The Battle of Leuctra
The second of Sparta’s two kings, Cleombrotus, already had an army in the field in Phocis, northwest of Boeotia, when relations were severed. Epaminondas rushed to Thebes to raise the army ahead of the Spartan arrival. He was named army commander alongside a council of six boeotarch advisors, while Pelopidas commanded the Sacred Band. Thus, Epaminondas went with a force of 6,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry to face a Spartan army (with allies) of 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. He decided to force a battle at the pass overlooking Coroneia and seized the spot, but Cleombrotus instead marched south to enter Boeotia through Thisbae to Creusis on the Gulf of Corinth, where his forces captured the fortifications and moved inland from the coast toward Thebes. Thus, the Theban army had to rush to get back home and defend its city, but Cleombrotus was in its way at the plain of Leuctra.
Seeing 11,000 enemy soldiers spread out before them was more than a little disheartening to the Thebans. Not only were they outnumbered almost two to one, but the omens had not been hopeful. According to Diodorous, as they had left Thebes an old blind man looking for lost slaves called out for their return and safety. Epaminondas responded with a line from Homer: “One only omen is best, to fight for the land that is ours.” That heartened the men, but soon thereafter a pennant from a spear flew away from its haft and landed on some Spartan graves, as if honoring or protecting them. Epaminondas told the crowd, “Do not be concerned, comrades! Destruction is foretold for the Spartans. Tombs are not decorated except for funerals.” Upon seeing the Spartan army, the boeotarchs with whom Epaminondas commanded demanded a vote on whether to fight or move and look for better ground; Epaminondas barely won the vote, four to three. Still, as his men faced overwhelming odds, Epaminondas thought it wise to introduce some positive omens. He secretly directed some of the newly arrived reinforcements to tell the army that weapons kept in the temple of Herakles had disappeared, meaning the ancient heroes had come to help. Another man told the troops that he had visited the cave sacred to Trophonius, son of Apollo, who had assured their victory if they would institute a festival in honor of Zeus. A turncoat, Leandrias, helped with the propaganda by relating a legend that Leuctra was an ill-chosen location for the Spartans, as it was the site of the deaths by suicide of two Theban maidens raped by Spartans, daughters of Leuctras (or Scedasus, according to Pausanias) for whom the town was named. Their curse was that Sparta would begin its decline on this plain. Epaminondas offered sacrifices and prayers for the girls and called for revenge. All of these tales, true or not, rallied the Theban morale. For those who may not have been convinced, Epaminondas announced that whoever did not want to fight could leave; the contingent from Thespiae did so.
The night before the battle, Pelopidas supposedly had a dream in which he saw the long-dead maidens alive with their father. They told him the Thebans must sacrifice a maiden with chestnut hair. The next morning, as the dream was being discussed, a chestnut-colored colt ran into camp. This was deemed to be the right sacrifice and the ceremony ensued. As a final encouragement to his men, Epaminondas appealed to their patriotism. According to the ancient historian Forintinus, “In order that his soldiers might not only exercise their strength, but also be stirred by their feelings, he announced in an assembly of his men that the Spartans had resolved, in case of victory, to massacre all males, to lead the wives and children of those executed into bondage, and to raze Thebes to the ground.”
Across the plain things were not pleasant, either. In spite of their numerical superiority, as well as the virtually inbred tradition of winning, the Spartans were not entirely confident. At the staff meeting on the morning of the battle, subordinate commanders pushed Cleombrotus for quick action. They reminded him of some of his past failures (in two previous invasions, in 378 and 376, he had failed to bring his armies to battle) and assured him the Spartan council would not look kindly on anything that hinted at incompetence. They also (possibly owing to a religious festival) had been drinking since the morning meal. Also in many minds must have been the memory of what the Sacred Band had accomplished at Tegyra, where the smaller Sacred Band had defeated the Spartan phalanx. That certainly had been a bitter blow. All of this combined to make Cleombrotus aggressive.
Epaminondas gave his men one more pep talk. He took up a live snake and then crushed its head; so too would be the fate of the enemy: kill the Spartan head and the allied body would die. Even so, as Epaminondas began to form his army, he had doubts about the morale of some of his units. Thus, he needed to maximize his advantages and minimize his disadvantages. He ordered his men forward in the standard phalanx formation, but as they deployed he held back the units on the right of the line, whom he thought insufficiently motivated, thus refusing the right flank (deploying in echelon to the right rear). As Diodorus observes, “The weakest he placed on the other wing and instructed them to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy’s attack.” Epaminondas placed his more trusted troops on the left into a formation fifty ranks deep and eighty files wide. He placed the 300 men of the Sacred Band in the front ranks, then waited to see what the Spartans would do. Cleombrotus deployed his army in the standard phalanx formation, his men in ranks twelve deep. The Spartans held the right end of their line, facing the Sacred Band and the deep phalanx; a force of mercenaries they placed in the center; the far left was held by Sparta’s Peloponnesian allies.
The two armies faced each other for a time. The initial action was on the part of the cavalry. Before the infantry had fully deployed, the Spartan cavalry (after harassing Theban camp followers) rode toward the strong Theban left flank. It was met and soon routed by the Theban cavalry, superior in both numbers and quality. Xenophon writes, “Now when Cleombrotus began to lead his army against the enemy, in the first place, before the troops under him so much as perceived that he was advancing, the horsemen had already joined battle and those of the Lacedaemonians had speedily been worsted; then in their flight they had fallen foul of their own hoplites, and, besides, the companies of the Thebans were now charging upon them.” This is where Epaminondas demonstrated his originality. He was gambling the entire battle on one throw. His most motivated men went into battle first; if they failed, the demoralized right flank would break at the first sign of wavering. He was throwing his best troops at the more numerous Spartans, the best troops in the known world. As soon as Pelopidas and Epaminondas saw the confusion in the Spartan ranks, they began their advance.
As with the debate over the use of the “mass shove,” there is also some argument over just how Epaminondas formed what has come to be called the “Theban wedge.” One scholar has suggested that the Theban left was actually deployed into a point, an inverted V, with the Sacred Band at the apex. The fact that the V was hollow would not be obvious to the enemy, thus giving the impression of greater than actual numbers. All of this depends on the translation of the Greek word embolon, or wedge, and its use by a variety of ancient writers. This theory has been answered by a different study of the word that indicates a comparison to a ram on a Greek trireme, hence the strong point of contact to break an enemy, not necessarily a literal wedge. Thus, if there was a “point” to the wedge it would be at the spot at which the right wing began its refusal.
As the cavalry began to clear away and Cleombrotus saw the unbalanced formation advancing toward him, he ordered troops to shift to his right to attempt a flanking movement. Seeing this, Pelopidas ordered his Sacred Band into a run and struck the Spartans as they began their redeployment. The rest of the Theban left wing, under Epaminondas, was soon engaged and the battle was on. Harking back to the earlier discussion on othismos and the nature of a massed charge, here is my proposal as to how the initial stage of the battle was conducted. Goldsworthy argues that the narrower the formation, the easier it was to maintain cohesion. Add to that the fact that the massive Theban left flank was led by the Sacred Band. These soldiers were the nearest Theban equivalent of Spartiates, a force of men who did not farm like the normal militia, but spent their time in military training. Their defeat of a much larger Spartan force at Tegyra a few years earlier had to have built up a strong measure of confidence within their ranks. While there is no reference to their marching in step like the Spartans, these professionals must have been able to keep a tighter formation than could a standard phalanx. In Goldsworthy’s opinion, “A deeper, and therefore narrower, phalanx encountered fewer obstacles and could as a result move faster and further, whilst retaining its order.” Add to that the timing of the charge, just as the Spartans were reorganizing from the disrupting cavalry retreat and trying to redeploy to take advantage of the narrower front approaching them. All of these factors should equate into a powerful initial contact that could easily have gained at least temporary momentum for the attackers. Then, the rest of the phalanx arrived for support, whether moral or physical or both. The Spartans must have been at a disadvantage from the outset In spite of all those advantages, it was not enough to immediately sweep the field. The hand-to-hand front-rank fighting was intense. Whether Cleombrotus stood in the front rank or not, he was mortally wounded in combat. Xenophon reports that the Spartans were doing well, or “they would not have been able to take him up and carry him off still living had not those who were fighting in the front of him been holding the advantage at the time. But when Deinon, the polemarch, Sphodrias, one of the king’s tent-companions, and Cleonymus, the son of Sphodiras, had been killed, then the royal bodyguard … [and] the others fell back before the Theban mass, while those who were on the left wing … gave way.”
The massive “ram” of the Theban left flank coupled with the speed of the attack caught the Spartans unprepared. Once their king and a number of his top men began to fall, the Spartan contingent of the battle line retreated to their camp. The mercenary and allied forces saw little or no combat because of the refused Theban flank angled backward from the front line, so they retreated just as quickly when they saw the Spartans withdraw, both from shock at the sight of such an event and fear of that “ram” striking their flank. Once in camp, established behind a ditch, the Spartans reassembled for a stand.
Epaminondas did not push his luck, for he knew he had no need to do so. Piled on the field of battle were 400 dead Spartiates out of a total of 1,000 casualties, the worst loss of Spartan life in their history, far greater than their losses at the stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480. Sparta also had not lost a king since that battle. Such a historic defeat was not unappreciated by Sparta’s allies in the ranks. Xenophon writes that the Spartans perceived “that the allies were one and all without heart for fighting, while some of them were not even displeased at what had taken place.”
Epaminondas’s movement to contact was an approach march, since he had a fair idea where the Spartans would be. He lost any element of strategic surprise when Cleombrotus took the long way around to approach Thebes from the west. This also cost Epaminondas the opportunity to choose the battleground. Initially, therefore, he was at a disadvantage both as to his position and his numbers. Certainly the battle itself was no surprise, since the two armies had been facing each other for a time. Epaminondas did achieve tactical surprise, however. He may or may not have known of dissension in the Spartan camp and the pressure being placed on Cleombrotus. Even if he did, he was smart enough not to underestimate his opposition.
Although facing the prime units opposite each other on the field had been done before, Cleombrotus was not ready for it. Epaminondas’s deliberate attack led to a battle that he controlled as much as any commander could in a phalanx battle. The massed Theban left wing was a surprise, but Cleombrotus tried to adapt to it by shifting men to his right flank. It is possible that the Spartan cavalry was deployed as a screen once Cleombrotus saw the Theban formation and was beginning the redeployment of his own phalanx to be in an outflanking position. So the nature of the Theban deployment was unexpected and the assault began, in Xenophon’s words, “before the troops under [Cleombrotus] so much as perceived that he was advancing.” Although the Spartans really could not have expected their cavalry to prevail, they certainly did not expect to see it retreating into their main force. That is where the Theban control of the tempo of the battle became all important. In the midst of the turmoil and troop movement, the Sacred Band’s assault came well before the Spartans were prepared. Epaminondas’s concentration of not just manpower but high-quality troops was key to his plan succeeding. The most audacious part of the plan was the refused flank, for he was chancing everything on one throw of the dice. Even though the echeloned units were the least dependable of his army, their mere presence was enough to freeze the Spartan allies.
Epaminondas neither tactically exploited his victory nor pursued his enemy; there was no need. He had inflicted sufficient casualties to not only damage the numbers of the Spartiates but more importantly to damage their reputation and morale.
Epaminondas followed up the Battle of Leuctra with an invasion of the Peloponnese, where he ran rampant over Spartan-controlled territory and liberated the helots who provided the Spartiates with their agricultural sustenance. Sparta’s slow decline now became precipitate. Not only beaten on the field but also humiliated before the rest of Greece, Sparta tried one last time to save its reputation and lands. The Spartans gathered one last force at Mantinea in 362, and this time it was Thebes that had the larger force. Epaminondas repeated his Leuctra maneuver at the battle with the same results. Unfortunately, he was killed in that battle. He was wounded by a spear; he asked about the progress of the battle as he was dying and learned the enemy was withdrawing. The battle was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for Thebes, since it reinforced the newly liberated peoples of Lacedaemonia and ended Spartan power once and for all.
The battle was a draw mainly because Epaminondas was killed. Until that point the Thebans were sweeping the field, according to Xenophon: “Thus, then, he made his attack, and he was not disappointed of his hope; for by gaining the mastery at the point where he struck, he caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee.” Victor Davis Hanson argues that had the Leuctra tactics been new and able to stand on their own, then Epaminondas’s death would not have mattered. Yet ancient history is full of instances where one side gave up the fight when their leader was killed; would Leuctra have turned out differently if Cleombrotus had not died? It’s impossible to say, but it is a tribute to any leader’s standing that his men lose heart upon hearing of his death. The fact that the Theban wedge “caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee” sounds like a successful tactic. The Thebans around the dying general did declare victory, and that was the news that released a mortally wounded Epaminondas from this life. “I have lived long enough, for I die unconquered,” he is supposed to have said. Other accounts say that before the spear (or javelin) was withdrawn, Epaminondas asked after two of his chief subordinates. When informed that they had been killed, his last command was to make peace. Perhaps had he said “keep fighting” the victory would have been complete.
The two main principles of war Epaminondas mastered were the twin concepts of mass and economy of force. Epaminondas chose the correct center of gravity for his objective: the Spartan contingent and King Cleombrotus. Although a deeper-than-usual phalanx had been seen in other battles, what made its deployment at Leuctra significant is that it was on the Theban left, directly facing the strength of the Spartan army. Traditionally, the place of honor in the line of battle was the far right, which meant that the best troops of opposing armies did not face each other. Historian of ancient Greece George Cawkwell writes, “Epaminondas’ reversal [of tradition] at Leuctra is the mark of a revolutionary change in the conception of warfare.… [I]n 371 the conflict was centred on, and indeed confined to, the main antagonists.” As Hans Delbrück comments, “All of this is valuable only because it guarantees one’s own left wing the victory over the enemy right.” Taking out the enemy leader as well as the strongest force on the battlefield necessarily demoralized Sparta’s allied units.
Hanson in a 1998 article disputes the revolutionary nature of Epaminondas’s action, primarily by taking most of the accounts by ancient historians to task. While it is certainly true that every tactic Epaminondas employed at Leuctra had been used some time earlier, the question remains: how many other generals had learned any lessons from previous uses, and how many had welded them into a coherent whole? The combination of massed phalanx, strength versus opponent’s strength, and the refused flank together took down the king and caused the vast number of Spartiate casualties. It was the concentration of force at the center of gravity that is key. In his 1999 book The Soul of Battle, Hanson admits that the heavier left wing was “a novel tactical innovation” that “gained enormous penetrating power, as accumulated shields created greater thrust.”
The Theban wedge showed its other advantage in the realm of economy of force. In normal hoplite warfare the entire lines attacked as one, but Epaminondas attacked only with his left flank. There is some debate over whether the refusing of his right flank was intentional. Goldsworthy asserts, “It may be that later accounts of Epaminondas’ echeloned advance at Leuctra described not a deliberate ploy, but the inevitably faster advance of the deep Theban phalanx compared to the rest of the army.”
The echelon attack and the weighted wing were introduced by Epaminondas but copied by many. The almost immediate impact came with the rise of Macedon. In his work on ancient warfare, J. E. Lendon observes that “[Philip II] lived in the house of the Theban general Pammenes, who had a formidable reputation for military cunning. In Thebes, it was said, Philip learned many lessons.” Philip’s primary accomplishment as king of Macedon was to create a professional standing army that used the latest equipment and tactics, depending heavily on cavalry. Alexander would almost certainly not have accomplished his great deeds without the army he inherited from his father, Philip.
Epaminondas’s influence was not only beneficial to Macedon in the immediate future, but was reincarnated two millennia later, as noted by Basil Liddell Hart: “He not only broke away from tactical methods established by the experience of centuries, but in tactics, strategy, and grand strategy alike laid the foundations on which subsequent masters built. Even his structural designs have survived or been revived. For in tactics the ‘oblique order’ which Frederick [the Great] made famous was only a slight elaboration of the method of Epaminondas.”
Hanson also argues against the presence of a deliberately refused flank, taking Xenophon as the only reliable source. Not trusting Diodorus, the only ancient historian to describe the Theban formation so, he argues that if Plutarch and Diodorus mention an oblique attack by the left wing, then the right wing would trail behind, not being an intentional refusal of the flank. He asserts that “there was little tactical reason for these generally inferior troops to attempt such a complicated maneuver,” what he calls “a deliberate withdrawal.” Refusing a flank, however, does not necessitate a withdrawal, especially on offense. While the most famous flank refusal of modern times, Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, did indeed involve a deliberate withdrawal, that was the nature of being on the defense and in immediate danger of being outflanked. All Epaminondas had to do was stagger his less dependable allied forces in echelon. Thus, such a move would answer Hanson’s citation of Pausanias that the Spartan allies did have the opportunity to fight but would not stand their ground. The first phalanx of the echelon could, indeed, have had contact with the enemy.
Some sources refer to these forces not in the main assault as reserves, but I agree with Hanson that they were not deliberately held back for commitment at an important moment, as is the role of reserves. Held back in echelon, yes, but not as a traditional reserve to be committed as circumstances dictate.