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This week in history: Thebans break Spartan power at Leuctra

On July 6, 371 B.C., the Thebans under Epaminondas crushed Spartan power at the battle of Leuctra. Less than a year later, Sparta was reduced to a minor power and the Thebans in turn enjoyed hegemony over Greece.

The Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens, Sparta and their allies, had lasted 27 years and ended in 404 B.C. with a decisive Spartan victory. Athens, the great ancient democracy, had been defeated and humbled. Many of Sparta's allies exhorted the victorious power to destroy the city once and for all. The Spartans, however, remembered the great debt that the Greek world owed to Athens, which had been instrumental in defeating the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C., and again at Salamis in 480 B.C. Athens was not destroyed, though it never again achieved its pre-war level of power.

With its longtime rival defeated, Sparta became the uncontested leader of the Greek city-states. As opposed to Athenian democracy, in which roughly 40,000 citizens could participate in government, Sparta boasted two kings, a ruling council, as well as its citizenry, the Similars (Homoioi). The Similars were the Spartan warriors, the only truly participating members of Spartan society. A small merchant and trading middle class existed and were semi-citizens with no real power.

At the bottom of Spartan society were the helots, a class existing somewhere between slavery and serfdom. Outnumbering the Similars by a wide margin, the helots worked the farms and represented the original population of the land, Lacedaemon, before the Spartans had conquered it several centuries earlier.

At the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta placed garrisons throughout the major Greek city-states to ensure loyalty. Spartan heavy-handedness often encouraged rebellious thoughts throughout the city-states, though most Greeks were too cowed by the Spartan hegemony to make trouble. From the mid-390s to the mid-380s B.C., a coalition of Corinthians, Athenians, Argives and Thebans revolted against Sparta in what is known as the Corinthian War, but fears of Persian intervention ended the conflict with Sparta's hand strengthened.

Unhappy with Spartan interference in their political system, and hoping to lead the surrounding towns, located like Thebes in Boeotia, the Thebans revolted against the Spartans once again in 378 B.C. The Thebans ordered their new Boeotian Confederacy along democratic lines. In his book, “The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny,” historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote:

“Thebes was a country of rough farmers who appeared in battle as they did behind the plow. In contrast, Sparta was a labyrinth of oppression and exploitation whose psychological capital accrued from fear, terror, and intimidation of the weak. To maintain the illusion of an overlord class, it could not afford to allow rustics from the north to intimidate its warriors ….”

Hanson goes on to note that this new Boeotian democracy was much more dynamic than the version practiced in post-Peloponnesian War Athens, where “a large block of poor but politically astute voters” manipulated their system, sapping their city-state's economic power in order to ensure the continued flow of entitlements.

The Spartans invaded Boeotia several times in the following years, and through maneuver and tenacity, the Boeotians were able to fight them to a draw each time. Theban confidence grew. Eventually, both sides sat down at the peace table but no agreement could be reached. In 371, the Spartans invaded Boeotia once again.

The man who had represented the Boeotians at the peace conference, and who perhaps sabotaged the talks, was the Theban Epaminondas. The Thebans soon voted Epaminondas to the rank of general (Boeotarch), and he set about preparing the Theban military. Epaminondas was a military reformer, studying the lessons of hoplite warfare and seeking to create an army capable of casting off the Spartan yoke once and for all.

The basic unit of Greek warfare was the hoplite or the infantryman. These foot soldiers took their names from their hoplons, large, round, concave shields that protected two-thirds of the man holding it and one-third of the man to the left when in line. An important piece of military technology made the hoplon an effective tool in battle — the Argive grip. While the foot soldier grasped a handle on the inside end of the shield, the Argive grip covered his upper forearm before the elbow, making the shield an extension of his arm. With his right hand, the soldier wielded a spear, or doru, which could be extended over or under the shield as the tactics warranted.

The basic organizational unit that hoplite soldiers fought in was the Phalanx, a rectangular formation of men several ranks deep.

The shock troops of the Theban army were the Sacred Band. This unit, founded several decades earlier, was made up of 300 men. The Greeks understood a concept that today we call small unit cohesion, essentially the idea that soldiers at war, in the heat of combat, do not fight for cause or country so much as for the men next to them. The Thebans took this idea a step further. The 300 men of the Sacred Band were made up of 150 homosexual male couples. The idea was that these men would fight even harder for their partner's life on the battlefield.

In the early summer of 371, the Spartans moved to reassert their authority. In his book, “The Classical Greeks,” historian Michael Grant wrote: “The Spartan army, under the Agiad King Cleombrotus I, was already in the territory of the Thebans' neighbor Phocis, and now it made a rapid move — before Thebes could mobilize its allies — arriving in the middle of Boeotia by a surprise march through the glens of Mount Helicon, and forcing battle at Leuctra. The Spartans enjoyed a numerical advantage, marshaling 10,000 hoplites … against a total of 6,000 Thebans (though the Theban cavalry enjoyed a slight superiority).

The Spartan phalanx was 12 men deep, a fairly standard size, which allowed distribution of their troops more or less evenly in the center and on the right and left flank. Epaminondas, however, had been experimenting with deeper formations, and decided to pack his left phalanx fifty men deep. Also, the Theban left, led by the Sacred Band, would not align itself with the center and right flank. Rather, the left would approach the enemy at an oblique angle.

This strengthening of the left was itself very unusual for the day. Traditionally, an army's best troops were stationed on the right, their job being to crash into the enemy's left. It was traditionally the job of hoplites on the left to hold long enough for their army's right to achieve a breakthrough of the enemy's lines and victory. Greek military encounters usually resembled a swinging door, with both armies' right crashing into the opposing army's left.

After the Theban cavalry succeeded in driving off the Spartan horsemen, the Theban left wing crashed into the Spartan hoplites. The Sacred Band, led by the Boeotrach Pelopidas, hit first, followed by the 50-men deep phalanx. The Spartans were not expecting such pressure on their right, and at such an odd angle, precisely where they had intended to launch their own assault.

In his novel, “The End of Sparta,” Hanson describes the chaos of battle through the eyes of his protagonist, the Theban farmer/soldier Mêlon: “The best hoplite was not the strongest right arm, Mêlon knew, but he who could cover his neighbor, stab, advance, keep his balance amid the flotsam at his feet, and hide in the shield cover from his right — all at once.”

The Spartan line soon broke, and their soldiers began running south toward the Peloponnese. The Thebans knew that they had won their freedom that day. Unwilling to sit on the laurels of his victory, Epaminondas led his Theban army into the Peloponnese the following year, and aided city-states and Spartan helots in revolt. A series of invasions followed, with Sparta losing more and more power with each engagement. Indeed, the battle of Leuctra proved to be the decisive moment in the downfall of Sparta.

Centuries later, the Roman statesman Cicero would call Epaminondas “The First Man of Greece,” lauding him as a champion of freedom. Hanson considers Epaminondas a figure not unlike William T. Sherman and George S. Patton, men who likewise fought for freedom and served democratic states, while understanding the necessity and utility of extreme, brief brutality on the battlefield.

One possible witness to the battle was a young Macedonian prince whom the Thebans held hostage. Philip, soon to be King Philip II, learned much from Epaminondas about the art of war, though it is debatable if he was at the battlefield that day. Years later, in 338 B.C., the Macedonians would conquer Boeotia, replacing the Theban hegemony with their own. Philip's son, 18-year-old Alexander, dubbed by later Romans as Alexander the Great, was stationed on the Macedonian left. Leading a cavalry charge, Alexander destroyed the Theban Sacred Band during the battle.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com