Thebes had always been a dull, unambitious, little town, but now her ambition awoke. She was not content only to be free, she wished to become the most important town in Bœotia.
And there was one of her citizens who was so great a soldier and so wise a statesman, that he was able to do for Thebes more than she dreamed. Epaminondas not only made Thebes the chief city in Bœotia, but several years later, he conquered the Spartans, and so made her the most important town in Greece.
Pelopidas, too, fought for the glory of his country. He became the captain of a band of three hundred young Thebans, who had sworn to defend their city with their lives.
These three hundred soldiers, more strictly trained than other youths, were named the Sacred Band, because each member was a friend to the other. As they had sworn to defend their city so they had promised to stand by one another unto death.
After many victories, of which you will read, the Sacred Band fell on the battle-field. Even their conqueror, as he looked upon them shed tears, saying, "Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base!"
For two years after Thebes won back her freedom, Sparta never ceased to try to wrench it from her. But at the end of two years she was forced to leave the Thebans alone, for all her soldiers were needed to fight against the Athenians, who had once more declared war against their ancient foe.
While the Spartans and the Athenians waged war one against the other Epaminondas was not idle, for he subdued the Bœotian cities which had dared to help Sparta while Thebes was in her power.
Pelopidas, too, won a great victory in 375 b.c. against the Spartans at Orchomenus. He had with him only the Sacred Band and a small company of cavalry when he found himself unawares facing a large Spartan army.
"We are fallen into the midst of the enemy," cried one of the Band. "Why so, more than they into the midst of us?" said Pelopidas.
The rare confidence of their captain inspired the Band to fight even more valiantly than usual, and to win a great victory over the large army of the Spartans.
This victory encouraged the Thebans so much that in the following year they succeeded in banishing the Spartans from Bœotia.
Thebes was now at the head of the Bœotian Confederacy, just as Sparta was ruler of the Laconian Confederacy. Four years later, in 371 b.c. , the Greek States met to arrange terms of peace among themselves.
It was agreed that each city should be treated as independent. But when Agesilaus, king of Sparta, rose to take the oath, he took it not alone for his own city, but for the cities that belonged to her allies as well.
Epaminondas sprang to his feet to remonstrate, saying that if Agesilaus was allowed to take the oath for the allied cities, he too must be permitted to take it for all the cities of Bœotia.
The Spartan king, angry with the bold demand of the Theban, taunted him with taking away the liberty of the Bœotian cities.
"And what do you do with the liberty of the cities of Laconia?" retorted Epaminondas.
Agesilaus was astonished at what he considered the insolence of the Theban. In a rage he snatched up the treaty of peace, struck out the name of Thebes, crying that if the Thebans wished war they should have it. The other cities signed the treaty, so Sparta and Thebes were left to settle their quarrel alone.
Epaminondas hastened back to Thebes, where he was at once chosen general of the Theban army.
Without delay he set out to secure a pass by which he thought the Spartans would attempt to enter Bœotia.
But the Spartans, led by Cleombrotus, one of their kings, did not try to enter by the pass. Finding a narrow mountain track, they succeeded in eluding Epaminondas, and marching within eight miles of Thebes.
Here, on the plain of Leuctra, the Spartans encamped in 371 b.c.
Near to Leuctra were the tombs of two Bœotian maidens. Many years ago they had slain themselves, because of the cruelty with which the Spartans had treated them.
An old prophecy said that some day the Spartans would be defeated at the tombs of the maidens. Epaminondas, although he did not greatly believe in soothsayers, encouraged his captains to fight by reminding them of this old saying.
Before the battle Pelopidas had a strange dream. In his dream he saw the two maidens of Leuctra alive and wandering about the plain. Their father, too, was there, and Pelopidas heard him say that if the Thebans wished for victory, they must sacrifice to the gods a maiden with chestnut hair.
When he awoke, Pelopidas told his dream to the other captains, and as they were wondering what to do, a colt of a bright chestnut colour ran through the camp.
"So," cried a soothsayer, "the sacrifice is come. Expect no other, but use that which the gods have sent."
Then the colt was solemnly offered in sacrifice at the tombs of the maidens. And the army was content, for the gods, they were sure, would give them the victory.
Until now a Greek army had always been drawn out in a long, narrow line. But Epaminondas arranged his men in a new way. His left wing was only a few men wide, but it was fifty men deep, which made it unusually strong.
Pelopidas with his Sacred Band was placed in front of the heavy left wing, while the rest of the army was arranged as usual.
The Spartan cavalry attacked the Theban horse, but it was soon driven from the field. Cleombrotus was with his right wing and he now led it against the strong left wing of the enemy.
Bravely as the Spartans fought, they could not withstand the onslaught of the left wing, led by the Sacred Band.
Cleombrotus fell and was carried from the field, wounded to death. The Spartans still struggled bravely, although their king was slain. But when Epaminondas called to his men, "Give me a step more and the day is ours," the Thebans spurred on to one more effort, broke the Spartan line and put it to flight. The Thebans had won the day, with but little loss of life, while four hundred Spartans had been slain.
Cleombrotus was the first Spartan king who had fallen on a battlefield since the fatal day of Thermopylæ.
The terrible news of the defeat of Leuctra was sent to Sparta, but the citizens were too well disciplined to show the dismay which they must have felt.
They had been beaten by the inhabitants of the dull little town of Thebes, yet no sound of grief was heard in their streets, nor was any sign of mourning to be seen.
It was on a festive day that the fateful tidings reached the city, and sacrifices were offered and games held as though nothing had happened to interrupt the usual rites.
Those whose friends had fled looked sullen and ashamed, for it was counted a disgrace to leave a lost battlefield alive. Those whose friends had fought to the death were to be seen in the streets the following day, with faces that were calm and content. Of such stern stuff were the Spartans made.