A Napoleon from Belgium – The Battle of Mantineia and the Death of Epaminondas of Thebes

4 July 362 BCE, or supposedly around this date, the Boeotian military genius fought his last battle at Mantinea and died after a winning a close victory against Sparta, leaving Classic Greece in ruins and open for conquest.

“When these things had taken place, the opposite of what all men believed would happen was brought to pass. For since well-nigh all the people of Greece had come together and formed themselves in opposing lines, there was no one who did not suppose that if a battle were fought, those who proved victorious would be the rulers and those who were defeated would be their subjects; but the deity so ordered it that both parties set up a trophy as though victorious and neither tried to hinder those who set them up, that both gave back the dead under a truce as though victorious, and both received back their dead under a truce as though defeated, and that while each party claimed to be victorious, neither was found to be any better off, as regards either additional territory, or city, or sway, than before the battle took place; but there was even more confusion and disorder in Greece after the battle than before“ (Xenophon “Hellenica”)

A mid-4th century BCE hoplite, heavily armoured, wearing a Thracian helmet

When a Prussian grenadier began to sing the Protestant hymn "Nun dancket alle Gott" on the frozen battlefield of Leuthen in Silesia and the whole army came in, including the king, a national myth was born. Frederick the Great, well-read in the Classics, had just defeated an Austrian army twice the size of his own by using infantry tactics developed by a Theban general 2000 years before. Instead of letting the two battle lines run at each other head on with equally distributed forces and fight it out, the way the Greek city states battled each other for centuries and the basic combat arrangement of the modern era until mid-19th century, Epaminondas of Thebes basically concentrated his forces on one wing, broke the enemy line at one exposed point with sheer pressure and rolled up the rest from the flank, the oblique order. Epaminondas certainly was one of the most celebrated military geniuses of Antiquity, unfortunately though, he was a Napoleon from Belgium. At the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, his oblique order broke the myth of Spartan invincibility, a generation after the Peloponnesian War had left the world of the Greek polis in ruins anyway. For a short while after Leuctra, Thebes, capital of the back-of-beyond in rural Boeotia, became the prime power in the region, while the sharpest sword of Classical Greece was broken. Paralysed, every polis held its breath, anxiously looking at Thermopylae and the Hellespont to see if a new Xerxes was at the gates, but nobody came. Yet.

A Theban Hoplite, wearing a Boeotian Helmet 

Boeotia lies west of Attica and the cultural megalopolis Athens. The coarse rural sister of Arcadia was named after its cow pastures and “Boeotian” meant already in Classical times “parochial”, “uneducated” and the inhabitants were derided as “Boeotian Pigs” by other, more urbane Greeks or just as Perioeci, second-class citizens, after the Spartans occupied the place during their last throw of the dice in the game of becoming top polis after Athens was defeated in Greece’s Thirty Years’ War. Not that they had any significant idea of what being the leading power in Hellas would actually mean or include, but neither had the Thebans when they finally threw out the Spartans under the leadership of their new, quite un-Boeotian Boeotarch Epaminondas, a well-educated man, a confessed Platonist with the frugal lifestyle of a cynic. After his brilliant victory at Leuctra, the first major open battle the Spartans had ever lost, the Theban league under their showpiece-general pushed into the Plain of the Eurotas towards Sparta itself. Famously, the city had no defences, since “the young men were the walls of Sparta, and the points of their spears its boundaries”, but unfortunately, two thirds of them, the Spartiates, lay dead in mass graves in Boeotia. Somehow, the survivors, the old and the youngsters made a last stand, Epaminondas withdrew, but not without destroying the Spartans’ basic economy, the Messenian helots, tribes that were forced into slave labour since time immemorial. Diplomatic bickering followed for almost a decade along with two more invasions of the Peloponnesus until the fourth brought the Theban League under Epaminondas and the Spartans under their equally quite able King Agesilaus II with the Athenians as their unlikely allies on the field near Mantinea, somewhere in Arcadia, to fight it out. In the meanwhile, the wolf in the North, in Macedonia, licked his jaws.  

Contemporary red-figure vase painting of Spartans fighting Thebans, probably at Mantineia

The old warhorse and historiographer Xenophon was not exactly a fan of Epaminondas, but he describes him as “leading forward his army prow on, like a trireme, believing that if he could strike and cut through anywhere, he would destroy the entire army of his adversaries", he did it over the left wing, in oblique order, and it was about to become Leuctra all over again when Epaminondas along with his designated followers was mortally wounded. He recommended on his deathbed to make peace with the Spartans, despite of the Theban victory in the Battle of Mantinea. They more or less did, but no side recovered from the losses. The Theban League and the Theban Hegemony finally ceased to exist in 355 BCE. Again, like in the centuries before, petty wars were fought between the Greek city states, the major players Athens and Sparta were brought off anyway and in 353 BCE Philip II of Macedon used one of these skirmishes as pretext to intervene in Greece and in 338 BCE, his victory at the Battle of Chaerona brought the end of the Greek polis and the Classic Age of Greece and the Sacred Band of Thebes, 150 pairs of male lovers, a formation that distinguished itself under Epaminondas at Leuctra and Mantineia, was annihilated. Philip allegedly cried when he saw them lying dead. He was a keen student of Epaminondas.

The "death bed of Epaminondas“ as imagined by Isaac Walraven (1686–1765) in 1726

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