Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

The Humiliation Of Sparta

Thebes was free! But would she stay free? Sparta was against her,—Sparta, the lord of Greece. Could a single city, however liberty-loving and devoted its people, maintain itself against that engine of war which had humbled mighty Athens and now lorded it over the world of Greece? This is the question we have to answer; how in a brief space the dominion of Sparta was lost, and Thebes, so long insignificant and almost despised, rose to take the foremost place in Greece.

Two men did this work. As seven men had restored Thebes to freedom, two men lifted her almost into empire. One of these was Pelopidas, the leading spirit of the seven. The other was Epaminondas, whose name was simply mentioned in the tale of the patriotic seven, yet who in the coming years was to prove himself one of the greatest men Greece ever produced.

Pelopidas belonged to one of the richest and highest families of Thebes. He was one of the youngest of the exiles, yet a man of earnest patriotism and unbounded daring. It was his ardent spirit that gave life to the conspiracy, and his boldness and enterprise that led it forward to success. And it was the death of Leontiades by his hand that freed Thebes.

Epaminondas was a man of different character and position. Though of ancient and honorable family, he was poor, while Pelopidas was very rich; middle-aged, while Pelopidas was young; quiet, patient, and thoughtful, while Pelopidas was bold, active, and energetic. In the wars that followed he was the brain, while Pelopidas was the right hand, of Thebes. Epaminondas had been an earnest student of philosophy and music, and was an adept in gymnastic training. He was a listener, not a talker, yet no Theban equaled him in eloquence in time when speech was needful. He loved knowledge, yet he cared little for power, and nothing for money, and he remained contentedly poor till the end of his days, not leaving enough wealth to pay his funeral expenses. He did not love bloodshed, even to gain liberty. He had objected to the conspiracy, since freedom was to be gained through murder. Yet this was the man who was to save Thebes and degrade her great enemy, Sparta.

Like Socrates and Alcibiades, these two men were the warmest friends. Their friendship, like that of the two great Athenians, had been cemented in battle. Standing side by side as hoplites (or heavy armed soldiers), on an embattled field, Pelopidas had fallen wounded, and Epaminondas had saved his life at the greatest danger to himself, receiving several wounds while bearing his helpless friend to a place of safety. To the end of their lives they continued intimate friends, each recognizing the peculiar powers of the other, and the two working like one man for Theban independence.

Epaminondas proved himself a thinker of the highest military genius, Pelopidas a leader of the greatest military vigor. The work of the latter was largely performed with the Sacred Band, a warlike association of three hundred youthful Thebans, sworn to defend the citadel until death, bound by bonds of warm friendship, and trained into the highest military efficiency. Pelopidas was the captain of this noble band, which was never overcome until the fatal battle of Chæronéa, and then only by death, the Three Hundred lying dead in their ranks as they had stood.

For the events with which we have now to deal we must leap over seven years from the freeing of Thebes. It will suffice to say that for two years of that time Sparta fought fiercely against that city, but could not bring it under subjection again. Then wars arose elsewhere and drew her armies away. Thebes now took the opportunity to extend her power over the other cities of Bœotia, and of one of these cities there is something of interest to tell.

We have told in an earlier tale how Sparta and Thebes captured Platæa and swept it from the face of the earth. Recently Sparta had rebuilt the city, recalled its exiled citizens, and placed it as a Spartan outpost against Thebes. But now, when the armies of Sparta had withdrawn, the Thebans deemed it a good opportunity to conquer it again. One day, when the Platæan men were at work in their fields, and unbroken peace prevailed, a Theban force suddenly took the city by surprise, and forced the Platæans to surrender at discretion. Poor Platæa was again levelled with the ground, her people were once more sent into exile, and her soil was added to that of Thebes. It may be well to say here that most of the Grecian cities consisted of the walled town and sufficient surrounding land to raise food for the inhabitants within, and that the farmers went out each morning to cultivate their fields, and returned each night within the shelter of their walls. It was this habit that gave Thebes its treacherous opportunity.

During the seven years mentioned we hear nothing of Epaminondas, yet we know that he made himself felt within the walls of Thebes; for when, in 371 b.c. , the cities of Greece, satisfied that it was high time to stop cutting each other's throats, held a congress at Sparta to conclude peace, we find him there as the representative of Thebes.

The terms of peace demanded by Athens, and agreed to by most of the delegates, were that each city, small or large, should possess autonomy, or self-government. Sparta and Athens were to become mutual guarantees, dividing the headship of Greece between them. As for Thebes and her claim to the headship of Bœotia, her demand was set aside.

This conclusion reached, the cities one after another took oath to keep the terms of peace, each city swearing for itself except Sparta, which took the oath for itself and its allies. When it came to the turn of Thebes there was a break in this love-feast. Sparta had sworn for all the cities of Laconia; Epaminondas, as the representative of Thebes, insisted on swearing not for Thebes alone, but for Thebes as president of all Bœotia. He made a vigorous speech, asking why Sparta was granted rights from which other leading cities were debarred.

This was a new question. No Greek had ever asked it openly before. To Sparta it seemed the extreme of insolence and insult. What daring stranger was this who presumed to question her right to absolute control of Laconia? No speech was made in her defence. Spartans never made speeches. They prided themselves on their few words and quick deeds,—laconic  utterances, as they have since been called. The Spartan king sprang indignantly from his seat.

"Speak plainly," he scornfully demanded. "Will you, or will you not, leave to each of the Bœotian cities its separate autonomy?"

"Will you  leave each of the Laconian towns its separate autonomy?" demanded Epaminondas.

Not another word was said. Agesilaus, the Spartan king, who was also president of the congress, caused the name of Thebes to be stricken from the roll, and proclaimed that city to be excluded from the treaty of peace.

It was a bold move on the part of Epaminondas, for it meant war with all the power of Sparta, relieved of all other enemies by the peace. Sparta had conquered and humbled Athens. It had conquered many other cities, forcing some of them to throw down their walls and go back again to their old state of villages. What upstart was this that dared defy its wrath and power? Thebes could hope for no allies, and seemed feeble against Spartan strength. How dared, then, this insolent delegate to fling defiance in the teeth of the lord of Greece?

Fortunately Thebes needed no allies. It had two men of warlike genius, Epaminondas and Pelopidas. These were to prove in themselves worth a host of allies. The citizens were with them. Great as was the danger, the Thebans sustained Epaminondas in his bold action, and made him general of their army. He at once marched to occupy a pass by which it was expected the Spartans would come. Sparta at that moment had a strong army under Cleombrotus, one of its two kings, in Phocis, on the frontier of Bœotia. This was at once ordered to march against defiant Thebes.

Cleombrotus lost no time, and with a military skill which Spartans rarely showed he evaded the pass which Epaminondas held, followed a narrow mountain-track, captured Creusis, the port of Thebes, with twelve war-ships in the harbor, and then marched to a place called Leuctra, within an easy march of Thebes, yet which left open communication with Sparta by sea, by means of the captured port.

The Thebans had been outgeneralled, and were dismayed by the result. The Spartans and their king were full of confidence and joy. All the eloquence of Epaminondas and the boldness of Pelopidas were needed to keep the courage of their countrymen alive and induce them to march against their foes. And it was with much more of despair than of hope that they took up at length a position on the hilly ground opposite the Spartan camp.

The two armies were not long in coming to blows. The Spartans and their allies much exceeded the Thebans in numbers. But Epaminondas prepared to make the most of his small force by drawing it up in a new array, never before seen in Greece.

Instead of forming the narrow line of battle always before the rule in Greek armies, he placed in front of his left wing Pelopidas and the Sacred Band, and behind them arranged a mass of men fifty shields deep, a prodigious depth for a Grecian host. The centre and right were drawn up in the usual thin lines, but were kept back on the defensive, so that the deep column might join battle first.

Thus arrayed, the army of Thebes marched to meet its foe, in the valley between the two declivities on which the hostile camps were placed. The cavalry met first, and the Theban horsemen soon put the Spartan troop to flight. Then the footmen came together with a terrible shock. Pelopidas and his Sacred Band, and behind them the weight of the fifty shields, proved more than the Spartans, with all their courage and discipline, could endure. Both sides fought bravely, hand to hand; but soon Cleombrotus fell, mortally hurt, and was with difficulty carried off alive. Around him fell others of the Spartan leaders. The resistance was obstinate, the slaughter terrible; but at last the Spartan right wing, overborne by the heavy Theban mass and utterly beaten, was driven back to its camp on the hill-side above. Meanwhile the left wing, made up of allies, did little fighting, and quickly followed the Spartans back to the camp.

It was a crushing defeat. Of seven hundred Spartans who had marched in confidence from the camp, only three hundred returned thither in dismay. A thousand and more Lacedæmonians besides were left dead upon the field. Not since the day of Thermopylæ had Sparta lost a king in battle. The loss of the Theban army was not more than three hundred men. Only twenty days had elapsed since Epaminondas left Sparta, spurned by the scorn of one of her kings; and now he stood victor over Sparta at Leuctra, with her second king dead in his camp of refuge. It is not surprising that to Greece, which had felt sure of the speedy overthrow of Thebes, these tidings came like a thunderbolt. Sparta on land had been thought irresistible. But here on equal ground, and with nearly double force, she had been beaten by insignificant Thebes.

We must hasten to the end of this campaign. Sparta, wrought to desperation by her defeat, sent all the men she could spare in reinforcement. Thebes, too, sought allies, and found a powerful one in Jason of Pheræ, a city of Thessaly. The Theban leaders, flushed with victory, were eager to attack the enemy in his camp, but Jason gave them wiser advice.

"Be content," he said, "with the great victory you have gained. Do not risk its loss by attacking the Lacedæmonians driven to despair in their camp. You yourselves were in despair a few days ago. Remember that the gods take pleasure in bringing about sudden changes of fortune."

This advice taken, Jason offered the enemy the opportunity to retreat in safety from their dangerous position. This they gladly accepted, and marched in haste away. On their journey home they met a second army coming to their relief. This was no longer needed, and the whole baffled force returned home.

The military prestige held by Sparta met with a serious blow from this signal defeat. The prestige of Thebes suddenly rose into supremacy, and her control of Bœotia became complete. But the humiliation of Sparta was not yet near its end. Epaminondas was not the man to do things by halves. In November of 370 b.c. he marched an army into Arcadia (a country adjoining Laconia on the north), probably the largest hostile force that had ever been seen in the Peloponnesus. With its Arcadian and other allies it amounted to forty thousand, or, as some say, to seventy thousand, men, and among these the Thebans formed a body of splendidly drilled and disciplined troops, not surpassed by those of Sparta herself. The enthusiasm arising from victory, the ardor of Pelopidas, and the military genius of Epaminondas had made a wonderful change in the hoplites of Thebes in a year's time.

And now a new event in the history of the Spartan commonwealth was seen. For centuries the Spartans had done their fighting abroad, marching at will through all parts of Greece. They were now obliged to fight on their own soil, in defence of their own hearths and homes. Dividing his army into four portions, Epaminondas marched into rock-bounded Laconia by four passes.

The Arcadians had often felt the hard hand of their warlike neighbors. Only a short time before one of their principal cities, Mantinea, had been robbed of its walls and converted into open villages. Since the battle of Leuctra the villagers had rebuilt their walls and defied a Spartan army. Now the Arcadians proved even more daring than the Thebans. They met a Spartan force and annihilated it.

Into the country of Laconia pushed the invaders. The city of Sellasia was taken and burned. The river Eurotas was forded. Sparta lay before Epaminondas and his men.

It lay before them without a wall or tower. Through its whole history no foreign army had come so near it. It trusted for defence not to walls, but to Spartan hearts and hands. Yet now consternation reigned. Sparta the inviolate, Sparta the unassailable, was in imminent peril of suffering the same fate it had often meted out freely to its foes.

But the Spartans had not been idle. Allies had sent aid in all haste to the city. Even six thousand of the Helots were armed as hoplites, though to see such a body of their slaves in heavy armor alarmed the Spartans almost as much as to behold their foes so near at hand. In fact, many of the Helots and country people joined the Theban army, while others refused to come to the aid of the imperilled city.

Epaminondas marched on until he was in sight of the city. He did not attempt to storm it. Though without walls, Sparta had strong natural defences, and heaps of earth and stones had been hastily thrown up on the most open roads. A strong army had been gathered. The Spartans would fight to death for their homes. To attack them in their stronghold might be to lose all that had been gained. Repulse here would be ruin. Content with having faced the lion in his den, Epaminondas turned and marched down the Eurotas, his army wasting, plundering, and burning as it went, while the Spartans, though in an agony of shame and wounded honor, were held back by their king from the peril of meeting their enemy in the field.

In the end, his supplies growing scarce, his soldiers loaded with plunder, Epaminondas led his army back to Arcadia, having accomplished far more than any foe of Sparta had ever done before, and destroyed the warlike reputation of Sparta throughout Greece.

But the great Theban did not end here. He had two other important objects in view. One was to consolidate the Arcadians by building them a great central city, to be called Megalopolis (Great City), and inhabited by people from all parts of the state. This was done, thick and lofty walls, more than five miles and a half in circumference, being built round the new stronghold.

His other purpose was to restore the country of Messenia. We have already told how this country had been conquered by the Spartans centuries before, and its people exiled or enslaved. Their descendants were now to regain their liberty and their homes. A new city, to be named Messenia, was ordered by Epaminondas to be built, and this, at the request of the Messenians, was erected on Mount Ithome, where the gallant hero Aristomenes had made his last stand against his country's invaders.

The city was built, the walls rising to the music of Argeian and Bœotian flutes. The best architects and masons of Greece were invited to lay out the plans of streets and houses and of the sacred edifices. The walls were made so strong and solid that they became the admiration of after-ages. The surrounding people, who had been slaves of Sparta, were made freemen and citizens of the reorganized state. A wide area of land was taken from Laconia and given to the new communities which Epaminondas had formed. Then, in triumph, he marched back to Thebes, having utterly destroyed the power and prestige of Sparta in Greece.

Reaching home, he was put on trial by certain enemies. He had broken the law by keeping command of the army four months beyond the allotted time. He appealed to the people, with what result we can readily understand. He was acquitted by acclamation, and he and Pelopidas were immediately re-elected Bœotarchs (or generals) for the coming year.

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