Epaminondas was born to no great wealth or status. His father, Polymnis, was of a noble but poor family. Still, through one means or another Palymnis made sure his son received a more than ordinary education, since he “was so well educated that no Theban was more so,” reports the first-century Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos. Most important was the instruction he received in philosophy from the well-known student of Pythagoras, Lysis of Tarentum. Epaminondas became so devoted to this teacher that it is said he shunned the company of those his own age in order to learn more from the master. He also studied mathematics and music (both very important in Pythagorean thought) as well as dancing, and as he grew older, Epaminondas engaged in gymnastics, where he preferred speed to strength. Most of his physical training was in the ways of the warrior.
All ancient biographers mention his personality, molded by Pythagorean teachings. These included living simply, sharing possessions communally, treating all persons equally, speaking the truth in all situations, and engaging in contemplation. Pythagoras taught that there were three kinds of men: those who love gain, honor, or wisdom. He was also one of the originators of the concept of transmigration of souls. All of this is reflected in Nepos’s description of Epaminondas as “modest, prudent, grave, wisely availing himself of opportunities, skilled in war, brave in action, and of remarkable courage. He was so great a lover of truth that he would not tell a falsehood, even in jest; he was also a master of his passions, gentle in disposition, submitting to wrong not merely from the Theban people, but from his own friends. … He bore poverty so easily that he received nothing from his state save glory.”
Warfare of the Time
Greek warfare in the Fourth Century BC was based on the phalanx formation, made up primarily of heavy infantry known as hoplites (from hoplon, the weapons and accoutrements of war). The nature of warfare went back to early Hellenic times, when communities and later poleis (singular polis, city-state) were primarily agriculturally based and not in close proximity to one another. The male citizens were true militia: farmers first and soldiers when necessary. The soldier’s role depended on what weaponry and armor he could afford. Most owned a bronze helmet, breastplate, and greaves along with a round, concave wooden shield with brass or iron around the rim, which is usually described as no more than a meter in diameter. The standard weapons were a spear (some two to three meters in length) and a short sword.
Those who could not afford such array acted as peltasts, light infantry carrying the small shield called a pelte, whose weapons were slings or javelins and whose role was mainly skirmishing and support. John Lynn argues that the peltasts got little respect from the hoplites because they fought from a distance. The hoplite viewed such warfare as unmanly. Real soldiers fought their enemy face to face. There was also probably some class and economic discrimination involved. Still, the peltasts were becoming a more integral part of Greek forces and at times showed themselves to be important to a battle’s outcome. In 426 Athenian phalanxes at Aegitium took a severe beating from a force of Aetolian peltasts, and the Athenian general Iphi-crates nearly wiped out a phalanx of Spartans near Corinth in 390. In spite of these successes, the peltasts remained a minor arm of the Greek military.
Cavalry was employed primarily as an auxiliary arm to aid the main infantry lines. When used, it was mainly for reconnaissance, screening the infantry as it deployed for battle, protecting the flanks during battle, and either pursuing a defeated enemy or covering one’s own retreat.4 The stirrup had yet to be invented, so using cavalry for shock was not yet considered. The city-state of Thebes was one of the poleis that did develop a fairly effective cavalry force. Sparta, however, fielded an inferior cavalry arm. In the Spartan military the hoplite was the soldier, so cavalry units were poorly trained and motivated. The wealthier Spartans raised horses but others rode them on campaign; according to Xenophon, “It was only when the ban was called out that the appointed trooper presented himself; then he would get his horse and such arms as were given him, and take the field on the moment’s notice. As for the men, on the other hand, it was those who were least strong of body and least ambitious who were mounted on the horses.”
The standard battle formation was the phalanx, a rectangle of hoplites usually (but not always) eight ranks deep. Contemporary accounts of ancient battles described phalanxes of more than fifty ranks, but that was rare. No author of the time gave any specific reason for phalanxes being of greater or lesser depth; it was often a decision of the individual phalanx leader to make as they deployed for battle. It may have been a matter of how individual units trained in their own polis. Still, units to a depth of eight ranks are described most often. Many factors would come into play when determining phalanx depth: whether the terrain covered the flanks, whether there was sufficient cavalry and light infantry to protect the flanks, the relative advantages of a narrow front for hitting power versus a wider front to prevent outflanking.
The ideal battlefield would be flat, open ground. The enemy armies approached the contest in an open formation, then tightened up as they went into battle, showing a series of almost-interlocking shields with spears protruding from above them. The troops would then break into a trot or run for shock. What happened next is a point of much scholarly debate.
The Greek word for the phalanx battle is othismos, meaning “shoving.” What, however, does “shoving” mean? Is it a figurative “pushing the enemy back”? Is it a literal tug-of-war in reverse, where the more mass on one side usually defeats the lesser mass on the other? Is it an individual shoving: the frontline soldier using his shield as an offensive weapon along with his spear or sword, pushing the man opposite him in an attempt to make him lose his balance? All these concepts have their advocates among historians, and all have ancient sources that support or contradict them.
There has also been some argument whether the othismos was constant throughout the battle or merely a final push as the enemy began to break. If it was indeed important to have the pressure from the rear, then the side to exert it first would have an advantage; hence, it would almost certainly have been used from the initial contact. In his article on the subject, Robert Luginbill writes, “Fatigue, terrain, casualties, skill, courage, and cowardice would doubtless all play a role in varying the amount of force imparted by the leading edge of shields, but whenever two opposing phalanxes ‘came to grips,’ the physical pressure of othismos would normally continue until one side literally pushed the other to the breaking point.” Others argue that the othismos came after the front ranks had fought each other with spears and swords. When one side began to gain the momentum, the shove would be the final maneuver to force the enemy’s retreat.
After reviewing the many conflicting views, Adrian Goldsworthy argues that the nature of the phalanx is as much psychological as physical. It is known that the most experienced veterans made up the front and rear ranks, putting the relative novices in the middle mass of men. After the initial violent contact, the front two rows would fight it out with their spears and, if need be, their swords. Given the weight of armor and exertion such fighting would entail, it would not be unlikely that the fighting would at times cease and the troops stop to catch their breath. The massed troops behind would give them the necessary encouragement to keep fighting (as well as block any path of retreat) while the veterans in the rear would make sure the rookies would hold their ground. Thus, to Goldsworthy’s mind, othismos may not have one simple meaning. It could have been the physical contact of individuals or units, or it could be the psychological impetus necessary to hit the enemy one more time until he breaks. Therefore, even if the phalanx did not smash the enemy at first contact, it could defeat them through attrition; in each case, depth of formation, combined with determination of the individuals within it, was of paramount importance. Also, if the initial contact did not result in one side breaking, the two forces could have paused to rest, replace wounded men in the front ranks, and charge again; thus, there could be multiple shoves in a battle until the side with the greater unit cohesion prevailed.
Goldsworthy also discusses a major question of practicality. Given the fact that all non-Spartan armies (less a few special units like the elite Sacred Band of Thebes) were militia with minimal training, maintaining a close formation while on the “run to contact” is impossible. Therefore, an initial mass shove would be strongly diluted by men running faster or slower than others. Thus the Spartans, by training to keep in step and advancing more slowly, tended to win their battles by maintaining their strong front.
By the time of Epaminondas, the Greek way of war had been in existence since the second half of the seventh century BC. Many wars were fought over that span of time but, as Chester Starr notes in his text on the ancient world, “The Greek states did not press severely and continuously upon one another … the states of Hellas rarely pushed their wars, in view of the difficulty of sieges, to the total destruction of a defeated foe.” Still, there were sufficient wars for citizens of all Greek city-states to have plenty of opportunities to become veteran soldiers, even though they remained primarily civilians. Only Sparta had a standing army.
The rival over which Epaminondas and his Thebans gained their great victories was Sparta, a power against which Thebes should have had little success. Sparta was the dominant city-state of the Peloponnese (indeed, of all of Greece in the early fourth century BC), a region they had ruled directly or indirectly since the eighth century BC). By defeating and then intimidating neighboring populations (primarily Messenia), Sparta had developed a servant class, the helots, who did the farming necessary to keep Spartan society functional while the Spartan males spent their lives pursuing martial arts. An occasional war against the helots kept them in their subservient position and kept the army sharp when no other enemy was on hand. A “middle class” of sorts consisted of non-Spartans living in the polis that Sparta ruled, Lacedaemonia. These were the perioikoi (literally “dwellers about”), craftspeople who in wartime served as soldiers and support troops for the Spartan army. They served as hoplites in battle but did not have full political or social rights, and served more as the citizen militia did in other poleis. The male citizens of the city of Sparta, the Spartiates (alternatively Peers or Equals), ran the society under the direction of two kings, a twenty-eight-man council of retired soldiers and former kings (the gerousia), and a council of five publicly elected men known as ephors. All of these functioned with an ecclesia made up of all Spartiates. The government thus had aspects of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. At most, the Spartiates numbered about 9,000, but all were trained from their youth to be the finest warriors of the Greek world. They allied with the rest of the Greeks to beat back the Persian invasions of the early fifth century, but maintained an almost continuous rivalry with Athens after that joint effort.
Thebes, located in the central part of Greece in the province of Boeotia, was a crossroads of invasion. The warfare going on constantly in its neighborhood served to keep it from ever becoming a major power, and it usually was under the sway of one of the two great powers, Athens or Sparta. A community known mostly for its “backward” farmers, it was something of a butt of jokes among the other Hellenic states. It was during one of those periods when Thebes was under the Spartan heel that circumstances began to alter, and Epaminondas was the political and military instrument of that change. He did, however, have some assistance from a close friend, Pelopidas. In 384, Pelopidas had been badly wounded while fighting in the Peloponnese, and Epaminondas had saved his life. Pelopidas became commander of the Sacred Band, the elite unit of Thebes. The unit, started earlier by Gorgidas, came into its own only under Pelopidas’s command. The unit consisted of 300 full-time soldiers based in the city citadel, the Kadmeia. It was Pelopidas who motivated the forty-year-old Epaminondas to join Theban leadership.
In the wake of the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC) Thebes began to grow diplomatically closer to Athens, since Sparta had emerged from the war as the major power in Greece. Also, Thebes was establishing a stronger position in the region of Boeotia, which it had long tried to control. The Boeotian Federation consisted of eleven cities that provided representatives to a sixty-man council under the leadership of boeotarchs, one from each city. Each city was assigned the task of providing 1,000 hoplites and 100 cavalry in time of war. Thebes’s closer relationship with Athens drew Spartan ire, and in 382 Sparta launched a sneak attack on Thebes, seized the Kadmeia, and established a Spartan garrison with the aid of the local pro-Sparta faction. Leading pro-Athenian political figures, including Pelopidas, fled for Athens, where they plotted a way to take back control of Thebes. In 379 BC, the exiles staged their own surprise attack, sneaking into the city and killing the collaborators, then rousing the citizens to isolate and force the surrender of the Spartan garrison. Soon thereafter, both Pelopidas and Epaminondas (who had had no role in the overthrow) became boeotarchs.
Over the next several years Sparta failed to reimpose its will on Thebes, primarily owing to Pelopidas’s engaging in some brilliant bribery and manipulation. Even more importantly, the nature of Boeotian society was changing, as Epaminondas and Peolopidas convinced the leaders of Thebes to expand the franchise to all adult males of the region, not just the city. Here we see Epaminondas’s Pythagorean views coming into play. Promoting wider democracy throughout Boeotia led to a more motivated citizenry that began to feel a new sense of pride in themselves and looked to Thebes as their champion. Further, the expansion of citizenship brought the potential pool of army recruits to an all-time high. Although Thebes had in the late fifth century been able to field an army of 7,000 hoplites, by the 370s it could potentially field one of 20,000, in addition to the light infantry and peltasts.
This motivation showed itself in the years 378–374 as Theban-Boeotian forces beat back a number of Spartan invasion attempts. The high point of this conflict occurred in 375 at Tegyra, when the Sacred Band under Pelopidas won a major victory over a much larger Spartan force. Unfortunately for Thebes, while Athens enjoyed seeing Sparta humbled, it also feared Thebes’s growing strength. This meant that if another Spartan invasion came, Athens was unlikely to offer aid.
As Athenian power revived in the wake of the Peloponnesian Wars, Athens’s navy began threatening Persian holdings in the eastern Mediterranean. In 380 BC, the Persian king responded to a Spartan request and oversaw the negotiating of a peace treaty that granted freedom to all Greek cities in Europe in return for Persian control of all Greek settlements in Ionia. Sparta was to enforce the peace against any polis that broke the treaty. The Spartans, however, saw their privileged position as an opportunity to expand and punish Thebes for past sins. Although Sparta did not initially do so, losing at Tegyra in 375, at the time of the second renewal of the peace treaty in 371, Sparta backed Thebes into a corner. Thebes had, in the intervening years, achieved the status of leading city of Boeotia, and Thebans began to view themselves as regional overseers just as Athens led the poleis of Attica and Sparta those of the Peloponnese. The difference was that Sparta dominated subordinate states and Athens was leader of a coalition of allied states, whereas Thebes was leader of what was basically a confederation of the Boetian cities.
At the signing of the treaty, the Spartan king Aegesilaus intentionally provoked Epaminondas, who was representing Thebes. Sparta signed the treaty for the Peloponnese, then Athens signed, then the Athenian allies signed. Epaminondas signed for the Boeotian Federation. Aegesilaus demanded that the Boeoetian cities sign for themselves, and when Epaminondas refused, the Spartan king scratched Thebes off the treaty. It was a declaration of war.