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A commander in the Persian military.

Mardonius was closely related to the Persian kings for three reasons:

  1. His father, Gobryas, was one of the seven men who had instigated the rebellion which removed the Medes from the throne of Persia and installed Darius I as king;
  2. He married Darius’ daughter, Artozostre; and
  3. He was the cousin of Darius’ son, Xerxes, who followed his father to the throne.

Mardonius was an ambitious and resourceful young man and in 492 BCE, Darius gave him command of the army and navy with the intention of invading Greece; Mardonius sent the army to the Hellespont and sailed down the coast of Asia Minor to the Ionian Greek colonies; he removed the local princes and, surprisingly, established democracies in the various cities and adjacent islands; Mardonius then joined the rest of the Persian fleet at the Hellespont and marched into Europe.

Most of the northern Greeks surrendered their freedom to the Persians without a fight and all seemed to be going well until the fleet left the island of Thasos and tried to sail around the peninsula near Athos; a violent north wind blew into the northern Aegean Sea and did great damage to the fleet; perhaps as many as three hundred ships and twenty thousand men were lost in the storm at Athos.

Following this loss of men and equipment, Mardonius proceeded with his mission but while the army was encamped in Thrake (Thrace), they were attacked by a tribe called the Brygi; Mardonius was wounded and many of his men were killed but he resolutely set about subduing the Brygi and the other rebellious tribes in Thrake and Makedon (Macedon); with the heavy losses at sea and the harm done to the land force by the Brygi, Mardonius abandoned his European expedition and returned to Persian soil.

Darius was not deterred in his desire to conquer the Greeks but, when his invading troops were utterly defeated at Marathon in 490 BCE, he left the Greeks who had not already surrendered to him alone and made no demands for tribute or loyalty.

When king Darius died the kingship fell to his son, Xerxes; Mardonius was Xerxes’ cousin and had considerable influence with the new king; Mardonius was, by now, well versed in the practice of politics in Persia; he used his closeness to the new king to further his military career and he knew that if he was granted a governorship, his wealth and power would be on par with the most powerful men in the Persian Empire.

Knowing that Xerxes had already decided to completely enslave the Egyptians, he added his voice to the cry for war with Egypt and advised Xerxes to then turn his attention to Greece as the gateway to further European conquests; Mardonius wanted to be the governor of Greece and reminded Xerxes that the conquest of Europe, and especially Greece, had been one of his father’s ambitions and that the Athenians, in particular, had to be punished for the humiliating defeat inflicted on Darius’ army at Marathon.

Mardonius also encouraged Xerxes by telling him of the untold riches that awaited him in Europe with its fertile lands and uncounted trees; aside from the Greeks, there were no civilized people in Europe, i.e. no central governments and no powerful rulers or armies to oppose the Persians.

After his occupation of Egypt, Xerxes held a council meeting to determine the best way to invade and conquer Greece; with the exception of one man, Artabanus, Mardonius and the other advisors encouraged Xerxes to proceed with the invasion; Xerxes was furious at Artabanus and, again, Mardonius was on the correct side of the throne by favoring the invasion; whether Mardonius was acting from greed, servility or sincerity is impossible to say but regardless, he pleased Xerxes and earned himself a major role in the events to come.

There were seven military commanders of the Persian invasion of Greece but Mardonius was by far the most trusted and respected by the Great King; this trust and respect would later be the bindings on Mardonius’ death shroud.

The Persian army numbered as many as five hundred thousand men-in-arms and perhaps as many support personnel; the troops marched across northern Asia Minor and crossed the Hellespont on an ingenious pontoon bridge; messengers would approach each Greek city and demand earth and water as a symbol of submission to the Persian authority; cities that surrendered were forced to provide soldiers for the already formidable Persian army; citizens who refused to accept the Persians as masters usually fled with only the belongings they could carry.

The Persian army was divided into three sections; Mardonius was with the portion which marched down the eastern coast of Greece abreast of the Persian fleet; Mardonius’ role in the various battles as the army moved south towards the city of Athens was largely unrecorded but he again came to prominence when, after the sack of Athens, the Persian navy suffered a staggering defeat near the island of Salamis; Xerxes, who had accompanied his invading army into Greece, was in a precarious position; he risked either the complete destruction of his army and navy if he stayed in Greece or humiliating disgrace if he withdrew his forces without a victory.

Mardonius realized that he was probably going to have to take the blame for the failed invasion so he decided that he had only one course of action; Mardonius proposed that Xerxes should return home and that he, Mardonius, be left behind to complete the enslavement of the people of Greece; Mardonius blamed the Persian allies for the failed mission and assured Xerxes that the Persians were in all ways superior to the Greeks; this line of reasoning pleased Xerxes and he gave Mardonius a force of three hundred thousand troops and instructed him to guard the remainder of the army’s retreat and then to proceed with the conquest of the Greeks.

After Athens had been burned, the Greeks built a wall across the Isthmus of Korinth (Corinth) to protect the Peloponnesian Peninsula but now that the Persians were withdrawing, the Greeks assumed that their withdrawal would be complete and that all that remained to be done was the punishment of the Greek cities which had betrayed their homeland and given tribute and troops to the Persian king.

Mardonius followed the Great King’s retreat as far north as Thessaly where they were overtaken by a Spartan messenger; the messenger informed Xerxes that the oracle at Delphi had proclaimed that Xerxes must provide retribution for the killing of the Spartan king, Leonidas, at the battle of Thermopylae; Xerxes found this demand amusing and informed the messenger that Mardonius would pay all the retribution necessary.

After Xerxes departed, Mardonius stayed in Thessaly and, having made slaves of most of the northern Greek cities, sent a Greek named Alexander of Makedon (Macedon) as his representative to Athens; Alexander informed the Athenians that Xerxes was willing to forgive their offenses against him and allow them to live freely if they would only submit to his authority; Mardonius had been charged by the Great King to rebuild the temples of Athens and restore freedom to all people who did not oppose him; Alexander added that the Athenians had no chance of withstanding the Persians forever; the Great King, regardless of his name, was beyond any mortal man in power and wealth; if the Athenians defeated one Persian army, the Great King would simply send a larger army and eventually the Greeks would be enslaved; if the Athenians agreed to the generous offer made by the king they would not have to suffer the bonds of abject slavery which was surely their fate if they defied the Great King; the Athenians were polite to Alexander but quite adamant in their refusal to become willing slaves of the Persian king.

The Athenians knew that as soon as Mardonius received their refusal, he would march south and try to take Athens by force; the following spring (479 BCE), Mardonius marched towards Athens and drafted Greek men from the cities he passed; when he arrived in Thebes, the Thebans tried to convince Mardonius that he should remain there and threaten or bribe the hostile Greek cities into submission rather than make war on a united Greek army; Mardonius was anxious to retake Athens and, ten months after its initial burning at the hands of the Persians, Mardonius entered the empty city; the Athenians had evacuated to the island of Salamis again.

Mardonius sent a envoy to Salamis and urged the Athenians to surrender; one of the Athenian councilors, a man named Lykidas (Lycidas), wanted to bring the matter before the citizens and let them vote on the issue; he and his family were stoned to death for even considering the idea of surrender; when Mardonius learned of the Athenian determination and that the Spartans had marched towards Attika to assist them, he abandoned Athens and marched north into Boeotia; he halted his army near Thebes and built a wooden fortress in case things did not go as he wished on the battlefield.

The Greek cities who allied themselves with the Persians were of mixed feelings as to their new masters; all the submitting Greeks had accepted the harsh fact that their choices had been to either ally themselves with the Persians willingly or be decimated by the overwhelming Persian force and then be enslaved; the Phokians (Phocians) arrived at Thebes to unwillingly join Mardonius’ army and were immediately slandered by the Thessalians as being unreliable and perhaps cowardly; rumors of this slander circulated through the Persian encampment until the Phokians heard it; as a test of their courage, Mardonius sent his cavalry against the Phokians in a mock charge but the Phokians held their ground and did not falter; the Persian cavalry broke off their charge at the last moment and Mardonius was impressed that the Phokians did not break ranks and run; he told the Phokians not to worry because they had demonstrated their trustworthiness and that he would reward them well for their bravery and loyalty.

The Greek army grew in size as it marched north to the city of Eleusis and finally took up a position in the foothills of Mount Kithaeron (Cithaeron); the Persians were stationed along the Asopos river and sent their cavalry to harass the Greeks; the cavalry charges continued until the commander, a man of great wealth and repute named Masistius, was thrown from his horse and killed; the Persians tried and failed to recover the body of Masistius in his glorious golden armor but were beaten back severely by a contingent of Athenians; Mardonius, and the entire Persian army, was distressed at the death of Masistius; they shaved their heads and cut the manes of their horses as a demonstration of their grief; the Greeks, on the other hand, were encouraged because they had withstood the fierce cavalry charges and come out victorious.

Emboldened by their success, the Greeks came out of the foothills and arrayed their troops by nation on the plains of Plataea; the two armies faced one another across the Asopos river and prepared for battle; Mardonius made sacrifices hoping for good omens but the sacrifices were bad for ten consecutive days and Mardonius reluctantly waited; he knew that it was essential that his army have the favor of the gods but he also knew that prolonging the confrontation would allow the Greeks to bring in more reinforcements; the Greeks had amassed one hundred and ten thousand men-at-arms against the three hundred thousand Persians; “the Persians” included men from all parts of the Persian Empire as well as Greeks who had joined the Persian army either voluntarily or under threat; the finest Persian troops were positioned across the river from the Spartans and likewise down the battle-lines with fighters of comparable abilities facing one another.

After ten days of waiting, Mardonius grew inpatient and called his commanders before him; he asked if any of them knew of any oracle which had declared that the Persians would be defeated by the Greeks; the commanders either did not know of any such prophecy or simply kept quiet because they knew that Mardonius was determined to attack the Greeks at dawn on the eleventh day of the standoff regardless of the omens or oracles.

During that night, the Greeks changed their positions in the battle-lines and when Mardonius saw that his best soldiers were not aligned with the Spartans, he taunted them and challenged them to a Spartan-Persian battle with the allies and slaves not participating; Mardonius proposed that the victor of the battle would become the winner of the entire war, a winner-take-all proposition; the Spartans refused the challenge; (this is a curious point in the storyline because it gives us an insight into the Spartan mentality; why would they refuse such a challenge? It would seem that this would be a perfect opportunity for the Spartans to demonstrate their bravery and military prowess, and as victors, they would be the undisputed champions of Greece; I personally believe the Spartans ignored this goad to a one-on-one battle because they were warriors and they viewed the assembled Greek army not as some sort of political or economic display of strength but as a tool of battle and not using the proper tool is something that a true craftsman would never do; why would they use a pocketknife to fell a tree when they had an axe at hand; their intention was to kill all the Persians and punish all the Greeks who had allied themselves with the barbarian invader; they were not after a symbolic victory but rather a fatal and final end to Persian intervention in the affairs of the Greeks); the Spartans held their tongues and their battle position.

Mardonius sent in his cavalry and they did much damage to the Greek forces as well as cut the Greeks off from their primary source of water; after a hard days fighting, the Greeks retreated to gain a better tactical position; the following morning, Mardonius saw that the Greeks had pulled back and interpreted this as an act of cowardice; Mardonius charged into the Greek forces and was soon fighting around the precincts of the temple of Hera; he rode a white charger and was surrounded by one thousand of his best troops but the Greeks were better armored and had more military discipline; Mardonius was killed and his troops were scattered and slaughtered by the Greeks.

One of the Greek soldiers from the island of Aegina, named Lampon, encouraged the Spartan leader, Pausanias, to cut the head from Mardonius’ dead body and impale it as revenge for the four thousand Spartans who were killed at Thermopylae, especially for their leader, Leonidas whom the Persians beheaded and impaled; Pausanias told Lampon that such acts were the deeds of barbarians and that, although Leonidas was his uncle, he would never dishonor his family or city with such a low and shameful display of mutilation.

  • Histories, book 6, chapters 43-45; book 7, chapters 5-10, 82 and 121; book 8, chapter 97, 101-102, 114-115, 140-143; book 9, chapters 1-5, 12-26, 31-86
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