Epaminondas, Savior of Greece?

By Sean Dodds




There is a name burned into the hearts of not only Greeks, but anyone who values the ‘free way of life.’ Whether you know him from Frank Miller’s epic 300 or your studies of Herodotus, his name is synonymous with valor and freedom. Standing alone with not but three hundred of his venerable Spartiates and seven hundred enthusiastic Thespians (Herodotus 7.138-239), he held the Hot Gates of Thermopylae against innumerable odds. He stood for freedom. He stood for courage. Most of all, he stood for Greece.

With such a legacy, who would have thought that one day Sparta, defender of Greece, would ransom the freedom of the Ionian states to Artaxerxes of Persia in return for unmitigated control of Greece? How could the descendents of so valorous a people become such collaborators and sell out their fellow Greeks in order to oppress them? Well, that is a story for another time, but there were many Greeks that were not pleased with the aggressive stance of Spartan politics, who seemed to think it their right to do with Greece as they pleased. Less than a hundred years after the Second Persian Invasion (where famous Spartans such as Leonidas cooperated with famous Athenians such as Themistokles), Sparta employed unilateralist policies that subjugated and alienated many of her former allies (Plutarch, Agesilaus). If there is one thing no true Greek can tolerate, it is their freedom being trodden upon.

One such Greek was Epaminondas.


Epaminondas, the man.

Born in 418 B.C. in the polis of Thebes, he was the typical “known” Greek. He was born into an aristocracy bereft of their former funds and, despite the loss of fortune, had access to the classical education that made so many figures of his day great. Lysis of Tarentum, one of the last Pythagorean philosophers, was his tutor (Cornelius Nepos 15.2.2). Young Epaminondas was remarked upon by peers as being a gifted academic, and he ensured his body followed suit through the pursuit of athletics. Where a Spartan boy would be conscripted, Epaminondas voluntarily sought out the lifestyle of a hoplite. This was in keeping with the classical tradition of Greek heroes to seek glory  in battle to secure an eternal place in history. According to historian Diodorus Siculus, this was something Epaminondas “craved” greatly (Diodorus Siculus 15.16.1).

He also studied wrestling, believing that such brute strength suited battle (C. Nepos 15.2.5). Plutarch recorded that Epaminondas and his friend Gorgidas were allowed, as young men, to enter the Spartan gymnasia in Thebes and participate in wrestling matches (Plutarch, Pelopidas). Any victories won served to prove that Spartans were not quite so indomitable as previously thought, showing the Theban populace that they could be overthrown (Polyaenus, 3.6). Yet agility, he purported, suited conducting war itself, and so he excelled as a runner. As with any great warrior, it was his aspiration with the “martial arts” that became his truest love. He strove to ensure his proficiency with the sword, spear and shield were a match for his sharp mind and able body (C. Nepos 15.2.6). This blend of scholarly and martial pursuits made him another piece in a mosaic of traditional Greek heroes that spanned many centuries in the archaic world.

Socially, Epaminondas seemed to have matured quickly and was quite driven in the pursuits of self-advancement. A quote from Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos states, “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.”

Despite having been less than fortunate, Epaminondas was known for his sage generosity. It is remarked that he would hold a council of his friends whenever a countryman was taken hostage by an enemy or when a friend’s daughter had want of fortune to wed. He would determine how much they should all give in order to avail those in need. Wisely, Epaminondas had each person deliver the sum in person, so that the debtor would know who was their creditor (C. Nepos 15.3.4).


Epaminondas, the statesman.

While his military conquests mark the turning point on who was Aristos Achaion (“greatest of the Greeks”), his impact on the politics of ancient Greece had a most profound mark on the history of his peninsula. With the employ of Spartan policy in the mainland, many of the great city-states found their rights and even borders threatened. Most prominent of these were Corinth, Athenai, Thebes and Argos. Thebes became the seat of the Boeotian League, which was a direct challenge to the subjugation of Sparta’s policies. Bear in mind that Persia had originally backed the Theban-led alliance, even sending Timocrates of Rhodes with precious metal bribes to the non-Spartan states to goad them into war (Xen. Hell. 3.5.1). Xenophon states that this was the main cause of the earlier Corinthian War. Only Athenai remained immune to such slovenly devices, voluntarily entering the war against Sparta at the request of Thebes. Epaminondas also refused the bribe, furthermore refusing to confiscate it on behalf of Thebes, arguing this showed his honesty and worth (C. Nepos 15.4.2).

During these campaigns, Persia switched sides due to Athens’ extreme naval success against Sparta, which recaptured several Athenian islands (the Spartan fleet was actually destroyed early in the war by a Persian fleet) (Xen. Hell.). Persia, keen to keep Greece weak, played a game of switching sides and supporting both Spartans and their adversaries. It seems clear this was to maintain a weakened balance with no distinct superpower on the Greek mainland. How better to prepare a state for conquest or satrapy than to allow her finest soldiers to obliterate themselves and raise one another’s cities?

In his youth, Epaminondas saw Thebes defeated decisively several times by the Spartans, forcing Thebans to seek and accept a peace treaty heavily favoring Sparta. Besides conceding some of her own territories, Thebes also played host to a Spartan garrison that supported a pro-Spartan ruling assembly headed by a harmost to ensure Thebes would remain cowed. While the anti-Spartan ruling party was exiled from the city (of which Epaminondas was a part), Epaminondas was allowed to stay. The Spartans figured him too financially impotent and, as a Pythagorean, reclusive and feeble (C. Nepos 15.10).


Epaminondas, the warrior.

During the early part of Epaminondas’ military career, Thebes was able to win several small battles against the Spartan army. Chiefest among them was the victory at Tegyra, fought between 500 Thebans and somewhere between 1,000 and 1,800 Spartans (Plut. Pel. 17.2). The ramification of this was enormous, considering Sparta had never been defeated by a smaller force in recorded history. This obliged King Agesilaus of Sparta to begrudgingly attend a peace conference, in which he demanded the dissolution of the Boeotian League. Epaminondas won tremendous favor with the oikoumene of Greece by asking Agesilaus if he intended to make Lakonia’s states independant as well (Plutarch, Agesilaus 28.1). The point he was making here is that the Spartan hegemony was made up of its own league consisting of Sparta and the surrounding towns and poleis. Why, then, should Thebes not be allowed to align itself with its own allies? The Spartan king responded by removing Thebes from the peace conference, setting both nations and their allies upon a road from which there was no return: war.

In December of 370, Epaminondas made his reply. Leading a collage of 10,000 Boeotian and allied troops into the Peloponnesus, he marched for Lakedaemonian lands, finding numerous eager men along the way. Sparta’s brutal policies over the centuries had made them many enemies.  By the time Epaminondas was ready to do battle with the Spartans, he had a force of between 30,000 and 40,000 men (Plut. Ages.). Yet the Theban commander did not allow logistical difficulties to slow his advance. He divided the army into four separate regiments, rendezvousing only when necessary. Perhaps the most brilliant mark of his philosophical and military genius was in avoiding heavy losses by fighting in the city of Sparta, instead advancing to Messene to liberate a people who had been subjugated, raped, murdered, exploited and enslaved for centuries: the Helots. It is important to note that Helots are, just like Spartans and Thebans, Greek. Yet unlike any other Grecian people, they were forced to serve under the brutal whip of Sparta and become one of the most oppressed and brutalized peoples in history.

Though the army under Pelopidas was sidetracked by the tyrant Alexander of Pherae (D. Siculus 15.80.6), Epaminondas quickly returned focus to the Spartan issue. Once again, he chose liberation over confrontation, freeing several Achaean poleis from Spartan rule. Against the desires of Epaminondas, Thebes set up military governors in the liberated poleis, earning the same ire from them the Spartans had – and for the same reasons. So where Epaminondas had made friends, his fellow statesmen made enemies. This proved pivotal in his final push in Sparta itself, where no decisive victory was struck. Support had fallen away from Thebes and back to Sparta. Had not a Cretan soldier betrayed the Theban-led army, Epaminondas would have caught Agesilaus unawares (Xenophon, Hellenica. 7.5.4). Even still, Epaminondas introduced to Spartan history a thing unfamiliar to them: the enemy in their streets.

In 364 B.C., Epaminondas led the Boeotian contingent against Sparta and her Arcadian allies. The two mighty forces met on a tract of land otherwise unknown, but for the fact it would become a bloodbath of Greek sons, effectively ending Greece’s dominance henceforward. It was called Leuctra, and it was here that both sides broke upon each other in a valiant attempt to decide which Greek culture would survive.  Epaminondas introduced his famous phalanx, stacking his left wing fifty ranks deep and angling the line back towards the right (Xen. Hell. 7.5.22). This created a hammer effect in which the heavier left wing smashed through the best of the Spartiates, which always hold the right (a place of honor), while the right did not have to engage at the same time. With a rush of superior Thessalonians cavalry that obliterated the inexperienced Spartan horseman (which did more damage to their own in a frenzied retreat straight through their own line), Epaminondas soon slew the Spartan king and sent their army into panic. Yet amidst the din of battle, Epaminondas died, wounded through his breast by a spear. Pausanias of recorded it was the Athenian (ironically) Grylus, son of Xenophon, who drove the spear (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.15.5).

Epaminondas learned that the removal of the spearhead would result in too great a blood loss, and thus he elected to leave it in long enough to see the conclusion of the battle. Wounded, he was waited upon by his remaining comrades. When he learned that the battle had been won, he stated, “I have lived long enough, for I die unconquered (Plutarch, Moralia 194).” To that point I make the reply that indeed he was never conquered, defeated or not. His heart and mind were tempered and bettered by experience, education and battle, in a way women or men since have seldom achieved. Though his line ends with his life, having left no offspring but his daughters “Leuctra” and “Mantinea, (D. Siculus 15.87.5)” his legacy had long-lasting effects on the course of history.

Epaminondas, the savior?

There are two major schools of thought I have come across in my research. The first agrees that Epaminondas saved Greece from a Spartan hegemony and Persian interference, essentially giving Greece another decade of life. The second is that his campaigns went on too long, destroying both economy and manpower. Obviously, any prolonged war (one against Sparta no less) will claim many lives and drain treasury, while destroying social and economic infrastructure. Xenophon points out that neither side begat any more territory or influence than before the final battle (the latter of which is debatable, as a crushed Sparta exerted less influence than ever before, having lost their Helots and many garrisoned cities) (Xen. Hell. 7.5.27). Yet the question to ask oneself is, “What is the alternative?” There were major accords struck and stricken during, before and after the war Epaminondas served in. Efforts were made, but these were proud nations each believing in their right to be sovereign, and Sparta desired to enforce her authority. While the Theban weakening of Sparta realigned Persia with the enemy, one must wonder how much longer Persia might have waited before attempting another incursion. Sparta had certainly drawn Persian attention with campaigns of its own into Persian lands, halted only by the Theban uprisal (Xen. Anabasis).

Epaminondas also died of wounds in the Battle of Leuctra, a glorious and honorable death that would only further romanticize his impact as a master of men and bravado as a warrior. Yet, unlike the martyr’s death of Leonidas, which served to stir the hornet’s nest of Greece and bring on a sense of national identity, the death of Epaminondas simply ended an era of Theban-led hegemony and left all of Greece in a weakened state. Recall that, for all his physical and martial prowess, here was a man capable of leading a government and overseeing a city. Greece needed just such a leader.

In the end, you must decide if he is the greatest hero within a hundred years of his time, or whether he made Greece ripe for conquer. Maybe he was just a man. Someone who could not stand idly by while his countrymen were threatened and robbed of both pride and land. A patriot. A Greek.

As if written by the hand of Euripides himself, there would be a twist in just where disaster would strike and from where. For all the while, a greater threat loomed in the north. While the rest of Greece slaughtered one another over territories and wealth, a scorpion laid in the Theban nest – watching, learning. He even studied under Pelopidas and Epaminondas himself as a royal hostage in Thebes.

His name was Philip. Philip of Makedonia.


Fun Fact: In a battle against the Arcadians, Pelopidas was wounded seven times. Epaminondas, fearing that his best friend was beyond recovery, resolved himself to die rather than forsake his comrade. He fought over Pelopidas’ with the valor of a lioness protecting her cub, yet still he found himself overwhelmed. Wading his way through the tumultuous rapids of battle, it was the Spartan King Agesipolis who, with a band of Spartiates, saved them both from certain death (Plutarch, Pelopidas). All three survived the battle.


For Xenophon of Ikaros, whose eyes are as often turned to the stars as they are his till. May you count as many coins in your coiffeur as they are stars.