Stories from Greek History - Ethelwyn Lemon

Pelopidas (died B.C. 364) and Epameinondas (died B.C. 362)

If you have read all the earlier chapters of this history, you will have noticed that the heroes described in them were almost all of them Athenians. Perhaps you are beginning to think that the Athenians were the only Greeks who did deeds that were worth telling. But that is not quite true, and the two whose names head this chapter were citizens of Thebes, which city was never on very friendly terms with Athens.

In the great Persian War at the time of Themistocles, Thebes yielded to Persia, and this action made the liberty-loving Athenians always distrust her, and not a few bad and mean deeds since then had strengthened this feeling.

Besides, the Thebans were very unlike the Athenians in character; they were dull and stupid, fond of drinking too much, of eating large meals and much meat, and they were great sportsmen. The Athenians were lively, witty, ate and drank little, and loved to talk philosophy and politics, to find out new things, and were a naval and very "go-ahead" people, while the Thebans, who lived far inland, had no ships.

But at the time of which I write, things that happened, as you will see, made the two cities for a time more friendly, and Thebes, which had never done anything brilliant in her whole history, now blazed forth like a comet, which leaves behind it a bright trail before it goes off into utter darkness again.

And this happened all because of the two heroes of our present chapter, whose birth years I cannot tell you, for no one at the time thought of writing them down, but whose stories are so tangled up together that you must take them both or not have them at all.

This famous friendship began when they must both have been over twenty years of age, for they were both fighting with the Spartan army against the Arcadians in the siege of the Arcadian city of Mantinea.

After the war between Athens and Sparta, at the beginning of which Pericles died, and at the sad end of which the Athenians were conquered and their freedom taken from them, Sparta became the leading city of Hellas. She was a hard and cruel mistress, and had attacked this city of Mantinea for no reason whatever except that its people did not manage their city affairs in the way that the Spartans managed theirs. The Spartans were so narrow-minded that they always disliked the people who did things differently from themselves.

The Thebans were at this time very friendly with Sparta, and had sent some troops to help her in this wicked war. Pelopidas and Epameinondas were in the same regiment, which for the time being was getting the worst of a fight. The two came close together, and fastened their shields together, and holding these in front of them, did much harm to the enemy. But though they were so covered by their shields, Pelopidas received seven wounds, and at last, from loss of blood, fell on a heap of dead. Epameinondas thought he was dead, but felt that so brave a soldier should not be left for the enemy to strip of his armour, and so stood by his body to keep the enemies off.

Pelopidas and Epimanondas


He was in the sorest danger himself, and so badly wounded that he must have fallen soon on top of his comrade, had not the Spartan Prince Agesipolis seen his danger. He at once rode up with some followers to Epameinondas's aid, and rescued both him and Pelopidas, who was then found to be still alive.

Pelopidas was a warm-hearted and generous man and a splendid warrior, ready to risk his life for his friends and country, and the truest friend ever a man might wish to know. He never forgot that he owed his life to Epameinondas. And in Epameinondas he found a friend true as steel, loyal and generous as himself, though they were unlike in many ways.

For Pelopidas was fonder of doing, and Epameinondas of thinking and planning, though he could do whatever needed to be done; and while Pelopidas was a very rich noble, and as free in giving and spending as he was rich, Epameinondas was a very poverty-stricken noble, often hard pressed for money.

But what kept their friendship unbroken till death was their common love of their own city Thebes and of the good of Hellas at large; and whether they served her under somebody else's orders or under each other's mattered nothing to them.

For about five years after the siege that so nearly ended both their lives nothing is said about them. Meanwhile a very terrible thing happened.

Just then at Thebes one of the two Polemarchs or chief rulers, Leontiades, hated the other, Ismenias, bitterly—so bitterly indeed that he was ready to do anything, however wicked, to harm him.

One night in September (382 B.C.) a Spartan army was marching through Theban lands not very far from the city. The Spartan general Phoebidas was in his tent, and just going to bed, when his servant told him in low tones that some one wished to see him on very important business.

"He comes late," said Phoebidas, "but bring him in." To his surprise a moment later in walked Leontiades. He was still more surprised by the offer Leontiades made to him.

"Would you like to be master of the city of Thebes?" he asked.

"That would I," said Phoebidas, and swore a great oath.

"Then if you will listen to my plan, soon will you be master," the other said. "To-morrow is the Feast of Thesmophoria, when we send the soldiers away from the citadel, and give it over to the women of Thebes for them to keep a sacred festival. I have the keys of the gates in my care. Come you with your soldiers at the noonday heat. I will open the gates and let you pass in quietly, and you can surely manage the women yourselves. All Thebans rest in that hour, and none need see or meet you as you pass through."

"'Tis no hard task you give me," said the Spartan, "and here's my hand on it. I'll not fail at the hour you say." Then Leontiades went away as suddenly as he had come, and laughed wickedly to himself, as he stole home in the September dark, over the surprise he would give Ismenias.

Next day, when all Theban men were resting indoors during the blazing midday heat, and the women's festival was in full swing, Leontiades quietly opened the gates to Phoebidas and his two thousand men. Up to the citadel they went, and made all the women prisoners. Afterwards Leontiades rode down to the Senate-house and joyfully shouted to the few citizens there that the city was in the hands of the Spartans. They were all so frightened that they yielded without saying much. They allowed Leontiades to arrest and imprison his enemy Ismenias, and send him to Sparta later on, where he was put to death.

Three hundred of the chief Thebans (Pelopidas among them) fled for refuge to Athens, where they were very kindly received, Thebans though they were.

And for three years the Thebans who stayed at home were very cruelly treated by the Spartans. And the rest of the Greek cities began to think that perhaps after all "Might was Right," and that if only a man were strong enough he might do any bad deed, and yet the gods would look on and neither stop him nor punish him.

But they were mistaken.

Punishment came at last, all the harder to bear that it had been so long in coming. And this was the way in which it came about.

At Athens all this time Pelopidas and others had been sending messages to those friends (Epameinondas was one of them) that were still in Thebes. And they had news from them often. These men were growing more and more angry every day with Leontiades and their Spartan governors, Archias and Philippus. Phyllidas, one of these patriots, had agreed to be the Secretary of the Polemarchs. Then he could keep his friends inside and outside Thebes informed of all that was going on.

At last he thought they were ready for a change. He sent word to Pelopidas that he and a few others should come and kill the Polemarchs. A plan like this is called a conspiracy, and the people who make it are conspirators. One of his friends, Charon, a rich resident in Thebes, offered to hide the conspirators in his house when they came. Phyllidas was to give a banquet in honour of the Polemarchs, and to promise them that seven of the fairest ladies in Thebes would be invited to meet them after the dinner was over.

In these unhappy times the Thebans were very strictly watched in all they did. So Pelopidas and his friends had to dress themselves like farm-labourers, and one at a time to enter the city at the dusk of evening. But they reached Charon's house without any accident. All the next day they remained indoors. This was the day fixed for Phyllidas's banquet, and the conspirators were rather excited as they dressed themselves in the beautiful robes which Charon's wife had lent them for the occasion. While they were dressing, and laughing at each other's funny looks, there was a loud knock at the street door. When the servant opened all in the house heard a soldier's gruff voice saying that Charon must come at once to see the Polemarch Archias on important business.

Imagine the fright of the would-be ladies at hearing this. One of them groaned, "Friends, we are all undone; our plot is found out"; and the rest said the same. But they thought that Charon should put a brave face on the matter, and go to see Archias. Charon was one of the bravest of men, and would not have cared if he were risking his own life merely. But just now he was so nervous about his friends, who were safe only if he kept calm in his visit to Archias, that he rushed into the nursery and clasping his little son in his arms took him to Pelopidas.

"Pelopidas," he cried, "if I play the coward in this visit, promise me to kill my son."

Some of the conspirators were so moved by their host's excitement that, brave men though they were, they burst into tears, and with one voice cried, "Nay, Charon, we know you will not betray us. Go, brave friend, we are safe in your hands."

And so after praying to the gods to give him courage and calmness Charon bade farewell to them all as if he might not again see them alive. Then he went off after the Polemarch's messenger, leaving seven anxious men behind him.

When he reached the house of Phyllidas, Archias and Phyllidas came out from the dining-hall to speak with him.

"Well, Charon," began Archias, "what people are these just come to town, who are hiding in some citizen's house?"

And Charon, who by this time felt less nervous, answered, "What people do you mean? and in whose house are they hiding?"

"That is just what I wish to find out," said Archias, "and I thought you might perhaps know."

"There are many idle gossips in Thebes, Archias," said Charon, "but if I were you, I would not mind what they say very much. However, I shall ask about this. It would be important were such to be the case."

"You are a wise fellow, Charon," said Phyllidas, "and I know you will see to this."

And with this the two went back to their feasting, and Charon hurried home as fast as he could.

The joy of his visitors when he told them of his visit was very great. They then started forth, well muffled up, four of them, to Charon's house, and Pelopidas and two others to Leontiades' house, for Leontiades had not been invited to the banquet.

Little did they know till afterwards how very nearly even then their plot was spoiled for them. For after Charon had left the feasters, a slave arrived from Athens from a friend of Archias with a letter in which a full account of the plot was written. The slave said Archias ought to read it at once, but by this time Archias had drunk too much wine to be able to read letters, and he stuffed it under the cushion of his couch, saying, "Business to-morrow."

Soon after, the pretended ladies were announced. Dressed in very wide, loose robes, with wreaths of flowers on their heads and round their necks to partly hide their faces, Charon, Melon, and the others entered. Archias and his fellow-guests clapped their hands in welcome, while the new arrivals looked round the room to see how best they could carry out their dread deed.

In a few minutes it was all over, and neither Archias nor Philippus was alive to do "business to-morrow."

Meanwhile Pelopidas and his companions had harder work to do, for Leontiades was not drunk, and fought like a tiger for his life. He killed one of them, and fought long against Pelopidas before he was struck down.

Then the conspirators joined each other, and rushed off to the prison. There they killed the jailer and set free one hundred and fifty of their friends, who were prisoners, and gave them arms. With these they marched through the city, shouting that the tyrants were dead, and Thebes was free, and singing

"I'll wreath my sword in myrtle bough,

The sword that laid the tyrants low,

When patriots, burning to be free,

To Thebans gave their liberty.

While Freedom's name is understood,

We shall delight the wise and good;

We dared to set our country free,

And give her laws equality."

Most of the people had gone to bed, but soon the streets were crowded, and when morning dawned they all seized arms and went to attack the Spartan garrison in the citadel.

Next day two Athenian generals brought troops to their aid. For Athens was always ready to help the oppressed. After three or four days' hard fighting, the Spartan garrison yielded and was sent out of the city to return to Sparta.

Pelopidas, Melon, and Charon were elected as Governors of Thebes, and then the Thebans began to talk over what they should do next.

There was little doubt that Sparta would take her revenge on them for the events of that winter night, and Thebes was hardly strong enough just then to face her.

But other things happened to favour Thebes.

A Spartan officer, left with a few thousand troops to guard Thespiae, tried, but failed, to take Athens as Phoebidas had taken Thebes. Still, his act made the Athenians so angry that they declared war on Sparta. This for a time gave Sparta so much to do that she left Thebes alone. Thebes had time to recover herself, to punish all the Boeotian towns which had been friendly to Sparta, and to make herself once more the ruler in Boeotia.

It was not until eight years after Thebes was set free that the Spartan king, Cleombrotus, marched into Boeotia with a large army. Even then Epameinondas could not easily persuade the other Theban generals to fight against Cleombrotus, though he had reached Leuctra, which was only eight miles from Thebes.

Near to Leuctra was the tomb of two Boeotian maidens who had killed themselves after ill-treatment at the hands of Spartan officers. There was an old prophecy which said that the Spartans would be defeated at the "Tombs of the Maidens." Epameinondas reminded his officers of this saying, and they then agreed to fight. But Epameinondas himself really believed more in good fighting than in anything else for bringing victory, and he arranged his men in what was then an unusual way. In the early afternoon, the Spartan generals led their army down into the plain. The Thebans moved out rapidly to meet them, with their left wing far in advance; for such was Epameinondas's new way of battle. The cavalry began the fight by charging the Spartans, and drove them off the field. Then the Theban heavy infantry charged against the Spartan king and his native Spartan troops, and broke their line. The king fell, and was carried off the field by his bodyguard. The Spartans still stood like an iron wall against the Theban charge, while the soldiers on their flank began to close around the Theban flank.

But Pelopidas interfered at this moment. He had been posted in the rear of the Thebans, with three hundred picked men, called the "Sacred Band." And his orders were to move out and protect the main body of the army at just such a time as this.

And now the hardest struggle took place; the Spartans did not flinch nor desert their place, but they fell before the charge of the heavy Theban column. Epameinondas cried, "Give me a step more, my brave men, and the day is ours."

This cry gave so much fresh courage to his men, that they made one more great effort, broke through the middle of the enemy's line, and the battle of Leuctra was won.

In the few moments of that last desperate fight about four hundred noble Spartans had fallen, besides one thousand of the commoner sort. Hardly a Spartan officer was left alive.

On the advice of Epameinondas, the Thebans allowed the Spartans to retire after the battle, without pursuing them or storming their camp. This seems more generous, perhaps, than it was really; but Jason of Pherae, from Thessaly in the north, marched into Boeotia just then at the head of his troops. He said he was friendly to the Thebans, but Epameinondas did not feel sure that he was to be trusted. So he thought it best to leave the Spartans alone for the time, especially as in their despair over their defeat they were likely to keep quiet for some time to come.

For more than a year the Thebans had to keep very quiet and near home, in fear of what Jason might do next. Then he was murdered, and they were freed from further fear.

So late in the summer Epameinondas led an army against Sparta, and did much harm to the country. He also set free the ancient people of Messenia from Spartan tyranny, and made for them a new city, Messene.

This took so much time, that he had kept his command four months longer than the law allowed. When he returned to Thebes, his enemies there wished to punish him for this. But they were few in number, and the greater number hooted them down, and chose Epameinondas as general for the year. He soon returned to Sparta, and helped in the siege of Sicyon, which was a town friendly to Sparta. He took it, but failed to take Corinth. When he went home, the Thebans thought he had done less than he might have done, so they did not choose him as general for the next year.

There was trouble again in Thessaly, and the Thebans were asked for their help, so that they had to leave the Spartans alone for a time.

Jason's two brothers had been murdered, and his son-in-law, Alexander, had seized his throne.

This Alexander was a monster of cruelty. He ill-treated his people in such a way that they cried out for the Thebans to come and help. Pelopidas, more generous than wise, answered their call, and brought the cruel tyrant to his knees.

Alexander never forgot and never forgave him for this, and after a time he had his revenge.

For some time after, Pelopidas, who was always more brave than wise, was going through Thessaly with a very few followers to do business in Macedon. Alexander heard of this, and sent a party to lie in wait for him and kidnap him. The plot succeeded, and the Thebans sent seven thousand men, under two very stupid generals, to fight against Alexander and to recover Pelopidas.

Fortunately Epameinondas was among the seven thousand, and when the two stupid generals saw that they were losing the battle, they begged him to take the command. He saved the Theban army from being cut to pieces. He had his reward by being sent as general over a larger force to rescue his friend. In a few days' time he had so thoroughly frightened Alexander that he willingly set Pelopidas free, and begged for peace.

The one sad deed on the part of Pelopidas followed soon afterwards. Perhaps he can be excused a little, if we remember that the Thebans had never hated Persia so much as the other Greeks had.

Pelopidas went to the Persian capital, Sousa, to ask the "Great King" for money to carry on the war against Sparta. Artaxerxes II. granted his request, and so once more Thebes was joined with an Oriental despot against her sister states of Hellas.

It is comforting to remember that this alliance did Thebes little good, although Epameinondas, who helped to plan it, and Pelopidas, who carried it out, are none the less to blame for that.

Three years later, Pelopidas was again given the command of an army against the savage Alexander of Pherae, who was once again on the war-path. As he marched out of the city at the head of the army, an eclipse of the sun took place. This was counted a bad omen, and the men refused to march. Pelopidas could not move them, and went off almost alone to Thessaly. There he called together the Thessalians to rebel against their king.

He soon had a few thousands to follow him, and with these he fought against Alexander and twice as large an army at Cynoscephalae. He was on the point of winning a most glorious victory, when he caught sight of Alexander himself. Eager to avenge his old wrongs, he pressed towards him, but was cut down before he reached him.

And so in his next campaign against Sparta Epameinondas had to go without his friend. Several clever plans that he made to take the Spartans by surprise failed because some one betrayed them. At last he met his enemy near Mantinea, the very place where he had so bravely risked his life to save Pelopidas twenty-three years before. Surely this was the best spot for him to end his life, and set his spirit free to rejoin Pelopidas in the Isles of the Blest. There all great heroes go after death.

And so it befell. For in the glorious moment of victory a desperate Spartan pierced his breast deep with his pike. His men raised him at once, and carried him in a fainting condition up to a small hill behind the battlefield.

At last his eyes opened, and he asked if his men had won; and when they answered "Yes," but that his two chief officers were slain, he gasped out: "Then you had better make peace." A little later he whispered that they should draw the spearhead from his wound. Immediately the blood spouted forth in a torrent, and he fell back dead.

And with him died the glory of Thebes, which had shone out so brightly for the brief quarter-century of his manhood.