September 23

The Battle of Plataea (cont’d)

Two tales from the 479 BC Battle of Plataea remain to be told.

The first concerns Aristodemus, a Spartan infantryman who had been part of the 300-hoplite force that guarded the pass at Thermopylae against the full force of the Persian invasion in 480 BC. He and a companion, Eurytus, had been stricken with an eye disease which nearly blinded them and been sent away from the fighting by King Leonidas. Eurytus, feeling guilty, turned back to join his unit and had perished when the Spartans and their allies were wiped out. Aristodemus, on his return to Sparta, was treated with contempt for not having done the same. Herodotus recounts that “no man would give him a light for his fire or speak to him; he was called Aristodemus the Coward.” The same treatment was meted out to another soldier, Pantites, who had been dispatched from Thermopylae with a message — he was so soundly abused that he committed suicide.

When Spartan troops encountered the Persians again at Plataea the following year, Aristodemus was determined to wipe out his shame. He fought with suicidal frenzy and died. After the battle Herodotus said there was discussion about who had fought most bravely:

According to my judgment, he that bore himself by far the best was Aristodemus, who had been reviled and dishonoured for being the only man of the three hundred that came alive from Thermopylae;​ and the next after him in valour were Posidonius and Philocyon and Amompharetus. Nevertheless when there was talk, and question who had borne himself  most bravely, those Spartans that were there judged that Aristodemus had achieved great feats because by reason of the reproach under which he lay he plainly wished to die, and so pressed forward in frenzy from his post, whereas Posidonius had borne himself well with no desire to die, and must in so far be held the better man. This they may have said of mere jealousy; but all the aforesaid who were slain in that fight received honour, save only Aristodemus; he, because he desired death by reason of the reproach afore-mentioned, received none.

The second story concerns this pillar which is erected in the heart of the Old City in Istanbul:

After their victory, the Greeks gathered metal from the spoils from the battle — swords, spear-heads, shields, chariot-fittings, etc. – and ordered a bronze column to made of three twisting serpents. This was erected at Delphi where it held a gold sacrificial cauldron, as a tribute to the gods. There it stood for over 700 years until the emperor Constantine had it removed in 324 to adorn the chariot race stadium in his new capital of Constantinople. The snake heads disappeared over time (though part of one can be seen in the nearby archaeological museum) but visitors in the 21st century can gaze upon the column and see relics of the climactic battle of the Persian wars 2500 years.

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