Ancient History & Civilisation

A Historical Postscript

The historian Xenophon’s Hellenica, our primary historical source for events of earlier-fourth-century-B.C. Greece—in his apparent anger at the rise of a democratic and powerful Thebes—makes no mention of the presence of Epaminondas at Leuktra. He is silent also about his role in the first invasion of Sparta, or the Theban effort to free the helots of Messenia and to found the citadel of Messenê. Xenophon does, however, in his Anabasis (“The March Up-Country”), talk of a Boiotian Proxenos who had advised Xenophon to join the Ten Thousand, though he says nothing of our son of the same name. The loss of Plutarch’s “Life of Epaminondas,” together with Xenophon’s bias, explains in large part why today we do not fully appreciate the reasons why the classical Greeks and Romans considered Epaminondas the greatest man of the age.

In contrast, the Roman-era Diodorus—based on the lost histories of an Ephoros, Xenophon’s contemporary—much more frequently mentions and praises Epaminondas and his invasions to the south. Thanks to Ephoros—I have no idea whether he had long yellow hair and lisped and was fond of the Boiotians—and the lost historians Theopompos and Kallisthenes, something about the achievement of Epaminondas survives in bits and pieces in the Roman-era traveler Pausanias and Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas.

Much of what we know about siege warfare of the age is found in “On the Defense of Fortified Positions,” written by one Ainias of Stymphalos, a shadowy general of the Arkadian federation. His larger corpus, “On Military Preparations,” is unfortunately lost and we otherwise know very little of the general and writer Ainias Taktikos, who may have played a considerable role in the politics of the Peloponnesos in the mid fourth century B.C.

We don’t know exactly all the reasons why Plato (Platôn) so distrusted democracy and favored the Spartans, but it was more than just the democracy’s execution of Sokrates and his own exile.

“The Oration on the Messenians” (Logos Messêniakos) by Alkidamas does not survive either, but a fragment of the great speech on the liberation of the helots, “No man is a slave by nature,” seems to be the only explicit condemnation of slavery that survives from classical Greek literature. Perhaps Aristotle had Alkidamas in mind when he later attacked those who taught that there was no such thing as a man suited to slavery at birth.

We hear from Plutarch and others that an adolescent Philip of Makedon spent a year as a hostage with the Thebans. Though it is not recorded that he was known at Thebes as Melissos, the adult Philip bore no antipathy for the Messenians and when, more than thirty years later, he invaded Boiotia, he spared the helot city to the south after his victory at Chaironeia. He did, however, finish the job of subjugating Greece by ending the Sacred Band at Chaironeia—but supposedly lamented the sight of their corpses that littered the battlefield. Scholars are still unsure why Philip erected a proud lion on the battlefield to honor the dead of the Sacred Band, but the monument sits there today guarding the old road to Thebes as it skirts the foothills of Mt. Parnassos.

Pausanias says in his own days of the first century B.C. that there was an iron monument of Epaminondas at Messenia. Both Pausanias, and Plutarch in his life of Agesilaos, record that the offspring of Antikrates were forever known as the “swordsmen” for the thrust of their ancestor that killed the hated Epaminondas. They add that the great liberator was brought alive out of battle to die in 362 B.C. on the hilltop of Skopê, overlooking the battlefield of Mantineia, after Epaminondas’s fourth and last invasion of the Peloponnesos, more than nine years after the victory at Leuktra. They mention none who died with him, not even Mêlon, son of Malgis, farmer of Helikon.

Black limestone steles of the heroes of Boiotia can be seen in the modern museum of Thebes, carved, we believe, by the sculptor Aristides. Archaeologists argue about the architecture of the great cities of Mantineia, Megalopolis, and Messenê, but by general consent the stones seem to reveal the work of now anonymous Boiotian architects whose work resembles the contemporary rebuilt walls of Plataia and Thespiai. Much of the massive Arkadian Gate at Messenê survives, though no one has yet found among the best-preserved city in Greece any fragments of the two stone lions with the likenesses of Chiôn and Proxenos—nor the iron statue of Epaminondas himself.

Of the final end of Phrynê, little is known. Athenaeus in the thirteenth book of The Deipnosophists relates a tradition that she returned to Thespiai and offered her own great riches to rebuild the city walls after Alexander the Great had torn them down—if only they would inscribe her own name on the fortifications.

I have hiked over much of Hesiod’s Mt. Helikon, but so far I have not discovered the highland farm of Mêlon, son of Malgis, father of the good Lophis—the master of godlike Chiôn and Nêto, hero of Leuktra, slayer of Kleombrotos, who in the following decade went south three more times after the founding of Messenê to fight the Spartans and, more than nine years after Leuktra, to die on Skopê above Mantineia at the side of his friend—and of his savior—Epaminondas, son of Polymnis, general of Thebes, first man of Greece.

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