Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

When Thebes was in Power

The cities that Sparta had treated so tyrannically were as quick as she to see that her power had vanished. The Mantineans left their little settlements in the country, went straight back to the site of their city, and began to rebuild the walls. A little earlier Sparta would have dispatched an army at once to punish such audacity, but now all that she dared to do was to send to the Mantineans a man whom they had always liked and beg them to wait a while. "Only wait," he pleaded; "the Spartans will soon give formal consent. If you will wait, they will even pay for rebuilding the walls." "It is impossible," returned the magistrates, "for a resolution has been passed to rebuild them at once." "Will you not at least permit me to speak to the general assembly?" asked the envoy; but the magistrate said "No," and the building of the walls went on.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Mantinea had paid no attention to the wishes of Sparta, but that was a small matter compared with what the fallen state had still to endure. Sparta had been so selfish and tyrannical that many states were eager to make sure that she could no longer oppress them. After the victory at Leuctra, Thebes was looked upon as the most powerful city, and Epaminondas was without question the greatest military commander in the land. Under him as general a large army invaded the Peloponnesus to help two states, Arcadia and Messenia. Whatever Epaminondas undertook, he did thoroughly. He was not satisfied with marching through Arcadia, but he actually founded a city. He chose a broad fertile plain for its site and induced the Arcadians to unite their village communities into the new city of Megalopolis, that is, the great city. Now that the Arcadians had a capital and could take refuge within her walls, it would not be an easy matter for Sparta to oppress her, even if no Theban army was on guard. Thus Arcadia was made independent; but Epaminondas did even more than this for Messenia. This country was the old home of the Helots before they were enslaved by the Spartans. Those whom the Athenians had invited to settle at Naupactus had been driven from this refuge by the Spartans at the close of the Peloponnesian War. They had fled to Italy, Sicily, Africa, wherever they could find homes. When they heard that Epaminondas had marched into Messenia and that now their mother country was free, there was a glad home-coming. By land and by sea, in large bands, in little companies, in families, even one by one, they poured into Messenia; for once more they had a country and a home. The land reechoed with songs of rejoicing and shouts of happiness. There were sacrifices of thanksgiving to the gods; and there was also much hard work, since for the Messenians, too, Epaminondas had founded a city, Messene. It was to stand on the side of Mount Ithome, and its walls were yet to be built. No town without walls could hope to resist an attack of the Spartans; and the Messenians began their building as gladly as Athens had begun to rebuild the fortifications of the Piræus. A traveler who saw these walls five hundred years later declared that they were the strongest he had ever found. They were "built of solid stone," he said, "and well supplied with towers and buttresses."

Epaminondas aided by Pelopidas had made Thebes the ruling state of Greece. One would have expected that when he returned with his victorious army, he would at least receive a cordial welcome. Instead of that, he was met with a charge of disobedience to the laws of the country. The successes in the Peloponnesus had been won, it seemed, during the last four months, and the enemies of the generals asserted that they had kept the army away from Thebes four months beyond the time for which the command had been given to them. The penalty for such an offense was death. Epaminondas met the charge patiently, and after his acquittal did not even try to punish his enemies.

Pelopidas had declared that "wherever Epaminondas was, there was no need of any other general"; but there was need of a skillful commander in Thessaly, and thither Pelopidas was sent. The trouble was that the tyrant of one Thessalian city was forcing the other cities to obey him. The ruler of Macedonia, too, was trying to gain power in Thessaly. Pelopidas was as successful in the north as Epaminondas had been in the south, and before long he went home to report that the cities were free from the tyrant and that he had received hostages from the ruler of Macedonia.

Thus far Thebes had been making cities free, and they were glad to receive her aid. No one doubted that she was the most powerful state in Greece; but when she sent Pelopidas to the Persian king to claim that she instead of Sparta was the chief of the Greek cities, they were angry, and some of Sparta's old allies were willing to help her against Thebes. The result was that Epaminondas had to make other expeditions into the Peloponnesus. On the last he planned to attack Sparta herself. He "would have taken the city like a bird's nest deserted," said Xenophon, if King Agesilaus, who had marched out to meet the invaders, had not hurried home by a shorter route to oppose the "fire-breathing Thebans." Epaminondas knew that the Spartans would defend their city like wolves at bay, and he wisely retreated into Arcadia. The Spartans pursued, and a battle was fought in the valley of Mantinea. Here Epaminondas played the old game of the Spartans at Ægospotami, and deceived them as completely as they had deceived the Athenians. He ordered his men to pile their arms and apparently begin to encamp. Then, when his foes were entirely off their guard, he suddenly drew up his lines and advanced upon them. The Spartans and their allies were as dazed as the Athenians had been in the naval battle. They ran about wildly, one fastening on a breastplate, another bridling his horse, and all of them acting, not like the Spartans of old who were wont to advance to battle steadily and cheerfully, but, as Xenophon declared, "more like men going to suffer some harm than to inflict any on others." This time it was not the Spartans but the Thebans who advanced "steadily and cheerfully." Epaminondas had arranged part of his cavalry in a phalanx, and they cut through the Spartan ranks "like a ship of war with its beak directed against the enemy," said Xenophon, perhaps with that very naval battle of Ægospotami in mind as he wrote. Epaminondas won the victory, but he himself was slain. His last thoughts were for his country. Pelopidas had been killed in battle two years before, and now, when Epaminondas asked for one and another who might perhaps have taken his place, the reply was ever, "He has been slain." Then you must make peace with the enemy," he said, and closed his eyes in death.

The glory of Thebes was a one-man power. It was Epaminondas who had made her great. He had been her general, her leader, her counselor. Now he was gone, and in one day she fell from her proud position as the leading state of Greece.


The Mantineans scorned Sparta and rebuilt their walls.

Epaminondas united Arcadia, and founded the city of Megalopolis; he freed the Messenians and founded Messene. Aided by Pelopidas, he made Thebes the ruling state of Greece.

Pelopidas freed the cities in Thessaly.

Thebes demanded that Persia regard her as the chief state of Greece. The Greeks were angry, and several states united against her.

Epaminondas overcame Sparta at Mantinea, but was slain. Thebes was no longer the leading state of Greece.

Suggestions For Written Work

A Spartan reports what the Mantineans said when they were asked to delay building their wall.

A Messenian tells what Epaminondas had done for him and his countrymen.

A soldier describes the battle of Mantinea.