1. The "philosopher-general": Epaminondas' background and education

Epaminondas was a leading general of Thebes in the era of the Theban Hegemony (370s and 360s BCE) and one of the most renowned military commanders of Greek antiquity. His biography was captured in Plutarch’s (lost) Life of Epaminondas (paralleled with Scipio Africanus Μaior). Based on what can be inferred from other references, the Life of Epaminondas was intended, in conjunction with the Life of Pelopidas, to project the ideal of statesmanship.

Epaminondas’ main virtues were not only his valor and genius as a commander, but also his alleged adherence to philosophy. In some modern scholarly accounts, he has become a philosopher-general who was thought to have brought Pythagorean principles to the battlefield. This view also draws on Plutarch’s praise of his incorruptibility, frugality, and skills as an orator (Plut., Mor. 808e to 809a).

On close examination, Epaminondas’ adherence to Pythagoreanism was most likely a mirage, at least according to Buckler (1993). The statesman doubtless heard about Pythagorean tenets from his teacher Lysis, who had stayed in his father’s house (Diod. 15.39.2, with Stylianou 1998: 330; Paus. 9.13.1; Plut. Mor. 583c). But it is doubtful that he ever became thoroughly acquainted with the philosophy, let alone that the encounter with Lysis played a consequential role in his thinking or impacted his military conduct. At most, the episode illustrates that Epaminondas hailed from one of Thebes’ leading aristocratic families, and that his father Polymis was prominent and rich enough to hire a private teacher who instructed the youth in the art of philosophy and rhetoric. Epaminondas’ poverty was thus most likely an invention of the sources, the idea of the philosopher–general a delusion.

2. Early military career and the relation to Pelopidas

In 385 BC, Epaminondas served in a Theban contingent that fought staunchly alongside Spartan forces at Mantineia. Plutarch has it (Pel. 4) that Epaminondas saved the life of Pelopidas in the battle, which marked the beginning of their friendship and, according to Plutarch, made them partners in politics for the next twenty years. But in reality, they soon parted ways. After the occupation of Thebes by the Spartans in 382 BC, Epaminondas did not go into exile, unlike Pelopidas and others from the ‘democratic party’. The sources consistently portray him as superior in age to Pelopidas, who was born c. 410 to 405 BCE, so Epaminondas was most likely in his late thirties at the time of the Spartan coup; his remaining in Thebes implies that he was not openly opposed to the pro-Spartan regime. Although he is said to have joined the liberators of Thebes after the attack by a group of exiles in 379 (Plut. Pel. 12), the sources do not record his name among the first elected Theban boiotiarchs (“Boiotian supreme magistrates”), nor is any other high office attested for Epaminondas with any certainty in the war of Boiotian independence. The evident conclusion is that, while he would have collaborated with Pelopidas and the other liberators, Epaminondas’ role was more complex than Plutarch’s tainted tales suggest.

3. Epaminondas as Boiotarch

As boiotiarch, Epaminondas enters centre stage at the Peace Conference at Sparta 371 BCE. In a celebrated duel of speeches, king Agesilaos of Sparta demanded that the Thebans leave their fellow Boiotians autonomous; Epaminondas agreed – on the condition that the Spartans leave the Messenians autonomous. The deadlock was resolved in the Battle at Leuktra in central Boiotia (371), where Epaminondas, at the head of the Boiotian army, managed to deliver a deadly blow to the Spartans and their allies. Strategic planning and sophisticated tactical maneuvering, rather than philosophy, resulted in a so-called oblique order on the Boiotian side, which allowed Epaminondas to strike at the Spartan contingent on the right wing.

Leuktra cleared the way for the Thebans to attempt to obtain hegemony over the Greek world. Epaminondas (with Pelopidas) became the architect of that policy. In the following year, he undertook a series of campaigns in the Peloponnese that resulted in the liberation of Messene and, ultimately, the decline of Spartan power (370, 369, 367 BC). There might have been some opposition to this course of action, which led to an episodic trial against Epaminondas and the other boiotarchs in early 369. While the case was dropped before it seemed to lead anywhere, Epaminondas was effectively not re-elected as boiotarch in 368 (Plut. Pel. 25.3). The Peloponnesian campaigns resumed in 367 and were complemented by Pelopidas’ operations in central and northern Greece.

4. Politics and external affairs

At the same time, Epaminondas initiated a naval program that was designed to extend Theban influence across the Aegean (Diod. 15.79.1). Around the mid-360s, he received the honor of proxeny (“guest friendship”) from Knidos in Asia Minor, which speaks to this policy. A fourth invasion into the Peloponnese was induced by controversies within the Arcadian League. With the Boiotians and Spartans supporting different parties of that League, the conflict culminated in a major battle near Mantineia (362 BCE). The battle itself was undecided (Xen. Hell. 7.5.1-27), but Epaminondas was wounded and died on the same battlefield where he had saved Pelopidas’ life 23 years earlier. Epaminondas left no wife or children. Tradition relates that he had no regrets over this, for he left “two immortal daughters, the victories of Leuktra and Mantineia” (Diod. 15.87.6).

5. Impact and post-mortem honours

The Theban Hegemony altered the power landscape of ancient Greece, but it did not precipitate a lasting order; Theban attempts at leadership were accepted neither by their allies, nor the other Hellenes. The heroic memorialization of Epaminondas thus drew mostly on the achievement of having defeated the Spartans on the battlefield and ultimately breaking their military dominance. The idea is already present in a funerary epigram recorded by Pausanias (9.15), and later Cicero proclaimed Epaminondas “the first man of Greece.” The oil paintings by Isaac Walraven (1726) and Benjamin West (1773) capture the moment of his death. A modern statue of Epaminondas at the fork of Epaminondas and Pindar Street in Thebes celebrates the city’s most famous general.