History Summarized: Thebes’ Greatest Accomplishment Ever

For all of the grandiose and lofty aspects of history, sometimes we forget that it’s made up of real people. And those real people sometimes try to pull off the most ridiculous BS imaginable. And sometimes, it works, and has crazy historical consequences without ever being appreciated for the utter nonsense that went into it. This story, one of my all-time favorite history stories, is about the Greek city of Thebes and its greatest accomplishment ever. So, for some context, in the century after the Persian Wars, Thebes was a bit of an outcast on account of …being casually allied with the Persians during the, uh, well, Persian Wars. Which…kinda leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the Athenians and Spartans who fought Persians and Thebans at the Battle of Plataea at the end of the Second Persian War. A half-century of stern Hellenic side-eye later, Spartan pragmatism in the Peloponnesian War led to an alliance with Thebes, (which is its own crazy story by itself), and this gradually brought about a Greek change of heart towards Thebes in general. After Sparta won the Peloponnesian War and started flexing its rippling pectorals all across Greece, a group of Greek states who thought that Sparta was kind of acting like a grade-A knob-end formed an alliance and started a war with Sparta to get them to stop acting so imperialistic. This coalition consisted of: 1. Athens. Makes sense. 2. Argos, who hated the Spartans for centuries, so that checks out. 3. Corinth, who — wait a minute… …was allied with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War? O…kay… 4. Thebes. Wait, really? Really, guys? Well, way to repay the favor, jerks. And finally, 5. Persia. Persia?! OH COME ON! Gee, I guess people really didn’t like Sparta anymore. Yikes. So, let the moral of the story be that Greek alliances are determined by a mix of 35% grudge-holding, 10% idealism, and 55% ganging up on the villain of the week, who in this case was Sparta. So, that war happened, and nothing really came out of it, but a decade later, the Thebans and the Spartans got into another war, and this is where the plot thickens, and by “thickens” I mean “gets completely ridiculous.” The two main characters in this war are the Spartan king Agesilaus and the Theban general Epaminondas, who was really smart and really cool and just all-around awesome. The war lasted for six years, and nothing really came out of that either, so eventually the Athenians, who were allied with the Thebans, convinced them all to meet for peace talks. At the negotiations, they all showed up and made formal declarations of their great and awesome commitment to super-cool peace. Sparta said, “We, the Spartans, swear on behalf of ourselves and all of our Peloponnesian allies,” “to uphold this great and wonderful peace!” And the Athenians said, “We, the Athenians, swear on behalf of ourselves,” “but not on behalf of our allies,” “because that’s not cool and we’re not an empire anymore.” “Our marketing team said that that was really bad for our image –” “but anyway, yes.” “Peace.” “Yay.” And the Thebans said, “We, the Thebans, swear on behalf of ourselves, but not for our allies –” “– we’ll let them swear on behalf of themselves –” “– to uphold this great and wonderful peace!” And then they negotiated all the terms, and it was all well and good and fun. And then later that night the Thebans went back to the hotel and ordered ancient Greek room service (which I can only assume was a bushel of grapes and a shot of ouzo), and they were chatting, and one guy said, “You know, I know we tried being non-imperial and not swearing for our Boetian allies,” “but Sparta did it, and I know we hate Sparta, but…” “c’mon, they’re Sparta, y’know?” “And I think it would be good for our image if we went back,” “and established how cool and powerful we are, too,” “by swearing on behalf of our allies just like Sparta did.” And the other Thebans probably said, “Well, that… honestly seems a little bit inconsequential,” “but yeah, sure, let’s do it, let’s make ourselves look a little better.” “Why not, what’s the worst that could happen, y’know?” So the next day, they showed back up at the peace talks, and Sparta said, “So, shall we agree to these peace terms of this glorious peace,” “and go back home to live?” “In peace?” And the Thebans said, “Wait! Waitwaitwaitwaitwait.” “Wait, wait.” “We would actually like to, if we could,” “re-swear on behalf of our allies as well,” “just like you did, Sparta.” And Sparta said, “Um…you can’t do that.” “You already swore.” “You can’t re-swear, that’s not in the rules.” And Thebes said, “Well, too bad. We’re re-swearing.” Sparta said, “But you can’t,” and Thebes said, “But we will,” and Sparta said, “Guys. This is a peace conference.” “We’re already 99% of the way done.” “Can’t we just call it a day?” And Thebes finally said, “You know what? “No. No.” “We won’t call it a day.” “We want to swear for our allies,” “and if you don’t let us do that, then we’re declaring war on you!” “AGAIN.” And then the Spartans are confusedly looking at each other like, “Are these guys for real?” But Thebes had already stormed off and assembled an army to fight Sparta. Because remember: all they wanted to do was edit one tiny part of a formal declaration of peace to make themselves look slightly stronger. Are you feeling this pettiness just wafting over you yet? So Thebes assembles an army to fight Sparta, something no Greek army ever actually wanted to do, because Spartan soldiers are really, really good, and then, that Theban general Epaminondas from earlier had an idea. So, usually, because of the way that hoplites are organized, you want to put your strongest fighters on the right side of the phalanx. That’s just how it works. That’s how it’s been, like, forever. But Epaminondas decided to put his strongest fighters on the left side of the phalanx instead, with the idea that his best fighters could defeat Sparta’s best, and then, once Sparta’s best fighters fell, the rest of the entire line would just collapse like that. And as it turned out, at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, that is exactly what happened. And the Theban army won such a decisive victory against the once seemingly invincible Spartans, that no one dared to challenge them for another ten years. Thebes, because they threw a hissy fit at a peace conference over a technicality, became the strongest power in Greece for a decade, and remained in the top two or three after that decade all the way up until Philip of Macedon conquered Greece in 338. Because they threw a hissy fit. I can’t even be mad, that’s just impressive! …And stupid. Really, really stupid.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1x9np5fys8

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button