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A Biography of Epaminondas
(410-362 B.C.E.)

Stowe: The Temple of Ancient Virtue

The Encyclopedia of the Ancient World refers to Epaminondas as the "brilliant Theban general and statesman who . . . engineered the rise of Thebes as the foremost Greek city, in defiance of Sparta. He destroyed the legend of Spartan military invincibility and ended Sparta's domination of Greece that had lasted for 35 years since Sparta's victory in the Peloponnesian War.

"Thebes and Sparta were already at war when Epaminondas first came to prominence, in 371 B.C. As an elected commander for that year, he came to quarrel with the Spartan king Agesilaus at a peace conference. But the resulting Spartan invasion of Theban territory ended in a Theban triumph, when Epaminondas destroyed a Spartan army at the battle of Leuctra. [At Leuctra, Epaminondas' tactic was to attack the Spartans at their strongest point with vastly greater numbers rather than to use the regular tactic of attacking the enemy's weakest point while the enemy did likewise. The result was a Spartan loss of 1,000 men compared to the Theban loss of 47.]

"After the battle, Epaminondas simply dismantled the Spartan empire. Marching into the Peloponnese in winter 370-369 B.C., he liberated Arcadia from Spartan overlordship and (then or later) established his 'big city', Megalopolis, to be the center of an Arcadian league. Soon afterward, Epaminondas entered the Spartan-ruled region called Messenia, where he founded another city, Messene, to be a political center against Sparta. Epaminondas' liberation of Messenia had a devastating effect on Sparta, which had traditionally relied on Messenian grain, grownby the Messenian serfs, known as Helots.

"Epaminondas' later exploits included further invasions of the Peloponnese and a naval expedition against the Athenians. In 362 B.C. he again led an army into the Peloponnese, to oppose a Spartan threat against Arcadia. Although the Battle of Mantinea was another Theban victory, Epaminondas died there from wounds. He was the greatest leader to emerge in the tumultuous half century between the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.) and the rise of Macedon (350s B.C.)"

Cicero considered Epaminondas the greatest of the Greeks, and Who's Who in the Greek World points out that in later literature Epaminondas is presented as an almost mythic figure, famous for noble frugality, but that apart from the foundation of Messene his achievements failed to produce a permanent advantage for Thebes.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,