The Battle of Leuctra is not nearly as famous as Marathon or Thermopylae, but it probably should be.
On a dusty plain in Boeotia in the summer of 371 BC, the legendary Spartan phalanx was broken.
Soon after the battle, Sparta was humbled for good when its Peloponnesian subjects were liberated to stand as free people against their longtime oppressor.
The man responsible for this astonishing tactical accomplishment and mission of liberation was a Theban named Epaminondas – one of history’s greatest generals and statesmen.
The city of Thebes
Most people think of Classical Greece only as a time of struggle between Athens and Sparta, a naval superpower against the unquestioned masters of land warfare. But in the 4th century BC, after the Peloponnesian War, another Greek power rose to supremacy for a brief time: Thebes.
Thebes, the mythical city of Oedipus, often gets a bad rep, mainly because it sided with the Persians during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480-479. Herodotus, the historian of the Persian Wars, could not hide his disdain for the traitorous Thebans.
Partly as a result of this, Thebes had a chip on its shoulder.
When, in 371, Sparta masterminded a peace treaty by which it would get to keep its supremacy over the Peloponnese, but Thebes would lose its hold over Boeotia, the Thebans had had enough. The leading Theban of the day, Epaminondas, stormed out of the peace conference, bent on war.
A Spartan army, led by king Cleomenes, met the Thebans at Leuctra in Boeotia, only a few miles from the plain of Plataea where the Greeks defeated the Persians a century earlier. Few dared face the full might of the Spartan hoplite phalanx in open battle, and for good reason.
Unlike the majority of Greeks, who fought as citizen amateurs, the Spartans trained continually for battle, a situation made possible by Sparta’s domination of a vast territory worked by state-owned slaves called helots.
Crushing the head of the serpent
It’s rarely a good idea to bet against the pros in warfare. Epaminondas, however, was determined to tip the balance.
With the aid of the Sacred Band, a recently formed group of 300 hoplites who trained at state expense (and said to be 150 pairs of homosexual lovers), led by a brilliant commander named Pelopidas, Epaminondas planned to take the Spartans head-on – literally.
Epaminondas remarked that he intended to ‘crush the head of the serpent’, that is, to take out the Spartan king and the most elite soldiers stationed on the Spartan right wing.
Since hoplite soldiers carried their spears in their right hands, and protected themselves with shields held by the left, the extreme right wing of the phalanx was the most dangerous position, leaving the soldiers’ right sides exposed.
The right was therefore the position of honour for the Greeks. This was where the Spartans stationed their king and best troops.
Because other Greek armies also placed their best fighters on the right, phalanx battles often involved both right wings being victorious against the enemy left, before turning to face each other.
Instead of being hampered by convention, Epaminondas placed his best troops, anchored by the Sacred Band, on his army’s left wing to face the best Spartans directly.
He also planned to lead his army across the battlefield on the diagonal, with his right wing leading the way, ‘prow first, like a trireme’ bent on ramming the enemy. As a final innovation, he stacked his left wing an astonishing fifty soldiers deep, five times the standard depth of eight to twelve.
Smashing the Spartan spirit
After an initial cavalry skirmish, which did not go in the Spartans’ favour, Epaminondas led his left wing forward and smashed into the Spartan right.
The Theban formation’s great depth, along with the expertise of the Sacred Band, shattered the Spartan right and killed Cleomenes, crushing the head of the serpent as Epaminondas had intended.
So decisive was the crash of the Theban left, the rest of the Theban line had not even come into contact with the enemy before the battle was over. More than a thousand of Sparta’s elite warriors lay dead, including a king – no small matter for a state with a shrinking population.
Perhaps even worse for Sparta, the myth of its invincibility was erased. Spartan hoplites could be beaten after all, and Epaminondas had shown how. Epaminondas had a vision that went far beyond battlefield wizardry.
He invaded Spartan territory itself, coming close to fighting in Sparta’s streets had a swollen river not barred his way. It was said that no Spartan woman had ever seen the campfires of an enemy, so secure was Sparta on its home turf.
Spartan women certainly saw the fires of the Theban army. If he couldn’t take Sparta itself, Epaminondas could take its manpower, the thousands of helots made to work Spartan lands.
Setting free these Peloponnesian slaves, Epaminondas founded the new city of Messene, which was quickly fortified to stand as a bulwark against Spartan resurgence.
Epaminondas also founded the city of Megalopolis and revived Mantinea to serve as fortified centres for the Arcadians, who had also been under Sparta’s thumb for centuries.
A short-lived victory
After Leuctra and the subsequent invasion of the Peloponnese, Sparta was done as a great power. Theban supremacy, alas, lasted only a decade.
In 362, during a battle between Thebes and Sparta at Mantinea, Epaminondas was mortally wounded. Although the battle was a draw, the Thebans could no longer continue the successes Epaminondas had masterminded.
According to the historian Xenophon, Greece then descended into anarchy. Today on the plain of Leuctra, you can still see the permanent trophy set up to mark the precise spot where the Theban left broke the Spartan right.
The remaining blocks of the ancient monument have been joined with modern materials to reconstruct the trophy’s original appearance. Modern Leuctra is a tiny village, and the battlefield is most quiet, providing a moving place to contemplate the epochal clash of arms of 479 BC.
C. Jacob Butera and Matthew A. Sears the authors of Battles and Battlefield of Ancient Greece, bringing together ancient evidence and modern scholarship on 20 battlefields throughout Greece. Published by Pen & Sword Books.