Imagine if you will, It is a bright sun soaked day in Thebes. You are a soldier in the Theban Army under the command of General Epaminonads.
To your front are the low green plains of Boeotia. Plains that would latter become known as the blood alley (Hanson, 55) of Greece. In the distance you can see the sea of Spartan phalanxes, there shields gleaming in the sun. To your left the sound of Cavalry as they rush out to meet the on coming Spartan horsemen. Another uneventful day in the live of a soldier? Most all historians of the day and of times past will tell you differently. The battle between the Spartans and the Thebans at the battle of Leuctra has been studied for a great many years.
There are a great many arguments both for and against the pivotal engagement. Was it superior tactics or luck that defeated the Spartans. The difficulties lay in the fact that there is only one person present during the engagement that recorded the action. The person was a Athenian by the name of Xenophon. His the only contemporary description of Leuctra, and thus must over shadow all subsequent accounts.
(Hanson, 55) These accounts can be found in Xenophon`s papers called Hellenica. The first thing that needed is a description of the engagement itself. The description of the engagement can be found everywhere from college history books to in-depth military history novels. The engagement began with standard linear tactics. The Spartans and their allies took up positions head of the Theban column. At the time it was standard procedure to have the commander and his elite troops placed to the right of his column, but Epaminondas did differently that day.
He placed his elite troops and himself to the left. Now both commanders, Epaminondas and Cleombrotus face each other with their fines troops. Before the Thebans began movement against the Spartans the army resized its elite hoplites into forty to fifty shields deep instead of the standard twelve to fifteen man deep phalanx. The Spartan sent in their outnumbered cavalry in front of them at the beginning of the assault. The Thebans sent in their cavalry to meet them.
The brief skirmish to follow was to although the Theban generals time to drive some of his infantry into the fray. The result was to force the enemies horsemen fleeing into the Spartan infantrys advance, breaking them up. At this point the Thebans began a left echelon march toward the Spartan right. Exploiting the gaps caused by the cavalry flight the Thebans preceded to smash the Spartans. During the fighting that ensued the Cleombrotus was slain. After the fall of the king, the Spartans began to give ground.
The event of their leader being killed the Spartan allies fled the field. The Spartan right, although now alone, leaderless, and pressed by the Theban mass, withdrew undaunted-and in formation. (Hanson, 56) The battle for Lecutra was over the Spartans and their allies were defeated, Thebes and won the day, no longer would Sparta be an invincible nation. Now we must look at the controversies surrounding the battle at Lecutra. Was military genius or luck that won the day? First let use look at the commander of the Theban troops.
Many historians wish to place much of the victory itself on the genius of Epaminonda. Evidence can be found in many of the historical novels. Phalanx warfare was revolutionized at the battle of Leuctra in 371 by Epaminonda the Theban general. (Montgomery, 70) The simple fact is, Epaminonda was not alone in his command of the Theban forces at Leuctra.
Epaminonda was joined by another general by the name of Pelopidas along with other Boeotian commanders. These tactics, battles and decision were joint endeavors. Second, a review of the revolutionary tactics applied at Leuctra. First the innovation of adjusting in depth of the Phalanxes.
At face value the increase in the number of depth seems to be a stroke of genius, where the need for a hard hitting strike is needed. There are only two problems with this thinking. One this tactic was used before in other engagements of the time. The fifty-shield mass at Leuctra was not unheard of. As most Greek commanders knew, such an attack in column ordinarily had few advantages. (Hanson, 56) The placing of the command and elite troops on the left to meet with Spartans best and their command was also not a new tactic at the battle of Lecutra.
Pelopidas, for example, who was in the field with the Theban army at Lecutra, had put his best troops on the left wing four years earlier at Tegyra. (Hanson, 56) The use of a left oblique appears to be the first account of such a tactic, but there is to still argument of the reasoning for this. Was it well planned manner of attack to keep the long Spartan line busy while the Thebans smashed into the Spartan right? Or was it just a means for Epaminonda`s army who was outnumbered to keep from being enveloped. The infantry of the refused center and left advanced slowly, occupying the attention of the Spartans to their front, but without engaging them.
(Dupuy, 43) This to is in doubt as of the only direct writings on the subject of the maneuver are left out by Xenophon. The use of the cavalry with the infantry was also nothing new in combat of the time. The army of Dionysius I of Syracuse consisted of integrated bodies of hoplites, light infantry and cavalry. (Montgomery, 70) Epaminonda did make use of this confusion caused by the fleeing Spartan cavalry back into their own lines. He recognized the confusion between horse and foot among the enemy ranks as a gift.
This proves him an able hoplite commander, but hardly a military genius. (Hanson, 58) In the end it was probably the death of the Spartan commander Cleombrotus, that defeated the Army. Losses of commanders throughout history have resulted in like defeats of the time. Without leadership the troops new not what to do. Lastly I will touch on some the controversy of the battle. In many cases the victory at Lecutra is portrayed as a stroke of genius.
As mentioned earlier, almost every so called revolutionary tactic was used at some point and time before Lecutra. Historians speak of the grand defeat of the Spartans and their total lack of cohesion in the face of these new tactics of warfare. The Spartans were hopelessly confused by these novel tactics. (Dupuy, 43) If this was so why when Cleombrotus was killed did the Spartan exit the field in formation. Xenophon correctly points out that they were holding their own until their king fell. And the fact after the Theban onslaught, they were able to maintain enough cohesion to withdraw in formation and carry his body out of the melee.
(Hanson, 58) This citations not only confirms the effect of killing the leader but the fact of how organized the Spartans during the battle really were. It proves that although the Spartans were broken up by the friendly cavalry they were by no means rendered combat ineffective. In conclusion, their will always seem to be contrary on the action at Lecutra. From what were the real reasons the once invincible Spartans were defeated.
As said earlier it seems to be a combination of quite a few things. From friendly cavalry retreating into their own lines to the tactic of Epaminonda putting his best against the Spartans best in an attempt to overwhem the Spartan king to the fact that in the battle king Cleombrotus was killed. These truths are just that but in no way new or innovative at the time of the egagement. Time and time again historians will argue on the subject.
Few take the time to dig through the ancient texts and discover that most of the tactics used by Epaminonda were used before him, in either minor battles or without as great as success that would forever leave the innovator over shadowed by someone luckier with the same tactics. Work Citied Dupuy R. Ernest and Dupuy Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Militarty History, New York and Evanston, Harper & Row, 1970 Hanson Victor Davis, The Leuctra Mirage, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter 1990, 54-59 Montgomery Viscount, Field-Marshal , A History of Warfare, Ceveland and New York, The World Publishing Company, 1968