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The Graeco-Persian Wars: The Battle of Mycale

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The Graeco-Persian Wars
The Combatants | The Ionian Revolt | The Battle of Marathon | The Battle of Thermopylae | The Battle of Salamis | The Battle of Plataea | The Battle of Mycale

The gods, the heroes who guard our cities, they resented the impious presumption of the king: a man who was not content with the throne of Asia but sought the rule of Europe, too; who treated temples as though they were mere assemblages of bricks and mortar; who burned and toppled the statues of the gods; who even dared to whip the sea, and bind it up with chains.
- attributed to Themistocles, from Herodotus's The Histories

Mycale was the final flourish of the main period of the Persian Wars. As the Battle of Plataea was being won on the Greek mainland, a Greek force confronted the main Persian army in Ionia. This was the first time since the Ionian Revolt that a battle had been fought between Greece and Persia on Persian land. Compared to the greater battles, relatively little is known about the engagement. There are no detailed sources to build up a picture of what happened, and for this reason it has not attained the legendary status of the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis.


The Hellenic League's fleet had been skulking around off the island of Delos for a while, unwilling to venture across the Aegean without the additional numbers the Athenians would provide. The people of Athens had refused to send ships until the Peloponnesians committed to a battle against Mardonius on land. However, as soon as they heard of the march of the largest Greek army since the Trojan War, the Athenian fleet set sail to join their allies, under the command of Xanthippus. The fleet's overall commander was the Spartan king Leotychides. As soon as he received these reinforcements, he set off across the Aegean to destroy what remained of the imperial battle fleet.

The Persians, evidently nervous of a Greek enemy for whom they had gained a new-found respect and fear, did not confront the fleet as it moored in the harbour of Samos. Opposite the island was a mountain called Mycale. It had been at Mount Mycale that the Ionian leaders had held a last desperate council before the battle of Lade1, at the ancient meeting-place called the Panionium. Now the Greek situation was looking rather different, and the Persians were on the defensive.

Once, Samos had served as a base for the Persian fleet after Salamis, but they abandoned it when they saw the Greek fleet and fled to the mainland. In the end they decided that they stood more chance of success if they faced the Greeks on land, and so they poured out of their boats onto the beach below a spur of Mount Mycale, which jutted out into the sea. There, they constructed a basic stockade to protect themselves, using boulders and apple trees. On the field of Plataea, Mardonius's forces had also built a fort - by the end of the day both would be taken by Greeks.

The Greek Fleet

No exact figures are given, but it is probable that the Greeks brought over 200 ships to the battle, with 300 being entirely possible. The entire Hellenic Navy was larger than this, so it is more a question of how many they left to guard their homes than how many they sent to fight. The crews of the ships numbered around 40,000 men.

The Persian Fleet

Some sources say that, thanks to the Athenian reinforcements, the Persians, led by a man named Arayantes, were actually outnumbered by the Greeks. Others claim 60,000 men defended the Persian palisade, but it is likely that the forces were of a similar size.

Notable by their absence from the fleet were the crack Phoenician squadrons, who had been dismissed after their poor performance at the Battle of Salamis.

The Battle

It was Athenian, Corinthian and Troezenian marines who made the attack on the Persian position. This was only a fraction of the men available to Leotychides. Seeing how small the attacking force was, the Persians emerged from behind their hastily-erected fortifications; while the Greek assault force was slowly swelling.

Leotychides is said to have appealed to the Ionians among the Persian force to join him. Herodotus quotes him as follows:

Men of Ionia - ye who can hear me speak - do ye take heed to what I say; for the Persians will not understand a word that I utter. When we join battle with them, before aught else, remember Freedom - and next, recollect our watchword, which is Hebe. If there be any who hear me not, let those who hear report my words to the others.
The Greek battle formation was fully prepared by then, with the Spartans in their usual position of honour on the right, the Athenians on the left and the other contingents in the centre.

The Persians, however, got the gist of what was said and sent the Ionians to guard their rear - out of trouble. Meanwhile, the Athenians had found a herald's sceptre abandoned on the beach. Taking this as a sign that Pausanias had gained victory at Plataea, and as an omen of their own impending victory, they broke into an all-out charge at the Persians.

The other contingents, advancing more slowly and keeping their formation tight, arrived just as the Athenians were forcing the Persians back into their stockade. The fury of the Athenian attack and the low Persian morale2 meant victory was soon attained. The phalanx rolled over the Persian line and proceeded to slaughter all those they found in the fort. A contingent of Spartans, who had sailed a short distance up the coast, arrived at the Persian rear, causing further chaos and slaughter. The fleeing Persians then found their way to Sardis blocked by the Ionians, who had indeed turned against their masters as Leotychides had asked them to. Only a handful actually reached the capital of the satrapy, and took with them horrific tales of what a phalanx on the attack could do to a lightly-armoured enemy.

The Persian fleet, abandoned by its crews, was torched that evening on Leotychides's orders. With it went up in flames any chance of another serious Persian assault on Greece any time soon.


In the council at Samos following the victory, the Greek leaders debated what action to take next. The Spartans, not wishing to jump to the Ionians' aid every time they were attacked, wanted to move them back to mainland Greece. The Athenians vetoed this proposal, as the Ionian cities had long ago been founded as Athenian colonies. These same Ionian cities also declared their independence from Persia soon after, and formed an alliance with Athens which would eventually evolve into the Delian League (and, in its later life, the Athenian Empire).

1A battle that was itself only fought a few miles out to sea in the south.2Surely demonstrated by the defensive nature of their actions: a more confident force might have attacked the Greeks at sea.

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