Ancient History & Civilisation


Introduction to Pelopidas

[c. 410–364 BC]

The career of the Theban general Pelopidas coincides with the period of Thebes’ greatest influence and success, and correspondingly with the collapse of Spartan power. Thebes, the largest city in the region of Boeotia, was also the most powerful city in the Boeotian Confederacy. In the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) most of Boeotia had been allied with Sparta against Athens, but, as the war ended, tensions between the former allies escalated. Thebes gave refuge to Athenian democrats who fled Athens in 404 after Sparta abolished its democracy, and fear of the now untrammelled power of Sparta led Boeotia to fight against Sparta and on the side of Athens and Corinth in the Corinthian War of 395–387. Sparta was not slow to take revenge. The Peace of Antalcidas of 386 disbanded the Boeotian Confederacy, and in 382 Spartan troops seized the acropolis of Thebes and set up a pro-Spartan oligarchy in the city.

Pelopidas was among a group of aristocratic Thebans who fled across the border to Athens. In 379 he took part in a dramatic coup, which assassinated many of the oligarchs, expelled the Spartan garrison from Thebes and re-established the Boeotian Confederacy. In the following year Pelopidas was elected Boeotarch, one of the chief officials of the Confederacy, a position to which he was re-elected almost every year until his death. He played an important role in military operations against the Spartans and was present, as commander of the Theban Sacred Band, at the decisive battle of Leuctra in 371, where Boeotian troops under Epaminondas unexpectedly inflicted a crushing defeat on Sparta. In 370 Pelopidas and Epaminondas led Theban troops into the Peloponnese, where they liberated Messenia from Spartan control, founded the new city of Messene and so changed the balance of power in mainland Greece for ever. In the years that followed, Pelopidas led Boeotian troops on several expeditions to Thessaly against Alexander, the tyrant of Pherae. In 368 he was captured by Alexander but later freed when Epaminondas threatened a renewed attack; in 364 he was killed while fighting Alexander at the battle of Cynoscephalae.

Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas presents Pelopidas in a favourable light throughout. He lays special stress on the friendship and cooperation between Pelopidas and his contemporary, Epaminondas; Plutarch presents this as a model of harmony and cooperation against which so many other famous leaders of the past fell short (chs. 3–4; cf. 23–4). Pelopidas is also presented as a brave man and a skilful leader, and as a champion of freedom against oppression. Those qualities are first in evidence in the narration of the liberation of Thebes (chs. 7–13), which forms the centrepiece of the first half of the Life (this was plainly a story which interested Plutarch; he also tells it, at greater length, in his On the sign of Socrates). Pelopidas’ courage and love of freedom are also evident in his opposition towards Alexander of Pherae, which forms the focus of the second half of the Life. As Plutarch presents it, Pelopidas’ motivation for intervening in Thessaly is to defend the Thessalians (chs. 26–7); Plutarch also emphasizes the barbarity and cruelty of the tyrant in order to play up by contrast Pelopidas’ reasonableness, even showing how the tyrant was hated by his own wife, who finally plotted to murder him (Pelopidas. 28, 35). The fact that after Pelopidas’ death the Thessalians are grief-stricken and accord him a magnificent funeral shows for Plutarch the love and loyalty Pelopidas had won. ‘While engaged’, Plutarch concludes, ‘in a heroic action aimed at the destruction of a tyrant, he sacrificed his life for the freedom of Thessaly’ (ch. 34).

Plutarch’s Pelopidas covers some of the same material as Xenophon does in his Hellenica Books 6 and 7 and in his encomium of the Spartan King Agesilaus, and Xenophon was plainly an important source for this Life. But Xenophon is consistently anti-Boeotian and in his complete works only deigns to mention Pelopidas in a single passage (Hellenica 7.1.33–40, discussing the embassy to Persia of 367). Indeed, in the Hellenica he fails to mention at all both the battle of Tegyra, which Plutarch saw as a precursor to Leuctra (ch. 16), and the liberation of Messenia from Spartan control, despite the importance of the latter as a turning-point in Greek history. Pelopidas, on the other hand, not only gives generous treatment to Boeotian achievements, but presents the great events of the mid-fourth century from a Boeotian point of view. Thus the liberation of Thebes forms an exciting and dramatic mini-narrative of its own and Plutarch presents it as parallel to Athens’ own liberation from Sparta and the restoration of Athenian democracy in 403 (ch. 13).

Plutarch must, then, have had other sources in addition to Xenophon, which were rather more favourable to the Boeotian side. In fact, Plutarch is reticent as to the identity of these other sources. Comparison with Diodorus Book 15 (15.50–88) suggests that Plutarch may have used the now lost fourth-century historian Ephorus, who was Diodorus’ main source for this period. He probably also used Aristotle’s nephew Callisthenes, whose Hellenica seems to have covered the period from the Peace of Antalcidas to the mid-350s. Plutarch names both Ephorus and Callisthenes once (ch. 17). There were probably other sources too, perhaps local Boeotian ones. Plutarch was himself Boeotian and had almost certainly visited in person the sites of some of the events in Pelopidas(see his descriptions in chs. 16 and 20).

Whatever the exact identity of the sources used by Plutarch, he was certainly aware of traditions that were less favourable to Pelopidas. For example, in chapter 25 Plutarch deals with the trial in Thebes of Pelopidas and Epaminondas in 369 for holding on to their command longer than the twelve-month term allowed by law. Plutarch presents the prosecution as motivated by envy, remarks on Epaminondas’ fortitude and spends most time on Pelopidas’ successful counter-prosecution of one of their most ardent detractors. But in Plutarch’s treatise On inoffensive self-praise (540d–e), Pelopidas’ performance at the trial is presented in a much less favourable light: in contrast to the confident dignified bearing of Epaminondas, Pelopidas ‘cringed and begged’. The positive presentation of Pelopidas in the Life, then, is not simply a result of Plutarch reproducing unthinkingly the emphasis of his sources and must, partly at least, be a deliberate choice.

The Life of Pelopidas is paired with the Life of Marcellus. M. Claudius Marcellus (consul 222 BC) was famous as victor over the Gauls, conqueror of Syracuse and above all veteran of Rome’s long struggle against Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218–201BC). In the prologue which forms an introduction to both Lives and immediately precedes the Pelopidas, Plutarch draws attention to one similarity between them in particular: ‘both were careless of their own lives and recklessly threw them away’. Plutarch returns to the point in the Comparison of the two men which follows the Life of Marcellus.

Other similarities are built into Plutarch’s account of the two men. For example, the trials of Pelopidas and Epaminondas find their parallel in Marcellus’ trials before the Senate (Marcellus 23, 27). But there are also some differences. Whereas Pelopidas always cooperates harmoniously with Epaminondas, Marcellus’ cooperation with his colleague Fabius Maximus is less than perfect (see esp. Marcellus 24). Similarly, whereas Pelopidas’ anger against Alexander of Pherae is presented as a result of a laudable love of freedom and hatred of tyranny, Marcellus’ desire to defeat Hannibal is portrayed partly at least as a result of an obsessive personal ambition (esp. Marcellus 28). Finally, the threat posed by Alexander of Pherae, and the brutality of his character, is played up, whereas the threat posed by Hannibal is played down. Unusually, then, in this pair of Lives, the Greek subject seems to be treated more favourably than the Roman. Or, to put it another way, the Greek subject provides a more straightforward model against which to read the more complex Roman one.

Prologue to the Lives of Pelopidas and Marcellus

1. When the elder Cato1 once heard some people praising a man who was unreasonably reckless and daring in war, he observed that there was a difference between valuing courage highly and life cheaply, and his remark was just. At any rate, there is a story of one of Antigonus’ soldiers,2 a man who was apparently quite fearless, but who suffered from weak health and a wretched physique. When the king asked him what was the reason for his pallid colour, he admitted that he was afflicted with a little-known disease. The king took the matter to heart and gave orders to his physicians that if any remedy could be found, they should give him their utmost skill and care. The result was not only that the man was cured, but that he immediately ceased to risk his life and lost all the fire and dash which had distinguished him on the battlefield, so that even Antigonus reproved him and expressed his amazement at the change. The soldier made no attempt to conceal the reason for his behaviour, but said, ‘It is you, sire, who have taken away my courage, because you have freed me from the miseries that made me hold life cheap.’ The same point was once made by a citizen of Sybaris,3 who remarked that it was no great sacrifice for the Spartans to lay down their lives fighting if this meant an escape from the innumerable hardships and generally wretched existence that they endured. Of course to the Sybarites, a people completely enervated by their soft and luxurious way of living, it was natural to suppose that these men, whose ambition and ardent desire for renown had banished the fear of death, could only feel as they did because they hated life; but the truth was that the valour of the Spartans gave them happiness both in living and in dying, as the following epitaph shows us. These men died, it says,

Not seeing death or life in itself as the object of striving,

But to accomplish both nobly, this they considered true honour.4

For there is no disgrace in avoiding death, so long as a man does not cling to life dishonourably; but neither is there any special virtue in meeting it if this is done out of contempt for life. It is for this reason that Homer always brings his bravest and most warlike heroes into battle splendidly and effectively armed, and that the Greek lawgivers punish a man for throwing away his shield, but not his sword nor his spear: their object was to teach him that his first duty is to protect himself from harm rather than inflict it on the enemy, and this is most of all true for a man who governs a city or commands an army.

2. The Athenian general Iphicrates5 once compared the light-armed troops to the hands, the cavalry to the feet, the main body of infantry to the chest and breast-plate, and the general to the head: thus if the commander is over-impetuous and takes undue risks, he endangers not only his own life but those of all the others, whose safety or destruction depend on him. This is why Callicratidas, although in other respects a great man, was wrong in the answer he gave to the diviner who urged him to take care since the sacrificial omens before the battle foretold his death. ‘Sparta’, he retorted, ‘does not depend on one man!’6 It is true of course, that when he was fighting, or at sea, or serving under the orders of another, Callicratidas was one man, but as general he combined in his own person the strength of all the rest, so that in this sense he was certainly not one man, when his death involved the destruction of so many others.

A better answer was given by Antigonus the old when he was about to engage in a sea-battle off Andros7 and somebody told him that the enemy’s fleet was far stronger than his own, to which he answered, ‘How many ships do I count for?’ In saying this, he was implying that leadership is a great thing, as indeed it is, when it is combined with courage and experience, and it is its first duty to protect the man who holds the fate of all the others in his hands. In the same way, when Chares was once showing the Athenians his wounds and his shield which had been transfixed by a spear, Timotheus was right in saying, ‘For my part I was ashamed at the siege of Samos whenever an arrow passed near me, because I was afraid I was behaving more like an impetuous youth than a general in charge of such a great force.’8 To sum up, we might say that where the whole issue of a battle may turn upon the general’s exposing himself to danger, there he must use hand and body unsparingly, and disregard those who say that a general should die in old age, if not of old age. But where the advantage to be gained from success is small, and all is lost if he fails, no one demands that a general should risk his life fighting like an ordinary soldier.

These things occurred to me to say by way of preface as I write the Lives of Pelopidas and Marcellus, both of them great men who fell in battle unexpectedly. For they were both formidable in hand-to-hand fighting, both won honour for their countries in brilliant campaigns and both were faced with the most formidable opponents of their times. Marcellus, it is said, was the first to rout Hannibal, who had hitherto proved invincible, while Pelopidas, in a pitched battle, defeated the Spartans, who at that time were supreme on land and sea. Yet both were careless of their own lives and recklessly threw them away at the very moment when there was the most pressing need that men of their calibre should be alive and hold command. These are the points of resemblance which they share and which have led me to write their Lives in parallel.

Life of Pelopidas

3. Pelopidas, the son of Hippoclus, was descended, like Epaminondas, from an illustrious Theban family. He grew up surrounded by riches, and having succeeded while he was still a young man to a splendid inheritance, he made it his business to relieve the condition of men who both needed and deserved his help, so as to prove that he was truly the master of his wealth and not its slave. Most rich men, according to Aristotle, either make too little use of their wealth through miserliness, or too much through extravagance, and so live in perpetual slavery, the one class to their business and the other to their pleasures.9 At any rate, many Thebans were glad to benefit from Pelopidas’ kindness and generosity, and of all his friends it was only Epaminondas who could not be persuaded to share his wealth. Instead, Pelopidas shared Epaminondas’ poverty and took pride in the simplicity of his dress, the austerity of his diet, his readiness to endure hardships and the thoroughness of his performance of military service. Like Capaneus in Euripides’ play, he possessed ‘Abundant wealth, but in that wealth no pride’,10 and he was ashamed that anyone should suppose that he enjoyed more personal luxury than the poorest citizen of Thebes. Epaminondas, who had been born to poverty and was thus accustomed to it, made it more endurable by his philosophy of life and by choosing from the beginning to remain single. Pelopidas, on the other hand, married into a noble family and had children born to him, but nevertheless, by devoting all his time to public duties, he neglected to make money for himself and suffered losses to his estate. When his friends found fault with him for this and reminded him that money, even though he chose to ignore it, was still a necessity of life, he replied, ‘A necessity I dare say – for example, for Nicodemus here!’ and he pointed to a man who was both lame and blind.

4. Both men were by nature equally fitted to pursue every kind of excellence, except that Pelopidas took more pleasure in cultivating the body and Epaminondas the mind, so that the one gave his leisure hours to the wrestling arena and the hunting field, and the other to listening to and discussing philosophy. Both had many claims to renown, but the greatest of these in the opinion of the wise was the unquestioned good faith and friendship which endured between them from first to last, throughout a multitude of political crises, campaigns and public actions. For if anyone considers the political careers of Themistocles and Aristides, or of Cimon and Pericles, or of Nicias and Alcibiades,11 and how full they were of mutual dissensions, jealousies and rivalries, and then contrasts these with the honour and consideration with which Pelopidas treated Epaminondas, he will see that they can in the fullest sense be called colleagues in government and in command, which cannot be said of those who were constantly striving to get the better of one another rather than of the enemy. The true reason for the superiority of the two Thebans is to be found in their virtue; because of this their actions were not undertaken to obtain personal glory or wealth, which always arouse bitter envy and strife. Instead, they were both fired from the beginning by a divine ardour to see their country raised to the heights of power and prestige in their own lifetime and through their own efforts, and to this end each treated the other’s successes as if they were his own.

However, most people think that their close friendship began during the campaign at Mantineia,12 where they served in a contingent sent from Thebes to support the Spartans, who at that time were still their friends and allies. In this battle the two were stationed side by side among the hoplites and fought against the Arcadians. When the wing of the Lacedaemonian army where they were posted gave way and most of their companions were put to flight, they locked their shields together and drove back their opponents. Pelopidas received seven wounds in the front of his body, and at last sank down upon a heap of corpses, in which friend and foe lay dead together, but Epaminondas, although he thought his comrade had been killed, stood in front of him to defend his body and his arms and fought desperately, holding a host of attackers at bay single-handed, for he was determined to die rather than leave Pelopidas lying there. It was not long before Epaminondas was in deadly danger himself, for he had received a spear-thrust in the chest and a sword-cut on the arm, but at last Agesipolis, the Spartan king, came to his rescue from the other wing, and when hope was almost gone saved the lives of both men.

5. After this, the Spartans made a show of treating the Thebans as friends and allies, but the truth was that they were suspicious of the city’s power and of her ambitious spirit; above all they hated the grouping led by Ismenias and Androcleidas and to which Pelopidas belonged, which was believed to be devoted to the cause of liberty and of government by the people. Consequently Archias, Leontidas and Philip, who were rich members of the oligarchic faction and whose ambitions were not restrained by any scruples, entered into negotiations with Phoebidas the Spartan as he was passing through Theban territory with a body of troops.13 They proposed that he should seize the Cadmeia14 by a surprise attack, banish the party that opposed them and, by establishing an oligarchy, ensure that the regime would be subservient to Sparta. Phoebidas allowed himself to be persuaded, timed his assault upon the Thebans when they were least expecting it in the midst of the festival of the Thesmophoria and seized the acropolis.15Ismenias was arrested, carried off to Sparta and soon afterwards executed, while Pelopidas, Pherenicus, Androcleidas and many others escaped from the city and were proclaimed outlaws. Epaminondas was allowed to remain, for he was not considered to be a man of action on account of his interest in philosophy, nor to be of any danger to the regime on account of his poverty.

6. The Spartans proceeded to deprive Phoebidas of his command and fined him 100,000 drachmas, but they nevertheless continued to occupy the Cadmeia with a garrison: in this way they made all the rest of Greece marvel at their inconsistency in punishing the offender but approving the offence.16 As for the Thebans, they had lost their ancestral constitution and became enslaved to the group of Archias and Leontidas; nor was there room for any hope of deliverance from this tyranny which they could see was protected by Sparta’s military supremacy and could not be unseated, unless Sparta’s ascendancy by land and sea could somehow be broken. But in spite of this apparent security, when Leontidas and his supporters learnt that the Theban refugees were living in Athens and that they were not only welcomed by the common people but honoured by the well-to-do, they plotted against their lives. They sent secret agents to Athens, who contrived to assassinate Androcleidas by treachery but failed in their attempts against the others. The Spartans sent letters to the authorities in Athens requesting them not to harbour or encourage the exiles, but to banish them on the ground that they had been declared public enemies by the allied cities. The Athenians, however, would do no harm to the Thebans in their city, for apart from their traditional and natural instincts of humanity, they had a debt of gratitude to repay to Thebes, who had been jointly responsible for the restoration of their own democracy, since at that time they had passed a decree that if any Athenians marched through Boeotia on their way to attack the tyrants,17 no Boeotian should see or hear them.18

7. Although Pelopidas was one of the youngest of the exiles, he took the initiative in encouraging each of his companions privately. Besides this, whenever they met together, he would argue that it was utterly wrong and dishonourable to allow their native city to remain garrisoned and enslaved by foreigners, and for themselves to think of nothing but their personal safety and survival, to depend upon the decrees of the Athenians and to cultivate and fawn upon whichever orators could sway the people in their favour. They should play for the highest stakes and take the courage and idealism of Thrasybulus as their model, and just as he had started out from Thebes and overthrown the tyrants in Athens, so they in their turn should set forth from Athens and deliver Thebes. After a while the exiles were won over by these arguments; they secretly resumed contact with their supporters in Thebes and told them what they had resolved. Their friends approved of these plans and Charon, one of the leading citizens of Thebes, agreed to put his house at their disposal, while Phillidas contrived to have himself appointed secretary to Archias and Philip, the two polemarchs. Meanwhile, Epaminondas had already communicated his own ideals to the younger generation of Thebans. He urged them whenever they trained in the gymnasium to challenge the Spartans and wrestle with them. Then, when he saw them elated by their victories in these bouts, he would scold them and tell them that such triumphs ought rather to make them feel ashamed; for since they so much exceeded their opponents in physical strength, it could only be their cowardice which kept them enslaved to them.

8. When a day had been fixed for the attempt, the exiles decided that the main body led by Pherenicus should wait in the Thriasian plain,19 while a few of the youngest men undertook the dangerous mission of going on ahead into the city; if these were surprised by their enemies, the rest should see to it that neither their children nor their parents should be left in want. Pelopidas was the first to volunteer for this task, followed by Melon, Damocleidas and Theopompus: each of these men belonged to the leading families in Thebes, they were attached to each other by the closest ties of friendship and were rivals only in the pursuit of valour and reputation. A group of twelve volunteers was made up, they embraced those who were to stay behind and sent a messenger ahead to warn Charon. They set out20 in short cloaks and took with them hounds and hunting-nets, so that anybody who met them on the road should have no suspicion of their purpose, but should take them for hunters ranging the countryside in search of game.

When the messenger arrived and reported that they were on their way, Charon, although the hour of danger was now at hand, in no way faltered in his determination, but acted as a man of his word and made his house ready to receive them. But there was another conspirator, Hipposthenidas, by no means an unprincipled man, indeed a patriot and a sympathizer with the exiles, but one who did not possess the intrepid spirit which the urgency of the moment and the nature of the attempt demanded. The importance of the enterprise, which was now so close at hand, threw him into a panic, especially when he realized that in attempting to overthrow the occupying garrison they were in a sense trying to shake off the hegemony of Sparta, and that for this ambitious purpose they had put their trust in the hopes of refugees who had no resources behind them. Hipposthenidas went quietly home and dispatched one of his friends to Melon and Pelopidas urging them to postpone their plans for the present, return to Athens and wait for a more favourable opportunity. The man he sent was called Chlidon, and he hurried to his house, led out his horse and asked for the bridle. His wife was at her wits’ end because she could not find it for him and made the excuse that she had lent it to a neighbour. They began to quarrel, then to curse one another and finally his wife uttered a prayer that his journey might prove fatal to him and whoever had sent him. By that time Chlidon had wasted a great deal of the day in this squabble; he decided that what had happened was a threatening omen, gave up all idea of the journey and turned his attention to other business. We may reflect how near at the very outset the greatest and most glorious enterprises have sometimes come to missing their opportunity.

9. Meanwhile, Pelopidas and his party exchanged clothes with some peasants, separated and entered the city from different directions while it was still daylight. The weather had begun to change, there was a strong wind blowing and some flurries of snow, and it was easy for them to remain unobserved because many people had already gone indoors to shelter from the storm. However, those who were in on the plot received them as they arrived and immediately led them to Charon’s house: together with the exiles there were forty-eight men in the conspiracy.

As for the tyrants, the situation was as follows. Their secretary Phillidas had for some time been taken into the confidence of the conspirators, as I have mentioned, and was working hand in hand with them. Some while before, he had proposed a drinking-party for Archias and his friends, to which they were to invite a number of married women: his plan was to get them under the influence of wine and thoroughly relaxed in their pleasures, and then to deliver them into the hands of their attackers. But the drinking had scarcely got under way when a report was brought in, which, although true, was unconfirmed and vague in its details, to the effect that the exiles were hidden somewhere in the city. Phillidas did his best to change the subject, but Archias sent one of his attendants to Charon with orders that he should come at once. By then it was evening and Pelopidas and his companions were making themselves ready in Charon’s house; they had already buckled on their breast-plates when suddenly a knock was heard at the door. Somebody ran to it, was told by the messenger that he had come from the polemarchs to fetch Charon and in a state of great agitation gave his news to the rest. All the conspirators at once concluded that the plot had been discovered and that they were lost before they could achieve anything worthy of their courage.

However, they agreed that Charon must obey the summons and appear before the polemarchs as though he suspected nothing. Charon was a man of courage and of stern resolution in the face of danger, but on this occasion he was anxious and his determination was undermined on account of his friends; moreover, he feared that if so many brave citizens were to lose their lives, he could scarcely escape the suspicion of treachery. So just before he left the house, he sent for his son, who was still no more than a boy, but handsomer and stronger than others of his age: he fetched the youth from the women’s quarters and handed him over to Pelopidas, saying that if they discovered any treachery or deceit in the father, they must treat the son as an enemy and show him no mercy. Many of the conspirators wept at Charon’s noble spirit and at the concern which he showed for them, and all were indignant that he should think any of them so demoralized by the present danger and so mean-spirited as to suspect or blame him in any way. They implored him not to involve his son with them, but to send him out of harm’s way so that he might escape the tyrants and live to avenge the city and his friends. But Charon refused to take his son away and asked them, ‘What life or what safety could be more honourable for him than to die a noble death in the company of his father and of so many friends?’ Then he offered up a prayer to the gods, embraced and encouraged them all and went off, striving to compose his expression and control his voice so as to yield no hint of the part he was really playing.

10. When he reached the door of the polemarch’s house, Archias came out with Phillidas and said to him, ‘Charon, I have heard that a number of men have arrived and have hidden themselves in the city, and that some of the citizens are in league with them.’ Charon was alarmed at first, but he began by asking who these men were and who was helping to conceal them. He soon saw that Archias had no exact information and that what he had heard did not come from any of those who knew the truth. ‘You must take care’, he said, ‘not to let yourself be misled by idle rumour. But in any case I will make inquiries. We must not neglect any report of this kind.’ Phillidas, who was standing next to him, approved of this answer and thereupon led Archias back into the house, plied him with wine and did his best to spin out the drinking with assurances that the women would soon arrive.

When Charon returned to his house he found the conspirators fully prepared; they had given up any hope that they would succeed in their attempt, or even survive it, but they were determined to die gloriously and kill as many of their enemies as possible. And so it was only to Pelopidas that he confided the truth; for the rest he made up a story that Archias had talked about other matters. But even before this first storm had blown over, fortune soon brought another in its train. A messenger arrived from Athens, sent by Archias the priest to his namesake and close friend Archias of Thebes. He brought with him a letter which contained, as was afterwards discovered, no mere vague or imaginary suspicion, but a clear and detailed account of the conspiracy. The messenger was taken to Archias, and handed him the letter saying, ‘The man who sent this said that you must read it immediately: it concerns very serious matters.’ Archias was by that time so drunk that he merely smiled and answered, ‘Serious matters for tomorrow!’ Then he took the letter, put it under his pillow and returned to whatever he had been talking about with Phillidas. This phrase has become a proverb which is current in Greece down to this day.21

11. Now that the moment of opportunity seemed to have arrived, the conspirators set out in two parties. One, led by Pelopidas and Damocleidas, was to attack Leontidas and Hypates, who lived near one another; the other, under Charon and Melon, went to Archias and Philip. The men had put on women’s gowns over their breast-plates and wore thick garlands of pine and fir which shaded their faces.22 For this reason, when they first came through the door of the dining-room, the company shouted and clapped their hands, imagining that the long-awaited women had at last arrived. The conspirators looked carefully around the party, took note of each one of the guests as they reclined and then, drawing their swords, they threw off their disguises and made a rush for Archias and Philip. Phillidas prevailed upon a few of the guests to stay quiet; the rest who staggered to their feet and tried to defend themselves and help the polemarchs were so drunk that they were easily dispatched.

Pelopidas and his party were faced with a harder task, for Leontidas, whom they had marked out as their victim, was sober and a formidable adversary, and they found his house shut up as he was already asleep. They knocked for a long time before anyone answered, but at last the attendant heard them, and began to come out and draw back the bolt. As soon as the door gave way and opened, they burst in all together, knocked down the servant and rushed to the bedroom. Leontidas, when he heard the noise and the sound of running feet, guessed what was happening, leaped from his bed and drew his dagger. But he forgot to throw down the lamps so as to make the men stumble over one another in the darkness. The consequence was that when he moved to the door of his bedroom and struck down Cephisodorus – the first man who entered – he came into full view of his attackers. As Cephisodorus fell dead, Leontidas grappled with Pelopidas who was immediately behind. There was a violent struggle between them, in which their movements were hampered by the narrowness of the doorway and by the dead body of Cephisodorus which lay under their feet. At last Pelopidas got the upper hand and, after killing Leontidas, he at once hurried on with his companions to attack Hypates. They broke into his house in the same way, but Hypates instantly guessed why they had come and fled for shelter to his neighbours. The conspirators followed close on his heels, caught him and killed him.

12. Having carried out their mission, they joined Melon’s party, and sent a message to the main body of exiles whom they had left in Attica. They also called upon the citizens of Thebes to fight for their liberty, and armed all who came to them, taking down the spoils and trophies of war which hung in the porticoes and breaking open the shops of the spearmakers and swordsmiths in the neighbourhood. Epaminondas and Gorgidas joined them with a band of armed followers consisting of young men and the most active of the older men. By this time the whole city was in an uproar, the air was filled with shouting, lights were lit in the houses and men ran frantically here and there. The people, however, did not yet gather in a body. They were frightened by the turn which events had taken, but as they had no clear idea of what was happening they waited for daylight. Here the Spartan commanders seem to have blundered in not making a sortie and attacking them immediately, for their garrison numbered some fifteen hundred men, and many people ran out of the city to take refuge with them. But they too were alarmed at the shouting, the watch-fires and the din which reached them from all directions, and so they took no action but merely stood at arms on the Cadmeia. At daybreak, the exiles from Attica marched into the city fully armed and a general assembly of the people was summoned. Then Epaminondas and Gorgidas led forward Pelopidas and his companions surrounded by priests who carried garlands in their hands, and called upon the citizens to fight for their country and their gods. At the sight of these men, the whole assembly rose and with shouts and loud applause welcomed them as their saviours and benefactors.

13. After this Pelopidas was elected Boeotarch,23 and together with Melon and Charon he at once blockaded the Cadmeia and attacked it on every side, for he was anxious to drive out the Lacedaemonians and free the acropolis before an army could arrive from Sparta. He succeeded in his object, but with so little time to spare that after the Spartans had surrendered on terms and had been allowed to depart, they had gone no further than Megara before they met Cleombrotus marching against Thebes with a large army. Of the three men who had been harmosts or military governors in Thebes, the Spartans condemned and executed Herippidas and Arcesus, while the third, Lysanoridas, was heavily fined and afterwards went into exile.

This exploit so closely resembled the liberation of Athens,24 not only in the courage displayed and the dangers and ordeals endured by the men who took part in it, but also in the fact that their success was crowned by good fortune, that the Greeks came to refer to it as the sister of Thrasybulus’ achievement. It would be hard to find another instance in which so small a group of men with such weak resources overcame so numerous and powerful an enemy by virtue of sheer courage and determination, or conferred greater blessings on their country by so doing. And, indeed, the change which they brought about in the political situation made their action even more glorious. It can truly be said that the war which destroyed Sparta’s prestige and put an end to her supremacy by land and sea began with that night on which Pelopidas, not by surprising any fortress, wall or acropolis but simply by entering a private house with eleven other men, loosened and broke in pieces, if we may express the truth in a metaphor, the fetters of Spartan domination which until then had seemed adamantine and indissoluble.

14. The Spartans then invaded Boeotia25 with a large army, and at this the Athenians took fright and denounced their treaty of alliance with the Thebans. They went on to impeach all those who supported the Boeotian cause, executed some of them and fined or banished others; and as nobody offered to help the Thebans, their situation began to appear desperate. However, Pelopidas, who was Boeotarch, together with Gorgidas, found a way to embroil the Athenians once more with the Spartans by means of the following ruse. There was a Spartan named Sphodrias who enjoyed a high reputation as a soldier, but who lacked judgement and was apt to be misled by vain hopes and reckless ambitions; this officer had been left at Thespiae with a number of troops to help and act as a rallying-point for those Thebans who had been exiled because they favoured the Spartans. Pelopidas and Gorgidas arranged for one of their friends who was a merchant to visit Sphodrias secretly and to unfold a scheme which proved even more attractive to him than money. The idea was that he should attempt an ambitious operation and capture Piraeus26 by a surprise attack when the Athenians were off their guard. Nothing, the merchant explained to him, would please the Spartans so much as the seizure of Piraeus, and at that moment the Athenians could expect no help from the Thebans, who were angry with them and regarded them as traitors. At length, Sphodrias allowed himself to be persuaded, put his force under arms and made a night march into Attica. He advanced as far as Eleusis, but there his soldiers lost heart and his attempt was discovered; at this he withdrew to Thespiae, but his action was to involve the Spartans in a serious and difficult war.

15. As a result of this raid, the Athenians eagerly renewed their alliance with Thebes and began operations by sea; they travelled around and invited and accepted the alliance of any Greeks that were disposed to revolt.27 Meanwhile, the Thebans on their own account continually engaged the Spartans in battle in Boeotia. These actions were no more than skirmishes, but such frequent encounters gave them invaluable training and practice and had the effect of raising their spirits, strengthening their bodies through hardship and adding to their experience and courage. This is why they say that Antalcidas the Spartan, when King Agesilaus returned from Boeotia with a wound, remarked to him, ‘You taught the Thebans the art of war when they did not want to fight, and now, I see, they have paid you handsomely for your tuition!’ However, the truth was that it was not Agesilaus who had taught them, but those of their own leaders who, with reasoned planning and an eye to the right moment, would skilfully unleash the Thebans against their enemies just like young hounds. They allowed them to get a taste of victory and of the self-confidence which goes with it, and then would bring them back again to safety. And of these leaders the chief honour was due to Pelopidas. From the moment when his countrymen first chose him as their commander, there was not a single year in which they did not elect him to office, either as captain of the Sacred Band28 or more often as Boeotarch, so that he remained continuously on active service until the time of his death.

During these years the Spartans were defeated and routed at Plataea; at Thespiae Phoebidas, the man who had originally seized the Cadmeia, was killed; and at Tanagra a large Spartan force was put to flight, and Panthoidas, the military governor, lost his life. These actions however, although they gave courage and confidence to the victors, by no means broke the spirit of the vanquished. They were not pitched battles, nor were the combatants drawn up in open or in regular formation: the Thebans gained their successes by making well-judged attacks and by adopting flexible tactics, according to which they might retire and break off the action, or pursue and come to close quarters with the enemy.

16. However, the battle of Tegyra,29 which provided as it were a prelude to the Theban victory at Leuctra, greatly increased Pelopidas’ reputation, for on this occasion none of his fellow commanders could claim a share in the success, nor had the enemy any excuse for their defeat. The city of Orchomenus30 had taken the side of Sparta and had received two Spartan battalions31 to protect it. Pelopidas kept it under observation and watched carefully for his opportunity. When he heard that the Spartan garrison had made an expedition into Locris, he took the Sacred Band and a small detachment of cavalry, and marched against the city, hoping to catch it defenceless. When he approached it he discovered that the garrison had been relieved by fresh troops from Sparta, and so he led his force back to Thebes through the district of Tegyra. This was a roundabout route which skirted the foot of the mountains, but it was the only one he could take, for the River Melas, which spreads out from its source into marshes and quagmires, made the centre of the plain completely impassable.

A little below the marshes stands the temple of Apollo of Tegyra, whose oracle had been abandoned comparatively recently. It flourished down to the time of the Persian Wars, when Echecrates served as priest and prophet there. According to the legend it was here that the god was born, and the mountain which overlooks the temple bears the name of Delos; at its foot the Melas contracts into its channel, while behind the temple flow two springs, whose water is much praised for its sweetness, coolness and abundance. One of these is called the Palm and the other the Olive to this day, as though the goddess Leto had borne her children not between two trees32 but between two fountains. Close by is Mount Ptoon, from which it is said that a wild boar suddenly appeared and terrified the goddess, and in the same way the legends of the dragon Python and the giant Tityus33 which belong to this locality also lend some support to the tradition that the god was born here. However, I shall pass over most of the evidence on this subject, since according to our ancestral tradition Apollo is not to be ranked among those deities who were born in a mortal state and later changed into an immortal one, as for example Heracles and Dionysus, who through their virtues were enabled to cast off mortality and suffering. Apollo is one of those deities who are eternal and unbegotten, if we may be guided by the testimony which the oldest and wisest men have uttered on these matters.

17. It was in the neighbourhood of Tegyra, then, that the Thebans met the Spartans, as they were returning in the opposite direction from Locris. As soon as the Thebans caught sight of the Spartans emerging from the narrow defiles in the hills, one of them ran to Pelopidas and cried out, ‘We have fallen into our enemy’s hands!’ ‘Why not the enemy into our hands?’ retorted Pelopidas. He immediately ordered his whole cavalry force to ride up from the rear and to prepare for a charge, and he drew up his hoplites, who numbered three hundred, in close formation: his hope was that wherever the cavalry charged, this point would offer him the best chance to break through the enemy who outnumbered him. There were two battalions of Spartans, each consisting of five hundred men according to Ephorus, although Callisthenes gives their strength as seven hundred, and other writers, Polybius among them, put it at nine hundred. The Spartan polemarchs Gorgoleon and Theopompus felt certain of victory and advanced against the Thebans. There was a furious clash as the two lines met, the fighting being fiercest at the point in the line where the two commanders were stationed, and it was there that the Spartan polemarchs engaged Pelopidas and were both killed. Then, when the Spartans around them were also cut down, panic began to spread through the army, and they parted their ranks to make a passage for the Thebans, supposing that they wanted to force their way to the rear and escape. However, Pelopidas used the corridor which was thus opened to attack the formations which were still holding their ground, and he cut his way through them with great slaughter, until finally the entire Spartan force turned and fled.

The Thebans did not press the pursuit far, because they were afraid of being counter-attacked by the Orchomenians, whose city was close at hand, or by the relieving force from Sparta. Nevertheless, they had succeeded in defeating the enemy outright and forcing their way through the whole of the beaten army; so they set up a trophy,34 stripped the Spartan dead and returned home triumphantly. For in all the wars that had been fought between Greeks and barbarians, the Lacedaemonians, it appears, had never been beaten by an army smaller than their own, nor for that matter in a pitched battle in which the numbers were equal. For this reason they possessed an invincible spirit and when they came to close quarters their mere reputation was enough to give them an ascendancy over their enemies, since other men could not believe that they were a match for the same number of Spartans. So it was this battle which first proved to the rest of Greece that it was not only the Eurotas, nor the country between Babyce and Cnacion,35 which bred brave and warlike soldiers. The truth is that if the youth of a nation is ashamed of disgrace, is ready to dare anything in a noble cause and shrink from dishonour rather than from danger, these soldiers prove the most terrible to their enemies.

18. The Sacred Band, we are told, was originally founded by Gorgidas. It consisted of three hundred picked men, who were given their training and lodging by the city and were quartered on the Cadmeia. This was why they were called the city regiment, because at that time the acropolis was known as the city. But according to some accounts, this force was composed of lovers and beloved, and a joke of Pammenes has come down to us in which he remarks that Homer’s Nestor was paying little attention to tactics when he urged the Greeks to arrange their military formations by clans and tribes, ‘That clans should stand shoulder to shoulder with clans, and tribes aid one another,’36 and that he ought instead to have posted lovers side by side. Tribesmen or clansmen do not feel any great concern for their kinsfolk in time of danger, but a band which is united by the ties of love is truly indissoluble and unbreakable, since both lovers and beloved are ashamed to be disgraced in the presence of the other, and each stands his ground at a moment of danger to protect the other. We need not be surprised at this, since men are more anxious to earn the good opinion of their lovers, even when these are absent, than that of others who are present: there is the case of a man who, when his enemy was about to kill him as he lay on the ground, implored the other to run him through the breast, ‘so that my beloved may not see me lying dead with a wound in my back and be ashamed of me’. The legend has it, too, that Iolaus, who was beloved by Heracles, accompanied him during his labours and shared them with him, and Aristotle says37 that even down to his own times, the tomb of Iolaus was a place where lovers exchanged their vows.

It was natural, therefore, that the Band was termed Sacred for the same reason that Plato describes the lover as a friend ‘inspired by God’,38 and it is said that it was never defeated until the battle of Chaeronea.39 The story goes that when King Philip of Macedon was inspecting the dead after the fighting, he stood at the place where the three hundred had faced the long pikes of his phalanx and lay dead in their armour, their bodies piled one upon the other. He was amazed at the sight, and when he learnt that this was the band of lovers and beloved, he wept and exclaimed, ‘A curse on those who imagine that these men ever did or suffered anything shameful!’

19. Speaking generally of love between men, it was not, as the poets have reported, the passion of Laius for the young Chrysippus which first set the fashion for this kind of relationship in Thebes.40 Its origins are rather to be traced to their lawgivers who wished to soften and tone down the hot-tempered and violent element in the Theban character, beginning from earliest boyhood, and for this reason they paid great attention to the flute, both in their education and their recreation. They gave this instrument especial prominence and value, and at the same time gave the emotions of love a place of honour in the wrestling-school and the gymnasium, and in this way they tempered, like steel, the characters of their young men. It was for the same reason that they established in their city the worship of the goddess Harmony, who is said to have been the child of Ares and Aphrodite: they believed that where the courage and aggressive qualities of the soldier are blended and mingled with eloquence and the social graces, there all the elements of communal life are harmonized, so that they produce the most perfect consonance and order.

When Gorgidas founded the Sacred Band, he originally distributed its members among the front ranks of the entire Theban hoplite phalanx. The result was that their exceptional courage was made inconspicuous, and their striking power was not exploited in any way which could benefit the whole army, because it was dissipated and diluted with that of a large body of inferior troops. But after the Band had distinguished themselves so brilliantly at Tegyra, where they had fought as an individual formation around Pelopidas’ own person, he saw to it that they were never afterwards separated from one another or broken up; instead, he treated them as a single unit and gave them the place of danger in his greatest battles. Just as horses gallop faster when they are harnessed to a chariot than when they are ridden singly – not because they travel through the air more rapidly as a result of their combined weight, but because their mutual rivalry and competition kindles their spirits – so Pelopidas believed that brave men are at their most ardent in a common cause and give of their best when they strive to outdo one another in valour.

20. When the Spartans concluded a common peace with the rest of Greece,41 they continued to wage war against Thebes alone, and Cleombrotus their king invaded Boeotia with a force of 10,000 hoplites and 1,000 cavalry. The Thebans found that they had to face a new danger, that of being completely displaced from their native land, and a fear such as they had never experienced before now spread through the whole of Boeotia. It was at this time, just as Pelopidas was leaving his house, that his wife followed him on his way, weeping and entreating him to take care of his life. ‘My dear,’ he said to her, ‘this is very good advice for private citizens, but generals need to be told to take care of the lives of others.’ When he reached the camp, he found that the Boeotarchs disagreed as to what should be done; he at once gave his support to Epaminondas and voted in favour of engaging the enemy. Pelopidas did not then hold the office of Boeotarch, but he was commander of the Sacred Band and highly trusted, as was only right for a man who had given his country such tokens of his devotion to liberty.

Accordingly, the decision was taken to risk a battle and the Thebans pitched camp opposite the Spartan army at Leuctra. Here Pelopidas had a dream which disturbed him deeply. In the plain of Leuctra are the tombs of the daughters of Scedasus. These girls are known as the Leuctridae, because it was here that they were buried after they had been raped by some Spartan strangers. Their father could obtain no satisfaction from the Spartans for this brutal and lawless outrage, and so, after solemnly cursing the Spartan race, he killed himself on the tombs of his daughters, and hence forever after prophecies and oracles continually warned the Spartans to beware of the vengeance of Leuctra. Most of them, however, did not fully understand the allusion and were also uncertain as to the place it concerned, since there is a small town in Laconia near the sea which is also named Leuctra, and another near Megalopolis in Arcadia. This atrocity, of course, took place long before the battle.

21. As Pelopidas slept in the camp, he dreamt that he saw the girls weeping over their tombs and calling down curses on the Spartans, and also that Scedasus urged him to sacrifice a red-haired virgin to his daughters if he wished to conquer his enemies. Pelopidas thought this a terrible and impious command, but nevertheless he rose and began describing his dream to the diviners and the generals. Some of these insisted that he must not neglect or disobey the order, and they quoted a number of precedents: from ancient times, Menoeceus the son of Creon, and Macaria the daughter of Heracles; and from more recent times, the case of Pherecydes the wise, who was put to death by the Spartans and whose skin was preserved by their kings on the instructions of some oracle; of Leonidas, the Spartan king, who, in a sense, was obeying the command of the oracle when he sacrificed his life at Thermopylae to save the rest of Greece; and of the Persian youths, who were sacrificed by Themistocles to Dionysus the eater of flesh before the sea-battle at Salamis.42 In all these instances the sacrifices were vindicated by the successes that followed. On the other hand, when Agesilaus was setting out on an expedition from the same place and against the same enemies as Agamemnon, he had the same vision as he lay asleep at Aulis, in which the goddess Artemis demanded his daughter as a sacrifice, but he was too tender-hearted to give her up, and thus ruined his expedition, which ended unsuccessfully and ingloriously.43 Others took the opposite view and argued that such a barbarous and impious sacrifice could not be pleasing to the powers above, because it is not the Typhons or Giants or other monsters who rule in heaven, but the Father of gods and men. They argued that it is probably foolish in any case to believe that there are deities who delight in bloodshed and in the slaughter of men, but, that if they exist, we should disregard them and treat them as powerless, since it is only weak and depraved minds that could conceive or harbour such cruel and unnatural desires.

22. While the Theban leaders debated this problem, and Pelopidas in particular was at a loss what to do, a filly suddenly broke away from a herd of horses, galloped through the camp and stopped at the very spot where the conference was taking place. The other spectators admired above all the colour of her glossy mane, which was a fiery chestnut, the vigour of her movements and the strength and boldness of her neighing, but Theocritus the prophet, with a sudden flash of understanding, cried out to Pelopidas, ‘The gods are with you! Here is your victim. Let us not wait for any other virgin, but take the gift the god has provided for you.’ At this they caught the filly and led her to the tombs of the girls. There they crowned her with garlands, consecrated her with prayers and joyfully offered up the sacrifice. Then they explained to the whole army the details of Pelopidas’ dream and the reasons for the sacrifice.

23. During the battle, Epaminondas kept edging his phalanx diagonally to the left in order to draw away the right wing of the Spartans as far as possible from the rest of the Greeks, and to drive Cleombrotus back and overwhelm him by launching a massive attack in column. The enemy perceived his intention and began to change their formation, extending their right wing and starting an encircling movement so as to outflank and envelop Epaminondas. But at this point Pelopidas dashed forward from his position and, advancing at the run with his band of three hundred, attacked before Cleombrotus could either deploy his wing or bring it back to its previous position and close up his ranks. His charge caught the Spartans in some disarray and confusion. And yet of all men the Spartans were consummate experts in matters of war, and in their training they paid special attention to not falling into disorder or confusion when their formation was disrupted; they were all accustomed to take any of their comrades as neighbours in the battle-line, and, wherever danger might threaten, to concentrate on that point, knit their ranks and fight as effectively as ever. But now when Epaminondas’ main phalanx bore down on them alone and ignored the rest of their army, and Pelopidas with a charge of extraordinary speed and daring had already hurled himself upon them, their spirit faltered, their courage deserted them and there followed a rout and a slaughter of the Spartans such as had never before been seen. Therefore Pelopidas, although he was not one of the generals and commanded only a few men, won as much fame for the victory and the triumph of Theban arms as Epaminondas, who was the Boeotarch in command of the whole army.

24. However, when the Thebans invaded the Peloponnese,44 both men held the office of Boeotarch. In this campaign, they won over most of the peoples of the region and detached from the Lacedaemonian alliance the states of Elis, Argos, the whole of Arcadia and most of Laconia itself. By this time the winter solstice was approaching, so that only a few days of the latter part of the last month of the year remained. The law ordained that as soon as the first month of the new year began, other officials must take their places, and that those who refused to give up their offices could incur the death penalty. The other Boeotarchs were in a hurry to withdraw the army and march home, not only because they feared the law, but also because they wished to escape the hardships of winter. But Pelopidas was the first to support Epaminondas in urging a contrary resolution: he joined him in appealing to the Thebans to follow them, and led the army into Sparta and across the Eurotas. He captured many of the enemy’s cities and ravaged their territory as far as the coast. The army he led numbered 70,000, of whom the Thebans formed less than a twelfth part. Yet the reputation of the two men was such that they did not need a formal decree, but were able to persuade all the allies to follow wherever they led, without a murmur. The first and supreme law, it would seem, which is a law of nature, makes the man who wishes to be saved submit to the authority of the man who can save him; in the same way, men sailing on a calm sea or lying at anchor near the shore may treat their captain insolently or rebelliously, but as soon as a storm blows up or danger threatens, they look up to him and place all their hopes in him. Similarly, the Argives and Eleans and Arcadians would argue and dispute with the Thebans in their joint assemblies as to who should lead the allies, but at times of crisis, and when battles had to be fought, they obeyed the Theban generals and followed them of their own free will. In this campaign the allies united the whole of Arcadia into one state,45 freed the territory of Messenia from the Spartans who had annexed it, recalled the former inhabitants of Messenia and established them in their ancient capital of Ithome.46 On their way home, as they marched through Cenchreae,47 they defeated the Athenians when they tried to hinder their passage in a series of skirmishes in the passes.

25. After these achievements, the rest of the Greeks idolized the two men for their valour and marvelled at their success. But as their fame grew, so did the envy of their compatriots, who now prepared for them a reception as disgraceful as it was undeserved. On their return, both Pelopidas and Epaminondas were put on trial for their lives, the charge being that they had not resigned the office of Boeotarch, as the law required, in the first month of the new year (which the Thebans call Boucation), but had extended their terms by four months, during which time they had carried out their campaign in Messenia, Arcadia and Laconia. It was Pelopidas who was tried first, and so ran the greater risk of being condemned, but both men were acquitted.

Epaminondas bore this attempt to slander him with patience, for he believed that a man of true courage and magnanimity should be forbearing when he comes under political attack. But Pelopidas, who was more hot-tempered by nature and was encouraged by friends to avenge himself upon his enemies, seized the opportunity to retaliate, and he did it as follows. The orator Menecleidas had been one of the conspirators who had accompanied Pelopidas and Melon from Athenian territory to Charon’s house in Thebes. After the liberation of Thebes from the Spartans, he was not held in so much honour as the other conspirators, and since he was an able speaker but a man of little self-control and of a malevolent disposition, he employed his eloquence in slandering and attacking the reputations of those who were in power, and he continued to do this even after the trial.

In this way, Menecleidas succeeded in preventing Epaminondas from holding the office of Boeotarch and in weakening his influence in affairs for a long while. But he was not strong enough to damage Pelopidas’ reputation in the eyes of the people, and so he attempted to stir up trouble between him and Charon. It is often a comfort to the envious to make out those whom they cannot surpass to be in some way inferior to others, and so in all his speeches to the people Menecleidas made a point of magnifying Charon’s achievements and lavishing praise on his campaigns and victories. In particular, he tried to have a public monument set up to commemorate the victory which the Theban cavalry had won at Plataea under Charon’s command, some time before the battle of Leuctra. Androcydes of Cyzicus had been commissioned by the city to paint a picture of another battle and had been engaged on the work at Thebes. Before he could complete the painting, the city had revolted from Sparta and the Thebans were left with the unfinished work on their hands. So Menecleidas tried to persuade the people to set up this picture with Charon’s name inscribed on it as victor, and he hoped in this way to overshadow the fame of Pelopidas and Epaminondas. It was an absurd piece of pretension to single out for praise one action and one victory – in which we are told that an obscure Spartan named Gerandas and forty other soldiers were killed, but nothing else of any importance was accomplished – and to ignore the many great battles won by the other two men. At any rate, Pelopidas attacked this decree as unconstitutional and contended that it was against the traditions of the Thebans to honour any man individually, but that the whole city should share equally in the glory of a victory. All through the trial which followed, he paid generous tribute to Charon, but he argued that Menecleidas was an unscrupulous slanderer and repeatedly asked the Thebans whether they themselves had never before done anything worthy of note. The outcome was that Menecleidas was heavily fined, and, as he could not pay because the amount was so large, he tried at a later date to overthrow the government and bring about a revolution. These events, then, throw some light on Pelopidas’ life.

26. Alexander the tyrant of Pherae48 was openly at war with many of the Thessalian cities and was plotting against all of them. These communities, therefore, sent a delegation to Thebes to ask for a body of troops and a general. Pelopidas knew that Epaminondas was fully occupied in the Peloponnese49 and so he offered his services to the Thessalians, partly because he could not bear to let his military skill and talents remain unused and partly because he believed that wherever Epaminondas was, there could be no need for another general. So he led the expedition into Thessaly and immediately captured Larissa; then, when Alexander came to him and begged for peace, he tried to convert him from a tyrant into a mild ruler and to persuade him to govern the Thessalians according to their laws. But on closer acquaintance, Alexander turned out to be incorrigibly brutal and given to savage cruelty, and so, since he received frequent complaints of the man’s insolence and greed, Pelopidas treated him harshly and severely, whereupon Alexander departed in a rage, taking his bodyguard with him.

Pelopidas left the Thessalians secure against the threat of the tyrant, and after he had united them in harmony he set out for Macedonia. Here, Ptolemy was at war with Alexander, the king of Macedon,50 and on this occasion both parties had invited Pelopidas to act as arbitrator, judge between their claims and then give his help and support to whichever party proved to have been wronged. He came and settled their dispute, and after he had restored the exiles to their homes he took Philip,51 the king’s brother, and thirty other sons of the leading men in the state and brought them to Thebes as hostages. He did this to show the Greeks how far the prestige of Thebes had advanced: his action not only demonstrated her power but also the confidence which men placed in the justice of her decisions.

This was the same Philip who was later to make war upon the Greeks and deprive them of their freedom, but at this time he was no more than a boy and was quartered in Thebes with Pammenes. It was for this reason that he was believed to have become a devoted disciple of Epaminondas. It may be that Philip was quick to appreciate the Theban’s efficiency in the art of war and generalship, which represented no more than one of his virtues; as for the qualities of moderation, justice, magnanimity and clemency which constituted the true greatness of his character, Philip had no share of these by nature, nor did he choose to imitate them.

27. After this52 the Thessalians again appealed for help because Alexander of Pherae was threatening their cities. Pelopidas and Ismenias were sent to them as ambassadors, but as no fighting was expected, they brought no troops with them from Boeotia and so Pelopidas was forced to make use of the Thessalians to deal with the emergency. It so happened that at this moment Macedonia was also in a state of disorder. For the king had been murdered by Ptolemy, who had then seized power, and the dead ruler’s friends had appealed to Pelopidas to intervene. Pelopidas wished to support their cause and, as he had no troops of his own, he recruited some mercenaries on the spot and took the field against Ptolemy. As the two forces converged, Ptolemy was able to subvert the mercenaries and bribe them to come over to his side, but as he was afraid of Pelopidas’ mere name and reputation, he went to pay his respects to him. At their meeting he greeted Pelopidas as his superior, begged for his favour and agreed to act as regent for the brothers of the dead king and to conclude an alliance with the Thebans; to confirm these undertakings, he handed over as hostages his own son Philoxenus and fifty of his followers. Pelopidas sent this party off to Thebes. But he was also angry at the treachery of his mercenaries and he now discovered that their wives and children and most of their possessions had been sent to Pharsalus for safety; he decided to punish them for their affront to him and so he gathered a number of Thessalian troops and marched upon the town. But he had hardly arrived when Alexander the tyrant of Pherae appeared before the city with his own forces. Pelopidas and Ismenias supposed that he had come to justify his conduct, and so they went of their own accord to meet him. They knew that he was a depraved creature, who had often been guilty of bloodshed, but they expected that their own dignity and reputation and the prestige of Thebes would protect them. However, when the tyrant saw them approaching unattended and unarmed, he at once arrested them and took possession of Pharsalus. This step aroused horror and dismay among his subjects, who concluded that after committing an act of such flagrant injustice he would spare nobody, but would behave on all occasions and to all persons like a man who had by now given up all hope for his own life.

28. The Thebans were enraged when they heard the news and at once dispatched an army, but Epaminondas was temporarily out of favour and they appointed other commanders. As for Pelopidas, the tyrant brought him back to Pherae and at first allowed him to be visited by anyone who wished to speak to him, imagining that he had been crushed by his misfortunes and would become an object of pity. But when the Pheraeans visited him to lament his plight, Pelopidas urged them to take heart, since they could now be sure that the tyrant would be punished for his crimes. He also sent a message to Alexander himself telling him that it made no sense to torture and murder unhappy and innocent citizens every day but to spare him, the man who he knew would surely take his revenge if he escaped. Alexander was amazed at his fearless spirit and asked, ‘Why is Pelopidas in such haste to die?’ to which Pelopidas replied, ‘So that you may become even more hateful to the gods than you are now, and die all the sooner.’ After this the tyrant forbade anybody but his personal attendants to visit the prisoner.

Alexander’s wife, Thebe, who was a daughter of Jason of Pherae, had heard from Pelopidas’ jailers of his courageous and noble conduct and was seized with an impulse to see him and speak to him. When she visited him she did not at once recognize the greatness of his nature in the midst of his misfortunes, but at the sight of his hair, his ragged clothes and his meagre diet, she supposed, as was natural for a woman, that he was suffering anguish from these indignities which were hard to bear for a man of his position, and she burst into tears. Pelopidas, who at first did not know who she was, watched with amazement, but when he understood, he addressed her as a daughter of Jason, since he knew her father well. When she said, ‘I pity your wife,’ he replied, ‘So do I pity you, for you are not a prisoner, and yet you are compelled to endure Alexander.’ Thebe was touched by this speech, since she detested Alexander not only for his cruelty and arrogance, but also for the fact that he had seduced her youngest brother. She came to see Pelopidas frequently, and during these visits she spoke openly of her sufferings: the result was that these conversations filled her with courage and with a burning hatred of Alexander.

29. The Theban generals invaded Thessaly but accomplished nothing, and finally either through inexperience or misfortune they beat an ignominious retreat. The state fined each of them 10,000 drachmas and then dispatched Epaminondas with another army.53This news immediately aroused great excitement among the Thessalians and their hopes rose high because of Epaminondas’ reputation. Alexander’s generals and supporters, on the other hand, were so overcome by fear, and his subjects were so eager to revolt and so overjoyed by the prospect of his impending punishment, that the tyrant’s cause seemed to be tottering at the very brink of destruction. Epaminondas, however, was more concerned for Pelopidas’ safety than for his own fame. He was afraid that if the country were allowed to fall into disorder, Alexander would be driven to despair and would then turn upon his prisoner like a wild beast, and so he played a waiting game and advanced only in a roundabout fashion. He hampered and circumscribed the tyrant’s movements by his own preparations and apparent intentions in such a way that he neither encouraged him to take reckless or precipitate action, nor provoked the harsh and violent element in his disposition. For Epaminondas had heard of his cruelty and his contempt for right and justice, how he buried men alive or clothed them in the skins of wild boars or bears and set his hunting-dogs upon them, and tore them apart or shot them down; and how in the case of Meliboea and Scotusa, two cities which were on friendly terms with him, he had surrounded them with his guards while the popular assembly was in session and slaughtered the inhabitants from the youths upward. He had also consecrated the spear with which he had killed Polyphron, his uncle, and hung garlands on it, and he used to sacrifice to it as to a god and call it ‘Tychon’.54 On another occasion, when he was watching a tragedian perform Euripides’ Trojan Women, he left the theatre suddenly and sent a message to the actor telling him not to lose heart or to relax his efforts because of his departure: it was not out of contempt for his acting that he had left the theatre, but rather because he was ashamed to let the citizens see him, who had never pitied any of the men he had done to death, shedding tears over the sufferings of Hecuba and Andromache. But it was this same tyrant who was so terrified by the name and fame of Epaminondas and the very appearance of an expedition led by him that ‘He cowered slave-like, as a beaten cock that lets its feathers droop55 and hurriedly sent a deputation to excuse his actions. However, Epaminondas would not tolerate the suggestion of making a treaty of peace and friendship with such a man; he merely concluded a truce of thirty days and, after Pelopidas and Ismenias had been handed over, he returned home.

30. The Thebans discovered that Sparta and Athens had both sent ambassadors to the king of Persia to negotiate an alliance. They therefore dispatched Pelopidas on a similar mission,56 a choice which proved well justified because of the great prestige he had won. In the first place, his reputation had already preceded him: as he travelled through the provinces of the Persian empire he attracted universal attention, for the fame of his battles against the Spartans had by no means been muted nor had it been slow to circulate among the Persians, and no sooner had the report of the battle of Leuctra become known abroad than it was echoed time and again by the news of some fresh exploit which penetrated to the remotest parts of the interior. All the satraps, generals and officers who met him at the king’s court spoke of him with wonder as the man who had expelled the Lacedaemonians from land and sea, and had confined between Mount Taygetus57 and the Eurotas that same Sparta which only a few years before had made war upon the great king under the leadership of Agesilaus and fought the Persians for the possession of Susa and Ecbatana.58 King Artaxerxes was naturally pleased on this account: he admired Pelopidas for his reputation and paid him exceptional honours, since he wished to create the impression that he was courted and highly regarded by the greatest men of every country. But when Artaxerxes saw Pelopidas face to face and understood his proposals, which were more trustworthy than those of the Athenians and more honest than those of the Spartans, his pleasure was even greater, and using his kingly prerogative to display his sentiments he made no secret of the admiration he felt for Pelopidas and allowed the ambassadors to see that he stood the highest in his favour. And yet of all the Greeks it was to Antalcidas59 that Artaxerxes seems to have shown the greatest honour, since he took off the garland which he had worn at a banquet, had it steeped in perfume and presented it to him. He did not favour Pelopidas with refinements of this kind, but sent him the richest and most magnificent of the gifts which were customary on such occasions, and granted his requests. These were that the Greeks should be independent, Messene inhabited and the Thebans regarded as the king’s hereditary friends.60

With these answers, but without accepting any of the gifts save those which were simply intended as pledges of friendship and goodwill, Pelopidas set out for home, and it was this action which more than anything else brought the other ambassadors into discredit. At any rate, Timagoras was condemned and executed by the Athenians, and if this was on account of the vast quantity of gifts which he accepted, then the sentence was just: these had included not merely gold and silver, but an expensive bed, complete with slaves to make it up, since, according to him, Greeks were not capable of doing this, and also eighty cows with their herdsmen, since, as he claimed, he needed cows’ milk for some ailment. Finally, he was carried down to the coast in a litter and the king gave him four talents to pay the bearers. However, it was apparently not so much the fact that he accepted these gifts which enraged the Athenians. His shield-bearer Epicrates at once admitted that his master had received gifts from the king, and had spoken of putting forward a proposal to the assembly that instead of electing nine archons, they should choose nine of the poorest citizens as ambassadors to the king so that they could benefit from his bounty and become rich men, and at this suggestion the people burst out laughing. The real cause of the Athenians’ anger was that the Thebans had been granted all their requests. They did not stop to think that in the eyes of a ruler who had always shown most regard for a militarily strong people, Pelopidas’ reputation counted for far more than any amount of skill in oratory.

31. The success of Pelopidas’ mission, and his achievement in ensuring the foundation of Messene and the independence of the rest of the Greeks, earned him much goodwill on his return. Meanwhile, however, Alexander of Pherae had reverted to his former ways. He had destroyed several of the cities of Thessaly and had installed garrisons in the territory of the Achaeans of Phthiotis and of the people of Magnesia. So when the cities learnt that Pelopidas had returned, they at once sent ambassadors to Thebes to ask for an army to be dispatched to them and for him to command it. The Thebans enthusiastically passed a decree to this effect, preparations were quickly made and the commander was about to set out when there was an eclipse of the sun and darkness descended on the city in the middle of the day. Pelopidas saw that all the Thebans were dismayed by this phenomenon and decided that it would be wrong to coerce men whose courage and hopes had deserted them or to risk the lives of 7,000 citizens. So he offered his own services to theThessalians, took with him a detachment of three hundred cavalry who belonged to other cities and had volunteered for the expedition, and set out: in this he was defying the advice of the seers and the wishes of the rest of the people, who considered that the eclipse must be a portent sent from heaven and must refer to some great man. For his own part he was enraged against Alexander when he remembered the humiliations he had suffered, and his earlier conversations with Thebe led him to hope that the tyrant’s family was already divided within itself and hostile to its head. But above all else, it was the glory of the enterprise which spurred him on. At this moment the Spartans were sending out generals and governors to help Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse, while the Athenians who were in Alexander’s pay were setting up a bronze statue of him as a benefactor, and so Pelopidas was eager to show the Greeks that it was only the men of Thebes who took up arms for the cause of the oppressed and who dethroned those dynasties in Greece which relied on violence and defied the rule of law.

32. Accordingly, when he arrived at Pharsalus he assembled his forces and marched at once against Alexander.61 The tyrant saw that there were only a few Thebans with Pelopidas and that his own hoplites outnumbered the Thessalians’ by more than two to one, and set out to meet him near the shrine of Thetis. When Pelopidas was told that Alexander was advancing against him with a large force, he remarked, ‘All the better, as there will be more for us to conquer.’

At the place which is known as Cynoscephalae, or the Dogs’ Heads, a number of steep and lofty hills project into the middle of the plain, and both sides advanced to occupy these with their infantry. Pelopidas possessed a large force of cavalry of excellent quality, and launched them against the enemy’s cavalry; these they routed and pursued into the plain. But Alexander got possession of the high ground first, and when the Thessalian hoplites came forward later and tried to force their way up the steep slopes, he attacked and killed the leading ranks, and the rest took heavy casualties and were unable to achieve anything. When Pelopidas saw this, he sent orders recalling the cavalry and ordering it to attack the enemy where they still held together, while he himself took up his shield and ran to join the fighting on the hills. He forced his way through the rear and quickly inspired the front ranks with such courage and vigour that the enemy imagined they were being attacked by reinforcements who were fresh in body and spirit. They succeeded in resisting two or three attacks, but when they saw that infantry were coming on resolutely and the cavalry were now returning from their pursuit, they gave way and fell back step by step.

Pelopidas looked down from the heights and saw that the enemy, although not yet routed, were beginning to waver and fall into disorder. He stood there and cast about looking for Alexander. At last he saw him on the right wing encouraging and rallying his mercenaries. All Pelopidas’ hatred flared up at the sight, his rage overwhelmed his reason, and, surrendering both his own safety and his responsibility as a general to his passion, he ran out far in front of his own men and rushed towards the tyrant, shouting and challenging him to fight. Alexander did not stand his ground and await his adversary’s attack, but fled for refuge back to his bodyguard and hid there. The front ranks of the mercenaries came to close quarters with Pelopidas and were beaten back by him, and some were killed; but most of them kept their distance and set about attacking him with their javelins, which pierced his armour and riddled his body with wounds, until the Thessalians, in great anxiety for his safety, rushed down the hill to rescue him; but by then he had already fallen. Meanwhile, the cavalry launched a charge and routed the whole of the enemy’s phalanx. They pursued them to a great distance, cut down more than three thousand of them, and left the countryside strewn with corpses.

33. It was no wonder that those of the Thebans who were present at Pelopidas’ death should have been plunged into grief and called him their father, their saviour and their teacher of all that was best and noblest. But the Thessalians, too, and their allies went further than this:62 not only did they surpass in their decrees the highest honours that are rightly paid to human valour, but by their sorrow they demonstrated even more conspicuously the gratitude which they felt for their deliverer. It is said that the soldiers who took part in the battle neither took off their breast-plates, nor unbridled their horses, nor even bound up their wounds when they heard of his death, but still wearing their armour and hot from the fighting they came first to Pelopidas’ body, as if he were still conscious, then they piled around it the arms of their slain enemies, sheared their horses’ manes and cut off their own hair. After they had dispersed to their tents, many of them neither lit a fire, nor ate any supper; instead, a melancholy silence reigned throughout the camp, as if they had been defeated and enslaved by the tyrant instead of having won a great and glorious victory over him.

When the news reached the cities of Thessaly, the magistrates, accompanied by priests, young men and boys, came out in procession to take up the body, and they carried trophies, wreaths and suits of golden armour in its honour. Then when the body was to be taken out for burial, the leading citizens of Thessaly begged the Thebans to grant them the privilege of burying it themselves, and one of them spoke as follows: ‘Friends and allies, we ask of you a favour which we shall consider an honour to us in our great misfortune and a comfort in our grief. We Thessalians can never escort a living Pelopidas again, nor render him honours which he can see and hear. But if we may have his body to touch, to adorn and bury, we shall be able to show you, we believe, that this is an even greater loss for Thessaly than it is for Thebes. For you have lost only a good commander, but we both a commander and our freedom. For how can we dare to ask of you another general when we have failed to give you back Pelopidas?’ This request the Thebans granted.

34. There has never been a more splendid funeral, at least in the estimation of those who do not believe that splendour necessarily demands a profusion of ivory, gold and purple: as Philistus63 does when he gives a rapturous description of the funeral of Dionysius, which brought down the curtain in grandiose style upon the great tragedy of his tyranny. In the same fashion, Alexander the Great, when Hephaestion died, not only cut off the manes of his horses and mules, but even demolished the battlements of city walls in order to show the cities in mourning and make them present a shorn and dishevelled appearance in place of their former beauty.64 But these tributes represented the commands of despots, they were carried out under duress and they excited envy against those who received them and hatred against those who enforced them; they were not prompted either by gratitude or by true regard for the dead, and they expressed only a barbaric pomp and an arrogant luxury which was characteristic of men who squandered their superfluous wealth on vain and paltry ostentation. The fact that a mere commoner, dying in a strange country far from his wife and children, should be borne forth and escorted and crowned, with so many peoples and cities vying with one another to show him honour, and yet with nobody demanding or compelling this, surely demonstrates that he attained the height of good fortune. To die in the hour of triumph is not, as Aesop calls it, a most cruel stroke of fate, but a most happy one, since it secures beyond all mischance the enjoyment of the blessings a man has earned and places them beyond the reach of fortune.65 Therefore better advice was given by a Spartan, when he greeted Diagoras, who was not only an Olympic victor but had lived to see his sons and grandsons crowned there besides. ‘Die now, Diagoras,’ he said. ‘You cannot ascend Mount Olympus!’66

Yet I do not suppose that anyone would compare all the Olympian and Pythian victories put together with a single one of Pelopidas’ achievements. He accomplished many of these and every one successfully, he spent the greater part of his life surrounded with honour and renown and finally, after being appointed Boeotarch for the thirteenth time and while engaged in a heroic action aimed at the destruction of a tyrant, he sacrificed his life for the freedom of Thessaly.

35. Pelopidas’ death caused great sorrow to his allies, but it brought them even greater advantages. When the Thebans learnt the news, they made immediate preparations to avenge his fate, and at once dispatched an army consisting of 7,000 hoplites and 700 cavalry under the command of Malecidas and Diogeiton. They found that Alexander was weakened and that his forces had suffered heavy losses, and they forced him to restore the cities he had taken from the Thessalians, to set free the Magnesians and the Achaeans of Phthiotis and withdraw his garrisons from those territories, and to guarantee to the Thebans that he would proceed against any enemy they might require him to attack. The Thebans were satisfied with these terms, but soon after this the gods took their own revenge for Pelopidas’ death in a manner which I shall now describe.

As mentioned earlier, Pelopidas had taught Thebe, the tyrant’s wife, not to be afraid of Alexander’s display of outward pomp and splendour, since these depended entirely on force and the security of his bodyguards. For her own sake she feared his untrustworthiness and dreaded his cruelty, and she now entered into a plot with her three brothers Tisiphonus, Pytholaus and Lycophron to kill him in the following way. The rest of the palace was patrolled by sentries who were on duty all night, but the bedchamber in which she and Alexander slept was on an upper floor and was guarded on the outside by a chained dog, which would attack anyone except his master and mistress and the one servant who fed him. When Thebe was ready to make the attempt, she kept her brothers hidden in a nearby room all through the day, and at night went into Alexander alone, as was her custom. She found him already asleep, and soon afterwards came out and ordered the servant to take the dog outside, explaining that his master wished to sleep undisturbed. Next she covered the stairs with wool to prevent them creaking as the young men climbed them, brought up her brothers safely with their swords drawn and posted them outside the bedroom door. Then she went inside herself, took down the sword which hung over her husband’s head and showed it to them as a sign that he was fast asleep. When she found that the young men were terrified and could not bring themselves to strike, she scolded them and swore in a rage that she would waken Alexander and tell him of the plot. After this she led them into the room, still unnerved, but by now filled with shame, placed them round the bed and brought the lamp. Then one of them seized the tyrant’s feet and held them down, another dragged his head back by the hair and the third ran him through with his sword. The swiftness of the killing gave him a more painless death than he perhaps deserved. Nevertheless, he was the first and perhaps the only tyrant to die at the hands of his own wife, and since his body was outraged after his death, thrown out of doors and trampled underfoot by the Pheraeans, it may be judged that he suffered a fate to match his own lawless crimes.67

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!