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Culture: Man against History: Epaminondas and Thebes
Monday, 30 January 2006 Written by Alexander G. Rubio

Oedipus and the Sphinx
5th c. BC Attic cup by Douris
Why is it worthwhile to consider the Greeks? Well, for good and ill, they were the first to try out a lot of ideas. Or, more importantly, they were among the first to leave behind extensive records and histories documenting their doings for posterity to learn from.

When people look back to ancient Greece, it tends to be to the victory of the underdog story of Marathon, Salamis and the Persian wars, the golden age of Periclean Athens, the internecine carnage of the Peloponnesian war, or the late last flowering of Alexander's conquests. But Between the fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war and the rise of the hegemony of Macedon, there was a brief interregnum. This was the short lived heyday of Thebes.

Map of ancient Greece (Click for larger image)
Modern Marxist inspired historians have tended, and rightly so for the most part, to focus on the great tectonic movements of history, forces of economy and demographics that individuals can ride to glory and power, but not control or direct in any meaningful way. But there are moments, when one, or a small number of persons can, and did turn the tide of history. One example that is often trotted out is Alexander the Great, and what would have happened if he simply had decided to turn back after having freed the Greek cities of Asia Minor from the Persians. Hellenism might have never happened, and Rome might have faced a still united Persian foe on its eastern borders.

But Macedon was a true national state, not a mere polis, and a military juggernaut set on invasion even before Alexander assumed the throne after his father, Philip II's assassination. He was arguably the greatest military mind in recorded history, but he had inherited an impressive tool with which to set about his task.

While Macedon was well organised and rich in both resources and fighting men, the same could hardly be said of the Thebes which Epaminondas more or less single-handedly almost succeeded in lifting to the position of power Macedon was later to usurp.

History and Geography

Boeotian "Tanagra Figurine"
The city state (polis) of Thebes had pretty much been a non-entity as far as the political map of classical Greece was concerned. In the heroic struggle and victory against the invading Persian empire, led by Athens and Sparta, which had given Greeks a new found confidence and sense of purpose, they had taken no part, or at least no part that gave them much credit. And culturally they never did amount to much, beyond some charming, if rather pedestrian small terracotta figurines Greek farmers still plough out of the ground.

Situated on the Boeotian plain, on some of the few acres of truly fertile farmland, aside from the Spartan homeland of Lacedaemonia, in this otherwise arid and stony country, it might seem to have been ideally placed. But, like Sparta, it too was landlocked, lacking any usable harbours, depriving it of both the profits and exchange of ideas that comes with extensive overseas trade that were to benefit such states as Athens. And, unlike Sparta, Thebes didn't have naturally defensible borders.

The Eurotas valley, the heartland of Sparta, was shielded from the outside world by mountains that even this far south are snowcapped year round. Spartans used to boast that their city had no walls, as her walls were the shields of her young men. But in truth the Spartans had walls provided for them by nature. Like later day Poland, Thebes was not so blessed.

They were regarded by most other Greeks as a rather dull and plodding lot. True, they had in the past occupied a more prominent position. Its centrality to Greek myths and legends could rival that of Troy. Oedipus had once ruled there. It was probably one of the first cities proper on the Greek mainland, dating back to early Mycenaean times. Hesiod, the contemporary of Homer, and second only to him in importance to later Greek culture, had been born there, as had the later poet Pindar. But most of this was a thing of the past.

Following their shared victory in the Persian wars, it soon became clear that the ideological differences between the democratic expansionist Athens and the oligarchic, militaristic and more than a little paranoid Sparta were such that conflict was inevitable. Greece wasn't big enough for the both of them. The result was the Peloponnesian war, fought across the Mediterranean, and through a couple of generations.

In the end Sparta emerged victorious as the Greek hegemon. But decades of war had sapped even their strength. The Spartans, who married late and lived their lives in the barracks, were never many. At Plataiai during the Persian war they had fielded 10,000 men in addition to allied and subordinate auxiliaries. At Leuctra they would field only 700 true Spartan hoplites. But though not what they once were, Sparta were still the 800 pound gorilla of the Greek world, with its hoplite phalanxes enjoying an aura of invincibility.

Thebes had been allied to Sparta during the Peloponnesian war. History and proximity to Athens had cast that city in the role of arch-enemy. But Thebes was, like a number of Greek city states, torn by civil strife (stasis) which pitted the aristocratic oligarchs against more democratically minded groups.

Sparta, ever the enemy of democracy, which it saw as a dangerous and destabilising political system, intervened on behalf of one of the parties, and a Spartan contingent was spirited in during a religious festival, during which the men of the city were consigned to stay indoors, and occupied the Kadmeia, the Acropolis castle of the city. Once entrenched, they would not be dislodged. The leader of the democratic party was tried and executed, along with those who did not flee the city, mainly to the old arch-enemy, democratic Athens. Thebes had become an occupied state.

Liberation and Reorganisation

Torso of Spartan warrior
thought to represent the
hero of Thermopylae,
king Leonidas
From their Athenian exile, the ousted democrats plotted the overthrow of the oligarchs and the liberation of their home city from the Spartan stranglehold. Chief among them was a young man of noble family called Pelopidas. There was also his soft spoken friend, Epaminondas, also of an aristocratic family, but one that had fallen on hard times. He was highly educated though, having studied with some of the foremost philosophers of the time, and was an accomplished artist.

The Roman historian Cornelius Nepos would later write in his "Life of Epaminondas":
He was of an honorable family, though left poor . . . but he was among the best educated among the Thebans; he had been taught to play the harp and to sing to its accompaniment by Dionysius [a famous musician], to play the flute by Olympiodorus, and to dance by Calliphron. For his instructor in philosophy he had Lysis of Tarentum, a Pythagorean, to whom he was so devoted that---young as he was---he preferred the society of a grave and austere old man, instead of companions of his own age.

A cold and rainy December night seven of the conspirators managed to sneak back into the city disguised as farmers returning from the fields. With the help of a sympathiser with connections to the new regime, they infiltrated a banquet for the ruling oligarchs, this time disgused as women. Before the randy fat cats had got to unwrap their veiled goodies, they found themselves at the business ends of the daggers the "hostesses" had hidden in their dresses.

After having freed the political prisoners from the dungeons, and marshaled the people in the square, they marched to the Kadmeia. The Spartan garrison suddenly woke up to the fact that they were under siege with low supplies. Contrary to Spartan tradition of never retreating, but rather fighting to the last man, like the Spartan ideal, king Leonidas did at Thermopylae, the commanders of the garrison opted to retreat under a promise of safe passage.

Spartan mothers and wives used to send their men off with the words, "Return with your shield, or on it!", meaning, "Win, or die!" If you fell honourably in battle, your comrades would carry you back on your shield. But if you fled, the shield was so heavy that the first thing you'd do was to throw it away before beating a retreat. Consequently two of the commanders, who had so shamefully surrendered the castle, with not a blow being struck, were executed upon their return to Sparta.

Pelopidas and Epaminondas now set about reorganising the state under a democratic constitution, and the all important task of fielding an army, for when the Spartans returned with payback on their minds.

Central to the reorganisation of the armed forces was the establishment of the so called "Sacred band", an elite unit of 300 hoplite warriors, all of whom were paired with their homosexual lover. The thought being that these men would never turn to flight, leaving their lovers behind in battle. And this turned out to be true, 'til the very end.

Knowing that they faced what was man for man the finest infantry forces in human history, the liberated Thebes struck an alliance with Athens, which was now a fellow democracy (not that that counted for much), but more importantly had been itching to get back at the Spartans ever since their defeat in the Peloponnesian war. Under attack on both land and sea, the Spartans found it almost impossible to concentrate their forces for a killing blow.

But fate, and the old Greek curse, came to the aid of the Spartans. As soon as the immediate danger was passed, the old distrust between the two allies reasserted itself. Athens was loath to break Sparta, only to see Thebes take their place as the leading state in Greece. That position, they felt, by rights belonged to Athens. They negotiated a separate peace with the Spartans, leaving their erstwhile allies to face the inevitable onslaught alone. All of Greece put their money on the Spartans stomping Thebes into the ground and jumping up and down on the pieces.


This was the moment when Epaminondas, and his reformed army, had to show what they were made of.

Up to this point the Greek hoplite phalanx had fought in pretty much the same way since it had been introduced in the 8th century BC. Heavily bronze armoured infantrymen, or hoplites, armed mainly with pikes, would form ranks, a minimum four deep, with shields (the large round hoplon, from which it is believed the infantry took their name) overlapping so as to protect the right side of the man to each soldier's left and forming a wall bristling with spearheads. When pitted against each other in battle, the phalanxes would clash head on, and, like a pair of sumo wrestlers, literally try to push each other off the field. The Spartans, disciplined in the art of war since childhood, were the acknowledged masters of this tactics.

Now they felt the time was right to put an end to the hated Thebans. In 371 BC they marched their army into Boeotia. Though the core Spartan contingent was smaller than what they had been able to field in the past, its strength was augmented by large numbers of auxiliary forces from allied or subjugated states. They not only had the greatest fighting machine in Greece on their side, but they also had superior numbers to the Thebans.

The battle of Leuctra (Click for full image)
The two armies met at Leuctra, a stone's throw away from Thebes itself. The Spartans formed up their straight line of phalanxes, with the elite Spartan units, led by one of the two Spartan kings (a rather unique form of government to be sure), making up the right flank.

But instead of ordering up his forces in a corresponding straight line to face them, Epaminondas did something quite new. He deliberately weakened his centre and right flank, while on his left flank, facing the Spartans strongest units, he massed infantry 50 men deep, with "The Sacred Band", led by Pelopidas, making up the core, supported by what cavalry they could muster. He then gave the order for that flank to advance on the enemy, picking up speed as they went, while the centre and right flanks held back, making a sloped formation.

The left flank smashed into the Spartans' right like a freight-train, the massed men in the rear propelling the front ranks forward with unstoppable momentum. The Spartan lines buckled and started giving way.

More detailed view of
The battle of Leuctra (Click for full image)
What Epaminondas had done was nothing less than a revolution in the conduct of warfare. Up to this point, the army might have a right flank, left flank and a centre. But they all had basically the same task. Epaminondas however had for the first time turned an army into a cohesive organism, but one which had limbs, each performing a different task. While the offensive units were to expend their energy in a swift hammer-blow, the defencive units initially had no other task than to tie up the forces facing them, prevent an encirclement, and only later surround the enemy's forces, if a full scale rout had not resulted by that time. The army had been turned into a skilled boxer, parrying with one hand, while striking out with the other. And the military commander had been turned into the brain of the army, leading by skill and intelligence, not primarily by setting an example in courage from the front lines.

The sloped formation was later to be used to great effect, not only by Alexander the Great during his campaigns, but by commanders such as Frederick the Great of Prussia during the Wars of Succession and the Seven Years' War in the 18th century. It was employed on the battlefield as late as the 1991 Gulf War, when General Norman Schwarzkopf used the tactic against the Iraqi forces.

The ferocity of the attack tore up the Spartan right flank, inflicting heavy losses and turning it to flight. Retreating back to their fortified camp, they stood by their dying king, trying to decide on a course of action. In fact, the other units of the army had never even got to participate in the fighting, partly because the forces making up the left and centre of the Spartan army were mostly composed of allied units, who were more than a little lukewarm to the Spartan cause.

Against the counsel of a few, who wanted to stay and fight, it was decided to sue for a cessation of hostilities. The Thebans, who were as dumbfounded at their success as any, agreed. The remaining Spartan forces marched away unmolested. But not only was it a broken army, but the aura of invincibility which had surrounded it had been lost forever.


The hegemony of Greece now fell to Thebes under the leadership of Epaminondas. All of the smaller states of central Greece, excepting Athens, now joined in a Theban league, whose influence now started to stretch even into the Spartan territories in the Peloponnesus. Epaminondas lead an army there and operated at will in Lacedaemonia.

The Messenians, who had long been enslaved en masse as helots to work the land for their Spartan masters, now rose up, and were joined by waves of Messenians returning from exile, in scenes reminiscent of the Jews returning to Israel. Under the guidance of Epaminondas they now founded an independent state, as did the Arcadians.

After having decided against a direct assault on Sparta in 362 BC, he now turned his forces towards the enemy stronghold of Mantinea in Arcadia. But Athenian forces (who had now allied outright with Sparta against Thebes) reached the city ahead of him. When they were shortly joined by a Spartan contingent, the siege turned into a regular battle.

But Epaminondas' skill as a commander again made the difference. By feigning a retreat, he got the enemy to break ranks, thinking the whole thing was off. That's when he attacked, using the same sloped formation he had used to such effect nine years before. It did not fail this time either. The Athenians and Spartans did their best to pull the ranks together. But it was too late. All cohesion was gone, and men were milling here and there across the battlefield, trying to get away.

And that's when disaster struck. Leading from the front (his friend Pelopidas had died some time before, a loss comparable to Lee's on losing his best field commander "Stonewall" Jackson during The American Civil War), he had dodged spears and arrows all through the battle. But just as victory was in sight, a stray throwing spear struck him in the chest. The shaft broke, but the point was embedded in the wound. He fell unconscious into the arms of his comrades.

The news spread like wildfire through the phalanx. It was a moment without parallel in the history of warfare. A whole army, beaten and on the run, is suddenly saved through the loss of the enemy commander. Everybody froze. Not another enemy soldier was killed. The Theban cavalry not only abandoned the chase, they even turned to flight themselves, as if they were defeated. There simply was no one who could replace him, and they knew it. This man embodied all their hopes and faith for a happy end to the struggle, and when he was gone, they lacked even the confidence to pursue a beaten enemy.

No one would have felt this more keenly than Epaminondas himself. The doctors, upon examining the wound, announced that removing the spear-point would result in him instantly bleeding to death. The dying man then asked the ones present as to the outcome of the battle. When he was told that Thebes had won, he asked for the two officers he had designated as his successors. When told that they had both fallen, he sadly advised that peace be sought with the enemy, and asked for them to remove the spear-point.

His last moments are shot through with the knowledge that in the end he had failed in his goals for his people. And from a political point of view he had broken Sparta's hegemony over Greece, but been unable to build a lasting union of the Greek peoples that would survive him.

As a man, not even his enemies could find fault with him. For his friends and countrymen, his death would prove to be a mortal blow.

The end of Theban Power

"The death bed of Epaminondas"
by Isaak Walraven (1686-1765)
(Click for larger image of the full painting)
Lacking the leadership of Epaminondas, and having only limited resources in wealth and men, Thebes was unable to assert its power over the other Greek cities to the degree of forming a true political unity on the Greek mainland.

But a new power was rising in the north. Macedon had always been on the fringe of the Greek world. It is still hotly debated whether the majority of the population were of Greek stock at all. Indeed the Greeks themselves did not recognise them as such. But the royal house, for Macedon was still a monarchy, claimed descent from the Greek hero Heracles, the strongman of Greek mythology, and the elite were thoroughly Hellenised.

Philip II of Macedon
(Click for full image)
The king of Macedon, Philip II, had spent part of his youth as a hostage in pledge of loyalty at Thebes. And while there he had spent his time partying and, rumours claimed, carrying on a succession of homosexual romances. But he had also been busy learning all he could of the latest Greek advances in technology and organisation, and the new tactics invented by Epaminondas. On his return to Macedon and accession to the throne, he set about reorganising the kingdom from top to bottom, establishing the first standing professional army. All earlier Greek armies had been unpaid citizen armies, who fought for home and hearth, and would return home to tend their farms and businesses during the winter season.

With this army he set about expanding Macedon's borders with an aim to eventually usurping the hegemony of all Greece. At Chaeronea his forces, the offensive right wing commanded by his young son Alexander, clashed with the combined forces of Thebes and Athens. Even after all hope was lost, "The Sacred Band" stood their ground and were cut down to the man. An attempted rebellion against the Macedonian yoke some years later led to then king Alexander razing the city to the ground, its surviving citizens hauled away to slavery. The story of Thebes was at an end.


Now one can justifiably say that Sparta was a spent force, which, were it still the hegemon of Greece, would have fallen to the rising power of Macedon a few short years later, and that the march of history would have proceeded unperturbed. This is probably the case. But that it was Thebes which did the deed, and for a brief moment looked poised to take the leadership position which later fell to Macedon, that was largely Epaminondas' doing. And the force behind that bid for power died with him.

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.

TS Eliot - "The Waste Land"

This article is also available at The European Tribune.