The Boetian War: Ancient Thebes Revolts against Sparta, 378 BCE



The Spartan Eurypontid king Agesilaus led two expeditions against Thebes but achieved little.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction and Background

The Boeotian or Theban War broke out in 378 BCE as the result of a revolt in Thebes against Sparta. The war saw Thebes become dominant in the Greek World at the expense of Sparta. However by the end of the war Thebes’ greatest leaders, Pelopidas and Epaminondas, were both dead and Thebes power already waning, allowing for the Rise of Macedon.

After the end of the Corinthian War, which had seen many of Sparta’s allies abandon her, Sparta began reconstructing its hegemony and punishing many disloyal allies. In 385 BC Sparta attacked Mantinea claiming they had failed to fulfil their allied obligations. When Sparta took the city they split it into four settlements, as that was what it had used to be. In the north the city of Olynthus grew in power and violated the terms agreed upon at the end of the Corinthian War.

Epaminondas defending Pelopidas at the Siege of Mantinea (385 BCE), William Rainey. / Wikimedia Commons

Because of this Sparta sent an army against the city under the command of Phoebidas. When the army was in Boeotia around 383 or 382 BCE, Leontiades, who was leader of the oligarchic party in Thebes, asked Phoebidas to occupy the Theban Citadel as Leontiades felt threatened by the democratic party. The Spartans were ruled by kings and, therefore, were supportive of oligarchic governments in other Greek cities. Because of this Phoebidas agreed, occupying the city and practically taking control of Thebes.

Outbreak of the War

Upon the seizure of the Theban citadel by the Spartans, Pelopidas and other leading Theban democrats fled to Athens where Pelopidas took the lead in a conspiracy to liberate Thebes. In 379 BCE the democratic party surprised and killed their chief political opponents in Thebes (members of the aristocratic party that supported the Spartans), and roused the people against the Spartan garrison, which surrendered to an army gathered by Pelopidas.[1]

A Spartan expedition against Thebes was mounted, led by the Agiad Spartan king Cleombrotus. It achieved little but left a garrison in Thespiae under Sphodrias.[2] That winter Sphodrias attempted a raid on Piraeus which ended in a fiasco.[3] Sphodrias had not acted under orders and was brought to trial. However, he was acquitted, which led Athens to declare for Thebes.[4]

The War

Hoplite shields / Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Archaeological Museum of Piraeus, Wikimedia Commons

The Spartan Eurypontid king Agesilaus led two expeditions against Thebes but achieved little.[5] It is likely that the Dema wall was built at this time to defend Attica.[6] An expedition in 376 BCE led by King Cleombrotus was blocked at the passes of Cithaeron.[7] As the Spartans failed to get over the Cithaeron Mountains, this gave the Thebans the chance to take the attack to the Spartans, and in doing so they conquered the Spartans’ remaining strongholds in Boeotia while the Spartan base in Thespiae was also lost. The Spartans were only left with some land in the south and Orchomenus in the north-west.[8]

Because the Spartans were having a hard time attacking Thebes over land, they decided to change their strategy and rather use a naval force to try and block support for the Athenians. In response, the Athenians sent a powerful fleet towards Sparta. The Spartan general Pollis then led his small fleet to try and stop the siege, but was killed during a naval battle against the Athenian general Chabrias. This naval victory was the first ever victory by an Athenian naval fleet since the Peloponnesian War. Later in 376 BCE Chabrias raided Laconia, and possibly reached Sellasia which is to the north-east of Sparta.[9] In 375 BCE Athens mounted two successful expeditions – one into the northern Aegean under Chabrias and a second which sailed around the Peloponnese to western Greece. This force was led by Timotheos, son of Conon, who won the battle of Alyzeia in Acarnania.[10]

Ancient Boeotia / Wikimedia Commons

In 375 BCE there was a renewal of the King’s Peace, but this lasted but a few months.[11] The capture of Plataea by the Thebans put the Theban-Athenian Alliance under strain,[12] as the Plataeans were expelled from their city and found asylum in Athens, where they were a strong voice against Thebes.[13] Though the alliance held, Athens insisted on negotiations with Sparta.[14] A peace treaty was agreed but significant disagreements arose at the treaty signing. Epaminondas insisted that he should sign for the Boeotians as a whole rather than just for Thebes. In response, the Spartan king Agesilaus struck the name of Thebes off the list of signatories.[15] Both sides then left the conference and prepared for renewed hostilities.

As a result of the failure to come to terms with Thebes, the Spartans under Cleombrotus marched against Thebes in 371 BC however were defeated at Leuctra by the Boeotians led by the Thebans. Due to this battle, Spartan supremacy was effectively overthrown and a new era of Theban hegemony was set up.[16]

In 370 BC Epaminondas invaded the Peloponnese but the Spartans refused to engage his now superior army in battle. Instead of marching on Sparta, Epaminondas set up the city of Megalopolis and re-founded the city of Messene, an old enemy of Sparta. Having two new powerful enemies close to its capital severely limited Sparta’s power. He launched a second expedition in 369 BC but not much was achieved on either side.[17]

Meanwhile Pelopidas was active in Thessaly as many cities there had asked for help against the tyrannical ruler of Thessaly, Alexander of Pherae. In his first expedition Pelopidas was successful but after further complaints about Alexander’s rule he was sent again, this time as an ambassador. Alexander had him imprisoned. In 368 BC Thebes sent an army into Thessaly to deal with Alexander, with Epaminondas serving as a soldier due to his enemies in Thebes blocking his election to Boeotarch. The army failed to defeat Alexander and was saved from destruction by Epaminondas who led the retreat. In 367 BC another army this time under the full command of Epaminondas was sent into Thessaly. Epaminondas outmanoeuvred Alexander and got him to release the prisoners without much of a fight. Pelopidas now had a hatred for Alexander and would eventually return with an army. He defeated Alexander in the Battle of Cynoscephalae but in his haste to kill the tyrant was himself killed. Alexander was then forced to make peace with Thebes

As Thebes grew in power, more Greek states began to oppose it, chief among them Athens, who now feared Thebes. Another was Mantinea, a city in the Peloponnese who began to act against Thebes. In 362 BC Epaminondas and his Arcadian allies marched against Mantinea, who was supported by Sparta and Athens. The Spartans has been rebuilding their army and decided to fight Epaminondas at Mantinea. In the resulting battle [18] the Thebans won the day but at an extremely heavy cost, including the loss of Epaminondas himself. The death of their leader convinced the Thebans to seek peace and pursue a more defensive policy in the future. By the end of the war Spartan supremacy had been broken but Thebes were no longer in a position to fill the vacuum. Athens was once again the most powerful state in Greece but only by a small margin and they wouldn’t be powerful enough to combat the rise of Macedon in the following years.

Appendix

Endnotes

  1. Kennell (2010), p. 139
  2. Kennell (2010), p. 140
  3. Kennell (2010), p. 140
  4. The Historians’ History of the World, vol. 4, p. 140
  5. The Historians’ History of the World, vol. 4, p. 142
  6. Mark H. Munn, The Defense of Attica: The Dema Wall and the Boiotian War of 378-375 BC (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)
  7. The Historians’ History of the World, vol. 4, p. 142
  8. “Battle of Alyzeia”. The history of war. June 22, 2016. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  9. “Boeotian war”. History of War. 20 May 2016.
  10. Agesilaos, P Cartledge p377
  11. Kennell (2010), p. 142
  12. Kennell (2010), p. 142
  13. The history of ancient Greece: its colonies and conquests, from the earliest, By John Gillies p 323
  14. Kennell (2010), p. 142
  15. Kennell (2010), pp. 142-143
  16. Kennell (2010), pp. 143-145
  17. “Epaminondas | Greek statesman”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-07-22.
  18. Man, Konstant (2018-09-29). “Battle of Mantinea 362 B.C.”Histories (in Greek). Retrieved 2020-08-21.

Bibliography

  • Nigel Kennell, Spartans, a new history, 2010
  • Henry Smith Williams (Ed.) The Historians’ History of the World, vol 4

Originally published by Wikipedia, 05.11.2008, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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