The Thebans, delighted at having thus happily got rid of their enemies, had made Pelopidas and Epaminondas Boeotarchs, or chiefs of Boeotia, the country of which Thebes was the capital. These two men, knowing well that the Spartans would soon send an army to win back the city, now made great preparations to oppose them.
Epaminondas was made general of the army; and Pelopidas drilled a choice company, called the Sacred Battalion. This was formed of three hundred brave young Thebans, who took a solemn oath never to turn their backs upon the enemy or to surrender, and to die for their native country if necessary.
The Thebans then marched forth to meet their foes; and the two armies met at Leuctra, a small town in Boeotia. As usual, the Thebans had consulted the oracles to find out what they should do, and had been told that all the omens were unfavorable. Epaminondas, however, nobly replied that he knew of none which forbade fighting for the defense of one’s country, and he boldly ordered the attack.
The Spartans were greatly amused when they heard that Epaminondas, a student, was the commander of the army, and they expected to win a very easy victory. They were greatly surprised, therefore, when their onslaught was met firmly, and when, in spite of all their valor, they found themselves defeated, and heard that their leader, Cleombrotus, was dead.
The Thebans, of course, gloried in their triumph; but Epaminondas remained as modest and unassuming as ever, merely remarking that he was glad for his country’s and parents’ sake that he had been successful. To commemorate their good fortune, the Thebans erected a trophy on the battlefield of Leuctra, where their troops had covered themselves with glory.
The inhabitants of Sparta, who had counted confidently upon victory, were dismayed when they saw only a few of their soldiers return from the battle, and heard that the Thebans were pursuing them closely. Before they could collect new troops, the enemy marched boldly down into Laconia; and the women of Sparta now beheld the smoke of the enemy’s camp for the first time in many years. As there were neither walls nor fortifications of any kind, you can easily imagine that the inhabitants were in despair, and thought that their last hour had come.
If Epaminondas had been of a revengeful temper, he could easily have destroyed the city; but he was gentle and humane, and, remaining at a short distance from the place, he said that he would go away without doing the Spartans any harm, provided they would promise not to attack Thebes again, and to set the Messenians free.
These conditions were eagerly agreed to by the Spartans, who found themselves forced to take a secondary place once more. Athens had ruled Greece, and had been forced to yield to Sparta; but now Sparta was compelled in her turn to recognize the supremacy of Thebes.