Pelopidas, d.364 BC

Pelopidas (d.364 BC) was one of the main Theban leaders during his city's brief period of dominance in Greece, after playing a major role in freeing his city from Spartan rule in 379 BC.

In 385 the Spartans took advantage of their strong position after the end of the Corinthian War to attack their former ally of Mantinea.  According to Pausanias and Plutarch Pelopidas and Epaminondas were part of a Theban contingent that fought on the Spartan side during a battle near Mantinea. Their wing of the Spartan army was defeated, and they had to be rescued by King Agesipolis in person. Pelopidas is said to have suffered seven wounds in this battle.

In 382 a passing Spartan army had captured the citadel of Thebes, installed a garrison, and forced the city to accept a pro-Spartan government. Pelopidas was one of many Thebans forced to go into exile, and he sought sanctuary at Athens.

Battles of the Theban-Spartan War, 379-371
Battles of the
Theban-Spartan War,
379-371 BC

In 379 he was part of a small force of exiles that returned to the city. With help from inside the walls they were able to expel the Spartans, triggering the Theban-Spartan War of 379-371. Pelopidas killed the pro-Spartan leader Leontiades during the coup in the city. He was then elected one of three generals (Boeotarchs), and helped recapture the Cadmeia (the acropolis of Thebes) before a Spartan relief army could arrive.

Pelopidas worked alongside the more famous Epaminondas, who rose to prominence after Pelopidas, but soon overshadowed his friend.

In 378 the Spartan harmost Sphodrias, who had been left at Thespiae in Boeotia, carried out a foolish raid into Attica, with the intention of capturing the Piraeus. He badly mistimed his raid, and ended up having to retreat having achieved nothing. The Spartan response to this raid eventually convinced the Athenians to side with Thebes. Sphodrias's motives are unclear, but one theory suggested in antiquity was that he had been tricked into the raid by Pelopidas and Gorgidas.

By 375 the Spartans had lost many of their footholds in Boeotia, but they still held Orchomenus, in the west of the area. When he discovered that the Spartan garrison of two morai was absent in Locria, Pelopidas decided to attempt a surprise attack on the town. When he arrived he discovered that fresh Spartan troops had arrived, and decided to withdraw. On his way back he ran into the absent Spartan garrison, under the command of Gorgoleon and Theopompus. The resulting battle of Tegyra was an unexpected Theban victory. When the fighting proved to be harder than the Spartans had expected they opened up a path through their army, possibly in the hope that the Thebans would take advantage of this escape route. Instead Pelopidas ordered his men to fight on, catching the Spartans out of formation. Both Spartan commanders were killed and the survivors were forced to flee back to Orchomenus. The battle of Leuctra is described as the first Spartan defeat in a hoplite battle, but that isn't really the case - Tegyra came first, but only involved a small part of the Spartan army.

He commanded the 'Sacred Band' at Epaminondas's first major battlefield victory at Leuctra (371 BC), the battle that broke Sparta's military power. This ended the Theban-Spartan War, and began the period of the Theban Hegemony. Just before the battle Pelopidas had a dream in which he had been instructed to sacrifice a 'virgin with auburn hair' at a nearby shrine. This would have caused a great deal of trouble for the Thebans, but just in time a young foul broke away from a nearby herd of horses, providing a suitable sacrificial victim. During the battle Pelopidas and his men almost certainly launched the decisive battle-winning attack, but the exact details are unclear.

Pelopidas took part in the first Theban expedition into the Peloponnese, one of the most decisive campaigns in ancient Greek history. The Boeotians actually arrived after their allies in the Peloponnese were safe, but he and Epaminondas managed to convince their army to carry out an invasion of Spartan territory. They came very close to the city of Sparta, but the most important part of this campaign was the restoration of Messina, a move that permanently reduced Spartan power.

While Epaminondas focused on the war against Sparta, Pelopidas spent most of his time campaigning in Thessaly, where the Theban position was threatened by Alexander, tyrant of Pherae. He campaigned in Thessaly in 368, capturing Larisea. Alexander submitted to Pelopidas, but then fled. Pelopidas then moved north into Macedonia, where he arranged an agreement between Alexander II of Macedon and Ptolemy of Alorus. As part of the peace agreement he took thirty hostages back to Thebes, possibly including the future Philip II of Macedon, the conqueror of Greece and father of Alexander the Great.

Later in 368 Pelopidas returned to Thessaly and Macedonia, this time with less success. Once again Alexander of Pherae was his first target, but this was initially meant as a diplomatic mission. While he was on his mission, news arrived that Ptolemy had murdered Alexander II. Pelopidas raised a force of mercenaries and went north. Ptolemy managed to bride his mercenaries, but still decided to submit rather than risk a full scale Theban intervention. Pelopidas then hired more troops in Thessaly, and moved to attack Pharsalus in an attempt to punish his mercenaries. While there he was captured by Alexander of Pherae and held captive.

In 367 Pelopidas was released after Thebes sent an army to rescue him. The first army ran into trouble and Epaminondas had to emerge from the ranks to rescue it. He was then given command of a second army, which successfully rescued Pelopidas.

Later in 367 Pelopidas served as the Theban ambassador to the Persian court, where he was able to win Persian support against Athens and Sparta. The Persian emperor Artaxerxes II agreed to support the independence of Messenia, and declared the Thebans to be hereditary friends of the King.

In 364 the Thessalians called for help against Alexander of Pherae once again. The Thebans raised a force, but after an eclipse of the sun on 13 June 364 this first army disbanded itself. Pelopidas was determined to continue with the campaign, and took 300 cavalry into Thessaly. After his arrival he raised a local force, and clashed with Alexander at the battle of Cynoscephalae (364 BC). The combined Theban and Thessalian force was victorious, but Pelopidas himself was killed while attempting to catch Alexander. The Thessalians insisted on burying Pelopidas and gave him a splendid funeral. 

Only two years later Epaminondas was also killed in battle, and without her two most inspirational leaders Thebes struggled to maintain the position of dominance they had established.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 April 2016), Pelopidas, d.364 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_pelopidas.html

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