Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of Greece by John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Famous Men of Greece by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland

Epaminondas and Pelopidas


I N the city of Thebes not long after the Peloponnesian War lived two young men whose names were Pelopidas and Epaminondas. Pelopidas was rich; Epaminondas was poor. Both were fond of athletics and manly sports, but Epaminondas found his chief pleasure in books. Both were brave men and true and they loved each other like brothers.

Once, when their city was an ally of Sparta, they were sent by Thebes as soldiers to help the Spartans in a war with their neighbors, the Arcadians. The young men were fighting side by side when their comrades gave way and fled. Closing their shields together, they bravely held their ground and tried to drive back the Arcadians. Pelopidas was wounded and fell. Epaminondas would not desert his friend. Although badly wounded, he held the Arcadians in check until help came and he and Pelopidas were rescued.


Epaminondas Rescues Pelopidas

In time Sparta became jealous of Thebes and tried to take away the liberty of her people. A few rich Thebans were willing to help Sparta do this in order that they might be made the rulers. One day they led a band of Spartan soldiers, who happened to be passing, into the Cadmea. This was the rocky citadel of Thebes, which rose above the city as did the Acropolis at Athens. The Cadmea had never been captured. But on that day the garrison was taking a holiday, for the citadel had been given up to the women, who were celebrating a festival of Ceres in it. So the Spartans easily took possession of it, and having once got it they held it for four years.

During that time the men who had betrayed the citadel into the hands of the Spartans ruled Thebes as tyrants. They put some of the Thebans to death and banished others. Over three hundred were sent away. Among them was Pelopidas. Epaminondas was so poor that the tyrants did not think him of any consequence and he was allowed to stay in Thebes. He used his influence to get the young Thebans to drill in order to make themselves superior to the Spartans in skill and strength.


T HE exiles went to Athens. After living there for a few years Pelopidas determined to free his country, and he easily persuaded the other exiles and some Athenians to join in carrying out his plans.

When everything was ready the exiles left Athens. Twelve of them volunteered to get into Thebes and kill the tyrants. They disguised themselves as hunters, divided into four parties, and taking hounds with them, hunted through the fields around Thebes. As dusk came on they made their way into the city. It was a cold winter day, snow was beginning to fall and very few people were in the streets, so the exiles reached the house where all were to meet without being noticed. Twenty-six citizens joined them and all remained in the one house until near midnight.

A patriot who was in the plot had invited the tyrants to supper at his house. At the supper wine was served, and the tyrants drank freely. After the supper some of the patriots, dressed as women, were admitted to the banquet hall. As soon as they entered the room the guests greeted them warmly, but the supposed women at once threw off their veils, drew their swords and killed the tyrants.

Pelopidas, with another party, went to the houses of two of the tyrants who had refused the invitation to supper, and after a fight killed them. The patriots then went from house to house, calling on all the people to defend their homes. The Spartan soldiers in the Cadmea heard the noise and saw the lights, but were afraid to come out.

In the morning the other exiles with their friends from Athens came into the city, and all the citizens rose up in arms. The Spartan garrison gave up the Cadmea and Thebes was free.


S PARTA waited eight years before a chance came to punish the Thebans. Then war was declared, and an army of ten thousand Spartans marched against Thebes.

The Thebans also raised an army, and through the influence of Pelopidas Epaminondas was elected one of the chief captains. Pelopidas himself was captain of a famous "sacred band" of three hundred young men who had taken an oath to give their lives in defense of liberty.

The two armies met near a town called Leuctra. There Epaminondas gained a great victory, although his army was less than half as large as that of the Spartans.

Epaminondas and Pelopidas drilled the men of Thebes so that they were the best soldiers in all Greece, and Thebes helped other Greek cities become independent.

Pelopidas went to Thessaly to aid the people of that state against a tyrant who was trying to rule all Thessaly. The army of Pelopidas was not nearly so large as that of the tyrant, but Pelopidas was victorious. Unfortunately, however, he was killed in the battle.

The Thessalians begged the Thebans to allow them to bury the hero, and their request was granted.


T HE death of Pelopidas was a sad blow to Epaminondas. However, he did not let his grief stand in the way of duty. Athens at this time had grown jealous of Thebes and had united with Sparta; so the armies of the two cities met the Thebans under Epaminondas in the year 362 B.C., near the town of Mantinea, where a long and fierce battle was fought. At length the Thebans were victorious and the Spartans were driven from the field.


The Plain of Mantinea As It Is To‑day

The victory, however, was dearly bought. Just when the tide of battle was turning and the Spartan ranks were breaking Epaminondas received a wound in the breast from a spear. The shaft broke and the head remained fixed in the wound. Epaminondas was told by his physician that he would die as soon as the spear-head was removed. Those about him wept, and one lamented that he was dying without a child to keep his name alive.

"Leuctra and Mantinea," replied the hero, "are daughters who will keep my name alive."

When he was told that the victory was secure he cried, "I have lived long enough," and with his own hand drew the spear-head from his breast.

Thus passed away a man who stands out in Grecian history as a spotless hero—a soldier who never fought except for freedom, a man who lived only to do good.

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