Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The One Hero of Thebes

The Bœotians were proverbial, at least among their Athenian neighbours, for sensuality and stupidity. "They cultivate," says Cornelius Nepos, "strength of body rather than keenness of wit." The reproach was not wholly undeserved, though there were brilliant exceptions to the rule, in Hesiod, the earliest of the didactic poets of Greece, in the illustrious Pindar, and in Corinna, whom her contemporaries are said to have preferred even to Pindar himself. The political record of the people certainly excites no admiration. A certain stolid courage they undoubtedly possessed, but it was not always employed on the right side. In the Persian war, as we have seen, Thebes exerted herself with what we may fairly call a malignant energy against the cause of Greece. Her conduct to Platæa was again, to say the least, wanting in generosity. On the whole, Thebes may be said to have fallen below the standard, itself not very high, of rectitude and honour attained by the Greek States. The cause of this failure may probably be found, not so much in any national defect, as in the singular want of able leaders which, with one conspicuous exception, is observable throughout the whole of her history. It is this exception which is to be the subject of this chapter.

Epaminondas, son of Polymnis, was born about the year 419 B.C. He belonged to a noble house which circumstances had combined to impoverish. He early manifested a taste—very rare among his countrymen—for the study of philosophy and letters, and the circumstances of the time enabled him to cultivate it. The supremacy of Sparta, after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, led to a reaction in Bœotia, in favour of their Athenian neighbours. The relations between the two States became friendly, and Epaminondas was able to avail himself of facilities for learning, which at an earlier time he could not have enjoyed. Socrates, he may well have seen and heard, though we do not hear of his having been enrolled among his disciples. That he attended the lectures of one of Socrates' most prominent followers, Cebes the Theban, we know. He learnt also from another disciple of Socrates, Spintharus of Tarentum. So admirable was his attitude as a disciple, so indefatigable was he as a listener, so averse to making any display of his own abilities, that Spintharus paid him the emphatic compliment: "I have never met with anyone who understood more or talked less."

The pursuit of philosophy did not hinder Epaminondas from acquiring the other accomplishments suited to his age. He made himself a proficient in athletic exercises. But it was observed that he specially affected such as tended to give agility to the frame. Boxing, the favourite pursuit of the Theban youth, he did not care to practise.

Epaminondas had reached the prime of life before his merit became known beyond the circle of his private friends. It is not unlikely that poverty stood in his way. It was during a great crisis in Theban history that he had for the first time an opportunity of acting a prominent part. In 388 B.C. by that disgraceful compact with Persia which is known as the Peace of Antalcidas, Sparta had obtained something like a mastery over the whole of Greece. She used her power with characteristic want of moderation. But of all her proceedings, perhaps the most insolent was the seizure of the citadel of Thebes in the year 383. A Lacedæmonian army, which was passing under permission through Bœotia, entered into an arrangement with the oligarchical party in Thebes. The oligarchs obtained possession of power, and the Spartans seized the citadel, the home government censuring and punishing the offending general, but refusing to give up their ill-gotten gains. Three years afterwards the leaders of the democratic party, who had fled for refuge to Athens, overthrew the usurping government: Epaminondas, ever scrupulous to a degree which scarcely had a parallel in Greek life, refused to join in the plot, which involved the assassination of the oligarchical leaders. When it came to open fighting he was one of the first to take up arms. The revolution was speedily completed by the capitulation of the Spartan garrison; among the leaders of the party thus brought into power was Pelopidas, Epaminondas' most intimate friend. From that time he took an active part in the civil and military affairs of his country. It would be tedious to follow the shifting phases of these affairs and the ever changing relations of Thebes to the other chief cities of Greece. Nor, indeed, would it serve any useful purpose, as the name of Epaminondas scarcely occurs in the historians of the time. It will suffice to say that seven years after the Theban revolution we find him chosen to represent the State at a Congress of the Greek cities, and regarded with admiration by persons thoroughly well qualified to judge.

The Congress met at Sparta in the hope—so at least it was professed—of establishing a permanent peace. The principle in which negotiations were based was, that every city should be independent and that Sparta and Athens should divide the headship between them, taking the lead, i.e., when Greece was threatened by a common foe, but not pretending to dictate a policy to any of the states. All armaments were to be dissolved, all garrisons and governors put by stronger states to control the weaker were to be withdrawn. Any offender against the common peace was to be coerced; but no state was to be compelled to join in this process of justice.

All this seemed fair enough, but it was in fact a heavy blow at Thebes. There was something peculiar in the relation of Thebes to the other Bœotian cities. She claimed to be sovereign over them; they, or at least some of them, if not actually hostile, as was Platæa, refused to acknowledge anything but a leadership. This was the view which Sparta, now backed up by Athens, sought to enforce upon the Congress. Epaminondas argued the case for Thebes in an oration which would have done credit to the traditions of the best Athenian eloquence. It is needless to follow his reasoning; we are only concerned now with the fact that he had been chosen to represent his country and that he represented it in a way that extorted the admiration of all that heard him. One peculiarly cogent argument was addressed to Sparta in particular. He argued with irresistible force that the principle for which he was contending had been accepted by the Spartan judges in the case of Platæa, and had been the foundation of the decision against that city, a decision which declared it to have broken its allegiance to Thebes. The Spartan king Agesilaus, who presided over the Congress, made no attempt at an answer, but put the simple question: "Will you take the oath for Thebes only, and leave the other Bœotian towns to take it for themselves singly?" "I will do it," was in substance the answer of Epaminondas, "if Sparta also will allow the other towns of Laconia to take the oath for themselves." Agesilaus then proposed that Thebes should be excluded from the Treaty of Peace, a motion which was carried by the Congress.

These proceedings took place in June. The Spartans, transported with a rage which even the friendly Xenophon describes as a "misguiding inspiration"of angry Heaven, resolved to take an exemplary vengeance for the affront which they conceived themselves to have received. It so happened that Cleombrotus, the other king, was at the time encamped on the Phocian border of Bœotia, with an army of Lacedæmonians and allies. Instructions were sent to him from home, approved, we are told, in the General Assembly with but one dissentient voice, to invade Bœotia. He obeyed them without delay, forced a passage by a pass which, on account of its difficulty, was but weakly guarded, and marching into the Thespian territory, pitched his camp at Leuctra.

The first impression made at Thebes was one of dismay, and the first idea to remain within the walls of the city. Epaminondas and his friend Pelopidas succeeded in infusing into their countrymen a more hopeful spirit, and in recommending a bolder course. The whole Theban force, with such of their Bœotian allies as were well affected to them, marched out, and took up a position on rising ground immediately facing the Spartan camp. There were seven officers—Bœotarchs  they were called—in command. Epaminondas and Pelopidas, with a colleague whose name we do not know, were for giving battle: three, terrified by the aspect of their Spartan adversaries, were for retreating behind the walls of Thebes. The seventh was absent, guarding the passes of Cithæron. When he came, he voted for the bolder policy. When this decision was taken, the courage of the Theban army rose to the occasion; even the omens, which had hitherto presaged defeat, became favourable.

And now the military genius of Epaminondas was to display itself. He adopted for the first time in the history of war a movement which has now become a commonplace of the strategic art. Hitherto the universal practice had been to set line against line, with only such differences of strength as might be due to the superior prowess of one division of the army or another. Epaminondas, in spite of the Theban inferiority in numbers, and, indeed, with the hope of neutralizing it, massed his chief forces on his left wing. Here was the "Sacred Band" as it was called, a battalion of three hundred soldiers, picked for their strength, courage, and skill in athletic exercises, and behind this a dense mass of soldiers, no less than fifty deep. With this he intended to strike an overwhelming blow.

The battle began with an engagement between the Lacedæmonian and the Theban cavalry. The latter, always as good as any force of the kind in Greece, easily vanquished their opponents. Then Epaminondas delivered his attack on the Spartan right, where Cleombrotus commanded in person. There was a fierce struggle. Such soldiers as the Spartans were not easily overborne, but even they could not long resist the personal prowess and the overwhelming force of their assailants. Cleombrotus fell early in the day; many of the superior officers of the Spartan force shared his fate; the whole wing, after a steady resistance, were driven to take refuge in their camp. Elsewhere there seems to have been but little serious fighting. The retreat of the Spartans paralysed, as well it might, the energy and courage of the allies. The whole army retreated to its camp, where the Thebans did not venture to attack it.

Out of seven hundred Spartans four hundred fell on the field of battle, the loss among the Peloponnesian allies was one thousand, at a moderate estimate. The Theban loss was returned at three hundred.

It is difficult to estimate the effect which the result of the battle had upon Greek feeling. That Spartans could not be beaten, or, if they could not conquer, would die, was an almost universal article of belief. This faith had, it is true, received one or two hard shocks. In the course of the Peloponnesian War, a garrison of Spartans had surrendered at Sphacteria; in the Theban revolution, the force that occupied the citadel had evacuated it. These were thought to be departures from the severity of Spartan law, the law that had kept the Three Hundred at Thermopylæ. But excuses might be made for them. For the disaster at Leuctra nothing could be said. On that battlefield, for the first time in Greek history, the Spartans had been beaten in fair fight. The Soldier State never wholly recovered its prestige.

Epaminondas was determined to follow up this blow at Sparta by others that would help to enfeeble her. He brought back to their old home the remnants of the Messenian nation. Three centuries, all but a single year, had passed since after a gallant struggle it had been expelled by its Spartan neighbours, a people closely allied to it by descent. Nine generations had cherished the hope of a return; once or twice this hope had seemed about to be fulfilled. It was now accomplished by the remarkable genius of Epaminondas. Sparta lost a considerable portion of territory, and saw established on her south-western border a hostile power, embittered by ages of wrong, not only formidable in itself, but dangerous as giving a refuge to the discontented element in her own subject population.

Another step in the same direction was the foundation of the city of Megalopolis in Arcadia. The policy of Sparta had been to keep the Arcadian people disunited. She had, a few years before, actually broken up the ancient community of Mantinea into a number of villages. The Mantineans had themselves reinstated their town. And now Epaminondas united a number of other Arcadian communities in the new city.

To effect these objects he led an imposing force into the Peloponnesus. For a time Sparta itself was in danger. An unwalled city, it had always trusted to the unrivalled valour of its inhabitants. The prestige of this valour lost, it seemed absolutely within reach of the most complete humiliation, even of destruction. Epaminondas did not persevere in his attack, though he was at one time within a very short distance of the city. His characteristic moderation induced him to hold his hand. But beyond all question, for the time at least, Thebes occupied that prominent position in the eyes of all Greece, for which Sparta and Athens had long contended.

This moderation was shown, unhappily in vain, in another instance. Epaminondas had led an army into Thessaly, where Pelopidas had fallen into the hands of local tyrants. During his absence the aristocratic party in the Bœotian town of Orchomenus conceived the wild idea of bringing about a revolution in Thebes. The plot was revealed to the Theban government, and the conspirators seized. A most cruel vengeance was executed on the unhappy town. All the males of military age were slain, and the rest of the population sold into slavery. Epaminondas returned to find that this shameful sentence had been carried into execution, and expressed his indignation in the strongest terms. This did not prevent his re-election to the highest office which the people had to bestow.

But his career was now drawing to a close. Pelopidas had fallen in Thessaly, a victim to his own desperate valour, and Epaminondas did not long survive him. Causes, which it would take too long to detail, had brought about hostility between Thebes and part of that Arcadian people which had derived such benefits from his policy. Epaminondas felt himself compelled to intervene. He led a numerous and well-appointed army into the Peloponnese. By a rapid and well-planned movement he almost surprised Sparta. Finally, he confronted the enemy in the plain between Mantinea and Tegea, the battle that followed taking its name from the former town. The Theban contingent was on the left wing, confronting the Mantinean and Spartan troops. He adopted the same tactics that had proved so successful at Leuctra, hurling a massive body of his best troops at a point in the enemy's line, breaking it through, and so securing a first success. All went well, but for one fatal event. Epaminondas, fighting with desperate valour in front of his troops, fell, mortally wounded. The contemporary Xenophon gives no details of the manner in which he met his death. What we hear of it, we hear from a much later writer. According to this account he was carried by his impetuosity into the midst of the enemy, and after a gallant struggle received a mortal wound in his breast. His followers carried him out of the battle. The surgeons told him that to remove the spear would be followed by immediate death. He ordered it to be left where it was till the questions that he asked were answered. "Where is my shield?" was the first. He was told that it had been recovered. "It is well," he said. "Whose is the victory?" he asked a little later. He was assured that it rested with the Thebans and their allies. Satisfied as to his personal honour and the principle of his country, he ordered the spear to be drawn out and immediately expired. With him passed away the short-lived supremacy of Thebes. This simple fact is the most emphatic praise that can be given to "The One Hero of Thebes."