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The Story of Greece by  Mary Macgregor

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THE DEATH OF EPAMINONDAS

[281] THEBES was now the most powerful city in Greece. But Epaminondas was not yet content. He wished to invade Sparta.

In November 370 B.C. he marched with his army into Arcadia, which lay to the north of Laconia. Here he was joined by all those who wished to throw off the Spartan yoke. His army soon numbered forty thousand, some even say it was seventy thousand strong.

Sparta could hardly believe that any one had dared to invade her territory. She was used to fighting in other states of Greece or in other countries, but it would be a new experience if she was forced to fight for her own homes. Yet there was Epaminondas and his army encamped within sight of the city.

The Spartan women had never before seen the smoke of an enemy's fire camp, and they gave way to despair, in spite of their stern training in self-control.

But the Theban general was too wise to attack the city. He knew that the Spartans had gathered together a large army, and that they would fight to the death for their homes. So, satisfied that he had encamped in sight of Sparta, he turned away, destroying the land through which he passed. The Spartans were eager to follow and fight with the enemy who had defied them, but their king refused to lead them to battle.

Epaminondas was not yet ready to leave Spartan territory. He led his army to the country of Messenia, which the [282] Spartans had conquered many centuries before, banishing or making slaves of the people.

The Theban general roused the descendants of these slaves, and encouraged them to build a new city on Mount Ithomé, where Aristomenes had made his gallant stand against the Spartans.

While the first stones of the new city were being laid, the sound of flutes was heard. When it was finished it was named Messenia. A large piece of ground which belonged to Sparta was given by Epaminondas to the citizens of the new town. Those who had been slaves or Helots were now free men.

The army then marched back to Thebes, which it reached four months after the time for which Epaminondas had been appointed commander.

In spite of all that he had done for his country, his enemies wished him to be punished, because he had not laid down his command on the proper day. But he appealed to the people, and they gladly made him, along with Pelopidas, general for another year.

When the year had passed, Epaminondas was treated coldly, not only by his enemies but by the people also, because he had failed to surprise and take the city of Corinth.

In Thessaly at this time there was a cruel king named Alexander. So badly did he treat his subjects, that they begged the Thebans to come to their help.

Pelopidas was sent to Thessaly to punish Alexander, unless he promised to treat his people less harshly. The king was forced to listen to the Theban general, but he was angry because Pelopidas had dared to interfere with him and he resolved to punish him.

For some time the king found no opportunity to reach his enemy, but at length Pelopidas was foolish enough to go through Thessaly with only a few followers.

Alexander was overjoyed to have the general in his [283] power, and he at once sent a band of men to capture him and throw him into prison.

But the Thebans were very angry when they heard that their favourite general was a prisoner, and they determined to set him free. So they sent a large army into Thessaly to rescue Pelopidas.

Epaminondas went with the army as an ordinary soldier, and you can imagine how he must have longed to be at its head, so that he might himself deliver his friend.

The Theban generals were not clever, and though they did all they could to conquer the army that Alexander sent against them, they soon saw that the battle was going against them.

Then they showed that if they were not clever they were wise, for they went to Epaminondas, and begged him to take command of the army.

But it was too late for even a clever general to rescue Pelopidas, and all Epaminondas could do was to save the Theban army from being destroyed.

The Thebans were so grateful to Epaminondas for his help that they made him general once more, and sent him back to Thessaly with a larger army that he might save his friend.

Alexander knew that he need not hope to conquer the great Theban general, and a few days after Epaminondas entered Thessaly, the king set Pelopidas free. He then asked the Thebans to make peace with him.

Three years later, in 364 B.C., Pelopidas was ordered to go at the head of an army against his old enemy.

As he was ready to leave Thebes, the sun was eclipsed and the soothsayers did not hesitate to say that this was a bad omen. Many of the soldiers were afraid to march, and Pelopidas was too angry to wait to force them to go with him, so he set out with only a few men. When he reached Thessaly he bade all those who hated the tyrant to join him.

[284] Thousands who had groaned under the cruelty of the king flocked to his side, but even then the army of Alexander was twice as large as his.

The two forces met at a place called Cynoscephalæ, where a great battle was fought.

Pelopidas led his men well, and himself fought so bravely that the battle was all but won in spite of the greater strength of the enemy. Suddenly Pelopidas caught sight of Alexander, and forgetting everything save his desire to avenge his imprisonment, he sprang forward to slay the tyrant. Ere his followers could reach him, he himself was struck down and killed.

Alexander was defeated and his kingdom was taken from him. But the Thessalians could not rejoice, because Pelopidas, to whom they owed their deliverance, had been slain. They buried him with great pomp on the field where he had fallen.

Epaminondas was filled with grief at the loss of his dear friend. He tried to forget his sorrow in serving his country.

In 362 B.C. he fought at Mantinea against the Spartans, on the field where long before he had saved the life of Pelopidas.

Never had Epaminondas fought more bravely than on this day, leading the Bœotians against the foe "as a war-galley ploughs through the waves with its beak."

The victory was well-nigh gained, when a Spartan thrust his pike through the breast of Epaminondas. He fell, and his men carried him off the field to a little hill, from which the battle could be seen.

For a short time the great general lay unconscious, but at length he opened his eyes and asked if his shield was safe. He was told that it was safe and that the battle was won.

Then he begged to see his two chief officers. They had fallen on the field, and when the news was broken to him, the dying man said,

[285] "Then you had better make peace."

The head of the spear that had struck the general was still in the wound. As it was withdrawn he breathed his last.

It was Epaminondas who had made Thebes great. After his death she slowly slipped back into her old insignificant position.


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