The Spartans, coming into Thebes, as we have seen, exiled the rich and important Pelopidas, but allowed his friend Epaminondas to remain. They little suspected that this quiet and seemingly stupid man would in time become their greatest enemy, and that the mere sound of his name would fill their hearts with dread. Pelopidas, thus forced to leave home, withdrew to Athens, where he was very kindly received. He was not happy, however, and was always longing to return home, and see his friend Epaminondas, whose society he missed very much.
He therefore called a few of the Theban exiles together, and proposed that they should return to Thebes in disguise, and, taking advantage of the Spartans’ carelessness, kill their leaders, and restore the city to freedom. This proposal was received with joy, although the Spartans numbered three thousand, and the Theban exiles only twelve. The chances were of course against them; but the men were so anxious to free their city, that they resolved to make the attempt.
They therefore set out from Athens with weapons and hunting dogs, as if bent upon a day’s sport in the country. Thus armed, they secretly entered the house of Charon, one of their friends in Thebes. Here they exchanged their hunting garments for women’s robes; for, hearing that the Spartan general and his officers were feasting, they had resolved to pretend that they were dancing girls, in order to gain an entrance into the banquet hall, and kill the men while they were drinking.
They had just finished dressing, when a knock was heard at the door, and a Spartan soldier came in and gravely informed Charon that the commander wished to see him. For a moment Pelopidas and his companions fancied that their plans were discovered, and that Charon had betrayed them. He read this suspicion in their frightened faces, and, before leaving the house with the soldier, he placed his only son, a mere infant, in the arms of Pelopidas, saying, “There, keep him; and if you find that I have betrayed you, avenge yourselves by killing my only child, my dearest treasure.”
After speaking thus, Charon went out, and soon came back to report that all was well.
The Theban exiles now went to the banquet hall, where they were readily allowed to enter to amuse the company. The Spartan officers, who were no longer frugal and temperate as of old, were so heavy and stupid with wine, that the supposed dancing girls easily killed them.
One version of the story is, that Pelopidas and his companions rushed out into the street with lighted torches, and slew every Spartan they met. The Spartan soldiers, deprived of most of their officers (who had been killed in the banquet hall), and greatly frightened, fled in the darkness from what they fancied was a large army, and returned in haste to Sparta.
Imagine their shame, however, when it became known there that they had been routed by only twelve determined men! The Spartan citizens were so angry that they put the two remaining officers to death, and, collecting another army, placed it under the leadership of Cleombrotus, their second king, because Agesilaus was too ill at the time to fight.