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CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
- Twilight of the Polis
In this lecture, Professor Kagan describes the growth of a new power: Thebes. Under the leadership of Epaminondas and Pelopidas, Thebes grows into a major power among the Greek cities. In fact, the Thebans even rout the Spartans in a standard hoplite battle in the battle of Leuctra. Finally, Professor Kagan points out that by the time of Theban hegemony, the Greek world had experienced so many wars and conflicts that it opened the door to a powerful leader: Philip of Macedon.
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 23 - Twilight of the Polis
Chapter 1. The Rise of Theban Hegemony [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: Let me remind you that the Spartans, ever since their victory in the Peloponnesian War had been attempting to extend their hegemony, at first all the way over into Asia, and then when that was thwarted, they tried to do so on the mainland of Greece, and one consequence of their effort and the failure to achieve it in an easy way was the restoration of Athens to a primary position in the Greek world. Again, not as powerful as Sparta, but once again an independent state that was capable of being a serious opponent of the Spartans. Today, I want to talk about the emergence of a third great power in this period which had never had a position, I think, of something resembling equality with the leading powers in the Greek world, although it had had periods when it was very strong anyway. Thebes is what I’m talking about.
Now, if you look at the situation in 379, when the Spartans were in control of Thebes as a consequence of the actions of Phoebidas, there was a Spartan garrison there in the city, on its acropolis, there were Spartan garrisons in other towns in Boeotia and it was probably as a low a point for the Thebans as they had experienced since the 450s when the Athenians gained control of Boeotia. But starting with the successful Theban rebellion which overthrew the Spartan command of the city, the Thebans launched a period of growth in power, influence, wealth, and even to some degree extent which justifies modern historians in speaking about a period perhaps beginning in 371 and running at least a decade, to which they give the name the Theban Hegemony, and today I want to talk about how that happened and how it sort of developed and ended.
The Spartans invaded, after the Theban overthrow of Spartan rule and in the first year the leader in that invasion was given to the young King Cleombrotus, not to Agesilaus, and his failure to undertake that command exercised the minds of ancient writers as well as modern ones. One answer whenever Agesilaus doesn’t take command of an army, which is following a policy that he likes, people suggest that he might have been physically incapable of doing it. He was an old man and he had been injured and so that’s a plausible reason at any time, and yet the ancient writers were persuaded that there were times when he was simply playing politics in some complicated way and choosing not to take the command. This is one of those occasions when they speculate that he was trying to get Cleombrotus engaged in this anti-Theban policy, which would provide for greater support for that general Agesilean policy and that that’s why he had worked it so that Cleombrotus got the command.
We simply can’t be sure about what the truth of that is. Cleombrotus, however, did not wage a very aggressive campaign and that first invasion of 378 produced very, very little. However, subsequent Spartan invasions also, even those led by Agesilaus, were not successful. The Thebans were able gradually to gather their strength, to recover parts of Boeotia and bring them under their power, and to drive the Spartans away without yielding anything of importance. One of the consequences — I’m talking really about the years 378, 377, 376 and into 375.
One of the things that the Thebans engaged in, in this period, and it’s extremely important because it provides the basis for the power that they will develop, was a reconstruction of the Boeotian League. The Thebans had commanded or led, or dominated the Boeotian League before. They changed its constitution, however, in these years in a way that was rather important. In a word, to simply the matter, the entire operation of the league became more democratic. They used to have the decisive bodies that determined the Theban policy in the form of four separate councils, which were sort of indirect regimes that really made the policy. The new constitution made the decisive place really an assembly in which all the representatives of the Theban cities came and made policy in an assembly not in separate councils, all of which could be more readily controlled by oligarchic figures, and the only thing is that the meetings of the Boeotian League took place in Thebes.
Now, not only did Thebes have a majority of representatives in that league, or at least the largest number by virtue of its size and its leading role, but the fact that it all took place in Thebes meant that there would be more Thebans there and more Thebans playing an influential role in what was going on. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t discount the truly democratic nature of this regime. It’s a new thing. Boeotia and Thebes used to be bulwark of oligarchy, and it became a remarkably democratic city, and I think there’s reason to take note of the fact that this seemed to have had an impact on Thebes and Boeotia much like the one that Herodotus praises so highly back when Athens became democratic, when they threw out their tyrants, and established the Cleisthenic regime, Herodotus says that they became better warriors. They produced a better army; they began defeating their enemies as they had not done before.
I think that is very clearly also what happens in Thebes. We can’t get away from the fact that Thebes became a more formidable military power thereafter. Whether or not it’s linked to democracy is open to argument, but I think there is a real argument that would say it worked that way. At least, we don’t know the details of this very well, but a very unusual thing seems to have happened. The Thebans ultimately were able to increase the size of their army by using farmers, who would not ordinarily have been able to afford hoplite equipment, but somehow the state managed to equip poorer farmers and to turn them into hoplites, so that ultimately the army that Thebes commanded — when you get down to the years after the Battle of Leuctra, in which the Thebans and their friends defeated the Spartans, you will see that really a huge army, by Greek standards, goes marching into the Peloponnesus of which a large portion was this Theban hoplite group that was much more potent, because of its size and it could be argued because of the spirit of these newly hoplited democrats, you might say.
Well, as the Thebans were developing this league they were also fighting the Spartans and gradually driving the Spartans back. For instance, they destroyed the city of Plataea, which was always on the side of the enemies of Thebes. In this case they were on the side of the Spartans, and it would take a while before that was undone. They also placed a number of cities under Theban command. They didn’t need to do that, for most of the cities in Boeotia, because mostly they seemed to be satisfied and pleased to cooperate with — and why not? I mean, I should make the point clear as to why they would be happy to do that. When the Spartans invaded Boeotia they didn’t only beat up Thebes. In fact, Thebes was less hurt than were the other towns because Thebes was further away and better equipped to defend itself.
Every time the Spartans came in they ravaged the Boeotian countryside and did harm to these Boeotian towns. So, it was Thebes that was the defender, the protector of the Boeotians against the Spartans, and this certainly gave them popularity; it helps explain why this new Boeotian confederation was so effective and so loyal. The Thebans were doing a key job for Boeotia and the Boeotians. Meanwhile, this new army that was being put together — it wasn’t of course entirely new, its heart would have been the old Boeotian hoplite farmer group, but it was added to and it was given this new twist. I think really a combination twist of two kinds of elements that explain a kind of enthusiasm, a kind of morale boost that they had.
One was a greater sense of what we would call nationalism. It’s obviously an anachronistic for the city states but we don’t have a better word for it. That is to say, this constant warfare, these constant attacks by the Spartans, culminating in this seizure of their city against all custom, against all law and in a very unpleasant way, and the support of these oligarchs as against the common people, the ordinary folks, so that when this new regime led — I should point out by these two extraordinary military leaders, Pelopidas and Epaminondas, when these fellows also were responsible for the liberation of Thebes, especially Pelopidas, and when they were leading the fight for the defense of Boeotia, all of that meant that there was a growing feeling of “we are Boeotians, we are together, and the enemy is the Spartans and we need to fight them.” To that, if you throw in the feeling that democracy appears to have in its first burst especially — I should point out that the Athenian extraordinary success on land occurs right after the democratic revolution of Cleisthenes.
I don’t say they become bad thereafter but they’re never again quite as extraordinary as a land force as they are then. An analogy that’s often drawn is with the armies of the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, which really were fantastically successful right after the revolution began and they began enrolling and de-conscripting great numbers of people who would never have been in the army before in the name of the nation, in the name of freedom, in the name of all kinds of lovely things. Again, it’s often neglected that the French already had a terrific army before that happened and they had wonderful officers and generals, and were skilled in the art of war. So, it was a kind of a best of all worlds where they had a solid base for military superiority, to which was added this great business of numbers and the zeal that went with it.
Something like that I believe is going on here in the 370s to help explain what’s happening to what becomes this enormously powerful and successful Theban army. The fighting goes on. The Thebans, you remember, joined with the Athenians against the Spartans back at the time of the foundation of the Second Athenian Confederacy in 377 and they do work together for a time, but it doesn’t take very long for there to grow up differences between the Athenians and the Boeotians. They are, if you look back at the whole history, more frequently enemies than they are friends. There are longstanding differences, suspicions, attitudes that are not entirely friendly and so on, and as Theban power grows, and as the threat from Sparta diminishes, the Athenians become less enthusiastic about their alliance with Thebes, because the Thebans are now emerging as a contender for the leading position for a hegemonal position in Greece. So, we will see the Athenians and the Thebans gradually moving apart in the decade of the 370s.
Chapter 2. The 375 Peace Proposal [00:14:42]
There was in 375 a proposal for peace to be established in the warring Greek world. It was apparently — there’s some difference of opinion among our sources, but one thing that seems clear, the King of Persia was in favor of it. The ancient writers explain his reason for doing that, for being interested in having that happen, because he had other wars to fight. As to often was the case, there was a rebellion in Egypt, which was always a serious menace, so he wanted peace so that he could hire Greek mercenaries to fight in his army. Perhaps that wasn’t the only reason that the great king had. He must have been worried at the growth of Athenian power and influence at sea, which was continuing throughout this period. The Second Athenian Confederacy never had the power and extent that the great empire had had in the fifth century, but it was scary from the standpoint of the great king and so he might very well have wanted to restore peace to Greece as a way of stopping excuses for further expansion on the part of the Athenians.
On the other hand, the Athenians were not unhappy to make peace as an opportunity to consolidate the gains that they had had and because that would put a stop to what I think was beginning to worry them, the expansion of Thebes. Now, mind you, they’re still worried number one about Sparta in 375. Spartans haven’t been defeated by anybody; they’re still the most serious power, and they’re still the power that stands for Persian power in the Greek world, but things have become more complicated as Thebes has emerged on the scene.
Well, the ancient writer, Diodorus especially, speaks of an event — well, let me describe the event. He says that when it was time to sign this common peace — maybe I want to say a word about that too. The Greek words for common peace are koine eirene; it is a term that comes up again and again in the fourth century in attempting to bring peace agreements among the Greek states. It’s a new thing. As you know, peace in the past usually took the form of the swearing of oaths to accept a peace treaty on very specific terms between combatants in that war. The koine eireneconcept has a more modern ring to it, and it seems to have the idea that there should be a common peace among all the Greeks, and that the signatories should be responsible for upholding that common peace. It’s a very interesting idea and it sparked enormous interest in scholars, I think especially after the First World War, when all of the hopeful talk about the League of Nations and Kant’s picture of perpetual peace and all of that stuff was flying around in certain circles, so people hoped to see in the koine eirene, this might have been a preliminary sign of that same kind of idea.
But it didn’t work any better in the ancient world than it has worked in the modern world. To get back to the first suggestion in 375 about having such a thing, the states were agreed to do it, and then trouble came when Thebes insisted that just as the Spartans could sign on behalf of all of their allies for the Peloponnesian League, the Thebans wanted the right to sign for all of their Boeotian allies on behalf of the Boeotian League. It would have been the de factorecognition of the Boeotian League with Thebes as its leader. This is really what happened, if you put your minds back to 445 in the thirty-years peace that concluded what we call the first Peloponnesian War. When the Spartans allowed the Athenians to sign and speak for all of the members of its league they were giving de facto recognition and regarding the Athenians as their equals. This was something that the Spartans no doubt led chiefly in this view by Agesilaus; they were not going to let the Thebans do it.
In fact, we’re told in a very bold action Agesilaus struck the Thebans from the lists, the list of those who would take part in the peace because they insisted on this clause. Now, there’s a problem about this. The same story almost identically is told in 371 when we come to the attempt at another koine eirenee, to bring peace to the general Greek world, the whole story is told in pretty much the same way and the up shot of the one in 371 will be the Great Battle of Leuctra. This had led some scholars to say Diodorus, who is the source of these tales, simply has screwed up, has got it wrong; this is what they call a doublet. Somehow he projected backwards an event that really happened in 371 and has it happen twice.
I’m very, very suspicious about modern historians who are prepared rip up pieces of ancient historians, because we know better and it just doesn’t make any sense is the argument. The truth is, I can see no reason why this shouldn’t have happened twice. Certainly, Epaminondas would have insisted on that, certainly the Spartans would have objected to it, the actions that go with it strike me as being perfectly okay in 375 and when four years later a similar circumstance emerges, why shouldn’t the same thing happen again? I haven’t really looked into this, but I can imagine if you look through the whole Cold War history I’m sure you’ll find many of the things that are happening over and over again in exactly the same way because the circumstances haven’t changed. So, with my characteristic gullibility I believe in the story as it is told in 375.
Chapter 3. Fighting Resumes; The Sacred Band of Thebes and the Battle of Leuctra [00:21:29]
Well, fighting resumes since the peace really didn’t hold and the Thebans continue — and the Boeotians in general continue to successfully fight off the Spartans. I should have mentioned in the course of this fighting, soon after the treaty, there’s an amazing occasion which has harbingers for the future. A Spartan army is marching in one direction, a Theban army is marching in another direction, the Spartans outnumber the Thebans very greatly. In fact, the whole Theban force is simply the 300 men who had been formed pretty recently into a special elite fighting core called the Sacred Band. Their special quality was that in addition to be excellent warriors and trained especially for their job, they were homosexual lovers who stood and fought right next to each other. This was just carrying forward the principle that the Spartans had used in one way and another, and it turned out to be equally successful.
This Sacred Band was a tremendous fighting force and will play a critical role in the important Battle of Leuctra. Anyway, they managed to defeat in a hoplite battle, a Spartan force that is greater than they are. It’s not a real hundred percent hoplite battle, the numbers — there are only 300 Thebans, even though there’s about 1,000 Spartans. The way the battle is fought is not traditional, typical, it’s a little peculiar so you really can’t regard it as the decisive time, somebody beat a Spartan hoplite phalanx in battle. That will have to wait until Leuctra. On the other hand, the evidence of the ancients is that it really impressed the Greek world in general, and even this form of a victory over Spartan hoplites, was unprecedented and it really I think kind of shook some people in terms of their confidence that the Spartans would always win a battle like that.
So, the fighting goes on, on all the fronts that I have mentioned to you, until finally we get down to 371 and in 371 the same thing happens. There is a pressure from the Persians for a general peace, the Athenians are not against that idea, but the same tale I told you last time, there’s no question that it happened at Leuctra, nobody doubts that and the result was a renewal of the war with the Spartans taking the lead, aggressively moving into Boeotia as they had done every time before. I think it’s very worth mentioning that we don’t have any case up to now, up to 371, in which the Boeotians and their friends and allies march into the Peloponnesus. All the attacking has been by the Spartans into Boeotia, which means these wars have always been costly to Boeotia but not to Sparta, and we’ll see that one of the things that Epaminondas wants to do when he can is to reverse that situation.
So, this brings us to the Battle of Leuctra; Leuctra is a town in southwestern Boeotia. The two armies march towards each other; there’s a lot of maneuvering this way and that way, but finally they come onto this rather small field. You can go there today and look at it; it really is pretty easy to place the ancient story into the modern geography. There’s a plain between two hills, one to the south and one to the north. Boeotian army took up its position on the northern hill, and the Spartans took up theirs on the southern hill, and then finally when the daylight came they move forward and fought each other in this field which is sort of — it’s plenty big enough for any kind of hoplite battle that you want to have. Some scholars have wanted to make the battle in terms of a limited space but I think that really isn’t an issue. This is a sort of a typical hoplite battlefield.
So, Cleombrotus marches on Thebes, again, it’s not Agesilaus, and I mean this looks like the culmination of Agesilaus’ anti-Theban policy; he’s not there. Again, the ancient writers and modern scholars wonder why he wasn’t there. I’m prepared to take the simple-minded view; if he wasn’t there, he couldn’t have been there. He must have been out of action for physical reasons, because I can’t imagine any good reason why he wouldn’t want to be there for the payoff here. Anyway, there was something in the neighborhood of 10,000 Spartan hoplites and maybe 1,000 cavalry and the Boeotian side is less clear maybe 6,000 maybe 7,000 Boeotian hoplites. So, they are outnumbered and I think that has a lot to do with the tactics that Epaminondas employs in fighting this battle.
It’s a famous battle; it’s an important battle. So, I’ll take a few moments to talk about the battle itself. Again, this is much debated; it’s not easy to know what’s going on or why it’s going on. Let’s start with the important point that the Thebans were outnumbered. So, it really was up to Epaminondas to think of some way to overcome this disadvantage. Normal course of events 6,000 or 7,000 against 10,000 in a regular hoplite battle you can — the bookies would take the game off the board. I mean, especially if they’re Spartans and Peloponnesians. The bigger battalions are going to win. So Epaminondas comes up with certainly — nobody can deny that he came up with some kind of plan. What am I fussing about here?
Some scholars have wanted to emphasize not the tactics of Epaminondas, but rather the superior fighting qualities of this new Theban, democratic, national army. Well, I certainly think that made a difference. I give real credit to that element and yet I can’t escape thinking that there really was a very tricky, unusual, strategy of tactics or operational plan used by Epaminondas that accounts in a considerable part for the success of the Thebans in this battle. The normal way you line up is — sort of the leading forces on each side take up the right wing of their phalanx. That’s the position of honor and that’s where you try to beat the other guy. That has the consequence incidentally of meaning that the best army doesn’t fight against the best army. In each case, the best army is fighting against a weaker portion of the enemy army.
That’s not what Epaminondas wanted. He put his Theban forces with the 300 Sacred Band members at the front of it; his own group was at the left side of the Boeotian line facing the Spartans directly. Now, the Spartans had to realize when they saw what was going on — forgive me, I forgot to tell you another very important thing. Instead of the usual depth of the phalanx eight, twelve, maybe sixteen ranks, Epaminondas loaded his left wing fifty men deep. It may be precedented, but if so it’s extremely rare in the past. Then when he started for battle he took his left wing and moved it obliquely further to the left. The plan being to flank the Spartans, if they could, and come at them from their vulnerable side and to do so in tremendous strength.
I think the idea of the tremendous strength and depth was to win on that side quickly, because he was weak, obviously, on his right. I suppose that the force immediately after the Thebans would itself present a problem, because if the Thebans went sharply to the left on this occasion with their deep powerful phalanx, the guys next to them probably would move with them to some degree, but not with the same speed and not with the same determination, because the situation — so there was the danger of there being an opening right there; that would have been very scary. Apparently, Epaminondas told the people on the right — I would have thought everybody to the right of his outfit, to proceed only very slowly. If that’s the case, the Peloponnesian army on their left would have had to take some time before they could encounter the Boeotian army. So, the first fighting would be on the left, where Epaminondas wanted it and his hope was in a way this is a variety of the Marathon strategy.
You remember the big thing there was the Athenians under Miltiades hoped to win swiftly on the wings where they had greater depth. They knew they would lose in the middle, they just hoped they would lose slower, than they would win on the wings. I think this is a version of the same idea. So, Epaminondas and his block of Thebans goes to the left, and I would argue and the ancient sources say this too, swiftly as Herodotus said of the Athenians at Marathon, dromoi, on the run. Well, I guess that means on the trot, and so they wanted to get that fight going as fast as they could and to win it as fast as they could. Well, that’s the essential idea, that they would win powerfully on the left and send the Spartans into route and thereby destroy their whole campaign. Now, we have to account for funny things that happen apart from the phalanx.
Before the battle is over, both sides take their cavalry from the usual position on the wings, on the flanks of the phalanx, meant either to protect your wings or to assault the enemy on his wing and move it to the center of the battlefield where it plays a role, and so the question always is what are they doing, what’s this all about? I think one can only speculate. Surely, it would have been a wise thing for Epaminondas to move his cavalry into the center of the field in front of the center of his line, not in front of him but in front of the guys to his right, because they too would have had an effect of slowing down any Spartan attack where there was a vulnerability. So, if you take it from that point of view you could think the Spartans, who definitely moved their cavalry out front did so in order to combat the Theban cavalry.
That would be an explanation enough, but some scholars make an argument, and there’s some reason to think they might be right, that the Spartans seeing what Epaminondas was doing knew that he was trying to flank them on the right side and so they wanted to take steps to prevent being flanked on that side, and so they did something which they tried to do at the Battle of Mantinea, but it didn’t happen for them, they pulled troops out from the center of their line, sent them around behind the phalanx, and put them out on the right wing to prevent exactly that kind of an event. But to prevent the Boeotians from charging that empty spot until it was filled, they sent their cavalry up front to shield them, not only to shield them but in effect to hide them. Certainly, the cavalries being out there would have kicked up a lot of dust, and they could have hoped that the Thebans wouldn’t know what was going on. So, that’s the theory.
What is a fact is that the Boeotian cavalry and the Spartan cavalry clashed, and as I think again the bookies if this had happened, would have predicted the Thebans defeated the Peloponnesians. The Thebans had a superior cavalry. It had to do, of course, with the nature of their land which is better for horses than most of Greek country and so they drove the cavalry back into the Spartan phalanx helping to create confusion and to break ranks and all that kind of stuff. But the real payoff, the real victory in the battle was one where Epaminondas hoped it would be, on his left flank, on the Spartan right flank. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Theban phalanx came swiftly to the place where the Spartan king was located, Cleombrotus, and killed him.
If you look at Greek battles throughout all of their history, killing the general in command is a really good idea, because when you do that you usually win. Have you got numbers Curtis on that or just got a general idea? Of how often that is a decisive or an important element? Very frequent, isn’t it? When you kill the general you win; Curtis knows more about military history in the Greek world than anybody. So, I have to consult him. So that being the case, the Spartans fought bravely and strongly around the body of their king, but that only led more of them to be killed and before very long the Spartan phalanx broke and ran and the Thebans, the Boeotians had won a clear cut unmistakable, blatant victory in a normal hoplite battle, on a normal field, and this was the shock felt round the Greek world that this had happened, just changed everything.
Here’s an interesting fact that tells you something else that’s important about what’s going on in the Greek world. There were only perhaps 700 Spartiates in the whole battle and of these 400 were killed. Think about that; I mean, that’s devastating in so many ways. It had all kinds of effects. We shall see it immediately shook the control of the Spartans, even over the Peloponnesus. It made people think the Spartans were vulnerable and that they might have come to the end of the line, but another interesting contrary consequence was that suddenly Sparta wasn’t scary, but Thebes was very scary, and the Athenians who had already come to be nervous about the Thebans — notice I haven’t mentioned them. They had been the allies of Thebes; they were not at the Battle of Leuctra. As a matter of fact, they were clearly working with the Spartans already to check Theban power and Theban expansion before the Battle of Leuctra. They stayed neutral; they didn’t show up at the battle at all, but it tells you a very important change in the seam in the Greek world at this time.
Chapter 4. The End of Spartan Supremacy and Thebes’s Growth [00:39:18]
So, I think it’s safe to say the Battle of Leuctra put an end to Spartan supremacy. The Spartan hegemony is over and now the question that awaits Greece is what happens next. I think in the normal course of events prior to the build up of this new Thebes, there would have been a division of power between the states, the Athenians would have used some muscle, the Thebans would have used some muscle, some lesser states would have emerged in the vacuum created by the destruction of Spartan power but that would have been that. However, given all that had had happened in Boeotia and the kind of leadership that existed in Thebes, something amazing then happened; the Thebans decided to put an end to Spartan power forever and took a number of measures to bring that about. Just the defeat of Leuctra meant the disintegration of the Peloponnesian League.
A number of states obviously took advantage of Sparta’s weakness to just pull out and get out from under Spartan control. Then in the year 370, the Thebans put together a tremendous army and ultimately marched into the Peloponnesus to do what they were going to do. One of the things that happened reflecting the collapse of the Spartan hegemony in the Peloponnesus was that the towns in the region of Arcadia, the mountainous region to the north of Sparta, put themselves together in the form of the Arcadian League. I mentioned this to your earlier, I believe; it is one of the first federal leagues of a different kind from the one we’ve seen up to now. There is no hegemonal state. It is not some big state and its friends, which even the Boeotian League is still in that category.
It is, in fact, a collection of states that are ostensibly equal and this is entirely voluntary. They are coming together, these Arcadian states, in order to protect themselves and to pursue their interests against the many troubles they’ve had over the years. The question always is then — this is both evidence of what I’m saying that it was a new kind of a league and it reveals the fact that there was no state that was sufficiently superior to the others that could make it obvious that the capital so to speak of this new confederation would be that state. They built a brand new city. It was called, I love it, Megalopolis. That means it ran from Washington to Boston. No I’m sorry. It meant, of course, big polis, big city, big state, whatever you want. But it was the place where the league council met, state sent their representatives to it, their business was done there, and it’s really quite an interesting event, especially as you look ahead in the history of Greece and as I told you last time, that kind of thing had the remarkable influence on the thinking of the shapers of the American Constitution.
The Athenians’ attitude towards this — we think about all this long rivalry between Sparta and Athens that resulted in such terrible wars, it just goes to show you — what was it — Palmesrton in the nineteenth century, British statesman, I think he once said, Britain has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. I think whether that was true of Britain or not at the time, I think we should always realize that that is true of the way states operate in an international system. It is not that they don’t have inclinations and longstanding friendships do have some impact, and longstanding enmities have a greater impact and yet anything can happen. I mean, just to get some sense of that who would have believed that in the 1930s that Great Britain and France would join with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union for any purpose whatever, since they, especially the British, had been interested in putting an end to that regime from the moment that it was invented, and that Winston Churchill would be the greatest advocate of this alliance with Stalin. Winston Churchill, who I tell you, had been a leading figure in having an invasion of Russia in 1920-21, in order to bring down the Bolshevik Regime.
Churchill’s answer, I think, to the question of why you’re doing this, tells you a lot about this general point I’m trying to make. I’m not going to get this exactly right; I don’t have Churchill’s gift and my memory is fading. He said, you know, why are you joining up with Stalin? You’ve been denouncing him forever. He said, if the devil — no I’m sorry, if Hitler invaded hell at the very least I would want to say a few kind words about the devil in the House of Commons. That ought to tell you something about the permanence of these kinds of things. Interests are what matter and the Athenian interests have changed. Thebes was becoming a challenge to the Athenian growth and influence in power, and they did not want the Thebans now to destroy Sparta’s control of the Peloponnesus and replaced it with a Theban control of the Peloponnesus and that accounts both for why Athens is not helping the Thebans, but also in fact, intriguing with states in the Peloponnesus to try to stand up to the Thebans, rather than to do what might seem obvious.
Now, the Thebans were continuing — I’ll come back to their invasion in just a moment. They were continuing to grow, they were gaining allies in central Greece, Phocis, Aetolia, Acarnania, Locris, Euboea. Here again, I’m going to be teaching you general truths about international relations that don’t seem to be part of the ordinary education and that is, power has a fantastically attractive quality. When a state is suddenly enormously powerful — I think the political scientists’ rules and I admit what I just said has been known and been said by many of them many times, but the favorite thing is if there’s a great power what happens next? What happens is all the other states get together and join up to control that power to which the answer is “sometimes.” A lot of times, and they have another term to consider the alternative, which they call bandwagoning and that is states are attracted by that power, want to get on the right side of that power, join up with that power, and that’s what happened here where suddenly the Theban power in that area seemed so strong that you wanted to be on that side.
I’m just in this terrible analogizing mood today so please forgive me, but lest you think the study of ancient history is not relevant to your understanding of the world today, and I know none of you would be so foolish as to think that, let me just look at what’s happening in the Middle East. And I’ll say it before it’s common wisdom, so that you’ll see how smart I am. Syria, which has been nothing but trouble for our side all this time, all of a sudden seems to be behaving in a different way, and even the United States government says that the Syrians seem not to be feeding more Al Qaeda people across the border into Iraq. Why is that? What have they found religion? I guess they had religion already, but the answer is because suddenly the American forces are kicking hell out of everybody in Iraq and suddenly there’s a powerful American army sitting there, which is right next door to Syria. It’s also right next door to Iran. That should have interesting consequences too; the result is that the Syrians are suddenly talking very differently.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there’ll be a permanent change; that will depend upon realities. But you get fed so much gunk in a different direction. The most important single element in international relations, not the only one by any means, but the most important one is power and the perception of where the power is, and the perception of whether that power is growing or shrinking. Nothing is as important as that, everything else contributes, but doesn’t have that central role. Well, that’s the situation that the Thebans have created with their victory and so they are expanding all over the place. Thebans were great landlubbers, they’re even building a navy, they are moving out into the Aegean Sea, and that’s one of the things that has created this nervousness in Athens and explains the Athenian behavior.
Chapter 5. The Great Invasion [00:50:01]
Now comes this great invasion over the year 370, 369. The total force of hoplites in the army put together by Epaminondas is reported to be 40,000. Now, there’s just not a number like that in the whole fifth century, or any time before this. It’s just an amazing army and we are told there were some 30,000 others on the campaign who were not hoplites, maybe many of them weren’t even fighters but a lot of them would have been cavalry, light arm infantry and so on. But in any case, here are 70,000 people meaning no good to the Spartans pouring into the Peloponnesus in that year. It is the largest military force reported in Greek history.
The men in charge are these two extraordinary men, Epaminondas and Pelopidas, who repeatedly proved themselves. By the way, it was Pelopidas who won that victory in 375 at Tegyra, you remember that with the 300. So, he has that great victory on his record and Epaminondas, of course, is the architect of the victory at Leuctra and they just are amazing and remarkable people. If you read some of those — we do not have a Plutarch biography of Epaminondas, although he does give us a Pelopidas, we’re happy about that. But before I get through I will try to remedy that as I tried to do in the case of Thrasybulus by bringing to your attention how great was the reputation of Epaminondas in the Greek world; maybe I should just say a word about him now.
He is reputed to have been a person of great intellect. Apparently, he was a philosopher and took that seriously and was regarded with respect by others of that ilk in that world. Of course, it looks very much as though he is a man of political convictions of such a kind as almost to suggest political theory. I mean, he seems to have been committed to the idea of democracy as a good thing in itself. On this latter point we just don’t have very much evidence, nothing that he said, but we do have what he did which squares perfectly with what we are talking about. It would be — I mean it breaks my heart — these lives that Plutarch did not write. What I would give for a life of Cleisthenes by Plutarch, and similarly of Epaminondas and I’m amazed. I don’t know. Who knows why Plutarch did what he did. But in any case it would be really fascinating in his case, because of the complicated nature of his mind and his life, but there he is along with Pelopidas leaving this armed force in there.
They move down into Laconia, the home territory of the Spartans. Now, the Spartans are forced to huddle in their city and to try to resist anything that comes at them. They cannot go out to fight these people invading their homeland. Their homeland has never been invaded in anybody’s memory. This is out of the question, nothing like this would have been possible, and here they are just hiding in their city. Not even a walled city, because it was part of their pride, they don’t need walls, they have an army. Nobody can come in there and attack their city and there they are. What does Epaminondas do? He does not go after them in that city, because probably — one reason would have been — fighting in the city, urban warfare is always difficult and costly, and nobody until lately, is really good at it.
I mean, I don’t know much you paid attention to what’s going on in Iraq these days in the so called surge, but if you study it as a military problem, then you see how they dealt with that military problem. It is one of the really most brilliant things I have ever seen, because to be successful in the war I’m talking about now requires not only shrewd use of military forces for military purposes, but it has to be integrated with constant political negotiation and conversation with the natives, which has to be associated also with certain economic conditions being brought about so that the people who might be on the other side can be on your side and then you can have them work for you. I’ve only touched on the beginning of all the complexity of that. But in any case, until that happened there are very few cases of really successful urban warfare without a tremendous cost.
Well, of course, before they figured out what to do in Iraq they had some tremendous costs of not figuring it out. What I’m getting at is, yes I’m sure that if Epaminondas had wanted to, he would have been able to defeat the Spartans in their city, but he would have paid a great price. Now, there’s perhaps another consideration. Before I come to that, let me just tell you that what Epaminondas did. He bypassed the city, ravaged the countryside wherever he found it, doing as much harm as he possibly could, and even as this was happening and was obviously reported back to the Spartans, the Spartans did not come out to fight. Now, here’s where I think once again Victor Hansen’s splendid imagination comes into the picture in what I find to be a very persuasive explanation of what’s going on.
He makes this explanation based on an analogy he draws with the army of general Sherman during the American Civil War in Sherman’s famous march to the sea or his march through Georgia. When there is as confederate army to the north of where he goes but he doesn’t seek them out. He goes marching towards where he wants to get to, doing as much damage as he possibly can, destroying the food, the crops, animals, everything, burning down houses, being as nasty and unpleasant as he can be. Why is the question? Well, he is a nasty, unpleasant fellow; not really. We do know a lot about what Sherman thought he was doing because he wrote about it. Sherman apparently hated the southern slaveocrisy.
He wasn’t satisfied with defeating the South as many a northerner was, and then sort of letting it be what it had been before or perhaps destroying slavery itself and leaving everything else pretty much as it had been. He seems to have thought this was a terrible wicked society, and if it wasn’t to go back to its old bad ways, it not only had to be defeated; it had to be humiliated. In his view, part of the success of the south was in building up what he would have thought of as a myth of their aristocratic superiority, which made slave holding appropriate, because the people who were superior were ruling over people who were inferior, and they deserved it, because they were better fighters than anybody else. Everybody thought at the beginning of the war, certainly that the south had a better military tradition, and that they were better soldiers, and I think they were and that they were courageous. Being a great military man means being courageous. All of that justified the system and provided the pride that made it possible to work.
Well, Sherman wanted to show it wasn’t so, and here they were burning down houses and barns, and food, and women folk having to stand there and watch it, and where was the confederate army? They didn’t come down to challenge them and he felt in the process, he was destroying the myth that was more potent. Well, I think Hansen certainly has that right when he talks about Sherman, and it’s very attractive to think that maybe Epaminondas was after the same thing. Here were the Spartans cowering in their city, it would be said, while Epaminondas was doing as he liked with the Peloponnesus. There would never again be a time where people would accept the story that the Spartans were the great fighters, the great heroes etc., etc., etc.
In any case, that’s what he did and then — I think all of this is assisted by some of the things he did and some of the things that he actually said. He went to Mycenae and indeed he went to the place where the Mycenaeans had withdrawn for security in their rebellions up there and he established, or re-established a city called Mycenae. It was powerfully fortified, it was up on a mountain, it was a place where you could really defend it, and it became the capital of Mycenae, which would now be a free Mycenae in which the former helots, the former slaves of the Spartan state, would now rule their own country as they had not done for centuries.
It was a liberation and that was language that Epaminondas used of it. It had the marvelous psychological effect that I am speaking of and also a very practical one. Here was a fortress on the flank of the Spartans, which was controlled by people who hated the Spartans bitterly and that would guarantee that the Spartans would not lightly gain control of the western Peloponnesus again. If you add to that that the Arcadians had suffered plenty from the Spartans and were unwilling to allow the Spartans to rise again, and there was Megalopolis, a walled powerful city that would see to it that the Spartans would never likely be able to make their way into control of central and northern Peloponnesus again. So, all of this combination of power and the strategic use of power, along with this psychological warfare that was involved brought about the permanent check on Sparta.
Sparta amazingly enough would emerge from this still an independent city still somehow taken seriously by others, but never again in the position of threatening the security of other states. Now, some of what was happening began to create a counter force as it always does. Here was this blatantly democratic force that had been unleashed in the Peloponnesus, most of which had always been oligarchic. So, in Arcadia there began to be a revival of oligarchic activity, people who wanted to overthrow the regime that was being established, and to restore oligarchic governments, which would, of course, naturally be friendly to Sparta and some of these oligarchs in Arcadia began to assist the Spartans.
We know the Spartans were finished but they didn’t know it. The Greeks at the time didn’t know it so that — I’m just touching on the high points here. In 362, by now I should report that Pelopidas was dead. He had died fighting in Thessaly against an autocrat there by the name of Jason from the city of Pherae about whom we don’t know a lot, except to say he got to be very powerful indeed, and was pretty soon challenging both Thebes on the land and also challenging Athens to some degree at sea and who knows how much trouble he would have made had he not died before he could do so. But Pelopidas died fighting in a battle against Jason. I think it was 364. So in 362 when the Thebans again put together a force to invade the Peloponnesus, to put down those forces that were working against his settlement, it was only Epaminondas who was in charge.
Apparently, in the Battle of Mantinea — this is the second Battle of Mantinea, the first took place in the Peloponnesian War in 418, but this one in 362 apparently Epaminondas used some of the very same tactics that had been successful in the battle at Leuctra and the Thebans won the Battle of Mantinea. However, Epaminondas was killed in the fighting and it turned out that that was more important than anything else. With both Pelopidas and Epaminondas gone Thebes never again shows that kind of special quality that brought it swiftly to power and will swiftly bring it down. Although, as we look at the world in 362, we should realize that Thebes remains a very formidable power and the Greeks again, I want to warn you, don’t know that Thebes isn’t going to come back with two new leaders or ten new leaders, or one or whatever and become the same kind of a menace that it had been before, but looking back we can see that that was the outcome.
So, the Thebans won the victory, but in effect they really lost the war, because that was the end of their special quality. Since we’re all writing about this, centuries later called Epaminondas the foremost man of Greece. There is an inscription, or there was an inscription, on Epaminondas’ statue that was erected on his death at Thebes, and it is as though he was speaking. It must have been taken somehow from something he said or wrote. Here’s what he said, “By my plans was Sparta shorn of her glory and holy Mycenae at last received back her children. By the weapons of Thebes was Mycenae fortified, and all Greece became independent and free.” Now, of course, the claim that everybody was seeking independence for the Greeks, autonomia, is an old stale one that never really worked.
This is the first time that I am aware — no actually that’s not true. The Spartans entered the Peloponnesian War claiming that they were fighting to free the Greeks; but of course, they immediately began enslaving as many of them as they could when they won the war. But Epaminondas says, well, we did this, we accomplished this and at the end of the day all of Greece was free, he claimed. I’m sure it wasn’t perfectly true, but there was a lot in it and that’s what he was proud of. That’s what he thought he was doing. I think that’s the important point about that quotation. It tells us what he would have wanted as indeed it has worked out that way, to come down as his legacy. What did Epaminondas do?
Did he say he increased the power of Thebes ten told, he made Thebes name ring in the Valhalla; he never heard of Valhalla. The Valhalla of heroes throughout history, that’s not what he wanted to have said. What he wanted to have said was, I restored the Mycenaeans to their land, I restored them to safety, I gave them freedom, I left Greece free and independent. Xenophon, writing after his description of the Battle of Mantinea says the following, and these are the last words in his Hellenica, in his history of Greek affairs in his time. “Since nearly all the people of Greece have come together or 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. While each side claimed to be victorious, neither was found to be any better off than before the battle took place. But there was even more confusion and disorder in Greece after the battle than before.”
So, here’s a case for the unimportance of warfare, you might say, for those people who want to make that case. Here was all this fighting, here were all the dead, and at the end of the day nothing had been settled. That is often the case in war. Although, it might be said, that something pretty serious had been settled by the campaigns that the Thebans had fought before the Battle of Mantinea and that Greece would never be the same again because of the fighting that had taken place before. But as we look forward not backward, it’s worth noticing that the years of competition for hegemony, which go back you know at least to the days after the Persian Wars, had left Greece weakened and divided, and therefore, open for exploitation and even conquests by a new threat from outside the system, which was not even dreamed of by the Greeks as a menace in 362 at the Battle of Mantinea.
There’s something to be learned in there too. I mean, if you had taken a poll of the Greeks and said, where are the dangers to us now, what problems do we have, they would have been talking about the traditional conflicts between the Greek city states. No one, I think, would have used the word Macedonia as part of anything that looked scary, and, of course, nobody would have uttered the name Philip, because Philip wasn’t even king of Macedonia yet. And yet, within a few years, Philip would be the king of Macedonia, and within a couple or three decades there would suddenly be a real menace from the north that would be very threatening and we’ll take a look at that next time.
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