The Battle of Mykale

In the spring of 479 BCE, although defeated at Salamis, the Persians were still in control in most of the Ionian cities. Their citizens revolted against this and asked Athens for support. In response, 40 triremes of the remaining Athenian fleet, under command of Xanthippus, sailed from to Delos where they joined the allied fleet of 110 triremes which was under the command of King Leutychides II of Sparta, who had arrived there from Aegina.[1] After considering the good omen for a naval battle against the Persians, they set sail and departed for Samos.[2]

The Persians had gathered their remaining 200–300 ships at Samos, which was still under Persian control. Once they heard about the Greek plans for battle, the Persians decided to avoid a confrontation and fled from Samos to a location on the western promontory of the mainland opposite Samos, south of Mount Mykale.[3]

The best part of the Persian fleet, the Phoenician contingent, was dismissed and ordered to sail back home. The Phoenicians, possibly expecting little gain through a continued maritime alliance with the Achaemenid [= Persian] Empire, needed little encouragement and departed en route to Sidon. The remaining part of the Persian fleet dropped anchor in the silty delta of the Maeander River. Now, on the mainland of modern Turkey, they were under the protection of the Medo-Persian army, with its headquarters in Sardis. At Mykale:

they beached their ships and fenced them round with stones and the trunks of orchard trees which they cut down; they drove in stakes around the fence and prepared for siege or victory, making ready, after consideration, for either event.
Herodotus Histories 9.97

The 40,000 Persians of the fleet were joined by the 60,000 Persians, Medes, and Red Sea Islanders under Tigranes, part of the troops that the Persian King Xerxes had left to guard Ionia. Together with these troops, spearmen and archers, the Persians prepared for battle.[4]

When the Greek allied fleet arrived at Samos, there firstly was disappointment when they found out that the Persians and their Ionian allies had retreated to Mykale. After keeping council, they decided to sail to across the narrow strait between Samos and the mainland of Anatolia.

Once arrived there, and finding that the Persians had retreated into their palisaded camp on the shores of Mykale, the Spartan King Leutychides firstly attempted to motivate the Ionians that were on the shore, to change sides once the battle began. He sailed along the beach, as close as he could, and had his herald proclaim the following message:

“Men of Ionia, you who hear us, understand what I say, for by no means will the Persians understand anything I charge you with when we join battle; first of all it is right for each man to remember his freedom and next the battle-cry ‘Hebe’: and let him who hears me tell him who has not heard it”.[5]

The Greeks beached their ships just to the east of the Persian camp. Once ashore, the Athenian hoplites [hoplitēs, citizen-soldier] took position on the left flank, closest to the beach and on level ground.[6] The Lacedaemonians, and those who were with them, took position on the right side of the line, going further inshore and turning back to the camp.[7]

Instead of trying to prevent the landing, the Persians, despaired and distrusting their Ionian allies, started taking away the armor of the Samians. The Milesians they send away on a mission to guard the mountain passes over Mykale. A line of Persians outside the fortified camp watched the landing from behind shields which they had pushed into the ground, close to each other and acting as a screen.[8]

The Athenians proceeded in an unbreakable hedge of spears. The Lacedaemonians, on the right side of the line, advanced further inshore through a rough terrain of hills and ravines, using their bows to attack the enemy and covering the vulnerable center of the line. From the middle of the line towards the left, the Corinthian, Sicyonian, Troezenian and Athenian spearmen are already fighting, while the Lacedaemonians made the circuit of the battlefield.

Phalanx in battle against Persians
Phalanx in battle against the Persians

The lightly armed Persian infantry was supported by both horse and camel cavalry. The armored horsemen fought with axe and javelin, the camel riders with bows. As the Greeks advanced their line, a rumor spread through the army which said that the Greeks at Plataea were victors over the left-overs of the Persian army on the mainland of Greece.[9] Also it turned out that the battlefields—the one at Plataea and the one at Mykale—were both near a shrine of Eleusinian Demeter, raising the notion that the battle at Mykale could also be victorious for the Greeks.[10] Encouraged by these wonders, the Greeks faced the Persian army with even greater vigor. The Athenian leaders then realized that the prize of this victory could be the rule over the islands and the Hellespont.

The Athenian marines and their neighbors intensify their fight, now even seeing a chance that they and not the Lacedaemonians might win the victory. The Persians, who firstly fought outside the wall, retreated to within the walls, followed closely by the Athenians. There the Persians stopped their defense and took to flight, only to run into the Lacedaemonians and their comrades who then finished off what was left of the Persians. Halfway through the battle, the Samians sided with the Greeks. The Milesians who had been sent to the mountains also sided with the Greeks; they killed the few Persians to reach the passes into the mountains. “In this way Ionia revolts for the second time and after Mykale, the Persians were powerless to stop them”.[11]

The Allied fleet then sailed back to Samos to discuss their next move. The Spartan king Leutychides proposed to evacuate the Ionian population back to Greece as he argued that it would be difficult to defend Ionia against further Persian attacks. The Athenian leader, Xanthippus, however, objected to this, arguing that the Ionian cities were originally Greek colonies. Only reluctantly did the Spartan King Leutychides follow Xanthippus in his next step: the siege of Sestos on the Thracian Chersonese and of Byzantion, modern day Istanbul.


Herodotus Histories. Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920. Available online on Perseus.

[1] Xanthippus, through his marriage with Cleisthenes’ niece Agariste, was associated with the Alcmaeonid clan. He was a rival of Themistocles and the father of Pericles. Leutychides was co-ruler of Sparta alongside Cleomenes I and later Leonidas I, who died at the Battle of Thermopylae, and Pleistarchus.

[2] Herodotus, Histories Book 8.131.

[3] Herodotus, Histories, Book 9.96

[4] The Athenian tradition of which Herodotus was part may have exaggerated the numerical aspects of the battle.

[5] Herodotus, Histories Book 9.98.

[6] “As for the Athenians and those whose place was nearest them, that is, for about half of the line, their way lay over the beach and level ground; for the Lacedaemonians and those that were next to them, their way lay through a ravine and among hills”. (Herodotus, Histories Book 9.102.)

[7] The right wing of the formation is the post of honor and may have been given to the Spartans. Furthermore, if the Athenians moved closest to the shore line, it seems to conclude that the Greeks landed east of the Persian camp.

[8] Herodotus Histories 9.99

9 Herodotus Histories 9.99. The Battle of Plataea was the final land battle during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place in 479 BCE near the city of Plataea in Boeotia.

[10] Herodotus, in his enthusiasm, suggests that both battles occurred on the same day: the synchronism being the third wonder of that day. (Histories 9.101)

[11] Herodotus, Histories 9.62, 9.106, 9.65.

Image credit

Phalanx in battle against the Persians Leutemann (1824–1905). 1865. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Image accessed January 2020.


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