Epaminondas in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

(Ἐπαμεινώνδας). A Theban statesman and soldier, son of Polymnis, and in whose praise, for both talents and rectitude, there is a remarkable concurrence of ancient writers. Nepos observes that before Epaminondas was born and after his death Thebes was always in subjection to some other power; while he directed her councils she was at the head of Greece. His public life extends from the restoration of democracy by Pelopidas and the other exiles, B.C. 379, to the battle of Mantinea, B.C. 362. In the conspiracy by which that revolution was effected he took no part, but thenceforward he became the prime mover of the Theban State. His policy was first directed to assert the right and to secure the power to Thebes of controlling the other cities of Boeotia, several of which claimed to be independent. In this cause he ventured to engage his country, single-handed, in war with the Spartans, who marched into Boeotia, B.C. 371, with a force superior to any which could be brought against them. The Theban generals were divided in opinion whether a battle should be risked, for to encounter the Lacedaemonians with inferior numbers was universally esteemed hopeless. Epaminondas prevailed upon his colleagues to venture it, and devised on this occasion a new method of attack. Instead of joining battle along the whole line he concentrated an overwhelming force on one point, directing the weaker part of his line to keep back. The Spartan right being broken and their king slain, the rest of the army found it necessary to abandon the field. This memorable battle was fought at Leuctra (B.C. 371). The moral effect of it was much more important than the mere loss inflicted upon Sparta, for it overthrew the prescriptive superiority in arms claimed by that State ever since its reformation by Lycurgus. This brilliant success led Epaminondas to the second object of his policy, the overthrow of the supremacy of Sparta and the substitution of Thebes as the leader of Greece in the democratic interest. In this hope a Theban army, under his command, marched into the Peloponnesus early in the winter, B.C. 369, and, in conjunction with the Eleans, Arcadians, and Argives, invaded and laid waste a large part of Laconia. Numbers of the Helots took that opportunity to shake off a most oppressive slavery; and Epaminondas struck a deadly blow at the power of Sparta by establishing these descendants of the old Messenians on Mount Ithomé in Messenia, as an independent State, and inviting their countrymen, scattered through Italy and Sicily, to return to their ancient patrimony. Numbers obeyed the call. This memorable event is known in history as the return of the Messenians, and two hundred years had elapsed since their expulsion. In B.C. 368, Epaminondas again led an army into the Peloponnesus; but, not fulfilling the expectations of the people, he was disgraced and, according to Diodorus (xv. 71), was ordered to serve in the ranks: In that capacity he is said to have saved the army in Thessaly when entangled in dangers which threatened it with destruction, being required by the general voice to assume the command. He is not again heard of in a public capacity till B.C. 366, when he was sent to support the democratic interest in Achaia, and by his moderation and judgment brought that whole confederation over to the Theban alliance without bloodshed or banishment. It soon became plain, however, that a mere change of masters-Thebes instead of Sparta-would be of no service to the Grecian States. Achaia first, then Elis, then Mantinea and a great part of Arcadia, returned to the Lacedaemonian alliance. To check this defection, Epaminondas led an army into the Peloponnesus for the fourth time, in B.C. 362. Joined by the Argives, Messenians, and part of the Arcadians, he entered Laconia and endeavoured to take Sparta by surprise; but the vigilance of Agesilaüs just frustrated his scheme. Epaminondas then marched against Mantinea, near which was fought the celebrated battle in which he fell. The disposition of his troops on this occasion was an improvement on that by which he had gained the battle of Leuctra, and would have had the same decisive success, but that, in the critical moment, when the Lacedaemonian line was just broken, he received a mortal wound, said to have been inflicted by Gryllus, the son of Xenophon. The Theban army was paralyzed by this misfortune; nothing was done to profit by a victory which might have been made certain; and this battle, on which the expectation of all Greece waited, led to no important result. Whether Epaminondas could much longer have upheld Thebes in the rank to which he had raised her is very doubtful; without him she fell at once to her former obscurity. His character is certainly one of the noblest recorded in Greek history. His private life was moral and refined, his public conduct uninfluenced by personal ambition or by personal hatred. He was a sincere lover of his country; and if, in his schemes for her advancement, he was indifferent to the injury done to other members of the Grecian family, this is a fault from which, perhaps, no Greek statesman except Aristides was free. His life was written in Latin by Cornelius Nepos; and in recent times in German by Bauch (1834) and Pomtow (1870). See also Sankey, Spartan and Theban Supremacies (London, 1877).

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