerous times, spanning the centuries to survive the consecutive rules of Romans, Byzantines, Franks and Ottomans to evolve into the quiet agricultural community of the present day.
According to local legend, Plataea was instrumental in the reconciliation of Zeus with his estranged wife Hera. Understandably perturbed by her husband’s many infidelities, Hera had left him and gone off to Euboea. To play a trick on her, Zeus spread the rumour that he planned to marry Plataea. Hearing of this, just as he had hoped, Hera could not resist running back to sneak a peek at the ‘bride-to-be’ in the wedding carriage. She was so amused to find that it only contained a female effigy that she forgave Zeus and came back to his side. This may account for the presence of the Temple of Hera and the Altar of Zeus Eleutherios in the area. The traveller and scholar Pausanias reported that a statue of Hera Nympheuomene (friend of nymphs) stood in Ancient Plataea as a tribute to this mythical reconciliation.
History and Archaelogy
From the archaeological finds in the area, it is clear that Ancient Plataea existed from Mycenaean times (1400–1200 B.C.). Its strategic position on the main route that linked Boeotia with Athens and the Peloponnese city-states was protected by the backdrop of the Mt Kithairon range to the south while reaping the benefits of the lush plains of Asopos. For this reason, it became a target for the rival city-states of neighbouring Thebes and Athens. For centuries, the Plataeans chose to collaborate with Athens, who offered back-up against the Theban attempts to command their city. This support was reciprocated when Plataean hoplites (infantry) aided the Athenians against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., when Spartan allies somewhat battle-shy – still busy licking their wounds from their glorious but fatal stand at the Battle of Thermopylae. In 480 B.C., Plataeans also participated in the naval Battle of Artemisium, followed by the more successful one at Salamis. Meanwhile, Thebans had been busy colluding with the invading Persians, doubtless receiving rewards in return for shelter and resources for the troops advancing from the north. By the time the Plataeans returned from Salamis, the Persians had destroyed their city in retribution. As allied forces gathered to prevent the army of the Persian king Xerxes from moving south, this resulted in the battle to end all battles between them in 479 B.C.
According to Herodotus, who wrote a lengthy account of the Battle of Plataea based mainly on the recollections of surviving hoplites, this involved 350,000 Persians against 109,200 Greeks. More moderate estimates claim that the allied multi-nation Persian force, almost half of whom were Greek collaborators, totalled 110,000. These were heavily armed with spears and long-range archers, plus a cavalry that would advance after the archers had left their mark. The Greeks, who fought with spears, swords and short range arrows, numbered around 41,000 hoplites, plus around 35,00 helots – the serfs of Sparta.
Pausanias, not the traveller and scribe but the regent of Sparta, nephew of the late Leonidas, led the Greeks with the support of commanders including Xanthippus, father of Pericles.
Whatever the actual headcount, the Greeks, though outnumbered and out-weaponed, won the day by outwitting their enemies. The Persians relied on advancing upon their enemy across flat terrain that allowed the cavalry approach, whereas the Greek hoplites were able to negotiate the rugged foothills around the city ruins. The bloody Battle of Plataea went on for thirteen days. On the final day, the Greeks separated into two formations; the Athenians faced the enemy head on, while the Spartans manoeuvred around towards the river and attacked the Persians from their unshielded side, killing their commander, Mardonius. This spurred on the allied forces to defeat the invaders. There were heavy losses on both sides, but with proportionately more Persian fatalities, mainland Greece was secured.
To commemorate their triumph, the Greeks erected the Serpent’s Column in Delphi. It was said to have been set on a golden tripod with the inscription:
“This is the gift the saviours of far-flung Hellas upraised here, Having delivered their states from loathsome slavery’s bonds.”
[Diodorus, History 11.33.2.]
A few centuries later, it was moved to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, by the emperor. In 1973, archaeologists discovered the Altar of Zeus and the Polyandrion, the likely site of the mass grave of those who fell at the battle.
Plataeans rebuilt their city and established the Eleutherian Games (from the Greek word eleutheria, meaning freedom), which took place every four years and included a hoplite race from the Altar of Zeus to a trophy in the battlefield. They enjoyed a few decades of harmonious alliance with Athens, but Thebans still had plans to control them.
In 431 B.C., Thebes sent a contingent of 300 to persuade Plataeans to unite with them. The Plataean citizens, still bearing a grudge against them for siding with Persia, saw them as a threat. They refused to discuss any deal, killed 120 Thebans and took the other prisoner. The message was relayed on foot to the Athenians, who responded that the prisoners should be released. News travelled slowly then – too slowly for the 180 Theban prisoners, who had already been killed anyway. This news did not go down at all well in Thebes! And so began the five-year Siege of Plataea. To make matters worse for the city, Sparta sided with the Thebans, plus the supportive Athenians were weakened and depleted in numbers, suffering the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C. Some Plataeans escaped to Athens, but most surrendered to Sparta. Thebans tore the city apart and ceremoniously used its roofs and doors to construct a huge hostel – the Katagogion, which Romans later used as an agora.
Then came the Corinthian War in 395–387 B.C. By now, the tables were turned since Thebes and Athens had united against Sparta. Plataea had been rebuilt by Sparta, and some Plataeans had returned home, only to be exiled again by Thebans. This went on till the Battle of Chaeronea, where the Macedonian army beat the Thebans and Athenians.
For a century or so, Plataea was only deserted, except during the periods of the Eleutherian Games. The city was resurrected around the 4th century A.D. and became the seat of a Byzantine diocese. Scattered around the countryside are the Frankish towers as a reminder that Plataea, along with the rest of Boeotia, was captured by the Knights of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century before finally succumbing to Ottoman rule.
The Site today
In contrast to the sleepily unassuming, modern village of Plataea, there are several important remains that we can see here. Around 4.5 kilometres of the city walls, dating back to the 5th century B.C., still stand with some even older remains from the Mycenaean era.
To the north-west of the city walls are the foundations of the Heraion – the Temple of Hera, which once housed the famous statue of Hera by the sculptor Praxiteles.
We can just see a corner and one side of the building that was the Theban hostel, Katagogion.
The foundations of the Altar of Zeus Eleutherios are also visible near the Ployandrion, where we are reminded of the grim loss of human lives in battle.
Around the ancient walled site there is an astonishing number of Byzantine churches – at least ten of them – formed from recycled parts of the ancient city, representing a millennium of the spread of Byzantine Christianity from the 6th to 15th century.
As well as the physical ruins, we can experience the timeless ambience of the gruesome battlefield itself before continuing our travels.