Episode 10 – The Battles of Milvian Bridge and Platea

Today, we discuss two pivotal battles contested in human history, one, part of a Roman Civil War, the Battle of Milvian Bridge. The second, was a lesser known fight between the Greek city states and the mighty Persian empire, the Battle of Platea.

Present Day Milvian Bridge
Present Day Milvian Bridge

The Battle of Milvian Bridge, or as my daughter Anika, who spent a year as a student in Italy would call it, Battaglia di Ponte Milvio, is one of those really famous battles if you’re somewhat into history while Platea is one that you know where you really are into history. Both of them are pivotal in world history. 

Let’s start with Milvian Bridge. The setting is the Roman Empire after the death of Diocletian. Diocletian, realized that ruling the vast lands controlled by Rome was difficult, made even more so if all the power were in the hands of one man. He set up something known as the tetrarchy, which means leadership of four. Diocletian created the system where by the empire would have two head men, known as the Augustus of the East and Augustus of the West. Under them would be a Caesar, kind of a junior ruler. This form of government was started in 293 but began to unravel very soon after Diocletian’s resignation in 305. 

It is important as a backdrop to understand what was going on in Roman politics when the battle occurs so that you also understand the ramifications for the victor and the entire Roman Empire. 

Diocletian elevated his Caesar, Maximian to become co-Augustus. He then made Galerius and Constantis Chlorus Caesars under them. When the two senior members of the tetrarchy abdicated in 305, the Caesars took their place who were then replaced by Maximinus Daia and Severus. Things begin to get tricky and downright confusing at this point.

Constantinius died in 306, Galerius elevated Serverus to Augustus but Constantinius’s son Constantine was proclaimed Augustus by his father’s troops. By the time 307 rolls around, there are four men claiming the top spot. I’m glossing over this but trust me, it is so confusing that saying anything more would bring nothing but headaches. That and Mike Duncan did a far better job than I could ever do explaining this mess in his epic podcast, The History of Rome.

On to 312. The two big boys left are Constantine and Maxentius. The two men were brothers-in-law, but they were major rivals and generally didn’t like each other. 

Constantine entered Italy in the spring and won two major battles in the north, one at Turin and one in Verona. Next stop Rome. 

On October 27th, the two sides began to near each other ready for battle. Here is where legend comes into play. It is said that when marching towards the eternal city, Constantine looked up at the sky and saw a cross of light about the sun with a phrase by it that said in this sign, conquer. The symbol he saw is what is known as the Chi-Rho, an early Christian sign.

It is said that Constantine saw this as a message from God, but we have to understand that he was a monotheistic pagan at the time, believing in the God, Sol Invictus, which means unconquered or invincible son. The Romans celebrated this God on December 25th of each year. 

Whatever the reality, it is said that Constantine had 50 of his best and most pious knights put the symbol of the cross he had seen in the sky on their shields. As they readied for battle.

Maxentius had positioned his men in front of the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River. Historians estimate his men as being between 75-120,000 strong. Constantine was said to have had about 100,000 men at his disposal.

The fact that Maxentius had decided to come out and fight instead of staying inside the heavily fortified city of Rome is somewhat of a surprise. Constantine was known as a very gifted general and Maxentius had gone so far as to stock the city for a long siege.

The battle itself was a rout. Maxentius’s men were quickly put into a hasty retreat over the bridge and the pontoon bridge next to it. Unfortunately for them, the pontoon bridge failed and many men, including Maxentius, fell into the water and drowned. Constantine entered Rome the next day.

The significance of the win by Constantine is what the emperor does after gaining total control. He moved the imperial residence from Rome to a new city named after him, Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. This hastened the demise of Rome as the capital, transferring all the trappings of government to the new city.

With the Edict of Milan in 313, religious tolerance was given to Christians within the empire ending the many years of the Diocletian Persecution of the Christians from 303 until 313. From here, Christianity rose to the great power it was to become. The Battle of Milvian Bridge was an historic event that reverberates to this day.

Now we would normally break for the Put it Into Perspective segment but to be honest, not a whole lot is going on in the world that we know in 312 aside from Milvian Bridge.

Next up is the battle known as Platea.

I want an honest answer, how many of you have heard of the Battle of Platea? I’m sure many of you have heard of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Gaugamela. Maybe you heard of the Battle of Salamis as well. When you Google great Greek battles, they all come up but Platea? Not so often. Yet I would argue, as would many learned historians, that Platea was the most important of all of the battles that the ancient Greeks fought. In today’s podcast, I will lay out my argument as to why this is so.

Thermopylae was a Greek loss despite how heroic the movie the 300 made it out to be. It was still a defeat. Both Marathon and Salamis while victories, they were temporary wins which did not dissuade the Persians from pressing on. Platea is entirely different as you shall see.

Let’s set the table. We’re in the 5th century BC, 479 BCE to be exact and we have two opponents. On the one hand, you have the Persia, as historian Gregory Alderete puts it, “mighty Persia, a culturally sophisticated, ethnically diverse, and economically prosperous empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the borders of modern India.”

Their opponents were a bunch of Greek city-states, led by Athens and Sparta who were for the most part, competitors and often times enemies. The only things binding them together was language and a geographical sharing of the same land mass. This was truly a David versus Goliath affair. 

If you know anything about the Persian nation at the time, and you had the equivalent of Las Vegas betting available, you would have had to, on the surface, give the Persians a 1000-1 odds advantage. But if you were a savvy bettor, you would have bet the house on the Greeks because of their army and its technology.

The Greeks had developed something known as the hoplite revolution, where armored and heavily armed men learned how to fight in tight formations, coordinated and having strong armament. Their shields were three feet around and concave shaped. While their spears had both a bronze spearhead and very importantly, a small bronze butthead on the other side which came in handy if the other side of the spear was broken off. 

The men were protected from head to foot by armor as opposed to their enemy who had many vulnerable spots. Add the phalanx formation which had the men protecting each other, shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield. This, if kept together was a formidable army, as long as they kept their discipline.

The Persians on the other hand, reflected their culture, diverse and varied. They had many temporary conscripts, but they also had a large contingent of highly trained professional soldiers, some of who were actually Greek hoplites.

Then you had the Immortals. The term comes from one source, Herodotus, although there is some Persian sources that confirms their existence. These men were the elite fighting force, similar to the Pretorian Guard of the Roman Empire.  Their troop strength was kept at a steady number of 10,000. If one man died or was wounded, he was replaced by only one other man to keep continuity.

Another powerful aspect of the Persian army was their cavalry. They were some of the best horsemen in the world. While they were a skilled bunch with lots of weapons available to them, they were lightly armored.

The bow, was a major weapon of the Persians, both used by from the ground and from the horse. There are reports from ancient times that the amount of arrow fired into the air could block out the sun. That must have been a frightening sight to their opponents which made them such a feared opponent.

Defensively, the shields of the Persians were typically made of wicker or animal hides versus the heavier and more protective Greek shields. They sacrificed protection for a more lightweight and more maneuverable shield. This was to cost them in the Battle of Platea.

The conflict arose from a rebellion of some of the eastern Greek cities that were under Persian control. The Greeks from the mainland to the west, helped their brethren which angered the Persian king Xerxes. He not only wanted to punish the Greeks, he wanted to crush them and bring them under his control. 

The Battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis held back the inevitable wave of Persian troops. In fact, Athens was abandoned when the Persians occupied and burned it to the ground.

Salamis, a sea battle in which a smaller Greek fleet defeated their enemies, destroying a large portion of the Persian navy, did not stop the invasion but it did do one thing for the Greeks, it made it far more difficult to supply the Persian army as they made there way to through the Greek mainland.

Because of Salamis, Xerxes, along with a number of troops, decided to return to his country giving military leadership for the remaining men to his highly experienced military commander, Mardonius. 

Mardonius is an interesting character. First appointed to military leadership positions by Darius the Great. Because of marriages within the tight knit group around the Persian emperor of the time, Darius was Mardonius’s uncle, father-in-law and brother-in-law. He was pretty well connected.

When Darius’s son took over, he inherited Mardonius and he became a trusted advisor. For years, Xerxes was hesitant about invading and engaging the Greeks but Mardonius continued to agitate him to punish the Greeks for their insults to Darius in the past. Xerxes finally caved in, but he refused to be involved himself in the final push.

Now it’s time to get to the battle itself. 

One the one side you have the Persians with about 120,000 men with the Greeks having about 80,000 men on the other side. Mardonius sent out a cavalry charge to probe the Greek lines and to assess their strengths and weaknesses. In the fight that ensued, the popular Persian leader of the horsemen, Masistos, was killed. 

A week went by with Mardonius sending out more and more troops to harass and raid the Greeks supply lines. This caused the Greek commanders to order a retreat to a safer place as they were running low on food and water. Unfortunately, or fortunately as you shall see, the retreat got screwed up early on. Mardonius saw this as the time to charge in with all his forces. 

The battle according to sources was brutal. Slowly but surely, the hoplite phalanx formations and in particular the superior Greek armor began to wear down the Persians. Mardonius was killed and many of his men went down with him. The Greeks slaughtered the Persians as they tried to flee the carnage.

Platea was not the last battle of the Greek Persian wars, but it was the most decisive. It was an absolutely crushing defeat and basically ended the defensive posture of the Greeks and stopped the Persian incursions into their homeland. 

It should be noted that according to the ancient historian Herodotus, that on the same day as Platea was fought, a naval battle known as Mycale occurred with the Greeks winning in a rout there as well.

The period that ensued was known as the Pentekonteia, a fifty year stretch that is known also as a golden age of Greek culture, science, philosophy and the arts. The 50 years gave the world things like the idea of democracy, which alone is a magnificent gift the Greeks, and the battle of Platea gives us in today’s world. 

Sadly, the 50 years of Greek pentekonteia ended with the highly destructive Peloponnesian War which pitted Greek city states against each other causing them to decline in importance and eventually get taken over by a couple of Macedonian generals a few hundred years later.

Now on to the scoring.

Let’s start with the number of people involved for 15 points. At Milvian Bridge we had 100,000 men on Constantine’s side with about the same amount on the side of Maxentius. This gives us about 200,000 men. Platea had about, if we use the modern estimates, 80,000 Greeks and 120,000 Persians along with their allies. This makes the numbers essentially even so, 15 points for each side.

The next is the 20 points for how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. While the Battle of Milvian Bridge was important as it ended a civil war, unified the empire under one man and gave Christianity a free chance to expand its membership, the immediate effect wasn’t that great. Platea on the other hand ushered in a time, as I mentioned, that saved Greece and halted the expansion of the Persian empire which likely would have continued on had they won at Platea. For these reasons, I give a slight edge to Platea, 20 to 19.

We are about to award 25 points for the battles effect on world history. This one, is dead even in my opinion. Christianity was allowed to thrive, getting government backing in the years to come. This alone is an incredible legacy. Add to it, the victory of Constantine allowed for the creation of the city to bear his name, Constantinople. This and the ensuing move of the government to that city allowed for the Roman Empire to extend its life until the cities fall in 1453. 

Platea gave us so much of Greek culture as I mentioned, passed on through the ages but it’s effect on world history is just a little less impactful than Milvian Bridge so I’m giving 25 points to that battle with 20 going to Platea.

Now on to the big prize, how the battle affected their country for the better. This is a hands down win for Platea. It saved Greece. Milvian Bridge just kept the status quo for Rome. The immediate effect of Platea is far greater, in my opinion that Milvian Bridge. Because of that, I am giving the 40 points to Platea with 30 going to its adversary.

The final total for this battle is 95 to 89 for Platea who will move on to face the winner of… the battles of Gaixia versus Manzikert.

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