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  • James Houser

July 6, 371 BC - The Battle of Leuctra

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 6, 371 B.C. The military state of Sparta is the most feared of all the Greek cities – but that is about to change forever. On the field of Leuctra, the forces of Thebes and their brilliant general Epaminondas have devised a tactic that will upend the rules of Greek warfare, and they are spearheaded by a unit unique in military history – an elite force of 300 homosexual men. It’s phalanx versus phalanx in the worst defeat in Spartan history.

I once had a private tell me, in all earnestness, that the Spartans were the “best military ever” because they “never lost a battle.” This is the complete opposite of true. The Spartans lost battles all the time; the most famous battle in their history – Thermopylae – was famously a total defeat. That Sparta still has such a high military reputation, even after they were curb-stomped by Persians, Athenians, Macedonians, and Romans at one point or another, is the result of ancient propaganda that was so effective that people still believe it today.

As surprising as it may be, the strict and merciless regime of ancient Sparta was not exactly the basis for a healthy society. One thing Sparta did have going for it, though, was that all this militarism, rigidity and training fed into a widespread reputation even amongst the Greek cities that the Spartans were Greece’s greatest military power. Sparta’s true power wasn’t in its hoplites or its military system, but in its warlike reputation and influence throughout Ancient Greece. Savvy Spartan kings were able to turn this perception into power.

One of the key ways the Spartans used their reputation to enhance their actual power was by working themselves into a position of assumed authority. Whenever Greek cities had to band together in an alliance against some outside enemy, or even a Greek city that had gotten too big and strong for the others to control, it was Spartan generals and admirals that led the allied forces. This is exemplified by the Battle of Thermopylae: even though Leonidas only brought 300 Spartans to the allied force of 5,000 at the Hot Gates, Leonidas automatically assumed command because – he was a Spartan, and Spartans always commanded Greek alliances. Even in the Greek fleet’s victory over the Persians at the naval battle of Salamis, a Spartan admiral was in nominal command of the allied force – even though an Athenian admiral, Themistocles, devised and executed the plan that won the victory.

Sparta’s military reputation was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They were the best soldiers and generals; therefore, Greek cities asked for Spartan help and Spartan generals to lead the alliances; then, when the Greeks won the battle, the Spartans could claim credit. It was a good system. Until Athens.

When the Greek war against Persia continued, Sparta initially took the lead, as was tradition. The Spartan general, though, was disgraced and leadership of the Greek alliance against Persia eventually fell to Athens. When the Greek states finally made a victorious peace with Persia, it was under Athenian auspices rather than Spartan. The rise of Athens caused Sparta to worry that it was losing its position of leadership among the Greek states, and they built an alliance to rival Athens. The long, terrible war that followed was the Peloponnesian War, from 431 to 404 BC, between the rival alliances of Athens and Sparta. Athens dominated Sparta militarily for most of the contest, but a couple of key Athenian mistakes – and massive amounts of Persian gold and mercenaries – turned the tide in Sparta’s favor.

Persia, having been humiliated by Athens and Sparta in the war against Darius, Xerxes and their successors, was happy as heck to see its two former enemies fighting each other. They were quite pleased to sponsor and support whichever side was losing, just to make sure that the war went on as long as possible and weakened both its foes as much as it could. “Let them fight,” indeed. Sparta only gained Persia’s help for good by promising that Persia could take over the Greek cities in Ionia in exchange for Persian gold and assistance – in essence, giving up the freedom of the Greeks to win the war against Athens.

This hypocrisy was the epitome of ultimate Spartan decline. They had won the war with Athens, but at the cost of the Spartan reputation. Not only had they sold out the freedom of the Greeks, but after the war the Spartans behaved increasingly like bullies over all the other Greek cities. For a state supposedly at the height of their power, they were actually deceptively weak – the alliances and influence that were the bedrock of their authority were coming apart. The main antagonist was not Athens this time, but Thebes.

Throughout the Peloponnesian War, Thebes had been one of Sparta’s most important allies. Notice I didn’t say “closest.” The Thebans were out for their own rivalry with Athens, and defeated them singlehandedly in one of the most important victories of the war at Delium in 425 BC (where Socrates fought in the Athenian phalanx). With Athens downgraded in power, the other Greek cities soon began to chafe under Spartan domination – and Thebes was first among them.

The nature of Greek warfare had changed considerably since the old days. The phalanx – heavily armored hoplite infantry with large shields and long spears – had long been the center of warfare, and remained important, but new tools had come into play. Athens especially began to use increasing numbers of light troops – skirmishers, archers and slingers – and with these troops they scored a signal victory over a Spartan phalanx at Lechaion on 390 BC, marking the first signs of a decline in Spartan military might.

By 376 BC, Thebes and Athens had joined in an alliance and expelled Sparta from central Greece, then defeated them in a naval battle. When they began arguing amongst themselves, though, Sparta sponsored a peace conference to try and reassert its dominance. Thebes was by now leading its own alliance of Greek states; led by their prominent general Epaminondas, the Theban league left the conference. Not wanting to allow Thebes time to build up a strong defense force, Sparta’s King Cleombrotus decided on a quick invasion to pin down and destroy the Theban army.

Cleombrotus gathered a force of about 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, and Epaminondas could only raise 6,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry to resist him. While the Theban cavalry was the best in Greece and used for shock action, the Spartan cavalry was more of a scouting force and not effective in close combat. Even so, these were tall odds in Greek warfare.

The traditional phalanx combat was a very straightforward affair. The standard Greek way of war was to form the troops in a square, usually ten ranks deep, right hand with spears levelled at the enemy, left hand with shields covering their own body and that of the man on their left. The unbroken nature of the phalanx was critical, since every man depended for cover on the man to his right; this caused each phalanx to shift slightly to the right over the course of combat, as each man in the front line tried to gain better protection from his neighbor. This meant that in almost every battle, the Greeks put their best and most experienced troops on the right. When the Spartans lined up for battle at Leuctra, they followed this pattern. King Cleombrotus and his Spartans went on the right flank, while the mercenaries and allies went to the center and left.

In battle, the two phalanxes would simply march into each other, and the fight became a test of endurance. In this type of fighting, the Spartans with their slight edge in discipline typically prevailed – but not always. Nevertheless, in this type of shoving match, a nearly two-to-one inferiority in infantry – like the one that Epaminondas and the Thebans faced against the Spartans – was a recipe for disaster. Epaminondas realized that something had to be done to tip the balance in his favor against overwhelming odds.

Epaminondas’ strategy was the oblique order, or the echelon formation, a method which appears for the first time in military history at Leuctra. It would be repeated by men like Frederick the Great, Robert E. Lee, and Norman Schwarzkopf. Rather than the balanced line of a typical phalanx, Epaminondas placed the vast majority of his troops on one end of the line – the LEFT end, not the traditional right end. Instead of a ten-deep formation like the traditional phalanx – like the Spartan formation – Epaminondas packed his infantry fifty deep on the left flank, leaving his right wing dangerously thin. The right would conduct a holding action, while the left crushed the Spartan right and unhinge the whole line. To further enhance his chances, Epaminondas placed the Sacred Band – Thebes’ elite formation – at the spearpoint of the attack column.

The Sacred Band was Thebes’ premier military unit, a hand-picked force of 300 elite warriors. It derived its fighting ability not only from superior training and discipline, but from its makeup. Its 300 men were 150 homosexual couples. Homosexuality was not uncommon in Ancient Greece and attracted little negative comment; the dynamics of male sexuality were drastically different in those times than in our own. The theory was that the desire to protect and impress one’s lover would bring out the superior fighting spirit in the Theban soldier. No one would dishonor his partner by fleeing and bringing shame upon both.

The Thebans and Spartans met on the field of Leuctra on July 6, 371 BC. They both prepared for battle. Cleombrotus drew his troops up in the usual order, about twelve ranks deep from left to right. Epaminondas placed his men in the oblique order, with a wafer-thin line on his right and a great big sledgehammer fifty men deep on his left. Both sides advanced into the battle.

The battle opened with the Theban cavalry on the left charging and scattering the Spartan cavalry, sending their weaker and lighter counterparts flying. In their retreat, they either fled battle entirely or tried to escape into the ranks of the infantry, disrupting their formation. Seeing this confusion, Epaminondas ordered his infantry forward. The great press of men advanced, and soon the extended left flank punched into Cleombrotus and his Spartans. The struggle was on.

Rather than the carefully choreographed fighting in Zack Snyder’s “300” movie, it’s better to imagine a Greek phalanx battle as an enormous shoving match, like offensive and defensive lines on the football field – only hundreds of men wide and a dozen or more men deep. And with sharp pointy objects. The pressure at the frontline is immense. Not only do you face the threat of the enemy to your immediate front, with both your shields raised and your spears jabbing at each other, sweating and dusty in your heavy plate armor, pushed and buffeted by the men to your left and right. You fight to hide behind your mate’s (or your lover’s, if you’re Theban) shield on your right, and another man crowds into you from the left to hide behind yours. At the same time, you feel immense pressure behind you, as the weight of the rear ranks propels you forward toward your foe.

Epaminondas’ tactic worked superbly for just this reason. The immense forward momentum of fifty ranks of men all pushing each other forward cracked the Spartan line like an egg, the Sacred Band as the diamond tip of the Theban drill bit. The Spartan forces began to crack and run, and the Theban infantry poured through. With the right wing shattered and King Cleombrotus dead on the field, the heavy column turned on the rest of the Spartan line, and the whole Spartan force crumbled. They could do nothing but retreat, leaving behind almost 2,000 casualties, including 400 Spartans.

Although the Thebans had won a signal victory, their men were exhausted, so they simply negotiated with the Spartan force rather than destroy them entirely. The Spartans were allowed to withdraw from all of northern and central Greece. Nevertheless, Sparta’s power was broken for good. Their prestige – the real pillar of their strength – had vanished when they lost a fight at Leuctra even though they outnumbered the enemy two to one. Political power was not long in collapsing either. Sparta had long viewed itself as the defender of Greece from outside threats – and that was how other Greeks viewed them too. After decades of Spartan bullying and arrogance, and then the humiliating defeat at Leuctra, that illusion was gone.

The Thebans soon picked apart the Spartan alliance, but Athens – fearing a dominant Thebes just as much as they feared a dominant Sparta – allied with Sparta against the new threat. The cities struggled until 362, when Epaminondas was killed in the Theban victory at Mantinea. Without his leadership, the Thebans could not win an overwhelming victory in the war as a whole. The end result of Leuctra, then, was that none of the Greek states would achieve dominance over the others. The Greeks remained more divided than ever; with Sparta shattered, Athens still suffering from their defeat by Sparta, and Thebes too small to rule them all, no one Greek state could assume leadership.

The Battle of Leuctra, then, was not just a turning point in military history. It was one of the first battles where preplanned tactics, not overwhelming strength, opportunism, or luck played a major role. It was also a turning point for Greece. The major Greek cities were exhausted and weak; Sparta had been the only one that could unify them militarily, and Leuctra had ended any hope of that. For there were other powers in the wings.

A young nobleman from the north had been brought as a hostage to Thebes in the 370s. There he learned from Epaminondas and observed his tactical innovation and leadership at Leuctra. The young man would go home to Macedon and become King Philip II. 33 years later, Philip and his son, the 16-year-old Alexander, would annihilate the Theban army at Chaeronea. In this battle, the Macedonians would end the military dominance of the Greek cities forever, and wipe out the Sacred Band to a man.

The Spartans weren’t at Chaeronea, and gloated about it, but their day would come. The days of Leonidas and Thermopylae were long, long gone.

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