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A NOBLE LORD DIES IN PLATAIA BATTLEFIELD 479 B.C.

02/10/2011

Dedicated to Aristotle for his polite encouragement.

They called him Masistius and what we know about him it emanates only from the Greek Sources. The archeological discoveries in Iran and central Asia put only few more chips in the puzzle. The story of Masistius survived to our days because this person even, if he was a member of  an army of foreign intruders, impressed his opponents so much so that they remembered him and Herodotus recorded his noble death.

Herodotus and the Plutarch tell us that was »hipparchos» – commander that is to say of the Persian cavalry. This tells us that he was an affluent aristocrat. In a time where the horses were kept only for war or hunting, only wealthy aristocrats like him could afford. His rank also reveals to us that he was not an ordinary individual. In a feudal administrative system like that of the Persian Empire, the social origin and acquaintances were key factors for the social evolution of the individual.

Noble Persian horseman based on archaeological finds. Source: Oscar Jaeger «World History », St Petersburg 1904

The name of Masistius is not reported in the initial list of cavalry officers who where mostly relatives of Xerxes. We find him however, commander of cavalry in the Plataea. The slaughter of the Persian of aristocracy in the battle of Salamis seems to have paved the way of their direct adjutants. Masistios would have probably been distinguished in guarding the northern borders of empire and naturally thrtough his family connections would have found a position as an adjutant near high Achaemenid dignitaries. The inhospitable environment of northern steppes that had cost the life of Cyrus the Great would have helped in the creation of capable leader. From other the ancient sources we know that Masistius enjoyed esteem and respect from all the Persian army, not only for his appearance and aristocratic origin but also for his abilities.

Statuette of Persian horseman in British Museum Source: Cais –Soas

During the fateful 479 B.C. Masistius led his men to war aaginst the Greeks under the orders of Mardonios. His horsemen reassured the subjugation of the Boeotians and ravaged Attica for a second time but, according to surviving inscriptions, they were repulsed before Megara. The Persians withdrew to Beotia in the plain of Asopos river, at the land of the Plateans waiting for the Greek reaction, that came through the Greek advance towards the same place. There was a general sense that this time the scores would be settled for good but the problems were many. The horsemen of Masistius were forced to execute military police duties among their Greek subjects as their strifes and disputes especially between Phocians and Thessalians threatened the safety of Persian army.

The Greeks covered the roads to the south and supply became problematic for the Persians. A direct attack against formed heavy infantry would not have yielded good results and no Asian would like to relive the horrors of Thermopylae. Mardonios ordered the cavalry to force the Greeks to abandon their strong positions. Masistius first sent his his scouts to find weak points in the Greek battle line. His grooms prepared their master’s Nissean horse and helped him wear his gold-decorated armour. In order to withstand the heat, Masistios wore a silken kandys (Iranian cloack) above his armour, not in order to give courage in his horsemen presenting himself armourless as claimed by certain scholars who have no relation with the martial arts and riding.

His scouts considered the dispositions of the Megareans as being the more exposed and Masistius directed the bulk of his effort against. The Persians, the Bactrians and the Saka horse archers attacked in successive waves. A continuous flow of arrows fell upon the Megareans. Every Megarean javelin thrower or slinger who tried it react fell victim to the horse archers rapid shooting- It was question of time before the infantrymen who suffered without being able to respond, to panic and run. The Megareans sent a messenger to the Athenians to bear their agonising call for help. The Athenians sent a unit of archers and 300 elite hoplites.

Persian horsemen and squire. Source: gorod.crimea.edu

The men of Masistius began suddenly to receive enemy arrow shots. A certain few who had been overconfident and approached very near the Greeks paid with their life for their folly. Masistios did not cower. He blew his whistle for his men to follow and galloped against the Athenians.
The researchers still wonder what prompted the Masistios to order an attack of against heavily armed infantry. The hoof of the horses had raised clouds of dust in the field of battle. Didn’t he notice the Athenian hoplites that protected their archers? We cannot really accept that. Did he believe that the psychological impact of charge it would break his opponents? May be; after all cavalry is a psychological weapon and possibly such charges have turned out successful in the past. The Athenian hoplites however kneeled behind their shields with their spears in a 45 degrees angle, steadfastly covering their archers and Masistios who realised their courage as he galloped against them tried to make a turn. Perhaps that moment he also hurled his javelin but he had approached the hoplites formation close… dangerously close.

Black figure amphota depicting archers in hypotaxis shooting over kneeling hoplites . Walters Arm Museum Baltimore Source: wikimedia commons

Some Athenian archer maintaining his calmness, executed an instinctive shot and his arrow was nailed at the side of the Nissean horse. The wounded animal fell on the ground writhing in pain and his hoofs, flying in the air, forced the hoplites to cover themselves with their shields. Masistios that rode since childhood disengaged from the unlucky animal but found himself very near the hoplites who tried to stab him but were hindered by the uncomfortable position of their spears who caused disarray as they tried they use the points. A few that managed to stabbed him realised the existence of armour under the kandys. Masistios tried to crawl away out of reach from the spears while at the same time parried them with his shield and his sword. Persia could proud for her son who fought like the heroes of old but he was not destined to survive. Some hoplite raised his spear vertically and struck the brave Persian’s face with the butt spike. The bronze point drove through the eye socket into the brain killing him instantly. Till today scholars argue if he wore a metal face mask and that is why he was attacked in the eyes while overlooking the fact that you cannot take proper aim while in the heat of close combat.

Massitios’s horsemen discovered the loss of their commander when they tried to request new orders. Formed away from the Greeks mourned their dead leader and performed the custom ritual haircut and shaving of men and horses. King Pausanias ordered Masistios body to put in an open ox cart and be paraded in front of the Greek lines so that those who wanted to see him could do so without leaving their battle posts. The practicality of the Greek leader turned out to be a fitting funeral ceremony for the bravery of enemy dead noble who died a honourable death while serving his King.

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