Plataea (Antiquity)

1. Location

The ancient settlement of Plataea (Πλαταιαῖ; slightly different writings are Πλάταια and Πλατεαί) is located in SW Boiotia, in the lower foothills of Mt. Kithairon, approximately 15 km from ancient and modern Thebes (Fig. 1). The Parasopia, several square kilometers of rolling fertile ground extends around the town and the place itself has an abundant supply of natural spring water. Nearby, a road crosses the Kithairon area and connects Boeotia with western Attica, the Megarid and the Peloponnese. To the west, access to the Gulf of Corinth is possible via the bays of modern Aghios Nikolaos and Livadostra.

2. History

The Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad provides the earliest written reference to Plataea (Hom. Il. 2. 504). Plataea’s development, however, predates the Homeric reference by several millennia. The earliest pottery found at the site dates from the Middle Neolithic Age (5th Millennium BC). The settlement flourished in Early Helladic I, although it was obviously abandoned thereafter, only to be re-occupied in Middle Helladic II. Mycenaean pottery is present, but the settlement seems to have been small and unimportant. Human activity in the area continued throughout the Proto-Geometric and Geometric periods and accelerated during the late 7th and 6th centuries BC, at which time the place developed into an independent polis. Imported pottery testifies to intensive trade connections with Corinth.

Late in the 6th century BC Thebes’ aspirations to integrate Plataea into the Boiotian Koinon led to conflict, which resulted in the defeat of Thebes and the voluntary addition of Plataea and its territory to Athens (509/8 BC). At that time, the population of Plataea and dependent settlements in the Parasopia (Hysiai, Erythrai) may have numbered approximately 5000 inhabitants. During the Persian Wars Plataea sided with the free Greeks. Its citizens fought at Marathon, Artemision and, in the autumn of 479 BC, only a few paces away from their hometown, at the battle of Plataea. For “providing the battleground”, the Plataeans were granted freedom and immunity by the victorious Greeks.

This did not prevent the Spartans and Thebans from attacking the town during the early years of the Peloponnesian War. After a protracted siege, Plataea surrendered in 427 BC. Its captured garrison was executed to the last man and the Thebans razed the town to the ground. The non-combatant inhabitants had been evacuated to Athens before the siege and remained there in exile for the next few decades.

When the Peace of Antalkidas (named after the Spartan diplomat who had negotiated the peace with the Persian King), suspended the Boiotian Koinon, Plataea was re-built by its former inhabitants, who had returned from Athens (386 BC). The town remained a faithful ally of Sparta thereafter. Nevertheless, this proved to be a short-lived restauration, as Theban troops ambushed Plataea in 373 BC and forced its population to surrender the town and go into exile once again.

Only after Philip II defeated Thebes (and Athens) in the battle at Chaeroneia in 338 BC was it possible for the exiled Plataeans to re-establish their town. Two years later they supported Alexander the Great in subduing the revolt of Thebes. Their reward for this assistance consisted of a large portion of Theban territory. Their new town followed an ambitious plan, providing settlement space for up to 10.000 inhabitants. The re-establishment of Thebes by Kassandros in 316 BC, however, forced the Plataeans to give up their aspirations of Plataea becoming the new metropolis of southern Boeotia.

Afterwards Plataea remained a prominent member of the Hellenistic Boeotian Koinon. Several of its citizens helped to shape the federation’s politics. The takeover of Greece by Rome’s legions left Plataea unharmed and the town remained a local center of trade and production, where a copy of Diokletian’s edict on prices was displayed. Little is known of Plataea’s role during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, but a note in Procopios (De Aedeficiis 4. 2. 23) proves its continued existence under the reign of Justinian. This is corroborated by an abundance of Roman and Late Roman pottery found at the site as well as recently discovered traces of several large basilical church structures.

No evidence is currently available from the 7th to 10th centuries AD; it is possible that the site was deserted. From the 11th to 13th centuries AD proof exists for settlement activities at the site and the Plataeans could afford to build several small churches, mostly over the ruins of their older and larger predecessors. Ottoman tax records contain information about two settlements at or near the site. One of them developed into the modern village of Plataies, not far from the perimeter of its ancient namesake.

3. Numismatic Evidence

Coins were minted by Plataea only between 387–374 (silver, obverse Head of Hera, reverse Boeotian shield, Fig. 2) and 338–315 (bronze, obverse PLA, reverse Boeotian shield).

4. Deities and Cults

The preeminent cult of Plataea was dedicated to the goddess Hera who bore the epithets Nymphoiomene, Teleia and Kithaironia. A sanctuary to the goddess was in existence since at least the 6th cent. BC (then located outside the town) which was adorned with a naos in 426 BC (Thuc. 3. 68. 3). Praxiteles made the cult image of the goddess. The Great Daidala, a festival celebrated every 60 years in honour of the wife of Zeus, was a cultic event of pan-Boeotian importance. The Little Daidala took place every six years and was of a more local character.

Both Pausanias (9. 4. 3) and Plutarch (Arist. 11) mention a cult place for Demeter Eleusina, the location of which remains unknown. The same is the case with the grotto of the Sphragitides Nymphai, the cult place of the nymph Plataia and the heroa of Leitos and of Androkrates, all cults which must have been celebrated at Plataea since ancient times. New cults were founded to celebrate the victories of the Persian Wars: the sanctuary of Athena Areia and the altar of Zeus Eleutherios. The shrine of Athena was adorned with a cult image made by Pheidias. Neither of these places has been located. In addition to these cult sites, which are documented in the literary sources, a temple of Dionysos, located near the theater, and a shrine in the agora also existed.

5. Monuments

Early Plataea is documented by the presence of pottery and a few short stretches of recently excavated walls. The latter date into the mid 6th century BC and most probably mark the site of a cult building or skeuotheke belonging to the cult of Hera. The location of the temple of Hera is known, however, the building itself remains buried.

The most conspicuous group of monuments at the site of ancient Plataea consists of its fortification system (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). Four building phases can be distinguished: dating into the early 5th century BC, the years after 338/6 BC, the end of the 4th century BC and into the later 3rd century AD. The perimeter walls of the 338/6 BC phase delineates the largest extension of Plataea, which was designed based on its intention to become the new metropolis of southern Boeotia (see above). When these ambitions proved to be unrealistic, the perimeter was shortened by the insertion of a diateichisma. The continuous threat of barbarian attacks in the 3rd century AD and thereafter necessitated the building of a new, contracted perimeter in the northwestern part of the site.

Within the perimeter of the 338/6 BC phase, the town was arranged in a rectangular grid of roads and town blocks. Though not visible on the surface, recent geophysical surveys have defined large portions of this grid (Fig. 5). The urban center of Plataea consisted of a large agora, with a small temple in its middle and colonnaded halls flanking two of its sides. The main north-south road of the town started at the northern end of the stoa, along the eastern side of the square. The agora was deliberately situated immediately north of the venerated sanctuary of Hera. Adjacent and to the east lay the sanctuary of Dionysos, which incorporated the theater of Plataea.

The major east-west road of the town straddled the north end of the agora. In the north-western part of the town a large complex of obviously public character may be identified with the gymnasion. Along the road several large dwellings, ranging in size from 1000 and 4000 m2 can be located. These dwellings belonged to the leading families of Hellenistic and Roman Plataea and developed from more uniform building plots of approximately 400 m2 each which had been parceled out to the settlers in 338/6 BC.

An underground water channel intersects the agora and the Dionyseion and leads beneath the main north-south road towards a Nymphaion in the northern part of the town. It is possible that a Roman bath existed opposite the Nymphaion. The remainder of the town was occupied by smaller dwellings and unoccupied reserve-land. Later structural additions include at least three basilicas – Christian churches – which probably date into the 4th–6th centuries AD. Several small chapels were most probably built during Medieval times.

The necropoles of Plataea were situated all around the town. Several simple rock sarcophagi straddle the western branch of the large circuit. Old rescue excavations north of the town have managed to salvage a Roman marble sarcophagus depicting the myth of Phaidra, which is now on display at the Thebes museum. Several other graves have been explored in the same area by more recent rescue excavations conducted by the 9th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities at Boeotia, and Middle Helladic, Late Helladic and Proto-Geometric surface finds to the north and northwest of the town site indicate that the area was used as a graveyard much earlier as well.