In 371 BC two Greek city-states, bound in hatred for one another, prepared to settle their dispute with spear and shield. On the plain of Leuctra, thousands of Theban-lead Boeotian soldiers assembled under the aegis of their leader Epaminondas, a man whose tactical innovations completely revolutionised the Greek art of war. His force aimed to topple the dominant military power of the time: Sparta.
The odds appeared firmly stacked against the Thebans. Their army was outnumbered and faced a Spartan-led force confident of victory. Yet the result of this encounter would decide the future for both Thebes and Sparta: futures of supremacy or subjugation.
4th century BC Greece
Greece at the start of the 4th fourth century BC was still reeling from its recent history. The Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War had decimated Athens’ military power and left the victors the dominant city in the Greek world. But already wars had broken out, with prestigious cities such as Corinth and Athens desperate for independence from the Spartan yoke.
For Sparta, victory in the Peloponnesian War was just the start. They sought lasting authority. Like Athens and Corinth, Thebes resented the Spartan influence. By 378 BC, enough was enough. That year, a successful coup by a small group of Theban exiles succeeded in expelling both Sparta’s military and political presence from the city. Thebes celebrated. They had thrown off “the fetters of the Lacedaemonian supremacy, which were thought indissoluble and not to be broken,” in Plutarch’s words.
The Boeotian War
For the next seven years, war between these two cities ensued. Neither side could land anything near a decisive blow. This indecisiveness benefited Thebes significantly as their influence in their homeland of Boeotia grew stronger. With that came confidence that they could topple Sparta in its own field of expertise: warfare.
Both Theban leaders Epaminondas and Pelopidas were men who had, according to Plutarch, “a divine desire of seeing their country glorious by their exertions”. They dreamt of a powerful Greece, lead by their own glorious city.
And so we get to 371 BC. Following an attempt to end the war, Sparta made peace with Athens and other major Greek cities that had also taken part in this conflict. Yet there was one notable failure. Epaminondas, buoyed by ambition, confidence or hatred of Spartan leadership, refused to agree to the treaty. The reason? Such a treaty would have removed Theban influence it had gained over its neighbouring cities and reinstated Sparta as the dominant power.
This would have reversed all the steps he had so far. Why should his city give up control of its allies when Sparta would not consider doing the same with theirs? Peace talks failed, but they had achieved one critical matter. The war for supremacy was now solely between these two contestants and their allies. Within twenty days of the failed talks, both armies faced each other on the plain of Leuctra.
The Battle of Leuctra 371 BC
Leuctra’s landscape was well-suited for warfare centred around the hoplite infantryman. Armed with a spear and shield these men fought as one in trained formations called phalanxes. Although cavalry and light troops were usually also at these battles, it was these heavy infantrymen that almost always decided the fate of the engagement.
Leuctra was ideal for this warfare. A flat plain with dry ground and zero obstacles allowed the formations to be maintained with relative ease. Indeed, the plain of Leuctra became so ideal for settling Greek disputes that it became known as the ‘dancing floor of Greek war.’ Battle was imminent and the Spartan force, outnumbering that of the Thebans by a ratio of 3:2, was confident of victory. Yet Epaminondas and Pelopidas had their own reason for confidence.
The critical innovation
Epaminondas knew how the Spartans would fight. He knew two things of the enemy: that their cavalry was atrocious and their best troops would be located on the right flank. These troops would be the Spartans themselves, hoping to bulldoze their opposing forces and then envelop the rest of the opposing army. Yet in their own army, the Spartans themselves numbered only 700. The majority of its army was made up of its allies, forced to send troops due to treaty obligations. Thus if the Spartans themselves were defeated, these allies would have no reason for fighting.
Here came the simple, but deadly innovation. Rather than lining up in a similar fashion to the Spartan army, Epaminondas concentrated his strongest forces on the left wing. The intent was to destroy the Spartan force before the rest of the army had even engaged. Rigorous military training of these Thebans, instigated by Epaminondas, meant that these men were no mere levies, but capable fighters. Spearheading these soldiers was Thebes’ Sacred Band.
The Sacred Band
Lead by Pelopidas, these 300 men were the cream of the Theban army and their answer to the full-time professional soldiers of Sparta. Consistent training and fitness had made them more than equal to their counterparts. For the first time, Sparta was not the only Greek power with full-time soldiers.
Following the destruction of the Spartan cavalry at Leuctra by their own superior mounted troops, the Thebans, fronted by the Sacred Band, charged the Spartan foot. Despite resistance, even after their king, Cleombrotus, had fallen, the Spartans succumbed to the Boeotian phalanx. Plutarch recalls “That there began such a flight and slaughter amongst the Spartans as was never known before”.
Seeing Spartan troops in flight, Sparta’s allies refused to engage. The battle was over. Epaminondas’ tactics and militarisation of the Theban army had resulted in a glorious victory. Pausanias even went as far to state that this victory was the most famous ever won by Greeks over Greeks. The Spartans had simply been outgeneralled. Spartan supremacy began to crumble and Thebes became the new dominant city in the Greek world. Epaminondas and Pelopidas, through their efforts to make this happen, had achieved their goal.
Theban dominance would be short-lived. Both men died shortly after Leuctra in different battles (Epaminondas at Mantinea and Pelopidas in Thessaly). Following their deaths, Theban power crumbled and Greece again became divided and weak. But such division directly paved the way for a new power; that of Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander.
Influencing a king
One of the most fascinating consequences from Leuctra was its influence on the future Philip II of Macedon. A hostage in Thebes at the time of Leuctra, he would have undoubtedly heard of the heroics of the city’s soldiers. Philip’s own innovations to the Macedonian army followed Epaminondas’ demonstration of how the Greek phalanx could be beaten.
Like the Thebans at Leuctra, this phalanx’s strength came from very deep ranks. Its men carried radical six-metre-long pikes, combined with sufficient training to maintain this radical new formation, even when active on the battlefield! Philip also increased the effectiveness of his cavalry. Leuctra had shown that the use of cavalry and infantry in joint action could have a devastating impact.
Philip’s new-look Macedonian army would prove its worth against the Greek cities (including Thebes’ Sacred Band) 33 years later at Chaeronea. This victory would pave the way for Philip’s son, Alexander, to become one of the greatest generals in antiquity.