Epaminondas kicking ass. Illustration by W. Rainey.
Back in Greece, there was one city state, a militaristic slave society, hated and feared above all others. At the start of the 4th century B.C., Sparta ran the neighborhood, setting up and toppling governments, generally acting like bastards to everyone else.
Their main rival broken, they seemed invincible. The newly democratic Thebes, one of the only cities left standing with a chance of stopping them, especially hated them.
Despite the torrent of crap about their merits in recent years, especially all fictions about the stand of the 300, the Spartans were hands-down the villains of this era. In Thebes' case they'd once been allies, but the Spartans betrayed them, took over their capital and put in a government they despised, propped up by occupying soldiers.
A few years later, the Thebans took back their city and reasserted their rights. Sure enough, the second they start gaining serious power again, the Spartans send out an army to remind them who's boss.
So in 371 B.C., the Thebans turned to Epaminondas, a now nigh-forgotten leader who had some experience as a soldier but more of a reputation for philosophy and integrity. But sometimes the best people for war aren't warriors; this was one of those times.
Forget Thermopylae for a moment, because this story is way more relevant, and more interesting. Epaminondas was about to do the impossible: break Sparta.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.
The Spartans were insanely good soldiers (a society tends to produce them when that's all it does) but the rest of this reputation is bullshit. Sparta was a psychotic slave-state the kept about 90 percent of its population in abject misery and did its best to topple democratic governments in favor of old, insane rich people, making it widely hated by damn near everyone else except a few aristocrats with an oppression fetish.
Sparta pioneered the secret police by hunting and killing serfs while brutally regulating every aspect of life. Its leaders offered to emancipate slaves if they fought against invaders, then ritually murdered them just to be even bigger assholes. Even by the miserable standards of the Iron Age, they were one of the nastiest societies around (on the comic front, Kieran Gillen's Three is countering the pro-Sparta b.s. and I hope to read it soon).
Thebes did a good deal better, with a more democratic society by the standards of the day. By the time Epaminondas got involved in politics, it was clear that most of the other city-states, like Thebes, hated Sparta. They hated Sparta even more than they hated each other. But they were afraid.
So, however, were the Spartans. The driving force in Spartan society was fear. It was fear of change, fear of other cultures and fear of their massive slave population that drove their political order. In dealing with the rest of Greece, they relied on fear of their elite soldiers to get their way.
Epaminondas realized this made them weak.
First, he used their fear of change against them. The Spartans were superb on the battlefield, but that fear also made them predictable, using the some old battle plans over and over again. So, at Leuctra, just outside Thebes, Epaminondas tried some radically new tactics. Despite a lack of numbers, he positioned his troops to take advantage of the weaknesses in the traditional way of fighting. Combined with the better Theban cavalry (something else the Spartans undervalued) this destroyed the Spartan army, importantly killing hundreds of their really expensive elite soldiers and one of their kings for good measure. He left the Spartan corpses out on the battlefield a bit longer, just to show the rest of Greece that they died like anyone.
A state with a smarter, more flexible leadership could have adapted to the loss and struck back. But Sparta was set up to be as predictable as possible: they hunkered down in their home turf.
This still posed challenges, because attacking Sparta itself would be a bloody nightmare. The Spartans knew their own land well enough to tie down an army in raids, and would fight to the last in defense.
So Epaminondas let them stay in their borders, instead attacking the fear they relied on. He went to the Arcadians, impoverished hill-states that the Spartans had terrorized for generations, built them a fortress and helped broker an alliance.
Rather than striking Sparta's heartland, he moved to Messenia, a region the Spartans had horrifically enslaved two centuries earlier. He gave the hundreds of thousands of people there their freedom, armed them and rebuilt their cities. All of a sudden, instead of terrified serfs Sparta faced a newly-free population out for revenge. As many a plantation dandy would learn brutally in the Civil War, freed slaves are the fiercest fighters imaginable. The Spartans were increasingly hemmed in, denied the resources and time to train new soldiers to replace their losses.
Sparta fought back a few times, taking advantage of the turmoil in that time period. At Mantinea nearly a decade later, Epaminondas broke them again, but he was killed by a spear thrust. He lived long enough to know the battle was won and Sparta's manpower was crushed beyond recovery.
Sure, Thermopylae changed history drastically. So did Leuctra; we would have a very different world if Sparta had continued its domination. It's telling that this story, rather than the 300, is the one that gets ignored. That's not always been the case. Montaigne and a number of other Renaissance thinkers considered Epaminondas one of the finest humans who ever lived, a liberator who showed the power of innovation over stagnation. Sadly, love of Sparta resurged around the same time, with some nasty consequences for the future.
The lessons here are more numerous than Thermopylae and more relevant. First is how quickly societies that keep most of their people in misery collapse; it takes a lot of effort to be that actively shitty, and it ends up making things really unstable.
Epaminondas' example also shows that agility and adaptation beat brute force, even well-trained brute force, and that diplomacy can be more powerful than intimidation. His genius was to see the Spartans as a whole, and realize that behind their walls of shields they were scared, hard and brittle as the iron they worshipped.
A particularly smart martial arts instructor I know emphasized “if you can't fall, you can't fight.” This applies to societies as well as brawls. Sparta couldn't fall, so it stayed broken. Athens and many other Greek states could lose a war, even several, and still use trade and culture to rebuild.
But once Sparta's soldiers were few and the fear gone, it had nothing. Its whole system, set up to squash change, killed any possibility of reform. Like many a government in the years since, they mistook raw force for strength and lost both. In the end, what they had despised as needless luxuries gave their enemies a future they would never have.
In a way, this was a nastier end than their outright destruction. Spartans would have understood, even craved, the doomed heroism of a last stand, killing thousands of attackers in the ruins of their burning city.
But even after he died, Epaminondas denied them that satisfaction. Instead, Sparta lingered for hundreds of years while the world moved on. Despite some feeble attempts at glory, it slid from a second-rate power to a quaint museum for other civilizations to chuckle at. The former terror of Greece ended up a sanitized tourist attraction.
Sometimes, the world is just.