In the region of Plataea, around 479 BCE, the combined forces of the Greek coalition crossed their spears and swords against an army of Persians that was led by Mardonius. The king of Persia, Xerxes I, was already long gone from Greece—he, personally, abandoned the campaign after his disastrous defeat at the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE and decided to leave the administration of the war to his generals. When Xerxes left, he understandably took with him an escort made up of a substantial portion of his invasion army. Yet, the manpower that remained behind with the Persian commander, Mardonius, was still impressive. There is very little certainty as to exactly how many men were present at the Battle of Plataea, but a common statistic is that Mardonius had around 100,000 men and faced an army of approximately 40,000 Greeks. For several days, these two sides maneuvered and fought, with the Greeks eventually emerging with a decisive victory. Mardonius was among the estimated tens-of-thousands of Persians who were slaughtered during the battle. Although conflict continued between Persia and the Greek cities, the Battle of Plataea was an irrecoverable deathblow to the Persian invasion of mainland Greece.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Greek forces captured the Mardonius’ supplies and treasury. In the camp of the Persians, there was an enormous quantity of rich food, gold, silver and artwork, which the Greeks divided among themselves. Yet, also left behind were the remains of thousands of slain Persians. The historian, Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), wrote that while the various Greek dead were respectfully cared for by their own respective comrades, the Persian corpses from the Battle of Plataea were left to rot.
Herodotus went on to say that Greek treasure hunters, who were scavenging for overlooked valuables, began to notice strange things about the Persian corpses. Odd skeletal remains were found on the battlefield—the Greek observers believed the remains were former Persian soldiers, but some of the discoveries seemed to be anything but human. A peculiar skull and jawbone were supposedly discovered. Herodotus claimed that there were no joins or joints in the different sections of the skull. Similarly, the jaw supposedly did not have individual teeth, but a single, solid horseshoe-shaped mass of tooth material. The ancient historian also claimed that a skeleton was found of a Persian soldier who, when alive, would have stood between seven and eight feet tall.
What exactly these ancient Greek scavengers discovered on the battlefield of Plataea still remains a mystery. Did these ancients misidentify the bones? Did they unearth some sort of fossil? Did an ancient Persian soldier of seven feet in height really die at the Battle of Plataea? Either way, it is a characteristically odd, but interesting, story that you can expect from The Histories of Herodotus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Greek hoplite and Persian warrior fighting each other. Depiction in ancient kylix. 5th c. BCE National Archaeological Museum of Athens, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- From The Histories by Herodotus (Book IX), translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola (Penguin Classics, 2002).