Battle of Leuctra was the battle between the Thebans and Boeotian allies headed by Boeotarch Epaminondas, on the one hand, and the Spartans and their allies Peloponnese headed by the king Cleombrotus, on the other. It happened on July 6th, 371 BC during Boeotian war. The battle, which ended with the victory of the Thebans, changed the strategic situation in ancient Greece, forever destroying the military and political hegemony of Sparta and started a short period of elevation of Thebes. The Battle took place near the village Leuctra in Boeotia (Central Greece), 11 km from Thebes. In the history of martial arts, it is one of the classic battles of antiquity that influenced the formation of the basic principles of strategy and tactics.
The armies of the ancient Greek states improved the ways of organizing and conducting combat on the basis of qualitative improvement of weapons and combat training of troops. The basis of their order of battle was the phalanx – a deep (8 – 16 to 40 ranks) linear construction of heavily armed infantry. Each rank consisted of 500 – 1000 or even more soldiers who stood in ranks shoulder to shoulder (Pomeroy 2007).
From the front phalanx was almost invulnerable. Serried shields and hoplites spears exposed forward created the impression of wall bristling with spears. The distance between ranks while attack was 1 meter, and while fending off attack of the enemy – 0,5 meters. Strength of the phalanx lied in the cohesion and solidity of its structure. However, the phalanx also had many shortcomings. It could operate on a flat, open terrain. Its structure was easily destroyed in motion, and it was quite difficult to recover, the maneuver was almost eliminated, flanks were open, there was no reserve for success in battle. Phalanx could not conduct proceedings. Detachments of light infantry and cavalry were to compensate these shortcomings.
In general, the superiority of the tactics of the phalanx over the tactics of other armies of that time was uncontested. A classic example of strengths and weaknesses of the phalanx was the battle of Marathon (490 BC.)
During long wars Greek army gained extensive combat experience. Their weapons and tactics continued to improve. At the end of V century BC, appeared a new kind of infantry – peltasts, which were armed with long spears, swords, javelins and light protective gears. That infantry could fight as a part of the phalanx, and in extended order, operate on rough terrain, maneuver on the battlefield and at the right time could concentrate forces at the decisive site. The possibility of new forces was brilliantly used by the Greek leader Epaminondas during Boeotian War (378 – 362 years BC).
In the battle of Leuctra (371 BC) Theban army of Epaminondas, numbering about six thousand hoplites and 1,500 horsemen, met the army under the command of the Spartan king Cleombrotus, consisting of 10 thousand hoplites and thousand horsemen. Both armies lined up in the typical for the time order of battle – phalanx. But Epaminondas refused the even distribution of forces along the front and by reducing the depth of the phalanx concentrated on the left flank an assault force of the best 1,500 soldiers built in the column depth of 48 ranks. By its blow hitherto invincible front of Spartan phalanx was broken, and that decided the outcome of the battle. Thebans were victorious. Epaminondas has been the first to discover the great tactical principle which up to our days determines the outcome of almost all the decisive battles: the uneven distribution of forces along the front in order to concentrate forces for the main attack at a critical section (Warry 1995).
The new tactical principle was further developed during the wars fought by Alexander of Macedon in 334 – 324 years BC. Presence of a strong cavalry in Macedonian army was very helpful. An analysis of numerous battles shows that, in the center of his order of battle, Alexander has always possessed a phalanx, and one of the flanks, depending on the situation, called an assault force, consisting of cavalry and medium infantry. Thus, the idea of Epaminondas was developed in the Macedonian army to the combined action of the two arms – infantry and cavalry. Brilliant examples of the new tactics were given by Alexander of Macedon in the battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), on the river Hydaspes (326 BC), etc.
So, summing up everything that was said above, it is clear that the circumstances leading up to the battle were as follows. In 371 BC army of Spartans and Peloponnese under the command of Union Spartan king Cleombrotus invaded Boeotia in order to win it and restore oligarchic rule in Thebes, deposed in 379 BC. Cleombrotus led attack on the mountainous road along the coast and invaded Boeotia unexpectedly. Union troops under the command of Boeotian Epaminondas were at fortified camp on a hill at Leuctra. There settled the army of Cleombrotus. The camps enemies were separated by the flat width of about 2 km.
The Spartans had 10 thousand hoplites and a thousand of horsemen, Thebans had 6 thousand infantry and 1500 cavalry. The advantage of the Spartans lied in their outnumbered and the presence of troops of Spartiates – full citizens of Sparta, who received exceptionally high-quality military training and were considered the best soldiers in Greece. Thebans were more numerous and had a better-trained cavalry, as well as the morale of the troops who fought for the freedom of Boeotia from Spartan hegemony (Halsall 1998).
On July 6th, 371 BC Epaminondas with the help of Pelopidas overcame the differences among Boeotarchs, decided to give a battle and ordered his troops to build up in battle order. Cleombrotus, in his turn, also gave the order to build. The Spartans lined up in a classic Greek phalanx of 12 ranks. Right, the honorary wing was occupied by the Spartans themselves led Cleombrotus, Peloponnesian allies lined up on the left wing. Place before the troops was taken by the cavalry. Thus, Cleombrotus expected to hold a classic battle of the phalanges, in which the strongest right wing could topple the weakest left one, and then winning wings fought with each other. In such a collision and numerical superiority, and the degree of training of the Spartans made their victory foregone conclusion.
However, the concept of Epaminondas, who decided to give battle, violated the classic tactics of the phalanx uniformly constructed with a reinforced right flank. On his right flank, he put the whole phalanx of 8 ranks, but on the left one, opposite to Cleombrotus and the Spartans, he built on the column depth of 50 panels – “embalon.” It was closed by the elite unit of the Thebans – “Holy squad” led by close friend and colleague of Epaminondas – Pelopidas. Embalon was put forward compared to the rest of the Thebans, and had to start the battle. Troops of the Thebans were also covered by cavalry. Epaminondas’ plan was simple but quite innovative for the infantry tactics of the Greeks. “Embalon” was supposed to break a phalanx of Spartans and defeat the best part of the army headed by the king, and then finishing off the Spartan allies was not difficult. The main risk of that tactic was the threat of strike coverage on the flanks with the column of wider phalanx of the Spartans.
Because f the holiday, Cleombrotus was not going to fight. Epaminondas decided to take advantage of that, ordered his army to move to the camp, making it clear to the enemy that he also would not fight. Spartans saw that and began to abandon their military orders and went to their camp. At this moment the cavalry of Thebans dealt an unexpected blow and knocked the Spartans cavalry. Retreating Spartan cavalry mixed series of phalanx, and above all – the right wing. Theban cavalry also retreated to the left flank of order of battle (Davis 2005).
Phalanx of Spartan cavalry began moving, bending its right flank so as to cover a short order of battle of the Thebans. At this point, the shock column of the Thebans crashed Spartan battle formation. The threat being surrounded was prevented by a swift attack of “the Holy squad” headed by Pelopidas. It confronted face to face with the king Cleombrotus and his retinue who tried to strike the flank of “embalon.” Spartans took the hit of Boeotians, the preponderance of soldiers was entirely on the side of the Thebans, as the allies of Sparta had not yet entered the fray. In a fierce battle Cleombrotus was mortally wounded, in addition, many Spartans fell, defending the king. The Spartans pushed the Thebans and take away the king when he was still alive. The integrity of Spartan phalanx could not be restored. The defeat the right wing shook the left wing of Spartan allies. The result was the retreat of the Spartans.
In the result of fight king Cleombrotus was killed, the Spartans lost about a thousand of soldiers. Defeated Spartans retreated to the camp and later sent a proposal for a truce to collect the bodies of the killed soldiers. Later, the Spartans said that Epaminondas had stolen the victory acting “against the rules”, but in Greece very quickly it was rated as the strategic importance of the battle and its importance in the military art. The Greeks admired the beauty of the concept of Epaminondas, and he himself did not conceal the justifiable pride of the victory won by the art of war (Pomeroy 2007).
Battle of Leuctra meant a sunset of hegemony of Sparta in Hellas. Before that only Athens could win Sparta and only at the sea. Now for the first time the Spartans failed on the land. Since most of the dead Spartans were full citizens of the policy, and belonged to the noble birth, the Battle of Leuctra dealt a serious blow on demographic of Sparta. The subsequent course of the Boeotian War led to the collapse of Peloponnese Union, Sparta lost Messenia fertile land. Hellas was involved in a war of attrition, being divided into two coalitions with Sparta and Thebes at the head of each.
Davis, William Stearns., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and the East, 2005. Pp. 279-284.
Halsall, Paul., Ancient History Sourcebook: Xenophon: The Battle of Leuctra, 371 BCE
from Hellenica (c. 360 BCE). Fordham University. June 1998. Retrieved from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/371leuctra.asp
Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History. 2. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. Pp. 71-72.
Warry, John Gibson. Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors and Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome. New Ed. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Pp. 25-26.