Greek Gods - Heroes - and Men - S. B. Harding
For many years after the close of the war between Sparta and Athens, Sparta was the chief city in all Greece. But once more than Spartans used their power selfishly and unjustly, and so once more they lost their leadership. The city which caused Sparta to lose her high place among the Greeks was one that you have heard nothing about The name of this city was Thebes; and it was about fifty miles from Athens, and much greater distance from Sparta. The people of Thebes were not so bold and warlike as the Spartans; nor could they make such beautiful statues and buildings, or such great poems and speeches, as the Athenians. So the Thebans had never played any important part in Greek history before this. Indeed, the Athenians used to quite look down on them, and call them "dull, heavy, and stupid folk."
Now, at this time Thebes was ruled entirely by Sparta. There were Spartan governors over the Thebans, and there were Spartan soldiers in the city to make the people obey these governors. Of course the Thebans did not like this, especially as the Spartans had gained this power over them most unjustly. They did not dare to fight openly against the Spartans, because the Spartans were so much better soldiers than they were. So the most daring of the Thebans made a plot to murder the Spartan leaders, and force the Spartan army to leave the city.
One of the Thebans whom the Spartans trusted most invited the leaders of the Spartans to a fine feast at his house. Without suspecting anything, the Spartans came. When they had eaten heartily, and drunk heavily of the wine, their host said that he would next bring in some women to sing and play for them. But the "women" that he brought in were young Theban men, each of whom had a sword his in the folds of his dress.
Just as they entered, a messenger came with a note to one of the Spartans. The Thebans were very much alarmed at this, for they thought that it must be to warn the Spartans of the plot. So it was, but the carelessness of the Spartans saved them from discovery The messenger said that the note was on very important business, and must be read at once; but the person to whom the note was sent, replied,—
"Business can wait until to-morrow." And he thrust the note aside without glancing at it. Thus the Theban youths were able to carry out their plan unhindered, and free their city from its Spartan rulers.
The Theban leaders knew, however, that Sparta would be very angry at what they had done, and that another and larger Spartan army would be sent to punish them. So it was necessary that the Thebans should choose some wise and brave man to be their general in that dangerous time. The man that they chose for this position was Epaminondas, who was one of the greatest men who ever lived in Greece. He had not had anything to do with the plot to kill the Spartan governors, because he was afraid that innocent persons might be killed by mistake. But after the Spartans were driven out, no one did so much for Thebes as Epaminondas did.
In carrying on the war with Sparta, Epaminondas was helped greatly by his friend Pelopidas. The way in which they became such great friends was this. While they were fighting in a former war, Pelopidas was wounded in seven places, and fell so badly hurt that it seemed that he must die. But Epaminondas stepped forward and protected him with his shield, and fought alone with the enemy until the other Thebans could come to his aid. So Epaminondas saved the lie of Pelopidas; and ever after that, as long as they lived, they were the best of friends. There was only one thing that they could not agree about. Pelopidas was rich, while Epaminondas refused to permit, in spite of all that his friend could say.
In this Spartan war the two friends now worked together so well, with so little jealousy or ill-will, that all the Greeks wondered and admired. The two were very different from one another. People sometimes said that Epaminondas was the brain of Thebes, while Pelopidas was her right hand. Pelopidas was a very brave and brilliant soldier; and when he charged at the head of "the Sacred Band" of young Theban soldiers, he would nearly always put the enemy to flight, and win the battle for Thebes. But it was Epaminondas who planned the battles. For the first time he taught the Greeks how to draw their men up in a heavy column which could break even the Spartan line when it charged. So he changed the whole manner of fighting among the Greeks. But he was something more than a great general. He was a great statesman as well,—almost as great as Themistocles had been; and as he was also a very good and just man, you see that we were right in saying that he was one of the greatest men that ever lived in Greece.
For eight years after the Spartans had been driven out of Thebes the Spartan kings kept trying to get that city back again. At the end of that time a great battle was fought between the Spartans and Thebans, which showed how strong the army had become which Epaminondas led. For the first time in the history of Sparta, her army was fairly beaten by a smaller number of men. After that battle—the famous battle of Leuctra—the Spartans gave up trying to capture Thebes; for they now had all they could do to keep the Thebans from capturing Sparta.
Year after year Epaminondas led a Theban army down into the Spartan land. On one of these expeditions his army came even in sight of the city of Sparta itself, and the Spartan women and children for the first time saw an enemy's camp-fires around their town.
Sparta was a city without a wall, and Epaminondas might now have captured it in spite of all the Spartans could have done. But he did not. Perhaps he thought of the brave stand that the Spartans had made at Thermopylae, and was unwilling to destroy a city that was called "one of the eyes of Greece." At any rate, he turned aside and left the city untouched; though at a later time, when once more he had gotten in sight of the city, he tried hard to take it and failed.
At last the long war drew to a close. First Pelopidas fell, fighting bravely at the head of his troops. Then two years later, in a great battle with the Spartans, Epaminondas was wounded in the side with a spear, and fell dying. When his sorrowing friends gathered around him, he asked first whether his shield was safe. He was told that it was, and that the Spartans had been defeated again. Then he asked for the other generals. Both of these, they told him, had been slain.
"Then," said Epaminondas, "you had better made peace." And having given the best advice he could, he told them to draw out the spear-head from his side. A stream of blood flowed forth, and he breathed his last.
The Thebans followed the dying advice of Epaminondas, and peace was made with Sparta. Thebes never became the leading city in Greece as Athens and Sparta had been, and perhaps Epaminondas did not wish that it should. But it had broken the Spartan power, and never after the battle of Leuctra was Sparta able to rule any of the other Greek cities in the way that she had ruled Thebes. And the man who more than all others had made this impossible was Epaminondas.