Sunday, July 29, 2012

They freed the slaves. One was Abraham Lincoln.

Of two men in history can it be said, "They freed the slaves".  One was Abraham Lincoln.  The other was Epaminondas  (ca. 418 BC - 362 BC).  He was a Theban general and statesman of the 4th century BC.  Thebes was a city-state a little north of Athens.


His references:

The Roman orator Cicero called him "the first man of Greece" - placing him ahead of Alexander, Pericles, Socrates etc.

Montaigne, 16th Century writer of the famous 'Essays', judged him one of the three "worthiest and most excellent men" that had ever lived".

But today few people have ever heard of him.


In 371 BC., Sparta sent an invading army into Theban territory.  Everyone knows of Sparta's fearsome reputation in war, so it seems like a foregone conclusion that 10,000 Spartans would annihilate 6000 Boeotians (Thebans).  Faced with these odds, Epaminondas, the leader of the Thebans, was to display a grasp of tactics hitherto unseen in Greek warfare, and in so doing he would change the face of battle for all time to come.


Psychology of ancient battle.

The foot soldiers of the phalanx formation used by Greek armies held a shield on their left arm, and a sword in their right hand.  There was a distinct tendency to seek the shelter of the shield of the foot soldier on your right during the charge into battle and during the battle "because fear makes each man do his best to shelter his unarmed side with the shield of the man next to him on the right". (Thucydides)

Traditionally, therefore, a phalanx would line up for battle with the elite troops on the right flank to act as a wall or anchor to counter this tendency, and to keep the line tight.  With both sides following the same strategy, it seems that the result would be an indecisive anti-clockwise movement - kind of yin yang turning anti-clockwise.


The battle of Leuctra. (371 BC)

The Spartan army contained some 10,000 hoplites, of whom only 700 were the elite warriors known as Spartiates, while the rest consisted of allies; which was not untypical of the Spartan way of war.  The Boeotians opposite them numbered about 6,000, but were bolstered by a cavalry superior to that of the Spartans.

Based on the traditional tactics, in the Spartan phalanx at Leuctra, Cleombrotus (the spartan general) and the elite 'Spartiates' were on the right, while the less experienced Peloponnesian allies were on the left.

Epaminondas needed to counter the Spartans' numerical advantage.  He implemented two tactical innovations.  Firstly, he took the best troops in the army, and arranged them 50 ranks deep (as opposed to the normal 8–12 ranks) on the left wing (not the right as was typical), opposite Cleombrotus and the Spartiates

Secondly, recognizing, that he could not match the width of the Peloponnesian phalanx, he abandoned all attempts to do so.  Instead, he instructed the weaker troops on his right flank to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy's attack.  This reversing of the position of the elite troops, and an oblique line of attack were innovations never before tried in battle.  At the battle of Leuctra, Epaminondas was responsible for the military tactic of 'refusing one's flank'.

The fighting opened with a clash between the cavalry, in which the Thebans were victorious over the inferior Spartan cavalry, driving them back into the ranks of the infantry, thereby disrupting the spartan phalanx.  The powerful blockbuster of the Theban left flank now charged into battle while the right flank retreated.

After intense fighting, the Spartan right flank began to give way under the impetus of the mass of Thebans, and Cleombrotus was killed.  The Spartans held on for long enough to rescue the body of their king, but the line was soon broken by the sheer force of the Theban assault.  The Peloponnesian allies on the left wing, seeing the Spartans put to flight, also broke and ran.

One thousand Peloponnesians were killed, while the Boeotians lost only 300 men.  Most importantly, since it constituted a significant proportion of the entire Spartan manpower, 400 of the 700 Spartiates present were killed.  When, after the battle, the Spartans asked if they and their Peloponnesian allies could collect the dead, Epaminondas suspected that the Spartans would try to cover-up the scale of their losses.  He therefore allowed the Peloponnesians to remove their dead first, so that those remaining would be shown to be Spartiates, thus emphasising the scale of the Theban victory.


THe spartan society was a slave-based society.  Messenians, who were conquered in the Messenian Wars of the 8th century BC, become the slaves known as Helots.  They were ritually mistreated, humiliated and even slaughtered.  According to Aristotle, the ephors (religious leaders of Sparta) declared war on the Helots every autumn, thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without fear of religious pollution.  This task was given to the Kryptes, graduates of the difficult agoge (advanced school system) who took part in the Krypteia.  This lack of judicial protection is confirmed by Myron of Priene, who mentions killing as a standard mode of regulation of the Helot population, which was several times greater in number than the pure Spartan population.

The Nazi SS would have felt right at home in Sparta.


More Nazi stuff:

What was the Krypteia?

Young Spartan men who had completed their training at the agoge with such success that they were marked out as potential future leaders would be given the opportunity to test their skills and prove themselves worthy of the Spartan military through participation in the krypteia.

The kryptes were sent out into the countryside, with only a knife to survive on their skills and cunning, with the instructions to kill any helot they encountered at night and to take any food they needed.
Their mission was to root-out potential sedition.  Troublesome Helots could be summarily executed. Such brutal oppression of the Helots permitted the Spartans to control the agrarian population and devote themselves to military practice.

If only night-time killing was allowed, it suggests there was a curfew in place, and that any Helot out after dark would be considered a troublemaker.

Only Spartans who had served in the Krypteia as young men could expect to achieve the highest ranks in Spartan society and army.  It was felt that only those Spartans who showed the ability and willingness to kill for the state at a young age were worthy to join the leadership in later years.


In the immediate aftermath of Leuctra, the Peloponnesian cities, formerly under Spartan dominance, became independent.  The Mantineans decided to unify their settlements into a single city, and to fortify it.  This greatly angered the Spartans who declared war on Mantinea, whereupon the majority of Arcadian cities grouped together to oppose the Spartans and requested assistance from the Thebans. The new Theban army arrived late in 370 BC, led by Epaminondas and Pelopidas.  It consisted of some 50-70,000 men.  In Arcadia Epaminondas encouraged the Arcadians to form a league, and to build another new city named Megalopolis as a center of power opposed to Sparta.


The Theban army moved south, crossing the Evrotas River, the frontier of Sparta, which no hostile army had breached in memory.  The Spartans were unwilling to engage the massive army in battle. They stayed within their city simply defended it, and the Thebans did not attempt to capture it. The Thebans and their allies ravaged Laconia, down to the port of Gythium, freeing some of the Lacedaemonian perioeci from their allegiance to Sparta.


Now comes one of those transcendental moments in the history of the world.  Instead of marching his army home, Epaminondas continued on to Messenia, the home of the Helots.  He freed the Helots and then, after obtaining omens from the gods, making sacrifices and inviting the spirits of past rulers and heroes to live in Messene, Epaminondas invited construction engineers and artisans from everywhere to join him.

In 85 days the combined armies and exiles guided by the engineers and artisans completed the walled city of Messene over the site of the previous Ithome.  The new city included within its walls Mt. Ithome and enough agricultural land and spring water to withstand a siege indefinitely.  The massive new walls and fortifications were among the strongest in Greece.  Epaminondas then issued a call to Messenian exiles from other parts of Greece from Italy, Sicily and Africa to return and rebuild their homeland   

Did he do it out of expediency?  For the loss of Messenia was particularly damaging to the Spartans, since the territory comprised one-third of Sparta's territory and contained half of their Helot population. It was the Helots' labor that had allowed the Spartans to be a constant "full-time" army.

Epaminondas' campaign of 370/369 has been described as an example of "the grand strategy of indirect approach", which was aimed at severing "the economic roots of Sparta's military supremacy."  In mere months, Epaminondas had created two new enemy states that opposed Sparta, shaken the foundations of Sparta's economy, and all but devastated Sparta's prestige.  Having  accomplished this, he led his army back home, victorious.  After the departure of the Theban army the Spartans attempted unsuccessfully to retake Messenia.


Abraham Lincoln likewise had strategic reasons for emancipating the slaves; but whatever their reasons, Lincoln and Epaminondas are the only two leaders in history of whom it can be said, "They freed the slaves".


How ironic that he walls that Epaminondas built to free the slaves still stand to this day, whereas little remains of the architecture of Sparta to show that it ever existed, for unlike other cities of Ancient Greece, Sparta did not have any walls surrounding it.  In part the walls weren’t needed because the Spartans had little to steal; in part it was Sparta’s remote location, deep in the mountains and far from the sea.   Mostly, it was the reputation of the warriors of Sparta.

When one Athenian questioned the Spartan king about the lack of walls, the king responded "Our shields are our walls." The Athenian asked how many warriors they had and the response was "Enough".  Another Spartan King replied to the same question saying that "The bodies of our young men are our walls and their spear points are our borders".



Upon his return home, Epaminondas was greeted not with a hero's welcome but with a trial arranged by his political enemies.  According to Cornelius Nepos, in his defense Epaminondas merely requested that, if he be executed, the inscription regarding the verdict read:

"Epaminondas was punished by the Thebans with death, because he obliged them to overthrow the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) at Leuctra, whom, before he was general, none of the Boeotians (Thebans) durst look upon in the field; and because not only, by one battle, did he rescue Thebes from destruction, but also secured liberty for all Greece..."

The jury broke into laughter, the charges were dropped, and Epaminondas was re-elected as Boeotarch for the next year.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.