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That Time Thebes Beat Sparta
The Military Genius who Transformed Ancient Greece
Dear Classical Wisdom Member,
Sometimes the further back you peer into history the more shockingly relevant and relatable it seems. The tendencies of war… the regrouping of allies based on who is on top… puppet regimes and attempts at liberation. Change the name of the actors and the game plans seem so oddly familiar.
However, there is every now and then a personality that literally shapes the course of history. A way of thinking, being and executing that allows the individual to accomplish the impossible… and to influence others to do the same.
How else can we explain the extraordinary achievements of Epaminondas, the military genius who transformed ancient Greece? Even though he is not a household name, he certainly should be!
Read on to discover this remarkable man…
All the best,
Founder and Director
Epaminondas: The Theban Military Genius who Transformed Ancient Greece
By Edward Whelan
Ancient Greece produced many remarkable military leaders; one of the most outstanding, yet underrated, of these was Epaminondas. As a general he was the equal of some of the greatest Greeks and his influence on fourth century BC Greece cannot be overstated. Even though he isn’t as often discussed, an appreciation of Epaminondas is necessary to understand the era that saw the end of Sparta's hegemony, and Thebes's rise to greatness.
Thebes was famously taken over by Athens or Sparta and had sided with the Persians during the invasions of Xerxes in the Second Persian War. However, it was also situated strategically in central Greece in Boeotia and was the dominant power in the region... and at one time the most powerful in Greece. Yet despite this centrality and importance, ancient Greek studies tend to concentrate on Athens and Sparta, and only occasionally on city-states such as Corinth as well. Thebes, on the other hand, has been relatively neglected until now. Modern scholars, authors and archeologists have begun to recognize its importance, attested by the many myths set in the city, such as those about Heracles and Oedipus, as well as its role in Greek city-state politics.
The early life of Epaminondas
Epaminondas was born around 415/414 BC into an aristocratic family that had lost much of its wealth. Little is known of his early life but he was educated in the gymnasium and was trained in the arts and also received military training. The young man was taught philosophy by the Pythagorean philosopher Lysis of Taras, a refugee who had found shelter in Thebes. Epaminondas revered his teacher, and his subsequent austere lifestyle was inspired by Pythagorean teachings.
After the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece. They had defeated Thebes in several bloody battles during the Corinthian War, forcing them to become their allies. In 404 BC, the Spartan king treacherously seized and garrisoned the citadel of Thebes, (Cadmeia) and established a puppet regime. Despite being openly anti-Spartan, Epaminondas was not persecuted at this time because of his poverty and philosophical disposition. The Theban statesman and general, Pelopidas, along with some Theban patriots, infiltrated the city and incited the population to rebel. Epaminondas
supported them and played a role in expelling the hegemonic Greek power, but the extent of his role in the liberation of his native place is debated by scholars.
While Spartan armies loomed and threatened, Thebes allied with neighbouring polities to form the Boeotian League under nine elected Boeotarchs who managed the military and civilian control of the Federation. Thebes and its allies frustrated three Spartan efforts to impose their will on the federation, possibly due in part to the partnership between Epaminondas and Pelopidas. By 371 BC, Epaminondas was elected as one of the Boeotarchs which may be testimony to his role in saving his native place from another Spartan occupation.
In 371 BC, a council was held to secure a general peace throughout Greece. Epaminondas demanded that Thebes sign a proposed peace plan for all of Boeotia, which was angrily rejected by the leading Hellenic power, who stormed out of the negotiations. A war between Sparta and Boeotia was inevitable.
Battle of Leuctra
The Spartans mobilized an army of 10,000 including 700 of the feared Spartan citizen warriors. Thebes had only 6000 infantry but its cavalry was superior in skill, if not in numbers. While Epaminondas was only one of a number of Boeotarchs leading the army, he was the general in charge because of his personality, experience, and oratory. He drew up his army near the village of Leuctra on the 6th of July 371 BC. Epaminondas persuaded the other reluctant Boeotarchs to stand their ground and fight. He had faith in the cavalry but traditionally the Theban heavy infantry had proven to be inferior to the Spartan’s famed hoplites. However, the Theban hoplites had been battle-tested during their constant struggles with Sparta.
Epaminondas developed an innovative strategy to overcome the fearsome Laconians. Traditionally, hoplites had been arrayed twelve ranks deep in a phalanx with the elite on the right. Epaminondas placed his men fifty ranks deep on the left. His weakened right and centre were arrayed in an echelon formation, meaning they were not in immediate danger from the enemy’s centre and right. After the Boeotian cavalry routed the Laconia allied cavalry, Epaminondas ordered his men on the right to charge into the enemy’s right. The Boeotian hoplites crashed into the enemy and soon overpowered them. As soon as they had crushed the enemy's right flank, they struck their rear. It was carnage. A numerically inferior army had crushed the largest and finest Greek army to the shock of the Hellenic World and beyond.
Aftermath of Leuctra
Sparta lost a large number of its citizens which it could ill-afford, especially as its manpower had been depleted by losses in its many wars. More importantly, the myth of Spartan invincibility was shattered and the Laconians lost their aura of invincibility.
Meanwhile, Epaminondas was unable to follow up on his victory and instead concentrated on strengthening the federation. A reluctance to invade the Peloponnese may have also been a response to concerns about the reliability of Jason of Pharae, tyrant of Thessaly. Alternatively, it had also been mooted that Thebes was not interested in building an empire.
However, only a short time later in 370 BC, Thebes did invade the Peloponnese under Epaminondas and Pelopidas. They encouraged the Arcadians to form a league and to become their ally against their former Laconian overlords.
That’s when the Thebans and their allies did the unthinkable. They invaded Spartan territory, for the first time in two centuries, which the Spartans could not effectively counter.
Epaminondas then freed the Messenians, who had been the helots of serfs of the Laconian elite and this led to the re-establishment of the state of Messenia for the first time in centuries. With little fighting, Epaminondas had permanently undermined the socio-economic system that supported Laconia’s military machine.
The victor of Leuctra returned home in triumph, but soon his enemies prosecuted him for exceeding his power and the term of his office. The sources portray the trial of the general as a result of envy. However, it could reasonably be ascribed to genuine concerns that he was a potential tyrant. Given the austere and noble character of Epaminondas, this was unlikely. He was subsequently exonerated, and all charges dropped.
Further Invasions of the Peloponnese
In 369 BC the new Theban allies sought the city’s support against Sparta. The Arcadians suspected that Laconia was planning to invade their new state. By now the Athenians and others had become worried about the rise of the Thebans and had entered into an alliance with their historic enemies, the Spartans. Epaminondas, once again with Pelopidas, led the Theban army and their allies south. Their enemies secured the Isthmus of Corinth, the only land route into the Peloponnese. Epaminondas launched a surprise night attack and broke the defensive line and was able to unite with the pro-Boeotian forces.
Despite the brilliant start, this invasion achieved little. This relative lack of success and possibly lingering concerns about the victor of Leuctra’s ambitions led to Epaminondas’ failing to be elected to the office of Boeotarch. Ever mindful of his duty, some sources state that he enlisted in the army as a common soldier.
Meanwhile, Alexander of Pharae, the tyrant of Thessaly, was a cruel despot and Pelopidas was dispatched as part of a diplomatic mission to persuade him to stop terrorising his subjects. The despot seized Pelopidas and other diplomats and imprisoned them, contrary to Greek customs. In response, the Thebans ordered a large army to invade Thessaly with the goal of freeing the diplomatic mission. Throughout Greece, the Thessalian cavalry had a reputation as being the best and they almost surrounded the Boeotians forces. Epaminondas was hastily given command and successfully rescued his army from annihilation but still, this was a dramatic defeat for the Boeotian League.
Because of his actions, Epaminondas was elected Boeotarch once more and commanded another invasion of Peloponnese, which installed democracies seen as more pro-Theban in several cities.
From 365 AD onwards, resistance to the hegemony of Thebes grew. Even states like Arcadia, which had only been made possible by Epaminondas, chaffed against the supremacy of what was now the greatest power in Greece....despite the fact that the Thebans did not dominate their allies like the Spartans.
Under Epaminondas, and others, the Boeotian League tirelessly campaigned to keep its hegemony intact. Pelopidas was killed during a successful campaign against Jason of Pharae (364 BC), a huge personal loss to Epaminondas. The victor of Leuctra, concerned at the support that Athens was giving his enemies, entered into an arrangement with the Persians to fund a fleet to check Athenian control of the seas. During the Social War (357-354 BC), some believe that Epaminondas’ strategy led to Athens losing key territories.
Battle of Mantinea (362 BC)
In 362 BC, the city of Mantinea in the Peloponnese unilaterally ended its alliance with the Boeotian League. Epaminondas was given command of a large army, approximately 30,000, which he led into the Peloponnese to force the Mantineans back into the alliance. A Spartan and Athenian army was joined by other city-states. The two allied armies lined up outside Mantinea in what was to be one of the largest battles in Classical Greek.
The Boeotian League were outnumbered, and their supply lines stretched. Epaminondas decided to adapt his successful tactics at Leuctra. He once again placed a great many of his forces on the left and his entire line was arrayed diagonally. At Mantinea, Epaminondas placed a mixture of cavalry and javelin throwers along his line and before the hoplites. The Thebans and their allies used the melee fighters and cavalry to drive off the enemy cavalry and secure Epaminondas' right flank and centre. Then he ordered his strengthened left to advance and fall upon the enemy right where the Mantineans had been formed up and after some heroic resistance, they broke and fled. Then in a repeat of Leuctra, the Boeotians and their allies crashed into the rear of the enemy hoplites, routing them.
At the height of the battle, Epaminondas fighting in the front line, received a fatal wound. He died knowing he had won a great victory and was buried on the battlefield as was the custom. After the great general’s death, the Boeotian League adopted a defensive posture and Athens became the leading power in Greece by default
Epaminondas was a towering figure in the history of the Ancient World. His military genius is apparent in that his great victories changed the geopolitics of Greece. The Theban was a military innovator. His tactics changed hoplite warfare and ended the traditional Greek way of war. Phillip II, who had been a hostage in Thebes, was much influenced by Epaminondas and the monarch based his own military reforms in Macedonia on the ideas of the victor of Leuctra. Epaminondas’s victory ended Spartan hegemony and they never regained it.
He was critical in the rise of Thebes and its supremacy in Greece. A talented diplomat, his ultimate goals are a matter of conjecture. Did he want to make Thebes a traditional hegemon like Sparta and Athens before or did he want a series of leagues of city-states that were equal and free? It has been argued that despite Epaminondas’ military brilliance he did not have a grand strategy for Thebes and how it would maintain its preeminent position. As a result, Theban hegemony was short-lived and ended with his death. In the aftermath of Mantinea, there was no single power able to resist the rise of Philip II, who ended the freedom of the city-states.
Epaminondas had a noble character and was much admired. He was without a doubt, a military genius and revolutionized warfare in Greece. His true heirs were Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great, whose military reforms and tactics were deeply influenced by the great Theban. Epaminondas' victories allowed his city to become the dominant military power in Greece, but this domination ended after his death in battle. He did not leave a system such as the Athenian Delian League that would ensure the survival of his city’s hegemony. Epaminondas, despite his tactical brilliance, failed in a strategic sense. On the other hand, it could be said that after his death, Thebes failed to build on his victories and this ultimately doomed it and Greece. Less than twenty five years after his death, Phillip II defeated Epaminondas native city at Chaeronea after which he disbanded the Boeotian League. Thebes itself was destroyed after it revolted against Alexander the Great and never regained its former eminence.
Cawkwell, G.L., 1972. Epaminondas and Thebes. The Classical Quarterly, 22(2), pp.254-278.
Ruzicka, S., 1998. Epaminondas and the Genesis of the Social War. Classical Philology, 93(1), pp.60-69.
Wiseman, J., 1969. Epaminondas and the Theban invasions. Klio, 51(51), pp.177-200.