Battle of Mycale

The Battle of Mycale was fought as part of the war of the Persian Empire under Xerxes against the Greek city states. It took place after the decisive Greek victory at the Battle of Plataea being fought in August 479 B.C.

In a foolhardy move the Spartan general Leotychidas landed the Greek forces at Mycale and attacked the much larger Persian army. However, as the battle began, the Ionian Greek soldiers in the Persian army changed sides. The Greeks won a complete victory capturing Mycale and the Persian fleet.

In the aftermath of their defeat at Salamis in 480 the Persian fleet returned to Asia Minor. Most of the fleet over-wintered at Cyme, on the mainland south-east of Lesbos, while the rest of the fleet rested at the island of Samos, further south along the coast. In the spring of 479 the two contingents came together at Samos. The combined fleet, now recorded by Herodotus as consisting of 300 ships, was commanded by Mardontes son of Bagaeus, Artayntes son of Artachaees and Artaynta's nephew Ithamitres. The fleet was given the task of guarding against the possibility of a fresh Ionian Revolt amongst the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Just before the battle the Phoenicians were sent elsewhere, reducing the size of the Persian fleet. The Egyptian contingent had been sent home earlier in the campaign, and so the Persians can't have had much more than 100 ships during the battle. Moreover many of them must have come from the Greek states under Persian control.

On the other side of the Aegean the Greeks mustered a fleet of 110 ships, under the command of King Leotychidas of Sparta. Both sides thus had smaller forces at their disposal than in 480. On the Greek side the difference appears to have consisted of the Athenian fleet, which was being kept for use as a bargaining counter in the negotiations about the land campaign of 479. On the Persian side the difference was caused by the heavy losses of 480, and probably by a dissipation of naval strength, with some contingents going home and others presumably supporting the army in Thessaly.

The Greek fleet moved south from Salamis to Aegina, where they were found by a delegation from Chios, asking to be liberated from the Persians. Leotychidas might have been sympathetic, but he wasn’t yet ready to risk crossing the Aegean, and could only be persuaded to take the fleet to Delos in the centre of the Cyclades. Meanwhile back in Greece the Athenians finally convinced the Spartans to come and fight outside the Peloponnesians. After ferrying their army across from Salamis the Athenian ships joined the fleet at Delos. Herodotus doesn't say how many ships were involved, but this must have at least doubled the size of the Greek fleet.

At about time a delegation arrived from Samos. The island was then ruled by the tyrant Theomestor, who had been given the post as a reward for his performance at Salamis. The three delegates, Lampon, Athenagoras and Hegeistratus, argued that the time was right for the Greek fleet to move to Ionian. Their arrival would trigger a fresh uprising against Persian rule. The Persians would probably not fight, and even if they did their morale was low and they would be an easy target. Events would show that morale in the Persian fleet was indeed low.

Build-up to Battle

The Greeks now decided that the time was right to go onto the offensive. Their fleet was now much larger than when they had first arrived at Delos, and they had been promised support by the very island where the Persian fleet was resting. On the day after the meeting they set sail, heading east towards Samos. The Greek fleet sailed along the southern coast of the island towards the town.

The Greeks were spotted by the Persians, who put to sea, but instead of coming out to fight, they were planning to retreat. The Persians turned east, and made for the Latmian Gulf, the great bay that once sheltered Miletus, but has since silted up. The Persian fleet split up. The Phoenician fleet was sent away (Herodotus doesn’t say where too), while the rest of the Persian fleet moved into the Gulf, and then landed on the slopes of Mt Mycale, on the northern side of the bay, where they were able to join up with the Persian land army in the area, 60,000 men commanded by Tigranes (at least according to Herodotus). The Persians beached their ships, and then built a defensive stockade.

The Greeks didn’t immediately follow. First they had a debate about what to do next, considering either going home or moving up to the Hellespont, before deciding to follow the Persians to the mainland. When they passed the Persian camp no ships came out to fight, and so Leotychidas ordered the fleet to move past the Persian camp, landed, and prepared for a land battle. On his way past he also attempted to spread dissension in the Persian camp by having a crier call out to the Ionians in an attempt to convince them not to fight. This may have had some impact on the Persian commander, for the force from Samos was disarmed, and the Milesians were sent to guard the passes north over Mt. Mycale.

Just before the start of the battle a rumour began to spread around that the Greeks had defeated Mardonius at a battle in Boeotia (battle of Plataea). Given that the two battles took place on the same day, the possibility of the news arriving is normally dismissed. However we do know that Mardonius had a system of beacons in place that would have allowed news of a Persian victory to reach Xerxes at Sardis. It is possible that the Greeks had a similar system, linking the mainland to Delos and extended onwards as the fleet advanced. It is also possible that the story was invented later, or perhaps most likely that is was the sort of rumour that so easily spreads through armies, and on this occasion happened to be true. Whatever the truth was, the news greatly encouraged the Greeks. 
Opposing Forces
The Persians
The number of Persian ships and men involved with the battle are, as so often in the Greco-Persian Wars, somewhat problematic. It is clear that the Persian fleet did not dare conduct operations against the Greeks, and thus must have been approximately equal to, or smaller than the Greek fleet. Herodotus gives the size of the Persian fleet at 300 ships; the Greeks had 378 at Salamis, but must have suffered significant losses, and so they probably also had around 300 in total (though not necessarily all these ships formed part of the allied fleet for 479 BC).  The Phoenician ships were dismissed from the Persian fleet before the battle, which reduced its strength further.

Diodorus tells us that to guard the camp and the ships the Persians gathered 100,000 men in total, while Herodotus suggests that there were 60,000 men in the army under the command of Tigranes.Squaring these two accounts, might suggest that there were c. 40,000 men with the fleet. Given that the Persian fleet appears to have been undermanned in the aftermath of Salamis, 200-300 ships would indeed give this number of naval personnel (using Herodotus's standard complement of 200 men per ship). However, this total of 100,000 is probably too high; to accommodate 100,000 men and 200+ ships, the Persian camp would have to have been enormous. Estimates made of Mardonius's huge camp at Plataea, which was planned and built with plenty of time, suggest it might have accommodated 70,000-120,000 men; it is improbable that such a large camp could have been built at Mycale in the time-frame that Herodotus suggests. It is therefore possible that the 60,000 quoted by Herodotus is actually the total number of Persians present at Mycale; the Persians certainly outnumbered the Allies, emerging from the palisade in confidence after seeing the smaller number of the Allied troops.

The Greeks
Numbers of ships and men for the Allies are also somewhat problematic. Herodotus claims that Leotychides had 110 triremes under his command. However, the previous year, the allies had fielded 271 triremes at the Battle of Artemisium, and then 378 at the Battle of Salamis. We are also told that the Allies had "command of the sea" after Salamis, which implies that they could at least equal the Persian fleet. Diodorus, on the other hand, tells us the allies had 250 ships, which is more consistent with their force levels of the previous year.These two numbers can be reconciled by assuming that Leotychides had 110 triremes under his command before being joined by Xanthippus and the Athenian ships, after the Allied army had marched out from the Peloponnesus. This is the approach taken by Holland, and gives a naval force which might well match the remnants of the Persian fleet.

Although the Athenians had sent 8,000 hoplites to Plataea, they would still have had ample manpower to man a large fleet of triremes, especially since rowers tended to be of the lower classes (the thetes) who could not afford the equipment to fight as hoplites. The standard complement of a trireme was 200 men, including 14 marines. In the second Persian invasion of Greece, each Persian ship had carried thirty extra marines, and this was probably also true in the first invasion when the whole invasion force was apparently carried in triremes. Furthermore, the Chian ships at the Battle of Lade also carried 40 marines each. This suggests that a trireme could probably carry a maximum of 40–45 soldiers—triremes seem to have been easily destabilised by extra weight. Combining these numbers yields a range of 22,000–58,000 men for the Allies, with 3,300–11,250 more heavily armoured marines.Estimates of around 40,000 men are given in some sources, which is approximately the median of the possible range, and seems as likely a number as any. However, since only the marines were expected to fight hand to hand, the rowers in the Allied fleet were probably not equipped to fight in a land battle; it is likely therefore that it was only the marines who contested the battle.

Strategic & tactical considerations

From a strategic point of view, battle was not necessary for either side; the main strategic theatre was mainland Greece itself. Although destroying the enemy navy would result in a clear strategic advantage for both sides, attempting this risked the loss of their own navy. The actions of the two sides thus reflect more upon their morale and confidence than on any strategic considerations. The Persians, seeing little to gain in battle, demoralised and riven with dissent, thus sought to avoid a naval battle. sought to press home their morale advantage once they were informed of the state of the Persian fleet.

Tactically, the Persian fleet should have held the advantage at sea, since the Athenian part of the Greek fleet was, despite their efforts at Artemisium and Salamis, still raw in seamanship.However, whether because of their low morale, or because they were in fact outnumbered, the Persians sought instead the tactical advantage of joining up with the army under Tigranes, and fortifying a position. However, when the Greeks chose to fight on land, the Persians then threw away the advantage of their fortifications by emerging to fight the Greeks in the open field.Furthermore, as Marathon and Thermopylae had shown, large numbers conferred little advantage against the more heavily armoured hoplites; thus, as the battle began, it was the Greeks who had the tactical upper hand.

The Battle

Both sides were now keen for battle. The Greeks advanced west towards the Persians in two groups. On the left, nearest to the beach, were the Athenians, Corinthians, Sicyonians and Troezenians. On the right, following a slower route through the foothills of the mountain were the Spartans.

The Athenian wing arrived outside the Persian camp first. The Persian navy might have been demoralised, but the army seems to have been unaffected. They advanced out of their camp and fought behind a palisade of wickerwork shields. The battle at this palisade was hard fought, but the Athenians and their allies eventually managed to break through the Persian lines, encouraged by a desire to win the battle before Spartans could arrive.

The battle then moved back to the Persian stockade. The Greeks advanced in formation, and soon broke into the stockade. Probably at this state the Samians began to actively side with the Greeks. Most of the Persian's allies fled from the field, leaving the Persians themselves to fight on in small groups. Mardontes and Tigranes, the commanders of the land army, were killed in the battle. Artayntes and Ithamitres, the naval commanders, managed to escape, possibly by reaching their own ships. The Spartans arrived late in the day, but while fighting was still going on in the stockade, and helped to secure the Greek victory.

Those Persians who attempted to escape north across Mt Mycale ran into the Milesians, who had also decided to change sides. They guided the fleeing Persians straight into traps, and according to Herodotus were responsible for the most Persian deaths.

Herodotus doesn't record casualty figures for Mycale. He does say that the Greeks killed most of the enemy. Diodorus gives the Persian casualties as 40,000. On the Greek side Herodotus says that losses were very high, especially amongst the Sicyonians.

In the aftermath of the battle the Greeks destroyed the Persian stockade and burnt all of their ships. They then sailed back to Samos, where they debated what to do next. The initial plan was to evacuate the Greeks from Ionian and settle them on the lands of any Greeks on the mainland who had sided with the Persians. The Athenians were opposed to this idea, and eventually got their way. The Athenians then entered into a formal alliance with a number of Aegean islands, including Samos, Chios and Lesbos. The Greeks then moved north to the Hellespont to attack the Persian bridges. When they discovered that the bridges had already been destroyed, the Greek fleet split up. The Peloponnesian contingents returned home, while the Athenians remained in the area and laid siege to Sestus, the Persian headquarters in the Chersonese (the Gallipoli peninsula).

On the Persian side the survivors escaped to Sardis. Soon afterwards Xerxes decided to return home, leaving part of his army to continue the war. The conflict would drag on for another forty years, with the Persians on the defensive for most of that time).


When the Spartans arrived, the Persian camp was looted and their beached ships destroyed. Returning to Samos they then discussed their next moves. Leotychides proposed that they evacuate the cities of the Ionian Greeks and bring the population to the Greek mainland, since it would be difficult to defend Ionia against further Persian attacks. Xanthippus however vehemently objected to this, since the Ionian cities were originally Greek colonies. The Ionian Greeks later joined the Athenians in the "Delian League" against Persia.

With the twin victories of Plataea and Mycale, the second Persian invasion of Greece was over. Moreover, the threat of a future invasion was abated; although the Greeks remained worried that Xerxes would try again, over time it became apparent that the Persian desire to conquer Greece was much diminished.

After the victory at Mycale, the Allied fleet sailed to the Hellespont to break down the pontoon bridges, but found that this was already done. The Peloponnesians sailed home, but the Athenians remained to attack the Chersonesos, still held by the Persians. The Persians in the region, and their allies, made for Sestos, the strongest town in the region, and the Athenians laid siege to them there. After a protracted siege, Sestos fell to the Athenians, marking the beginning of a new phase in the Greco-Persian Wars, the Greek counterattack. Herodotus ended his Histories after the Siege of Sestos. Over the next 30 years, the Greeks, primarily the Athenian-dominated Delian League, would expel (or help expel) the Persians from Macedon, Thrace, the Aegean islands and Ionia. Peace with Persia finally came in 449 BC with the Peace of Callias, finally ending the half-century of warfare.

Mycale and Plataea have great significance in ancient history as the battles which decisively ended the second Persian invasion of Greece, thereby swinging the balance of the Greco-Persian Wars in favour of the Greeks. The Battle of Salamis saved Greece from immediate conquest, but it was Mycale and Plataea which effectively ended that threat. However, neither of these battles are as well known as Thermopylae, Salamis or Marathon. The reason for this discrepancy is not entirely clear; it might however be a result of the circumstances in which the battle was fought. The fame of Thermopylae certainly lies in the doomed heroism of the Greeks in the face of overwhelming numbers; Marathon and Salamis perhaps because they were both fought against the odds, and in dire strategic situations. Conversely, the Battles of Plataea and Mycale were both fought from a relative position of Greek strength, and against lesser odds; perhaps the Greeks were even expecting to win and had certainly seen the opportunity to deal the final blow.

Militarily, the major lesson of both Mycale and Plataea (since both were fought on land) was the repeated confirmation of the superiority of the hoplite over the more lightly armed Persian infantry, as had first been demonstrated at Marathon.Taking on this lesson, after the Greco-Persian Wars the Persian empire started recruiting and relying on Greek mercenaries.This was amply illustrated later on by the Ten Thousand and Xenophon.

Source /Photo/Bibliography

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