Epaminondas, an idealized figure in the grounds of Stowe House
Born418 BC
Died362 BC
RankStrategos, Boeotarch
Battles/warsBattle of Leuctra, Battle of Mantinea

Epaminondas (/ɪˌpæməˈnɒndəs/; Greek: Ἐπαμεινώνδας, Epameinondas; d. 362 BC) was a Greek general (Strategos/Boeotarch) of Thebes and statesman of the 4th century BC who transformed the Ancient Greek city-state of Thebes, leading it out of Spartan subjugation into a pre-eminent position in Greek politics called the Theban Hegemony. In the process he broke Spartan military power with his victory at Leuctra and liberated the Messenian helots, a group of Peloponnesian Greeks who had been enslaved under Spartan rule for some 230 years after being defeated in the Messenian War ending in 600 BC. Epaminondas reshaped the political map of Greece, fragmented old alliances, created new ones, and supervised the construction of entire cities. He was also militarily influential and invented and implemented several major battlefield tactics.

Xenophon, the historian and contemporary, is the main source for Epaminondas' military prowess, and Xenophon describes his admiration for him in his major work Hellenica (book VII, chap. 5, 19). Accordingly, in later centuries the Roman orator, Cicero called him "the first man of Greece", and even in modern times Montaigne judged him one of the three "worthiest and most excellent men" that had ever lived.[1] The changes Epaminondas wrought on the Greek political order did not long outlive him, as the cycle of shifting hegemonies and alliances continued unabated. A mere twenty-seven years after his death, a recalcitrant Thebes was obliterated by Alexander the Great. Thus Epaminondas—who had been praised in his time as an idealist and liberator—is today largely remembered for a decade (371 BC to 362 BC) of campaigning that sapped the strength of the great city-states and paved the way for the Macedonian conquest.

Historical sources

The life of Epaminondas is very poorly attested in the ancient sources, especially compared to some of his near contemporaries (e.g. Philip II of Macedon, Pelopidas). One principal reason for this is the loss of Plutarch's biography of him. Epaminondas was one of approximately 50 ancient figures given an extensive biography by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives, in which he is paired with the Roman statesman Scipio Africanus; however, both these "Lives" are now lost.[2] Plutarch was writing over 400 years after Epaminondas's death and is therefore very much a secondary source, but he often explicitly names his sources, which allows some degree of verification of his statements.[3]

Some episodes of Epaminondas's life can be found in Plutarch's "Lives" of Pelopidas and Agesilaus II, who were contemporaries. There is also a surviving (and possibly abridged) biography of Epaminondas by the Roman author Cornelius Nepos from the first century BC which, in the absence of Plutarch's, becomes a major source for Epaminondas's life.[4]

The period of Greek history from 411–362 BC is primarily attested by the historian, contemporary and direct witness Xenophon, his work being a continuation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War.[5] Xenophon, who was partial to Sparta and its king, Agesilaus, does not always mention Epaminondas himself and does not note his presence at the Battle of Leuctra.[6] However Xenophon tells us of Epaminondas's last battle and death, which is told in the last and seventh book of the Hellenica. Epaminondas's role in the conflicts of the 4th century is also described, much later, by Diodorus Siculus, in his Bibliotheca historica. Diodorus was writing in the 1st century BC, and is also very much a secondary source,[7] though useful for corroborating details found elsewhere.[8]

Early life

He [Epaminondas] preferred the society of a grave and austere old man before that of all those of his own age; nor did he part with him until he so far excelled his fellow students in learning, that it might easily be perceived he would in like manner excel them all in other pursuits. He was a native of Thebes and led his origins from the Saratniks of the legendary king Cadmus, who came with him from Phoenician, and therefore was himself a descendant of the Phoenician conquerors.https://archive.org/details/pausaniasgreece01pausuoft

— Cornelius Nepos, Epaminondas, II

Epaminondas was born into the Theban aristocracy in the late 5th century BC; estimates for the year of his birth vary widely. He was a native of Thebes and led his origins from the comerades of the legendary king Cadmus, who came with him from Phoenician, and therefore was himself a descendant of the Phoenician conquerors.[9] Cornelius Nepos claims that his father, Polymnis, had been left impoverished by his ancestors. He was educated in his childhood by Lysis of Tarentum, one of the last major Pythagorean philosophers. Epaminondas excelled as a student, and was devoted to Lysis. Nepos also tells us that the young Epaminondas worked hard to increase his physical prowess, and specifically his agility, since "he thought that strength suited the purposes of wrestlers, but that agility conduced to excellence in war." He also trained in running and wrestling, but most of all, he undertook "martial exercises" (presumably training with weapons).[10]

Epaminondas began serving as a soldier after adolescence; Plutarch refers to an incident involving Epaminondas that occurred during a battle at Mantinea.[11] Though not explicitly stated, this was probably the Spartan attack on Mantinea in 385 BC, as described by Xenophon;[12] Plutarch tells us that Epaminondas was there as part of a Theban force aiding the Spartans, so this battle fits the description.[13] Epaminondas was certainly not old enough to have served at the First Battle of Mantinea which was in 418 BC.

It was at this battle, regardless of exactly when and where this occurred, that a defining moment of Epaminondas's early life would happen. Epaminondas saved the life of his fellow Theban Pelopidas;

Pelopidas, after receiving seven wounds in front, sank down upon a great heap of friends and enemies who lay dead together; but Epaminondas, although he thought him lifeless, stood forth to defend his body and his arms, and fought desperately, single-handed against many, determined to die rather than leave Pelopidas lying there. And now he too was in a sorry plight, having been wounded in the breast with a spear and in the arm with a sword, when Agesipolis the Spartan king came to his aid from the other wing, and when all hope was lost, saved them both.[11]

Plutarch says that this incident firmly cemented their friendship, and Pelopidas would be Epaminondas's partner in politics for the next twenty years.[11]

Epaminondas was considered the greatest warrior-statesman of ancient Thebes by many, including the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus does not have anything to say about the personal affairs of Epaminondas or the Sacred Band, nor does he say anything about the following account, again from Plutarch (Amatorius 17). According to Plutarch's dramatic dialogue, Epaminondas had two male lovers: Asopichus and Caphisodorus. Caphisodorus died with Epaminondas at Mantineia in battle. They were buried together, something usually reserved for a husband and wife in Greek society. As for Asopichus, Theopompus (as quoted by Athenaeus) also confirms his liaison with Epaminondas; the historian describes him as a fearless warrior who had the trophy at Leuctra, acquired by his lover, depicted as relief on his shield.[14]

Political and military career


Epaminondas lived at a particularly turbulent point in Greek history. Following her victory in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, Sparta had embarked upon an aggressively unilateralist policy towards the rest of Greece and quickly alienated many of its former allies.[15] Thebes, meanwhile, had greatly increased its own power during the war and sought to gain control of the other cities of Boeotia (the region of ancient Greece northwest of Attica). This policy, along with other disputes, brought Thebes into conflict with Sparta. By 395 BC, Thebes, alongside Athens, Corinth, and Argos, found itself arrayed against Sparta (a former ally) in the Corinthian War.[16] That war, which dragged on inconclusively for eight years, saw several bloody Theban defeats at Spartan hands. By the time of its conclusion, Thebes had been forced to check its expansionist ambitions and return to its old alliance with Sparta.[17]

In 382 BC, however, the Spartan commander Phoebidas committed an act that would ultimately turn Thebes against Sparta for good and pave the way for Epaminondas's rise to power.[18] Passing through Boeotia on campaign, Phoebidas took advantage of civil strife within Thebes to secure entrance to the city for his troops. Once inside, he seized the Cadmeia (the Theban acropolis), and forced the anti-Spartan party to flee the city.[19] Epaminondas, although associated with that faction, was allowed to remain; since "his philosophy made him to be looked down upon as a recluse, and his poverty as impotent". The Spartans installed a puppet government in Thebes, and garrisoned the Cadmeia to ensure the behaviour of the Thebans.[18]

Early career

378 BC – Theban coup

Epaminondas defending Pelopidas at the Siege of Mantinea (385 BCE).

In the years following the Spartan takeover, the exiled Thebans regrouped in Athens and, at the instigation of Pelopidas, prepared to liberate their city. Meanwhile, in Thebes, Epaminondas began preparing the young men of the city to fight the Spartans.[20] In the winter of 379 BC, a small group of the exiles, led by Pelopidas, infiltrated the city.[21] They then assassinated the leaders of the pro-Spartan government, and supported by Epaminondas and Gorgidas, who led a group of young men, and a force of Athenian hoplites, they surrounded the Spartans on the Cadmeia.[22] The following day, Epaminondas and Gorgidas brought Pelopidas and his men before the Theban assembly and exhorted the Thebans to fight for their freedom; the assembly responded by acclaiming Pelopidas and his men as liberators. The Cadmeia was surrounded, and the Spartans attacked; Pelopidas realised that they must be expelled before an army came from Sparta to relieve them. The Spartan garrison eventually surrendered on the condition that they were allowed to march away unharmed. The narrow margin of the conspirators' success is demonstrated by the fact that the Spartan garrison met a Spartan force on the way to rescue them as they marched back to Sparta.[23] Plutarch portrays the Theban coup as an immensely significant event:

...the subsequent change in the political situation made this exploit the more glorious. For the war which broke down the pretensions of Sparta and put an end to her supremacy by land and sea, began from that night, in which people, not by surprising any fort or castle or citadel, but by coming into a private house with eleven others, loosed and broke in pieces, if the truth may be expressed in a metaphor, the fetters of the Lacedaemonian supremacy, which were thought indissoluble and not to be broken.[21]

378–371 BC – Aftermath

When news of the uprising at Thebes reached Sparta, an army under Cleombrotus I had been dispatched to subdue the city, but turned back without engaging the Thebans. Another army under Agesilaus II was then dispatched to attack the Thebans. However, the Thebans refused to meet the Spartan army in battle, instead building a trench and stockade outside Thebes, which they occupied, preventing the Spartans advancing on the city. The Spartans ravaged the countryside but eventually departed, leaving Thebes independent.[24] This victory so heartened the Thebans that they undertook operations against other neighboring cities as well.[25] In short order the Thebans were able to reconstitute their old Boeotian confederacy in a new, democratic form. The cities of Boeotia united as a federation with an executive body composed of seven generals, or Boeotarchs, elected from seven districts throughout Boeotia.[26] This political fusion was so successful that henceforth the names Theban and Boeotian were used interchangeably in a nod to the newfound solidarity of the region.

Seeking to crush the Thebans, the Spartans would invade Boeotia three times over the next few years (378, 377, ? possibly Leuctra).[24] At first the Thebans feared facing the Spartans head on, but the conflict gave them much practice and training, and they "had their spirits roused and their bodies thoroughly inured to hardships, and gained experience and courage from their constant struggles".[27] Although Sparta remained the dominant land power in Greece, the Boeotians had demonstrated that they, too, were a martial threat and a politically cohesive power.[28] At the same time, Pelopidas, an advocate of an aggressive policy against Sparta, had established himself as a major political leader in Thebes.[29]

Epaminondas's role in the years to 371 BC is difficult to piece together. Certainly, he served with the Theban armies in the defence of Boeotia in the 370s, and, by 371 BC, he had become a Boeotarch.[30] It seems safe to assume, given their close friendship, and their close collaboration after 371 BC, that Epaminondas and Pelopidas also collaborated closely on Theban policy in the period 378–371 BC.[31]

Peace conference of 371 BC

The years following the Theban coup had seen desultory fighting between Sparta and Thebes, with Athens also drawn into the conflict. A feeble attempt at a common peace had been made in 375 BC, but desultory fighting between Athens and Sparta had resumed by 373 BC (at the latest).[32] By 371 BC, Athens and Sparta were again war-weary, and in 371 BC a conference was held at Sparta to discuss another attempt at a common peace.[33]

Epaminondas was serving as a Boeotarch for 371 BC, and led the Boeotian delegation to the peace conference. Peace terms were agreed at the outset of the conference, and the Thebans presumably signed the treaty in their own name alone.[34] However, on the following day, Epaminondas caused a drastic break with Sparta when he insisted on signing not for the Thebans alone, but for all the Boeotians. Agesilaus refused to allow the change of the Theban envoys' signature, insisting that the cities of Boeotia should be independent; Epaminondas countered that if this were to be the case, the cities of Laconia should be as well. Irate, Agesilaus struck the Thebans from the document. The delegation returned to Thebes, and both sides mobilized for war.[35]

Battle of Leuctra (371 BC)

The Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC, showing Epaminondas's tactical advances

Immediately following the failure of the peace talks, orders were sent out from Sparta to the Spartan king Cleombrotus, who was at the head of an army in Phocis, commanding him to march directly to Boeotia. Skirting north to avoid mountain passes where the Boeotians were prepared to ambush him, Cleombrotus entered Boeotian territory from an unexpected direction and quickly seized a fort and captured 10 or 12 triremes. Then marching towards Thebes, he camped at Leuctra, in the territory of Thespiae. Here, the Boeotian army came to meet him. The Spartan army contained some 10,000 hoplites, 700 of whom were the elite warriors known as Spartiates. The Boeotians opposite them numbered about 6,000, but were bolstered by a cavalry superior to that of the Peloponnesians.[36]

Epaminondas was given charge of the Boeotian army, with the other six Boeotarchs in an advisory capacity. Pelopidas, meanwhile, was captain of the Sacred Band, the elite Theban troops. Before the battle, there was evidently much debate amongst the Boeotarchs about whether to fight or not. As a consistent advocate of an aggressive policy, Epaminondas wished to fight, and supported by Pelopidas, he managed to swing the vote in favour of battle.[37] During the course of the battle, Epaminondas was to display a grasp of tactics hitherto unseen in Greek warfare.[38]

The phalanx formation used by Greek armies had a distinct tendency to veer to the right during battle, "because fear makes each man do his best to shelter his unarmed side with the shield of the man next him on the right".[39] Traditionally, a phalanx therefore lined up for battle with the elite troops on the right flank to counter this tendency.[40] Thus, in the Spartan phalanx at Leuctra, Cleombrotus and the elite 'Spartiates' were on the right, while the less experienced Peloponnesian allies were on the left. However, needing to counter the Spartans' numerical advantage, Epaminondas implemented two tactical innovations. Firstly, he took the best troops in the army, and arranged them 50 ranks deep (as opposed to the normal 8–12 ranks) on the left wing, opposite Cleombrotus and the Spartans, with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band on the extreme left flank.[41] Secondly, recognizing, that he could not have matched the width of the Peloponnesian phalanx (even be