The Roman orator Cicero called him "the first man of Greece", but Epaminondas has fallen into relative obscurity in modern times. 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 land powers of Greece and paved the way for the Macedonian conquest.
Cornelius Nepos's biography of Epaminondas was short, and a few more scraps of information can be found in Pausanias's Description of Greece. Plutarch wrote a biography, but it has been lost; however, some details of Epaminondas' life and works may be found in Plutarch's Lives of Pelopidas and Agesilaus. Within the narrative histories of the time, Diodorus Siculus preserves a few details, while Xenophon, who idolized Sparta and its king Agesilaus, avoids mentioning Epaminondas wherever possible and does not even note his presence at the Battle of Leuctra. Both narrative historians do provide details about the historical events of Epaminondas' time. Furthermore, not all of the ancient sources that deal directly with his life are considered entirely reliable. These issues may have contributed to a modern situation in which Epaminondas is virtually unknown, particularly in comparison to near-contemporaries like the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great and the Athenian general Alcibiades.
Not merely an academic, Epaminondas was noted for his physical prowess, and in his youth he devoted much time to strengthening and preparing himself for combat. In 385 BC, in a skirmish near the city of Mantinea, Epaminondas, at great risk to his own life, saved the life of his future colleague Pelopidas, an act thought to have cemented the life-long friendship between the two. Throughout his career he would continue to be noted for his tactical skill and his marked capacity for hand-to-hand combat.
Epaminondas never married and as such was subject to criticism from countrymen who believed he was duty-bound to provide the country with the benefit of sons as great as himself. In response, Epaminondas said that his victory at Leuctra was a daughter destined to live forever. He is known, however, to have had several young male lovers, a standard pedagogic practice in ancient Greece, and one that Thebes in particular was famous for; Plutarch records that the Theban lawgivers instituted the practice "to temper the manners and characters of the youth. An anecdote told by Cornelius Nepos indicates that Epaminondas was intimate with a young man by the name of Micythus. Plutarch also mentions two of his beloveds (eromenoi): Asopichus, who fought together with him at the battle of Leuctra, where he greatly distinguished himself; and Caphisodorus, who fell with Epaminondas at Mantineia and was buried by his side.
Epaminondas lived his entire life in near-poverty, refusing to enrich himself by taking advantage of his political power. Cornelius Nepos notes his incorruptibility, describing his rejection of a Persian ambassador who came to him with a bribe. In the tradition of the Pythagoreans, he gave freely to his friends and encouraged them to do likewise with each other. These aspects of his character contributed greatly to his renown after his death.
In 382 BC, however, the Spartan commander Phoebidas made a strategic error that would soon turn Thebes against Sparta for good and pave the way for Epaminondas' rise to power. 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 Cadmea (the Theban acropolis), and forced the anti-Spartan party to flee the city. Epaminondas, although associated with that faction, was allowed to remain; he was believed to be nothing more than a harmless, impoverished philosopher.
Seeking to squelch this new state, the Spartans invaded three times over the next seven years. At first fearing a head-to-head battle, the Boeotians eventually gained enough confidence to take the field and were able to fight the Spartans to a standstill. The advantage was furthered when, in 375 BC, an outnumbered force of Boeotians under Pelopidas cut their way through the heart of a Spartan phalanx during the Battle of Tegyra. Although Sparta remained the supreme land power in Greece, the Boeotians had demonstrated that they, too, were a martial threat and a politically cohesive power. At the same time, Pelopidas, an advocate of an aggressive policy against Sparta, had established himself as a major political leader in Thebes. In years to come, he would collaborate extensively with Epaminondas in designing Boeotian foreign policy.
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 the pastoral district of 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 several triremes. 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 only 6,000, bolstered by a cavalry superior to that of the Peloponnesians.
In arranging his troops before the battle, Epaminondas utilized a strategy as yet unheard of in Greek warfare. Traditionally, a phalanx lined up for battle with the elite troops on the right flank—the "flank of honor." Thus, in the Spartan phalanx, Cleombrotus and his Spartiates were on the right, while the less experienced Peloponnesian allies were on the left. Needing to counter the Spartans' numerical advantage, Epaminondas implemented two tactical innovations. First, he and his Thebans lined up on the left, with the elite Sacred Band under Pelopidas on the extreme left flank. Second, recognizing that he could not extend his troops to match the width of the Peloponnesian phalanx without unacceptably thinning his line, he abandoned all attempt to match the Spartans in width. Instead, he deepened his phalanx on the left, making it fifty ranks deep instead of the conventional eight to twelve. When battle was joined, the strengthened flank was to march forward to attack at double speed, while the weaker flank was to retreat and delay combat. The tactic of the deep phalanx had been anticipated by Pagondas, another Theban general, who used a 25 man deep formation at the battle of Delium, but the staggered line of attack was an innovation. Thus, Epaminondas had invented the military tactic of refusing one's flank.
The fighting opened with a cavalry encounter, in which the Thebans were victorious. The Spartan cavalry was driven back into the ranks of the phalanx, disrupting the order of the infantry. Seizing the advantage, the Boeotians pressed the attack. Cleombrotus was killed, and although the Spartans held on for long enough to rescue his body, their line was soon broken by the sheer force of the Theban assault. At a critical juncture, Pelopidas led the Sacred Band in an all-out assault, and the Spartans were soon forced to flee. The Peloponnesian allies, seeing the Spartans put to flight, also broke and ran, and the entire army retreated in disarray. Four thousand Peloponnesians were killed, while the Boeotians lost only 300 men. Most importantly, 400 of the 700 Spartiates on the scene were killed, a catastrophic loss that posed a serious threat to Sparta's future war-making abilities.
For about a year after the victory at Leuctra, Epaminondas occupied himself with consolidating the Boeotian confederacy, compelling the previously Spartan-aligned polis of Orchomenus to join the league. In late 370 BC, however, as the Spartans under Agesilaus attempted to discipline their newly restive ally Mantinea, Epaminondas decided to capitalize on his victory by invading the Peloponnese and shattering Sparta's power once and for all. Forcing his way past the fortifications on the isthmus of Corinth, he marched southward toward Sparta, with contingents from Sparta's erstwhile allies flocking to him along the way.
In Arcadia he drove off the Spartan army threatening Mantinea, then supervised the founding of the new city of Megalopolis and the formation of an Arcadian League, modeled on the Boeotian confederacy. Moving south, he crossed the Evrotas River—the frontier of Sparta—which no hostile army had breached in historical memory. The Spartans, unwilling to engage the massive army in battle, lingered inside their city while the Thebans and their allies ravaged Laconia. Epaminondas briefly returned to Arcadia, then marched south again, this time to Messenia, a territory which the Spartans had conquered some 200 years before. There, Epaminondas rebuilt the ancient city of Messene on Mount Ithome, with fortifications that were among the strongest in Greece. He then issued a call to Messenian exiles all over Greece to return and rebuild their homeland. The loss of Messenia was particularly damaging to the Spartans, since the territory comprised one-third of Sparta's territory and contained half of their helot population.
In mere months, Epaminondas had created two new enemy states that opposed Sparta, shaken the foundations of Sparta's economy, and all but devastated Sparta's prestige. This accomplished, he led his army back home, victorious.
Epaminondas was punished by the Thebans with death, because he obliged them to overthrow the Lacedaemonians at Leuctra, whom, before he was general, none of the Boeotians durst look upon in the field, and because he not only, by one battle, rescued Thebes from destruction, but also secured liberty for all Greece, and brought the power of both people to such a condition, that the Thebans attacked Sparta, and the Lacedaemonians were content if they could save their lives; nor did he cease to prosecute the war, till, after settling Messene, he shut up Sparta with a close siege.
The jury broke into laughter, the charges were dropped, and Epaminondas was reelected as Boeotarch for the next year.
Despite his achievements, he was out of office the next year, the only time from the battle of Leuctra until his death that this was the case. In this year, he served as a common soldier while the army marched into Thessaly to rescue Pelopidas, who had been imprisoned by Alexander of Pherae while serving as an ambassador. The commanders who led this expedition were outmaneuvered and forced to retreat to save their army. Back in Thebes, Epaminondas was reinstated in command and led the army straight back into Thessaly, where he outmaneuvered the Thessalians and secured the release of Pelopidas without a fight.
In 366 BC, a common peace was drawn up in a conference at Thebes, but negotiations could not resolve the hostility between Thebes and other states that resented its influence. The peace was never fully accepted, and fighting soon resumed. In the spring of that year, Epaminondas returned to the Peloponnese for a third time, seeking on this occasion to secure the allegiance of the states of Achaea. Although no army dared to challenge him in the field, the democratic governments he established there were short-lived, as pro-Spartan aristocrats soon returned to the cities, reestablished the oligarchies, and bound their cities ever more closely to Sparta.
Throughout the decade after the Battle of Leuctra, numerous former allies of Thebes defected to the Spartan alliance or even to alliances with other hostile states. As early as 371 BC, the Athenian assembly had reacted to the news of Leuctra with stony silence. Thessalian Pherae, a reliable ally during the 370s, similarly turned against its newly dominant ally in the years after that battle. By the middle of the next decade, even some Arcadians (whose league Epaminondas had established in 369 BC) had turned against him. Only the Messenians remained firmly loyal.
Boeotian armies campaigned across Greece as opponents rose up on all sides; in 364 BC Epaminondas even led his state in a challenge to Athens at sea. In that same year, Pelopidas was killed while campaigning against Alexander in Thessaly. His loss deprived Epaminondas of his greatest Theban political ally.
In the face of this increasing opposition to Theban dominance, Epaminondas launched his final expedition into the Peloponnese in 362 BC. The immediate goal of the expedition was to subdue Mantinea, which had been opposing Theban influence in the region. As he approached Mantinea, however, Epaminondas received word that so many Spartans had been sent to defend Mantinea that Sparta itself was almost undefended. Seeing an opportunity, Epaminondas marched his army towards Laconia at top speed. The Spartan king Archidamus was alerted to this move by a runner, however, and Epaminondas arrived to find the city well-defended. Hoping that his adversaries had denuded the defenses of Mantinea in their haste to protect Sparta, he countermarched back to his base at Tegea and dispatched his cavalry to Mantinea, but a clash outside the walls with Athenian cavalry foiled this strategy as well. Realizing that a hoplite battle would be necessary if he wanted to preserve Theban influence in the Peloponnese, Epaminondas prepared his army for combat.
What followed on the plain in front of Mantinea was the largest hoplite battle in Greek history. Nearly every state participated on one side or the other. With the Boeotians stood a number of allies: the Tegeans, Megalopolitans, and Argives chief among them. On the side of the Mantineans and Spartans stood the Athenians, Eleans, and numerous others. The infantries of both armies were 20,000 to 30,000 strong. As at Leuctra, Epaminondas drew up the Thebans on the left, opposite the Spartans and Mantineans with the allies on the right. On the wings he placed strong forces of cavalry strengthened by infantry. Thus, he hoped to win a quick victory in the cavalry engagements and begin a rout of the enemy phalanx.
The battle unfolded as Epaminondas had planned. The stronger forces on the wings drove back the Athenian and Mantinean cavalry opposite them and began to attack the flanks of the enemy phalanx. In the hoplite battle, the issue briefly hung in the balance, but then the Thebans on the left broke through against the Spartans, and the entire enemy phalanx was put to flight. It seemed that another decisive Theban victory on the model of Leuctra was about to unfold until, as the victorious Thebans set off in pursuit of their fleeing opponents, Epaminondas was mortally wounded. He died shortly thereafter.
As news of Epaminondas' death on the field of battle was passed from soldier to soldier, the allies across the field ceased in their pursuit of the defeated troops—a testament to Epaminondas's centrality to the war effort. Xenophon, who ends his history with the battle of Mantinea, says of the battle's results
When these things had taken place, the opposite of what all men believed would happen was brought to pass. For since well-nigh all the people of Greece had come together and formed themselves in opposing lines, there was no one who did not suppose that if a battle were fought, those who proved victorious would be the rulers and those who were defeated would be their subjects; but the deity so ordered it that both parties set up a trophy as though victorious and neither tried to hinder those who set them up, that both gave back the dead under a truce as though victorious, and both received back their dead under a truce as though defeated, and that while each party claimed to be victorious, neither was found to be any better off, as regards either additional territory, or city, or sway, than before the battle took place; but there was even more confusion and disorder in Greece after the battle than before.
With his dying words, Epaminondas is said to have advised the Thebans to make peace, as there was no one left to lead them. After the battle a common peace was arranged on the basis of the status quo.
Extant biographies of Epaminondas universally describe him as one of the most talented men produced by the Greek city-states in their final 150 years of independence. In military affairs he stands above every other tactician in Greek history, with the possible exception of Philip of Macedon, although modern historians have questioned his larger strategic vision. His innovative strategy at Leuctra allowed him to defeat the vaunted Spartan phalanx with a smaller force, and his novel decision to refuse his right flank was the first recorded successful use of a battlefield tactic of this sort. Many of the tactical changes that Epaminondas implemented would also be used by Philip of Macedon, who in his youth spent time as a hostage in Thebes and may have learned directly from Epaminondas himself. Victor Davis Hanson has suggested that Epaminondas's early philosophical training may have contributed to his abilities as a general.
In matters of character, Epaminondas was above reproach in the eyes of the ancient historians who recorded his deeds. Contemporaries praised him for disdaining material wealth, sharing what he had with his friends, and refusing bribes. One of the last heirs of the Pythagorean tradition, he appears to have lived a simple and ascetic lifestyle even when his leadership had raised him to a position at the head of all Greece.
In some ways Epaminondas dramatically altered the face of Greece during the 10 years in which he was the central figure of Greek politics. By the time of his death, Sparta had been humbled, Messenia freed, and the Peloponnese completely reorganized. In another respect, however, he left behind a Greece no different than that which he had found; the bitter divides and animosities that had poisoned international relations in Greece for over a century remained as deep as or deeper than they had been before Leuctra. The brutal internecine warfare that had characterized the years from 432 BC onwards continued unabated until the rise of Macedon ended it forever.
At Mantinea, Thebes had faced down the combined forces of the greatest states of Greece, but the victory brought it no spoils. With Epaminondas removed from the scene, the Thebans returned to their more traditional defensive policy, and within a few years, Athens had replaced them at the pinnacle of the Greek political system. No Greek state ever again reduced Boeotia to the subjection it had known during the Spartan hegemony, but Theban influence faded quickly in the rest of Greece. Finally, at Chaeronea in 338 BC, the combined forces of Thebes and Athens, driven into each others' arms for a desperate last stand against Philip of Macedon, were crushingly defeated, and Theban independence was put to an end. Three years later, heartened by a false rumor that Alexander the Great had been assassinated, the Thebans revolted; Alexander squashed the revolt, then destroyed the city, slaughtering or enslaving all its citizens. A mere 27 years after the death of the man who had made it preeminent throughout Greece, Thebes was wiped from the face of the Earth, its 1,000-year history ended in the space of a few days.
Epaminondas, therefore, is remembered both as a liberator and a destroyer. He was celebrated throughout the ancient Greek and Roman worlds as one of the greatest men of history. Cicero eulogized him as "the first man, in my judgement, of Greece," and Pausanias records an honorary poem from his tomb:
By my counsels was Sparta shorn of her glory,
And holy Messene received at last her children.
By the arms of Thebes was Megalopolis encircled with walls,
And all Greece won independence and freedom.
Epaminondas's actions were certainly welcomed by the Messenians and others whom he assisted in his campaigns against the Spartans. Those same Spartans, however, had been at the center of resistance to the Persian invasions of the 5th century BC, and their absence was sorely felt at Chaeronea; the endless warfare in which Epaminondas played a central role weakened the cities of Greece until they could no longer hold their own against their neighbors to the north. As Epaminondas campaigned to secure freedom for the Boeotians and others throughout Greece, he brought closer the day when all of Greece would be subjugated by an invader. Victor Davis Hanson has suggested that Epaminondas may have planned for a united Greece composed of regional democratic federations, but even if this assertion is correct, no such plan was ever implemented. For all his noble qualities, Epaminondas was unable to transcend the Greek city-state system, with its endemic rivalry and warfare, and thus left Greece more war-ravaged but no less divided than he found it.