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Warfire in ancient Greece

Warfire in ancient Greece

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Published by: Cristina Bogdan on Feb 22, 2011
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From 378 BC Thebes and Athens engaged in intermittent and indecisive war
against Sparta and her allies. Thebes had been the main beneficiary of this
struggle. Despite Spartan opposition Thebes had managed to re-establish her
ascendancy in Boeotia and to recreate the Boeotian League under her own
direction. She had once again become a major power and wanted recognition
of that fact. Probably from 373 the Spartans and their allies under the Spartan
king Cleombrotus had maintained substantial forces based in Phocis and around
Orchomenus in northwest Boeotia, thus conjuring up the possibility of an
invasion from that direction. Despite Sparta’s supposed supremacy, the 370s
had seen her strength erode in the wake of border disputes, the loss of allies in
central Greece accompanied by the disaffection of many who remained, a series
of naval defeats, and more ominously by a defeat by Thebes on land at Tegyra
near Orchomenus which bore some resemblance to later encounters. Athens,
the other major power she was in alliance with, had cleared the sea of Spartan
ships but was exhausted by the demands that naval warfare made on her
financial resources. All sides seemed ready for a peace.
In 371 with Persian support a peace conference was convened at Sparta.
The treaty contained an autonomy clause from which by mutual agreement
Sparta’s and Athens’ allies were excluded. The Theban delegation on which
Epaminondas served as boeotarch (see no. 116) at first swore separately,
acknowledging the end of the Boeotian League, but then thought better of
the matter and requested its oath to be taken on behalf of all of the members
of the Boeotian League. The Spartans refused to allow this and so isolated
Thebes. It seems clear that some of the Spartans were determined to neutralize
Theban power by dismantling the league. Under Epaminondas’ urging the
Thebans refused to comply. An ultimatum was sent to Thebes to sign the
treaty under the terms offered or to face military action. The Spartan troops
in northwestern Boeotia under King Cleombrotus invaded Boeotia from the
north down the valley of the Kephisos River.
Learning of the attack the Thebans and the other members of the Boeotian
League encamped their forces at Coronea to block Cleombrotus’ most obvious
southern invasion route. Learning of this Cleombrotus turned away and marched
to the western coastal area, turning Coronea and securing his communications

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with the Peloponnese. He then turned inland and advanced as far as the flat
plain of Leuctra and encamped there on some low-lying hills on the southern
edge of the plain. His forces now posed the threat of an invasion of Boeotia or a
more direct threat against Thebes itself. Epaminondas and the rest of the
boeotarchs reacted to the news by marching hurriedly to the rescue. They reached
the hills that rim the northern edge of the plain and encamped opposite the
Spartans. The plain is about three-quarters of a mile in breadth and slopes gently
towards the south. It is for the most part featureless and little could have happened
in the plain without its being observed from either encampment.
The ancient sources are in disagreement about numbers beyond the fact that
the Spartans and their allies outnumbered the Boeotians. The figures generally
accepted would give the Spartan army a total of nine to ten thousand hoplites
and between eight hundred and a thousand cavalry. Lacedaemonians supplied
between a quarter and a half of the infantry. The Boeotian army, which included
no allied contingents, was composed of about six to seven thousand hoplites,
four thousand of whom were Thebans, and one thousand cavalry.
Neither side was eager for battle. The Spartan king given his numerical
superiority and his past lack of success against the Boeotians feared that a refusal
to fight might be seen as treasonable. Some of the Boeotian commanders were
also reluctant as they felt that open battle in a level plain would give the
advantage to the Spartans because of their numbers. But Epaminondas finally
was able to persuade a majority to vote for battle. Three main accounts of the
battle have been preserved. The only contemporary one, written by Xenophon,
fails to mention Epaminondas or any peculiarity in the tactics of the battle
except for the extraordinary depth of the Theban battle formation which was
arrayed fifty men deep against the more normal Spartan depth of twelve. The
other accounts are much later though they appear to go back to fourth-century
sources and can be used to supplement Xenophon, who seems to have been
more concerned to account for the Spartan defeat than to explain the Theban
victory. What emerges from the sources is that Epaminondas enlarged upon
and developed certain features that were traditional elements in hoplite combat
in combination with a peculiarity of Theban hoplite tactics. The Thebans had
traditionally arrayed their troops in an unusually deep formation. At Delium
they had been twenty-five deep. Now this tendency culminated in a fifty shield
depth at Leuctra. Secondly, he again utilized in a purposeful manner a normal
characteristic of hoplite warfare—the decision on one wing, usually the right.
Epaminondas stationed his main strength on his left wing and positioned his
line obliquely so that he offered his left wing for battle while keeping his center
and right refused. He intended that the mass on his left would meet the Spartan
army at the point where Cleombrotus was and break the Spartan line before
it had a chance to encircle his left. The very depth of that left would slow the
completion by the Spartans of their encircling movement. The elite Sacred Band
would serve as the cutting edge of the Theban line.
Less than ten years later these tactics were to be repeated with less success

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at Mantinea. Nevertheless, the development of these tactics prolonged the
usefulness of hoplite infantry by building on its inherent traits to transform it
from a direct confrontation of two lines into a more flexible affair where
force could be applied at chosen points, so that elements which themselves
all had precedents in previous practice were combined in a new and tactically
effective way.

Spartan casualties were heavy with four hundred out of a total of seven
hundred killed, and politically the effects of the victory were immense. Sparta
lost much prestige by simply showing that she could be beaten on the field of
battle. Her losses were so high that she was thrown back on the defensive
and allowed Thebes to establish her domination of Boeotia as well as detach
the Arcadians from the Spartans in the Peloponnese. These developments
eventually led to the loss of territories crucial to maintaining Sparta’s position
as a major power.

196. Xenophon, Hellenica 6.4.8–15

Xenophon’s version of these events is the only contemporary account we
have but it raises serious problems. It takes no note of tactical innovation as
a key feature of this battle. Perhaps the best explanation is that Xenophon
was really interested in giving an account of the reasons for Sparta’s defeat
and failed to recognize the genius of Epaminondas.

Certainly in this battle all went badly for the Spartans, but for Thebans everything turned out
well as they had luck on their side. After breakfast Cleombrotus held his final council about
the coming battle. At midday the Spartans had been drinking and it is said that the wine acted
as a stimulant.

When both sides were arming and it was obvious that a battle was about to take place,
those who had been providing a market for the Boeotian forces, as well as baggage carriers
and those who were not willing to fight, began to leave the Boeotian army. But the
mercenaries under Hero, the peltasts from Phocea and the Heraclean and Phliasian cavalry
surrounded this group and began to attack them. They turned them back and pursued them
as far as the Boeotian camp. The net result was that they made the Boeotian army more
numerous and compact than it had been before.
Then since the ground between the Spartans and their allies and the Boeotians was level
the Spartans ordered their cavalry to take a position in front of their phalanx and the Thebans
instructed their cavalry to take up a position opposite the Spartans. The Theban cavalry were
well-trained because of the war against Orchomenus and Thespiae, but the Spartan cavalry at
this period was of the poorest quality. The rich raised the horses. But it was only at call up
that the assigned cavalryman appeared. Receiving his horse and whatever arms were available
the trooper took to the field immediately. The least physically capable and those without
ambition found their way into the cavalry. This was the state of each side’s cavalry forces.
As far as the heavy infantry were concerned, the Spartans marched their companies three
abreast so that their line was no more than twelve men deep. But the Theban phalanx were
arrayed not less than fifty men deep, because they thought that if they could prevail against
the king and his bodyguard the rest would be easy.
At this point Cleombrotus began to move forward against the enemy even before his
own troops perceived the movement. Now the cavalry of both sides encountered one
another and the Spartans were quickly defeated; in their flight they entangled themselves

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with some of their own infantry and then the Thebans struck. Nevertheless at first
Cleombrotus and his bodyguard were superior in the battle as the following evidence
makes clear: the Spartans would not have been able to take up the wounded king’s body
and carry him off while he was still alive unless those fighting in front of him had been
victorious up until that point. Then the polemarch Deinon fell, and Sphodrias from those
in attendance on the king’s tent and his son Cleonymus were killed while the knights, the
so-called companions of the polemarch and other troops were pushed back by the weight
of the Thebans and gave ground. When they saw this, the Lacedaemonian troops of the
left wing gave way. Nonetheless, after they had crossed the ditch in front of their camp,
they halted and ground arms at the place from which they had begun their attack. The
camp was not situated on perfectly level ground but was on a slight rise. Some of the
Spartans who found the thought of the enemy’s victory unbearable asserted that the
Spartans had to stop the Boeotians from erecting a trophy and further demanded that the
bodies of the fallen be recovered not by a truce but by renewing the fighting. The Spartan
polemarchs, noting that the Lacedaemonians had lost a thousand men of whom
approximately four hundred out of seven hundred were Spartans, and also that the allies
had lost heart for the fight (indeed, some were not unhappy with the result), took counsel
from the most suitable individuals as to what needed to be done. When all had decided
to seek the bodies of their fallen comrades under truce, they sent a herald to discuss the
terms for a truce. After this the Thebans returned the bodies under truce and erected a
trophy.

197. Plutarch, Pelopidas 23.1

Plutarch’s account of the battle is now generally thought to be based on the
late fourth-century historian Callisthenes. It most probably came from his
Hellenica, a history of Greek affairs between 387 and 357 BC. Some scholars
have gone so far as to suggest it is a manufactured tradition of the later
fourth century.

In the battle Epaminondas advanced towards the left with his phalanx drawn up obliquely, in
order that the Spartan right wing should be separated as far as possible from the rest of the
army and also to force Cleombrotus back by falling upon him in mass on his wing. When the
enemy saw what they were doing they began to change their formation and they extended
their right and led it around to encircle and surround Epaminondas with their mass. But at
this point Pelopidas, after he had collected his force of three hundred, ran forward to
anticipate Cleombrotus’ attempt to extend his line or to return to his earlier formation and
close his front. His attack fell upon men who were not yet in position but still in disorder. This
happened although the Spartans, master craftsmen in the art of war, had practised and
accustomed themselves to nothing so much as to maintaining their positions and not
disturbing their ranks during a change of formation, but to accept anyone as either a rank-
mate or file-mate and to control and form compactly and to fight with equal intensity
wherever there was danger.
But this time the phalanx of Epaminondas was coming at them and avoiding the rest of
their army and Pelopidas attacked with unbelievable daring and quickness. All of this
confounded their skill and plan and so the result was an unparalleled flight and slaughter of
the Spartans. Through these actions Pelopidas who was not boeotarch as Epaminondas was
and commanded only a small portion of the Boeotian forces, gained a reputation equal to the
latter.

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