The great Theban general Epaminondas is most famous for his crushing victory over the Spartans in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. With this battle the long military influence of Sparta on the Greek peninsula was brought to an end. He was a man of few words; but when he did speak, his words were worth recording. The historian Cornelius Nepos relates two anecdotes that are revealing of his character and temperament.
There was a Theban law that said a general could not retain his command longer than the time provided by law. A breach of this law could be punishable by death. While he was conducting his campaigns in the field with his subordinate officers, Epaminondas was informed that his command’s expiration date was approaching. But it was his judgment that to abandon his command in the middle of a campaign could have disastrous consequences. He chose to stay where he was for four months longer than the time prescribed by law.
But at a later date, his subordinates were brought to trial in Thebes for their alleged breach of the rules regarding command durations. Epaminondas told them to lay all the blame at his feet; he told them that they had been acting under his instructions and that he alone was responsible for their conduct. His men spoke as he directed. He also appeared in court personally to address the tribunal. Before he arrived, they had been skeptical of the excuses given by his subordinate commanders. He told the magistrates that they should write down the following words as part of his sentence. Then he spoke to this effect:
Epaminondas was sentenced to death by his own people because at the Battle of Leuctra he made them defeat their bitter enemies the Spartans. Before him no one had dared face the Spartans in battle, and because of his generalship he saved Thebes and the rest of Greece. He routed the Spartans from the field and brought the war to a successful conclusion.
When he was finished with this caustic comment, ripples of laughter swept through the courtroom. By using this kind of sarcasm, he was able to remind the tribunal how petty and unimportant their concerns were when placed against the larger picture. The case against himself and his colleagues was dismissed soon after this.
There is another revealing anecdote that tells us something about the character of this great man. He seems never to have married. This fact attracted the disfavor of another prominent Theban named Pelopidas. But Pelopidas was also known to have a dissolute and immoral son. Pelopidas chastised Epaminondas, telling him that his failure to leave any issue behind was a harm committed against his country. Epaminondas looked at him and said,
Do not speak to me of wrongs. You should take care that you do not harm your country by leaving behind a son like yours. But more than this, I have in fact left behind offspring. I leave as my daughter the Battle of Leuctra: and she is certain not only to outlive me, but to become immortal.
This was his response to Pelopidas.
He was eventually killed during the Battle of Mantinea in 362 B.C. As often was his habit, he threw himself into the thick of the fray and so exposed himself to danger once too often; during a melee he was hit by a lance thrown from a distance. The head of the lance was embedded in his side and he realized the wound would be a mortal one; he also knew that if he pulled it out, he would die immediately (internal organs tend to close around weapons penetrating the body). He wanted to stay alive until he heard the outcome of the battle. When he learned that his men had been victorious, the historian Nepos tells us that Epaminondas said the following:
Satis vixi; invictus enim morior.
And this means: I have lived long enough; now I die unconquered. He then pulled out the lance’s head and quietly expired.
Read more on the life of Epaminondas in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: