Epaminondas (ca. 425-362 B.C.) was a Theban general and statesman who overthrew Sparta and whose original battle tactics revolutionized ancient war fare.
Trained in Pythagorean philosophy, Epaminondas was said to be unselfish, devout, and generous, and he certainly had a more intellectual approach to war and politics than most Thebans. He was a friend of Pelopidas, the leader of a group of exiles, who liberated Thebes from Sparta in 379 B.C., and thereafter he played a leading part in the creation of the democratic League of Boeotian States.
As a League delegate at a peace conference in Sparta in 371, Epaminondas insisted upon full recognition of the League. Sparta refused and its army moved from Phocis to disband the League. Isolated and outnumbered, the Boeotians were thought to be helpless against the invincible Spartans, but Epaminondas used a new tactic. Advancing with an oblique line, of which the weak right was delayed and the massive left was advanced, he struck at the enemy's strongest point with a series of blows—first with cavalry, then with elite infantry, and finally with the entire massed infantry. This victory encouraged federalism in central Greece, where many states formed a coalition with Boeotian leadership in war.
From 370 to 368 Epaminondas campaigned in the Peloponnesus, ravaging Sparta's territory, liberating Messenia, and building Megalopolis as capital of the Arcadian League. Here, too, federal systems were instituted and flourished because Epaminondas tolerated existing ideologies within each League. But the Boeotians soon imposed democracy and revealed imperialist ambitions. Epaminondas lost favor and was serving in the ranks in 367, when a crisis again raised him to a position of command.
In the attempt to force Boeotian supremacy on the Grecian states, Epaminondas was entrusted with two expeditions. In 363 he sailed with 100 newly built triremes to Byzantium and back, shaking Athens's confidence in its invulnerability and encouraging its subjects to revolt. In 362 he invaded the Peloponnesus, moving large forces with remarkable speed and dexterity. At Mantinea he faced the combined forces of Sparta, Athens, Elis, Achaea, and Mantinea in a strong position in a plain flanked by hills. Forced into a frontal attack, Epaminondas maneuvered until noon, when the enemy thought an attack unlikely. Masked by clouds of dust raised by his cavalry, his massed infantry delivered a sudden attack against the enemy's strongest troops deployed on the right. Meanwhile, a smaller force engaged the enemy's left wing. Victory was imminent, when Epaminondas fell mortally wounded.
Ancient sources on Epaminondas are Xenophon and Diodorus Siculus. Modern works which discuss him include Botsford and Robinson's Hellenic History, revised by Donald Kagan (1922; 5th ed. 1969); J. B. Bury and R. Meiggs, A History of Greece (3d ed., 1952); and Nicholas G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (1959; 2d ed. 1967).