Epaminondas and The Battle of Leuctra

by Daniel Russ on December 27, 2009

Epaminondas, Theban Tactician, 410 BC - 362 BC.

Epaminondas   (410 to 362 BC) was a Theban general and statesman who war colleges attribute with the creation of a formalized attack maneuver that we know today as the flanking maneuver. Cicero, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, called Epaminondas the “first man of Greece”. Born into aristocracy, his family had lost their fortune at a time and in a culture that held position as the foremost way to confer advantage and authority. He was an adept student of Lysis of Tarentum and apparently quite a physical specimen, having trained himself thoroughly in the arts of war as a child.

While well admired by academicians and the warrior elite he was still considered a commoner. During his youth, he watched as Thebes, once a Spartan ally, was occupied and subjected to rigorous Spartan rule. Eventually the Thebans revolted and in a series of palace coups, overthrew the pro Spartan puppet regime. In a remarkable move, Epaminondas assembled a force of Thebans and surrounded a Spartan garrison at Cadmeia. Totally outnumbered, a deal was struck and the Spartans were allowed to leave unharmed if they marched out immediately. They in fact ran into their relief force on the way back to Sparta. Spartans were not known to surrender and the fact of the matter was that the Spartan hegemony was approaching its end. The huge victories of the Spartan hoplites were in the past, and other city-states were emerging into their own.

Cleombrodus, the Spartan king, was infuriated and dispatched a Spartan force to quell the uprising. But Epaminondas and Pelopidas decided on a unique strategy. As the Japanese koan asks, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”. Well, nothing. No sound comes from one hand clapping. Sun Tsu also offers commanders not to fight unless they think they can win. Instead of meeting the Spartan force on their own terms, phalanx-to-phalanx in an open field, they decided to combat engineer a trench around Thebes. This was not what the Spartan hoplites were used to. The Spartans were good at one thing, open field battle. They were not known particularly for their cleverness. They were known for crushing their enemies head on in bloody close quarters infantry combat. After a few months of waiting for the Thebans to meet them on the battlefield, the Spartans simply left and went back home.

This win enthused and inspired the Thebans.

Battle of Leuctra 371 BC

Peace talks were begun between Sparta and Boetia. Keep in mind that Thebes and Boetia were almost synonymous during Epaminondas time. The talks failed so Cleombrodus decided to crush the Thebans once and for all and sent a 10,000-man force into Boetia from an unexpected direction, avoiding the passes that Boetians were prepared to defend and surprised the defenders. He seized a garrison and a dozen triremes, and then set camp at a place called Leuctra in 371 BC. This is where Epaminondas met him with a force of only 6000 men and a large cavalry detachment.

The Spartans spread themselves out in a line of four Hoplite corps with the best troops and the commanders on the right wing. Epaminondas loaded his line to the left wing and his weaker and thinner line to the right. Epaminondas then set his forces 50 ranks deep on his left, which meant his strongest line was facing the Spartans strongest line. He did not expect the weaker forces of his right wing to prevail against the Spartan line. He asked of them to simply hold off the Spartans, and slowly retreat. Greek phalanxes tended to move to the right. Each man, generally right handed, protected his left side, his weakest side with his shield and so as the fight moved, the line tended to move right.

The opening move of the battle was a clash of the superior Boetian cavalry that ran off the Spartan cavalry.

When the infantry battle ensued, as planned, the Spartan line wheeled towards the left, and the Boetian/Theban line did as well. The superior forces, infantry and cavalry of the Boetians broke the Spartan right wing and began attacking the Spartan left flank. Once the strongest portion of the Spartan line broke, the Thebans wheeled around the rear of the Spartans. The Spartan right wing fled, but the Spartan left wing then had to face Thebans in the front, and now Thebans attacking from the rear.

It became a rout, and a common chapter in military history.

Leuctra was in many ways the Gettysburg of the Spartan army. It was a reminder that you can only stay on top for a limited amount of time. The Spartans had angered too many client states to maintain loyalties. While Spartan power was on the wane, Epaminondas was killed in the battle of Mantinea 9 years later. Epaminondas’ genius and leadership was key, so his death signaled the death of Theban/Boetian supremacy.

Sources: Battle. R. G. Grant. 2008.

Davis, Paul K. (2001). “Leuctra”. 100 Decisive Battles. Oxford University Press US.



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