T HE great events of the life of Pelopidas fall within the earlier half of the fourth century before Christ. The life, as told by Plutarch, is a good example of our author's frequent neglect of regular order in telling his stories, for he begins with reflections upon the duty of a general to safeguard his own life; reflections which naturally arise out of the death of Pelopidas, and which most authors would therefore have placed at the end of the story of his life.
In the youth of Pelopidas, Sparta exercised a selfish ascendency over the whole of Greece. It was the life-work of Pelopidas and of his friend Epaminondas to break down that supremacy and to make their city of Thebes for a time the greatest power in Greece. Unfortunately the life which Plutarch wrote of the noble Epaminondas has been lost.
The friendship of that great general and statesman with Pelopidas forms one of the most beautiful stories in Greek history. Their deeds made them the two most famous men in Greece, but no shadow of distrust or unworthy rivalry ever disturbed their friendship. Epaminondas was the greater general, Pelopidas the more impetuous and daring officer. Plutarch indeed, rightly enough no doubt, blames Pelopidas for the too reckless exposure of himself by which he lost his life. But it was this very quality of almost desperate courage, which remained uncooled even when Pelopidas had become a famous and experienced general, which alone made his early exploits successful. Seldom or never in the history of the world has a more apparently hopeless adventure than the retaking of Thebes by the handful of exiles, and their defiance of the crushing power of Sparta, been undertaken and carried through to a successful issue.
C ATO the elder, when he heard a man praised for foolish and reckless daring in war, justly observed that there is a great difference between a reasonable valour and a contempt for life. And, bearing upon this matter, there is a story of a soldier who was astonishingly brave, but unhealthy in appearance and of a bad habit of body. The king, his commander, questioned him as to the cause of his pallor, and the soldier confessed that he was secretly suffering from a dire disease. Thereupon the king commanded that his physicians should attend to the soldier, and he was cured. It was then noticed that he no longer courted danger, and did not risk his life as before. The king questioned him to find out why his character was thus changed. The soldier answered: 'You, sire, are the cause why I am less bold, for you have delivered me from the misery which formerly made life of no account to me.' Arguing in the same way, a certain lover of luxury and pleasure said of the Spartans: 'No wonder they venture their lives freely in battle, since death releases them from the severe labours they undergo, and the wretched food to which they limit themselves.' It was natural that lovers of ease and pleasure should think thus of the Spartans, but in truth that people thought neither death nor life the happier state, for they accounted a noble life or a glorious death equally fortunate.
A commander, above all other soldiers, should be careful not to expose himself to needless hazards, since upon his safety, if he be a man of experience and valour, depends the safety of the whole army. Therefore the general spoke wisely who, when another officer exhibited his wounds and his shield pierced with a spear, said: 'I, for my part, was ashamed when at the siege of Samos a javelin fell near me, inasmuch as it showed that I had acted like a venturesome youth, and not like the commander of a great array.' When, however, the whole issue of the fight depends upon the general's risking his life, then must he stand the combat and brave all dangers. But when the advantage to be gained by his personal bravery is small and his death likely to ruin everything, the general must not be endangered by playing the part of the private soldier.
Pelopidas sprang from a distinguished family in the city of Thebes, and his friend Epaminondas was also of noble descent. Early in life Pelopidas, who had been brought up in affluence, succeeded to a great estate. He showed, however, that he was a master of his riches and not their slave. He freely gave to such needy persons as deserved his bounty, and the Thebans rejoiced in his liberality.
Epaminondas alone could not be induced to share in his friend's bounty. He had been brought up in poverty, and he made its burden light by a cheerful spirit and the utmost simplicity of life. Indeed, as regards his manner of living, Pelopidas shared the poverty of his friend. He gloried in plainness of dress, frugality in food, and tireless industry in labour. While he occupied the highest posts, his life and conduct were simple and open.
The little store which Pelopidas set upon money, and the time he devoted to the affairs of the state, impaired his great estate. His friends remonstrated with him, and reminded him that money is a very necessary thing. 'True,' replied Pelopidas, 'it is very necessary for that poor fellow there, who is both lame and blind.'
Epaminondas and he were equally inclined to all noble things, but Pelopidas delighted especially in bodily exercises, Epaminondas in the cultivation of the mind; so that the first found pleasure in wrestling and hunting, the second in the sayings and writings of philosophers. Many things reflected honour on both, but nothing was more admirable than the close and firm friendship which existed between them from first to last, and in all the high offices which they held. Often enough the welfare of the state is injured by the envy and jealousy which great men bear towards one another. Pelopidas and Epaminondas, however, sought not how one might get the better of the other, but how they might best help one another in the service of the state.
Some are of opinion that the extraordinary friendship between the two men had its origin in a campaign in which they fought. They served together in a Theban force which had been sent to help the Spartans, with whom the Thebans were, as yet, in alliance. In a battle which took place during this campaign, the wing in which the Thebans were stationed gave way and was broken. Thereupon Pelopidas and Epaminondas locked their shields together and drove back the enemies who attacked them. But, at last, Pelopidas, bleeding from seven great wounds, sank exhausted upon a heap of friends and enemies who lay dead together. Epaminondas believed his friend to be dead, but nevertheless stood forward to defend his body and his arms, being determined to die himself rather than allow the armour of Pelopidas to be taken as spoil by the enemy. As he fought with many foes at once, he was in extreme danger, and was wounded in the breast with a spear and in the arm with a sword. But just when it seemed that he must be overpowered by numbers, help came unexpectedly from the other wing of the army, and both the friends were, at the last moment, rescued from the enemy.
Epaminondas Defending Pelopidas
After these events the Spartans for some time made an outward show of treating the Thebans as friends and allies. In reality, however, they were suspicious of the spirit and the power of Thebes. Moreover, they hated the party to which Pelopidas belonged, because it favoured government by the people.
Now there were in Thebes certain rich men who were also opposed to popular government, and sought to get the rule of the city into their own hands. These men proposed to a Spartan general, who came with troops to Thebes as an ally, that he should seize the citadel of the town and drive out the leaders of the popular party. The Spartan listened to the proposal, seized the citadel called Cadmea, and drove Pelopidas and others into exile. Epaminondas, however, was allowed to remain in the town, for he was looked upon as a man who, from his poverty and quiet disposition, was unlikely to give trouble.
All Greece was astonished at the action of Sparta in regard to this treacherous seizure. The government, indeed, degraded and fined the officer who had carried it out, but kept the fruits of his treachery and maintained a Spartan garrison in the citadel. Thebes was now ruled, not according to its ancient form of government, but by tyrants, from whom there seemed to be little hope of deliverance, since they were supported by the great power of Sparta. Nevertheless, those who had seized upon the rule of Thebes, learning that the exiles had taken shelter in Athens, sent assassins thither to murder them. One of the Theban patriots was slain by these murderers, but the others fortunately escaped. Letters were also sent to Athens from Sparta, demanding that no shelter should be given to the exiled Thebans. The Athenians, however, mindful of help they had received from Thebes in their own struggles, would by no means suffer any injury to be done to them.
In this state of affairs Pelopidas busied himself continually in persuading his comrades to attempt the desperate adventure of freeing their city from the rule of the tyrants and their Spartan allies. 'It is dishonourable,' argued he, 'that we, meanly contented with our own safety, should live here, dependent upon the Athenians, while our city is enslaved and garrisoned by an enemy. We ought, in a cause so glorious as ours, to be ready to face any danger.' At last he succeeded in prevailing upon them to make the attempt, and the exiles therefore sent secretly to such friends as were left behind in Thebes to inform them of their resolution. These men entered eagerly into the project. One of them, named Charon, offered his house as a hiding-place for the exiles when they should succeed in re-entering the city. Another, Philidas, contrived to get himself made secretary to two of the tyrants. As for Epaminondas, he had all along been seeking to stir up the youth of the city against their masters. He used to incite them to try their strength in wrestling against the Spartans at the public games. When he saw them elated by success he would say, 'You should rather be ashamed at the meanness of spirit which allows you to remain subject to your inferiors in strength.'
A day was fixed for carrying out the plan. The exiles agreed that most of them should wait behind at a certain place, while a few of the youngest should first attempt to enter the city. Pelopidas was the first to volunteer to be of this party, and he was joined by eleven others. All were men of noble blood, all were united in the closest friendship, and the only contest among them was as to which should be first in the race for honour and glory.
The twelve adventurers, having sent on a message in advance to Charon, set out. They went without armour, and in their hands they carried hunting-poles, while their dogs ran beside them, so that they might seem to be merely a hunting party beating about for game.
Meanwhile, their messenger came to Charon, and he, being a man of courage and resolution, made ready to receive them. But another who was in the secret was made dizzy, as it were, by the nearness of the danger. He sent one of his friends to beg the exiles to desist from the enterprise for a time, and to await a more favourable opportunity. The friend went off in haste, took his horse out of the stable, and called for the bridle. His wife was unable to find it, and at last said that she had lent it to a friend. Thereupon a quarrel arose between husband and wife, and finally the man went out of the house in a huff, and gave up all thought of taking the message. Such was the trivial matter by which the carrying of the message, which might have stopped the glorious enterprise of Pelopidas and his companions, was prevented.
Towards the close of the day the exiles, now disguised as peasants, entered the city at different places. Fortunately the cold weather was setting in at the time. There happened to be a bitter wind and a fall of snow, so that few people were abroad in the city. Friends who were in the secret awaited the exiles, and at once led them to Charon's house, where the conspirators all assembled to the number of forty-eight.
Meanwhile Philidas, the secretary, who was a party to the plot, had invited two of the tyrants to his house that very night, intending to ply them freely with wine. But before they had drunk at all deeply, a confused and uncertain rumour reached them that the exiles had entered the city. Philidas endeavoured to put the matter aside as of no importance. Nevertheless, an officer was sent to Charon commanding him to attend upon the tyrants immediately. By this time it had become dark and Pelopidas and his friends were preparing for action. They had put on their breast-plates and girt on their swords, when there came a sudden knocking at the door. One of those present ran to the door, and learning the officer's business, came back in great alarm with the news. All believed that the plot was discovered, and that every man of them was lost without having had the chance to strike a blow. Nevertheless, they thought it well that Charon should obey the order and go boldly to the tyrants.
Charon was a man of great courage in dangers which threatened only himself, but he was now greatly concerned for the safety of his friends. Moreover, he feared that if harm befell them some suspicion of treachery would rest upon him. Therefore, when he was ready to depart, he brought out his son, who was but a child, but of a strength beyond his years, and placed him in the hands of Pelopidas. 'If,' said he, 'you find me a traitor, treat this child as an enemy and spare not his life.' His friends, however, assured him that they were not so much disturbed by their present danger as to be capable of suspecting or blaming him in the least. They therefore besought him to take his son away to some place of safety. But Charon refused to do so. 'What life or what death,' said he, 'could I wish for him more glorious than to fall in this enterprise with his father and his friends?'
Having prayed to the gods and embraced his associates, Charon set out, endeavouring to compose his mind, and to keep his agitation from appearing on his countenance or in his speech. When he reached the door of the house the tyrants came forth and questioned him. At first Charon was somewhat confused, but he soon found that his questioners had no certain information. He therefore advised them not to be disturbed by idle rumours, but, said he, 'However, perhaps no matter of this kind ought to be disregarded, and I will therefore go and make the closest inquiry I can.' Philidas, who stood by, applauded this as a prudent course. So Charon returned home, while the tyrants resumed their carouse and the secretary plied them freely with wine.
The first storm which threatened the exiles had
scarcely blown over before fortune raised a second.
There arrived a messenger, who had travelled in haste
from Athens, bearing a letter from the high priest at
that city to one of the tyrants. This letter, as it was
afterwards found, contained not mere idle rumours, but
an exact account of the whole affair. However, by
this time, the tyrant was almost intoxicated. Although
the messenger told him that the letter was to be read
at once, he put it on one side, saying with a smile,
The friends of liberty now took the opportunity of carrying out their project. They divided their little party into two bands. One, in which was Charon, went against the two tyrants who were revelling in the house of Philidas. The other, in which was Pelopidas, went against the two other tyrants, who happened to dwell near one another.
Charon and his party disguised themselves by putting women's clothes over their armour, and by wearing thick wreaths of pine and poplar upon their heads so as to throw their faces into shadow. Thus attired, the pretended women came into the guest-chamber. Having looked round to make sure of their prey, they drew their swords and made at the two tyrants across the table. Some of the guests endeavoured to defend their masters, but all being confused with wine, the tyrants and those who drew in their defence were easily despatched.
The party of Pelopidas had a more difficult task, for their first adversary was a sober and valiant man. When the friends arrived at his house they found the door fast, for he had gone to bed. For a long time they knocked without awakening anybody. At length a servant came down and removed the bar. Immediately Pelopidas and his friends burst into the house, threw the servant down, and rushed to the bedchamber. The tyrant, guessing his danger from the noise and trampling, leapt from his bed and seized his sword, but neglected to put out the lamps. Had he done so, the friends might well have fallen foul of one another in the darkness. The tyrant then, fully exposed to view, took his stand in the doorway, and with one stroke slew the first man who attempted to enter. He was next engaged by Pelopidas, and, in the narrow way encumbered by the body of the fallen man, the combat between the two was long and doubtful. At length Pelopidas prevailed and slew his adversary.
The little band then proceeded against the fourth tyrant. He quickly perceived them and escaped into a neighbour's house, whither, however, they followed and slew him.
The two parties now united and sent a message to bring up the exiles whom they had left behind. They also proclaimed liberty to the Thebans, and armed such as joined them with weapons from the shops of the armourers and other places. Among those who joined them was Epaminondas with a body of men whom he had collected and armed.
The whole city was now in a state of alarm and confusion. Lights shone in all the houses, and the streets were full of men hurrying hither and thither. The people, however, did not assemble, for they had no certain knowledge of what had happened, and waited impatiently for daylight to dawn. It seems, therefore, that the Spartan officers made a great mistake in not sallying out during the night from the citadel, for they had a garrison of fifteen hundred men. However, disturbed by the tumult and the lights and the shouting, they contented themselves with holding the citadel.
As soon as it was day, the exiles who had been sent for marched into the city armed. The people, too, assembled, and Pelopidas and his companions were presented to them. Greatly excited, the whole assembly acclaimed them as the benefactors and deliverers of the city. Pelopidas, being chosen, together with two companions, governor of the state, immediately formed the blockade of the citadel, being in haste to take it before succour could come from Sparta. In this he narrowly succeeded, for the garrison had but just surrendered, and was marching away, when they met a great army coming to their rescue. Of the three Spartan officers who signed the capitulation, two were executed and the third ruinously fined.
It is difficult to find an instance so remarkable as the exploit of Pelopidas of the few overcoming the many, the weak the strong. For the war, which humbled the pride of the Spartans and deprived them of their rule by sea and land, began that night when Pelopidas, being but one of twelve men, entered Thebes and burst asunder the chains of Sparta, until that time deemed unbreakable.
The Spartans soon entered Boeotia, the state of Thebes, with so powerful an army that the Athenians were terrified and renounced their alliance with the Thebans. Thus the latter, left alone to face the power of Sparta, seemed to be in the most desperate straits. Pelopidas, however, found means to embroil Athens again with Sparta. He secretly sent a merchant to one of the Spartan generals, whom he knew to be a brave soldier but not a man of sound judgment. The merchant suggested to him that it would be a splendid enterprise, and one very agreeable to the Spartan government, if he made some sudden stroke against Athens, such, for instance, as the seizure of the Piræus. The general suffered himself to be persuaded, and invaded the territories of Athens. But, when he had advanced some distance, the hearts of his soldiers failed them, and his army retreated. Angered at the invasion, the Athenians readily joined the Thebans again, and fitted out a great fleet to act against the Spartans.
Meanwhile, the Thebans by themselves frequently fought the Spartans in Bœotia, not in set battles, but in minor actions, in which they gained both experience and courage in warfare. The prudent Theban generals made choice of fit occasions to let loose their soldiers, like so many young hounds in training, upon the enemy, and when they had tasted of victory brought them off again in safety. The credit for this policy is mainly due to Pelopidas, who, from the time of being first appointed general until the day of his death, was constantly in employment either as governor of Boeotia, or as captain of the Sacred Band, the flower of the Theban army. In one of these lesser fights Pelopidas with his own hand slew the Spartan general opposed to him.
One battle fought at Tegyrae brought especial honour to Pelopidas. He had long kept a strict watch upon a certain town which favoured the enemy, and which had admitted a Spartan garrison. Learning that the garrison had gone away upon an expedition, Pelopidas made a dash upon the place with a small force consisting of the Sacred Band and a few horsemen. When he came near the town, however, he found that other Spartan troops were marching to take the place of those who had left town. He therefore led his troops back by way of Tegyrae, keeping along the sides of the mountains, because all the low-lying land was covered by flood-water from the river which flowed through the valley. In this place they suddenly perceived the Spartan troops returning from their expedition. One of his men thereupon ran and told Pelopidas, saying, 'We are fallen into the enemy's hands.' 'Why not rather,' said the general, 'they into ours?'
He then ordered his cavalry to the front and drew up the Sacred Band, who numbered but three hundred men, in close order, trusting that they would force a way through the enemy, who were greatly superior in numbers. The shock of battle began in that part of the field where the commanders fought in person. The two Spartan leaders were among the first to fall, and their army was so broken that the Thebans might, had they so chosen, have passed through their disordered ranks. Pelopidas, however, turned to attack those who still stood firm, and made such havoc among them that they fled in great disorder. The Thebans, having erected a trophy and gathered the spoils of the slain, returned home not a little elated with their victory. The success was the more notable, since it seems that in all their former wars, either with Greeks or foreigners, the Spartans had never been defeated in a pitched battle by an army smaller than their own, nor indeed by one equal in numbers. This battle, therefore, first taught the Greeks that there was no special virtue in the Spartan soil, and that, wherever the youth fear disgrace more than danger and scorn everything base, there will be found men terrible to their enemies. From the time of this battle Pelopidas would never split up the Sacred Band, but kept them in one body, and frequently charged at their head in battle.
But the time came when the Spartans, having made peace with the other Greeks, continued the war against the Thebans alone, and invaded their land with an army of ten thousand foot and a thousand horse. The Thebans were now threatened not merely with the ordinary dangers of war, but with utter destruction. At this time, on an occasion when Pelopidas was leaving home to join the army, his wife with tears in her eyes besought him to take care of himself. 'My dear,' replied the Theban, 'it is rather the duty of a man in my position to take care of others.' When he came to the army, he found the generals differing in opinion. He at once advocated the advice of Epaminondas that battle should be given to the enemy. He was not at the time one of the generals-in-chief, but only captain of the Sacred Band. Nevertheless, his opinion had great weight, and the resolution was taken to risk a battle.
The two armies came in sight of one another at Leuctra. Epaminondas, who was in chief command, drew up the foot-soldiers of his left living in an oblique formation, so that the right wing of the Spartans in order to meet him might be obliged to divide from the other Greeks, their allies. The Theban general intended after this manœuvre to fall upon the Spartans with his whole forces and to crush them. The enemy, however, perceived his intention, and began to change his order of battle and to extend the right wing, with the object of surrounding Epaminondas. But while the movement was yet incomplete and the Spartans consequently in some disorder, Pelopidas dashed upon them with the Sacred Band, While at the same time Epaminondas, neglecting other opponents, furiously attacked their right wing. Though the Spartans were masters of the art of war and most excellent in discipline, the incredible speed and fury of the attack broke their resolution, and they suffered such a defeat and slaughter as had never been known before. Since the attack of Pelopidas had so much to do with the issue of the battle, he gained as much honour by the day's success, though only captain of his three hundred, as did his friend Epaminondas, who was governor of Boeotia and commander of the whole army.
Soon after the two friends were appointed joint-governors, and together led an army into the Peloponnesus. They caused several cities to revolt from the Spartans, and brought a number of states into alliance with Thebes. By this time it was mid-winter, and but a few days of office remained to them, for, by the law of their state, the office of governor had, on penalty of death, to be surrendered at the close of the year to those who had been appointed for the next year. This law Epaminondas and Pelopidas disregarded, in order to carry their successes further. With an army of seventy thousand Greeks, of whom not one-twelfth were Thebans, they laid waste the Spartan territories. Upon their return they were tried for the breach of the law, but were acquitted, in spite of some ignoble men who looked with envy upon the honour and glory which their great deeds had won.
Some time after, there came messengers from the people of Thessaly imploring the Thebans to furnish them with a general and some troops to aid them against a certain tyrant named Alexander, who had attacked some of their cities and who sought to bring the whole country into subjection. Epaminondas was at the time in the Peloponnesus. Pelopidas therefore offered himself for this new service, for he well knew that, where Epaminondas commanded, there was no need for another general. He therefore marched into Thessaly and forced the tyrant to make submission. Having settled affairs there he marched into Macedonia to compose disturbances which had broken out in that kingdom.
Some time after, there came further complaints from the people of Thessaly, to the effect that the tyrant Alexander was again disturbing the peace. Pelopidas and a companion were therefore chosen to attend upon the Thessalians, but, having no expectation of war, they took no troops with them. At the same time fresh disturbances broke out in Macedonia, where the king was slain and his throne usurped by the murderer. The friends of the dead king besought aid from Pelopidas, who, having no troops of his own, marched against the usurper with an army of hired soldiers. These, however, were bribed by the usurper and went over to his side. Nevertheless, though Pelopidas was thus left without support, such was the terror of his very name and reputation that the usurper came to him as to a superior. He promised to hold the kingdom for the brothers of the dead king, and to regard the friends and enemies of Thebes as his own. These terms Pelopidas was induced to accept. He was, however, deeply incensed at the treachery of the hired troops, and resolved to avenge it by the capture of the town in which they had lodged most of their goods, together with their wives and children. Having collected some Thessalian troops, he therefore marched against the town, but no sooner had he arrived before it than the tyrant Alexander also appeared with an army. Pelopidas supposed that he had come thither to explain his conduct, and, suspecting no treachery, went to meet him with but one companion. But the tyrant, seeing them thus alone and unarmed, at once seized them and bore them off prisoners to his stronghold.
When the Thebans heard of this outrage they were filled with indignation, and at once gave orders to their army to march into Thessaly. Meanwhile the tyrant, imagining that the spirit of Pelopidas was broken by misfortune, at first allowed his captive to speak with those who came to see him. The Theban, seeing the people crushed with misery under the rule of Alexander, sought to comfort them by assuring them that vengeance would soon fall upon their oppressor. Moreover, he sent a message to Alexander telling him that he acted foolishly in torturing and slaying his innocent subjects while he spared him, Pelopidas, who was determined to punish him as soon as he was free. The tyrant, surprised at the boldness of the message, sent to ask, 'Why is Pelopidas in such a hurry to die?' To this question the prisoner replied, 'In order that thou, being more hated by the gods than ever, mayest the sooner be brought to a shameful end.'
From that time forth Alexander allowed none but his gaolers to visit the captive. The wife of the tyrant, however, was the daughter of an old friend of Pelopidas. The keepers told her of the noble and courageous bearing of the prisoner, and she felt a strong desire to see him and to speak with him. She came therefore to the prison, and, seeing by the disorder and meanness of his dress and the wretchedness of his provisions that he was treated in a manner unworthy of his rank and character, she could not forbear from weeping. At this Pelopidas was at first much surprised, but, learning who his visitor was, he addressed her by the name of her father, whom he had known well. In the course of their conversation she happened to say, 'I pity your wife, Pelopidas.' Thereupon the prisoner answered, 'For my part I pity you, for you are free, and nevertheless endure to live with such a man as this Alexander.' This remark affected her much, for the cruelty and pride of the tyrant were hateful to her.
The generals who were at first sent to Thessaly by the Thebans were unable, either through lack of ability or through ill-fortune, to accomplish anything. They therefore returned in disgrace, and the command was given to Epaminondas.
The fame of the new general raised the spirits of the people of Thessaly. In many places insurrections broke out among the tyrant's subjects, and his affairs seemed desperate. Epaminondas, however, made the safety of his friend his first consideration. He knew full well the savage disposition of the tyrant and his numerous acts of cruelty; how, for example, he buried some persons alive, how others were dressed in the skins of bears or wild boars and then baited with dogs or hunted with darts, and how he had treacherously put to the sword the peoples of two towns in alliance with him. Epaminondas therefore did not drive matters to an extremity, lest the tyrant, being rendered desperate, should kill his prisoner. The Theban general contrived, however, to keep Alexander in suspense, and succeeded in terrifying him so much that he sent to make submission, and delivered up Pelopidas and his companion.
Soon after his release the Thebans learnt that the Spartans and Athenians had sent ambassadors to the king of Persia, in order to gain his aid. The Thebans therefore, on their part, despatched Pelopidas to the court of the king. From this embassy he received great honour, for the fame of his deeds had spread throughout Asia, and he was greeted with admiration as the conqueror of Sparta. The Persian king himself loaded him with honours, and fully granted his demands for the freedom and independence of Greece. The honour which Pelopidas thus gained was increased by the fact that, whereas other Greeks accepted costly gifts from the Persian king, the Theban ambassador declined to enrich himself thus, and would accept only some small tokens of the king's regard.
While Pelopidas was absent upon this embassy, the tyrant Alexander returned to his evil ways. When, therefore, his oppressed people learnt that Pelopidas had returned out of Asia, they again sent to Thebes, begging that he should be allowed to lead an army to their relief. The request was readily granted, and an army was soon got ready. But when the forces were on the point of marching, there happened an eclipse of the sun, and darkness fell upon the city in the day-time. Thereupon terror came upon all, for the people looked upon the eclipse as a sign from heaven foretelling some great disaster. On this account Pelopidas did not think it right to compel the army to move, since the soldiers shared in the general terror at the eclipse. He himself, however, with only three hundred volunteers, set out for Thessaly. He was moved to this partly by resentment against the tyrant, but especially by the honour of the thing. For he esteemed it greatly to the glory of Thebes that her people should take the field in defence of liberty and in aid of the oppressed at the very time when Sparta and Athens were in alliance with tyrants.
Having arrived in Thessaly, Pelopidas assembled his forces and marched against Alexander. The tyrant was emboldened by the knowledge that but few Thebans accompanied their general, and that he himself had twice as many Thessalian infantry as marched in the army of Pelopidas. He therefore advanced boldly against the deliverer, who, being informed of the approach of an army so much larger than his own, remarked, 'So much the better, for now we shall beat so many the more.'
The armies came in sight of one another in a place where two steep hills rise up out of a plain. Both sides pressed forward to get possession of these hills. Meanwhile Pelopidas, who had a numerous and excellent body of horse, fell upon the enemy's cavalry and routed them. But, while he was pursuing them over the plain, Alexander gained the hills in advance of his antagonists.
The Thessalian foot vainly attempted to force these strong heights. The foremost were slain and many were wounded, so that the attack accomplished nothing. Seeing this, Pelopidas recalled his cavalry from the pursuit, and ordered them to fall upon such of the enemy as still stood their ground upon the plain. Then, seizing his buckler, he himself ran to join those who were engaged upon the hills. He forced his way to the front, and his presence so inspired his men that their valour seemed redoubled. The enemy stood two or three charges, but finding the attack still hotly pressed, and seeing the cavalry returning from the pursuit, they began to give ground. They retreated, however, slowly, step by step. Pelopidas then, from a height, surveyed the whole field of battle, wherein the enemy, though broken and disordered, did not yet take to flight. As he looked, he saw upon the right the tyrant Alexander rallying and encouraging his troops. Thereupon Pelopidas lost control of himself. Forgetting that it was his duty as general to have a proper regard for his own safety, he rushed forward a great way in advance of his own troops. Loudly he called upon the tyrant and challenged him to combat. But Alexander dared not to meet him. The craven slunk back and hid himself in the midst of his guards. The foremost ranks with whom Pelopidas came into hand-to-hand fight were broken by him, and a number of them were slain. But others, fighting at a distance, hurled their javelins at him and pierced his armour. Meanwhile his Thessalians, sorely anxious for his safety, rushed down the hill to his assistance, but when they came to the place, they found him lying dead upon the ground. Both horse and foot, filled with fury, then dashed against the enemy's main body, completely routed it, and slew above three thousand. For a long way they pursued the flying enemy, so that the fields were covered with the carcases of the slain.
Those Thebans who were present at the battle were deeply afflicted at the death of Pelopidas, whom they called their father, their saviour, their instructor in all great and honourable things. Nor were the Thessalians and allies behind them in testifying their regard for him by the deepest sorrow. It is said that those who were in the action neither took off their armour, nor unbridled their horses, nor bound up their wounds after they had heard the news. Notwithstanding their heat and weariness, they made their way to the body of the hero and piled around it the spoils taken from the enemy. Then in token of mourning they cut off their hair and the manes of their horses. Many, when they had withdrawn to their tents, neither kindled a fire nor partook of food. The silence of sorrow hung over their camp as if, instead of being gloriously victorious, they had been defeated and enslaved.
When the news of the death of Pelopidas was carried to the towns of Thessaly, the rulers, the priests, and the people came forth to meet the body with trophies and crowns and golden armour. Further, they besought the Thebans that they might have the honour of burying the dead hero. Surely no funeral was ever more magnificent, at least in the judgment of those who do not place magnificence in mere display. For the body of Pelopidas, who was but one of the subjects of a republic and who died in a strange land far from kindred and friends, was attended and conducted to the grave and crowned by many cities and tribes. Indeed, in his life and death Pelopidas was most fortunate, for his life was occupied by many great enterprises, all of which were successful, and he died in a great exploit from which resulted the freedom of Thessaly and the destruction of the tyrant.
For when the Thebans heard of his death they were filled with a burning desire for revenge. They therefore sent forth a great army into Thessaly and broke down the power of the tyrant Alexander. Him, too, the gods punished soon after for his treatment of Pelopidas. It was, as has been said, by that hero that the tyrant's wife was first taught to scorn the pomp and splendour of the palace and not to dread the guards by whom it was surrounded. Hating and fearing her husband's cruelty, she plotted with her three brothers to slay him. Their plan was carried out after this manner.
The whole palace, except the tyrant's bedchamber, was full of guards who kept watch throughout the night. The bedchamber was an upper room, and the door of the apartment was guarded by a fierce dog who was chained there, and who would fly at everybody except his master and mistress and a slave who fed him. When the time fixed for the attempt had come, the tyrant's wife concealed her three brothers before nightfall in a room hard by. Then at night she entered the bedchamber as usual and found the tyrant already asleep. Coming out again, she ordered the slave to take away the dog, saying that her husband wished to sleep undisturbed. She then covered the stairs with wool, so that her brothers might approach in silence. They crept stealthily up, but when they had reached the door of the bedchamber they were seized with terror, although their sister brought them the tyrant's sword which hung at the head of his bed, as a proof that he was fast asleep. Thereupon she reproached them with cowardice, and swore that she would awaken Alexander and tell him all. Shame and fear together now steadied the minds of her brothers, and while she held the light they stationed themselves around the bed. One seized the tyrant's feet, another his head, while the third stabbed him to the heart with a dagger. Such a death was perhaps too merciful for so abominable a monster. But seeing that he was murdered by his own wife, and that his body was cast forth to be spurned and trodden under foot by the populace, it will appear that the manner of his death was not altogether out of proportion to his deserts.