The battle of Leuctra was a battle of the 4th century B.C. In this battle the famous Spartan myth of invincibility was broken, and theSpartan hegemony over the Greek world was broken.
The Spartans’ tyranny paved the way to Leuctra. Ever since the Spartans triumphed over Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and even more so after the Corinthian War, Sparta had become more and more tyrannical. The most hated action of the Spartans was when they placed a government of their own in city, ruled by a harmost, an administrator, who was backed up by a garrison of 1,500. When the King’s Peace, the peace treaty that ended the Corinthian War, came into effect it broke all of the leagues and made every city inGreece independent of each other. Sparta was to make sure it stayed this way. Instead Sparta abused her power and used her new found position of world policeman as an excuse to go in and establish a harmost when ever they felt like it, in the guise of maintaining the peace. Many cities hated the harmosts and their garrisons like Athens, who was the first to experience the Spartans’ regime changing practices. For the most part even though the city-states hated Sparta no one tried to rise up and oppose them, each time a attempt was made to break Spartan hegemony it failed miserably upon the spears of the Spartan battle line.
In 383 B.C. the Spartans took control of Thebes, even the citadel of the city, the heart of every Greek city-state, fell. In the name of maintaining the peace the Spartans put in their harmost and a garrison and called it a new democratic government. But the Thebans, who hated the Spartans more then anything else, would not put up with this. In the winter of 380-79 the Thebans who would not accept the Spartan government rose up, and with the aid of Athens, ran it out. The brief reign of the Spartans in Thebes had only cemented the hatred of that state for Sparta, and strengthened their resolve to destroy it.
Then Athens did something completely unexpected. In violation of the King’s Peace they created the Naval Confederacy, essentially theDelian League reborn, in 378. The stated goal of the Confederacy was the toppling of Sparta and restoration of democracy amongst the states where the Spartans had established a harmost. However in reality Athens was just trying to revive her old empire, theAthenians had never really given up their old ambitions. The shock of Athens’ actions allowed for several other Greek city-states to establish, or reestablish, their own leagues.
Thebes, however, took a different approach. The Thebans proposed a federation government to the Boeotian cities that formerly made part of the old Boeotian League. To everyone’s surprise the cities agreed thus founding a unique political state in the history ofGreece: the Boeotian Federation, which this article shall continue to refer to as Thebes for ease of use. For the Spartans this was intolerable. Starting in 378 and continuing for several years the Spartans began to throw troops into Boeotia to destroy Thebes. But the Thebans are able to hold in the face of Spartan attacks. These attacks would become the proving ground for Thebes’ new army. Unlike the rest of the ancient world which depended on mercenaries, the Theban army was made up entirely of citizen-soldiers. In addition the Thebans made some rather new innovations in army structure and formation, which shall be expanded upon later. In 373the Thebans went on the offensive and attacked the Spartan dominated Boeotian cities, actually managing to drive out the harmostsand their garrisons in several. However Sparta was not Thebes’ only enemy at this time. To the north in Thessaly the ambitious Jason of Pherae was building up his forces. Jason had used the confusion caused by the breaking of the King’s Peace to build his own empire in Thessaly. The military power of Jason’s empire was a reason to fear amongst the Thebans. If the ruler of Pherae made a deal withSparta then the Thebans knew they would not survive. The whole of Thebes probably made a collective sigh of relief when Jasonactually asked for an alliance. Meanwhile the Spartans were getting anxious.
Thebes was getting powerful, too powerful in the eyes of the Spartans, and they needed to cut down Thebes and quick. For that reason King Kleombrotos I marched out of Sparta in 371 B.C., his destination was the city of Phocis, more or less the capital ofSpartan Boeotia. There Kleombrotos waited for some unknown reason before word suddenly came down from Sparta to attackThebes. Kleombrotos first however delivered an ultimatum to Thebes: withdraw from Boeotia and disband your army. Lest to sayThebes ignored the Spartan ultimatum and prepared for the coming battle. Kleombrotos then lead his army into Thebes, but not by the normal route, but through the hills of Thisbae. The Spartans are even able to get the jump on the Theban naval base at Creusisbefore the Thebans are even aware of their presence. But the surprise of the Spartan attack does not immobilize Thebes, insteadEpaminondas, one of the Boeotarchs (Boeotarch was the title given to the seven executive officers of the Boeotian Federation), lead a small force to confront the Spartans. In a remarkable moment of foresight Epaminondas predicted that the Spartans would try to get to Thebes by going through the town of Leuctra. He was right and sure enough the Spartan army appeared on the outskirts of Leuctrato a surprising sight, the Theban army of Epaminondas.
The Spartans under Kleombrotos thought they had nothing to fear, they were the best in Greece. The Spartan army that marched under King Kleombrotos in 371 numbered about 12,100 men. Out of that about 10,000 were hoplites, a majority of whom came from the allied states of Sparta, with an elite core of actual Spartan hoplites (also known as Spartiates). There was also about 1,100peltasts and about 1,000 cavalry. Kleombrotos had his army array in the conventional Spartan battle formation. The main body of troops, the hoplites, where placed in a crescent formation that was 12 men deep in each phalanx. On the sides of the crescent were the peltasts, whose job was to provide cover for the hoplites. The cavalry probably stood near the peltasts, their job was two fold: protect the peltasts and scout the enemy.
The Theban army under Epaminondas was smaller then the Spartan, but had a few tricks up its sleeve. Epaminondas’ army at Leuctrawas made up entirely of citizen levies, and they were mostly not battle-hardened yet. Because of the relatively small size of the entireBoeotian Federation the army they could field could not mach up to the Spartans on equal terms. The total size was about 9,000 men. About 6,500 of these were hoplites, and of these there was a special unit of about 300. This unit was devised by Epaminondas as shock infantry and was called the Sacred Band. This unit is controversial because of current academic dispute over whether or not the men in it were homosexual. 1,000 soldiers were peltasts another 1,500 were cavalry. It was in the formations that the Thebans would take that Epaminondas would show his tactical brilliance. A major problem in hoplite warfare is that it never changed, true there were equipment changes but there were never any fundamental changes in the way in which war was waged. Because of this Sparta had become master of Greece, the Spartans had mastered the way which hoplite warfare was waged. Epaminondas set out to change that. This change would be based on two things: One is that in hoplite battles you could attack either with your spear or press with your shield but that never changes the fact that a hoplite battle is a pushing match he who presses hardest wins. The second is that even though a phalanx is supposed to march in a straight line, it always ends up going to the right, because training is drilled into the soldiers to favor going right. This way they gained more protection from their fellows.
Based in these two points Epaminondas made his phalanxes 50 men deep and arrayed them a sloping formation. The result was the slope created a very strong left wing which would, upon breaking the enemy right, allow the army to attack the enemy’s remaining troops from all sides. But there was a draw back to the formation. Because the phalanxes were 50 men deep and concentrated on the left wing the Theban right was nearly non existent. To fix this Epaminondas concentrated his peltasts an cavalry on the right to bolster it. The shock troops of the Sacred Band were placed at the extreme end of the left wing with a special mission.
With both armies having arrayed for battle the future of Greece, and the Greek way of war, hung in the balance. The Spartans, confident that their training, reputation, and strength would be enough to carry them to victory opened the battle by sending up thepeltasts to shower the Theban camps, driving the camp followers away from the battle. Kleombrotos then sent forth the Spartancavalry, which Epaminondas countered with his horsemen. The Theban cavalry were able to push back the Spartan horse back straight into their own advancing right wing, which Kleombrotos had sent forward to flank the Theban line. Observing the confusionPelopidas, the commander of the Sacred Band, ordered his men forward to exploit the confusion, creating chaos. The Spartans did not expect such a strong attack directly on their strongest point and fell back. Epaminondas saw his chance and orderd the left wing to make full contact with the Spartan right. For the Spartans this wa a disaster, in a traditional battle their right would have encountered a weak left wing, while the enemy right hit their own weak left. Epaminondas had turned the tables on the Spartans, and he was fully willing to exploit it. At this time Pelopidas realized something. By pure chance the Spartan king Kleombrotos was present at the front lines and personally directing his troops in a attempt to break the Thebans.
Pelopidas now knew the special mission given to him by Epaminondas would come into play. The mission was for the Sacred Band to slay the Spartan king, in order to really get across the point that times had changed. At the same time Kleombrotos figured outEpaminondas’ strategy and quickly came up with a counter. The Spartan king decided to reinforce his right wing in an attempt to make a much more powerful push. However Pelopidas foiled that plan when he organized a mass charge led by his Sacred Band directly towards Kleombrotos. The charge so surprised the Spartans, who did not expect it, that the Thebans actually get close enough to touch shields with the Spartan line, partially reinforced with Kleombrotos’ royal guard. However the legendary Spartan steadfastness failed this time and the Sacred Band savagely attacked, killing Kleombrotos in the process.
The death of their king on the field of battle, against fellow Greeks, had never happened before to the Spartans, who in confusion attempted to fall back. But they were unable to keep cohesion anymore and as a result the Spartan right wing finally broke. Meanwhile further down the line the Theban right wing finally came close enough to make contact with the Spartan left, but the Spartans were so shaken by the death of their king that the Spartan left fled before the Theban right could even engage. With the Spartans in retreatEpaminondas had won for all intents and purposes, but he did not let up and sent the Theban cavalry after the retreating Spartans. News then reached the field that Jason of Pherae was marching up with an army to support Epaminondas, at the same time a Spartanforce under Archidamos was reported coming up as well. When Archidamos received word of what had occurred at Leuctra he had the remaining Spartan forces regroup to his camp. Archidamos then did something that no Spartan had never done before, he sent a delegation to Epaminondas asking for permission to return to the field to bury the dead. The only reason Epaminondas had ordered his cavalry after the retreating Spartan forces was because he wanted the Spartans to, of their own free will, admit defeat. Now that he had it he consented, thus ending the decisive battle of Leuctra. The total number of Theban casualties numbered only 300, the total number of Spartan dead: 1,000 of whom 400 where Spartiates.
In conclusion the battle of Leuctra would have enormous impact. In the immediate aftermath of Leuctra the whole of Greece was in shock, no one had ever beaten the Spartans before in battle. The defeat would be a blow from which Sparta would never recover, though the Spartans would continue to fight Thebes for some time afterwards. The victory would also pave the way for the ten year reign of Thebes as Hegemon of Greece.
Ultimately it would be a young man who was present with Epaminondas that day who would topple Thebes from her place. PrincePhilip of Macedon, the future king Philip II, had been present at the battle as a political prisoner and had watched Epaminondas work.Philip would improve upon the plans and tactics of Epaminondas and later Alexander would improve upon them too. In the long run the formations and tactics pioneered at Leuctra would continue to influence fighting. It is from this battle that the modern principles of local superiority of force and denying one’s flank came from. Leuctra also saw the first known use of the echelon or oblique formation. All in all Leuctra was one of those battles that truly deserve to be called a battle that changed the world.