Restoration of Democracy in Thebes: Pelopidas' Violent Decapacitation Strategy, 379 BC (excerpts from Grote, A History of Greece, Volume 10)
In 382 BC, a Theban oligarchic faction had betrayed their city to its Spartan enemy. They treacherously introducing Spartan soldiers into the central fortress (citadel or acropolis or Kadmeia or Cadmea) of Thebes, enslaving their city to Sparta, and, with Spartan protection, gaining despotic power over their fellow citizens. This unprovoked Machiavellian maneuver by Sparta and Theban traitors, George Grote writes, was "condemned by the indignant sentiment of all Greece."
Grote goes on to describe the subsequent emancipation of Thebes from both home-grown and foreign tyrants:
[By 379 BC], the government of Thebes had now been for three years . . . in the hands of Leontiades and his [cruel, oppressive, and rapacious] oligarchical partisans, upheld by the Spartan garrison in the Kadmeia. . . .
Those rulers must have been in constant fear of risings or conspiracies amidst a body of high-spirited citizens who saw their city degraded, from being the chief of the Boeotian federation, into nothing better than a captive dependency of Sparta. Such fear was aggravated by the vicinity of a numerous body of Theban exiles, belonging to the opposite or anti-Spartan party; three or four hundred of whom had fled to Athens at the first seizure of their leader Ismenias, and had been doubtless joined subsequently by others.
So strongly did the Theban rulers apprehend mischief from these exiles, that they hired assassins to take them off by private murder at Athens; and actually succeeded in thus killing Androkleidas, chief of the band and chief successor of the deceased Ismenias—though they missed their blows at the rest. And we may be sure that they made the prison in Thebes subservient to multiplied enormities and executions. . . .
To protect these Theban exiles, however, was all that Athens could do. Their restoration was a task beyond her power [at the time, dictatorial Sparta was the strongest military power in mainland Greece, and allied moreover with the powerful dictatorships of Persia and Syracuse]—and seemingly yet more beyond their own. For the existing government of Thebes was firmly seated [in part thanks to the Spartan garrison, and in part thanks to Theban quislings], and had the citizens completely under control. . . .
For a certain time, the Theban exiles at Athens waited in hopes of some rising at home or positive aid from the Athenians. At length, in the third winter after their flight, they began to despair of encouragement from either quarter, and resolved to take the initiative upon themselves. Among them were numbered several men of the richest and highest families at Thebes . . .
The exiles, keeping up constant private correspondence with their friends in Thebes, felt assured of the sympathy of the citizens generally, if they could once strike a blow. Yet nothing less would be sufficient than the destruction of the four rulers [of Thebes]. . . .
The day for the enterprise was determined by Phyllidas the secretary [of the ruling despots and a fellow conspirator], who had prepared an evening banquet . . . and who had promised on that occasion to bring into their company some women remarkable for beauty, as well as of the best families in Thebes.
Pelopidas and Mellon, and their five companions, crossed Kithasron from Athens to Thebes. It was wet weather, about December B.C. 379; they were disguised as rustics or hunters, with no other arms than a concealed dagger; and they got within the gates of Thebes one by one at nightfall, just when the latest farming-men were coming home from their fields. All of them arrived safe at the house of Charon, the appointed rendezvous. . .
In the house of Charon they remained concealed all the ensuing day, on the evening of which the banquet of Archias and Philippus [2 of the 4 ruling oligarchs] was to take place.
Phyllidas had laid his plan for introducing them at that banquet, at the moment when the two polemarchs [rulers] had become full of wine, in female attire, as being the women whose visit was expected.
Archias and Philippus impatiently called upon Phyllidas to introduce the women according to his promise. Upon this the secretary retired, and brought the conspirators, clothed in female attire, into an adjoining chamber; then going back to the polemarchs, he informed them that the women would not come in unless all the domestics were first dismissed. An order was forthwith given that these latter should depart, while Phyllidas took care that they should be well provided with wine at the lodging of one among their number. The polemarchs were thus left only with one or two friends at table, half intoxicated as well as themselves.
Phyllidas now conducted the pretended women into the banqueting-room; . . . they sat down by the side of the polemarchs; and the instant of lifting their veils was the signal for using their daggers. Archias and Philippus were slain at once
Having been thus far successful, Phyllidas conducted three of the conspirators—Pelopidas, Kephisodorus, and Damokleidas—to the house Leontiades [the leader of the despotic coup three years ago], into which he obtained admittance by announcing himself as the bearer of an order from the polemarchs. Leontiades was reclining after supper, with his wife sitting spinning wool by his side, when they entered his chamber.
Being a brave and powerful man, he started up, seized his sword, and mortally wounded Kephisodorus in the throat; a desperate struggle then ensued between him and Pelopidas in the narrow doorway, where there was no room for a third to approach. At length, however, Pelopidas overthrew and killed him, after which they retired, joining the wife with threats to remain silent, and closing the door after them with peremptory commands that it should not be again opened.
They then went to the house of Hypates, whom they slew while he attempted to escape over the roof. The four great rulers of the philo-Laconian [pro-Spartan] party in Thebes having been now put to death, Phyllidas proceeded with the conspirators to the prison. . . . Here the gaoler, a confidential agent in the oppressions of the deceased governors, hesitated to admit him; but was slain by a sudden thrust with his spear, so as to ensure free admission to all. To liberate the prisoners, probably for the most part men of kindred politics with the conspirators—to furnish them with arms taken from the battle-spoils hanging up in the neighbouring porticoes—and to range them in battle order near the temple of Amphion—were the next proceedings; after which they began to feel some assurance of safety and triumph.
Proclamation was everywhere made aloud, through heralds, that the despots were slain—that Thebes was free—and that all Thebans who valued freedom should muster in arms in the market-place. . . .
There was but one feeling of joy and enthusiasm among the majority of the citizens. Both horsemen and hoplites hastened in arms to the market- the agora. Here for the first time since the seizure of the Kadmeia by Phoebidas [the Spartan general who seized it three years before], a formal assembly of the Theban people was convened, before which Pelopidas and his fellow-conspirators presented themselves. The priests of the city crowned them with wreaths, and thanked them in the name of the local gods; while the assembly hailed them with acclamations of delight and gratitude, nominating with one voice Pelopidas, Mellon, and Charon, as the first renewed Boeotarchs.
Messengers had been forthwith dispatched by the conspirators to Attica to communicate their success; upon which all the remaining exiles, with the two Athenian generals privy to the plot and a body of Athenian volunteers, or corps francs, all of whom were ready on the borders awaiting the summons—flocked to Thebes to complete the work.
The Spartan generals, on their side also, sent to Platea and Thespiae [two nearby Boetian cities under their control] for aid. During the whole night, they had been distracted and alarmed by the disturbance in the city; lights showing themselves here and there, with trumpets sounding and shouts for the recent success. Apprised speedily of the slaughter of the polemarchs, from whom they had been accustomed to receive orders, they knew not whom to trust or to consult, while they were doubtless beset by affrighted fugitives of the now defeated party, who would hurry up to the Kadmeia for safety. They reckoned at first on a diversion in their favour from the forces at Platea and Thespiae. But these forces were not permitted even to approach the city-gate; being vigorously charged, as soon as they came in sight, by the newly-mustered Theban cavalry, and forced to retreat with loss. The Lacedaemonians in the citadel were thus not only left without support, but saw their enemies in the city reinforced by the other exiles, and by the auxiliary volunteers.
Meanwhile Pelopidas and the other new Boeotarchs found themselves at the head of a body of armed citizens, full of devoted patriotism and unanimous in hailing the recent revolution. They availed themselves of this first burst of fervour to prepare for storming the Kadmeia without delay, knowing the importance of forestalling all aid from Sparta, And the citizens were already rushing up to the assault—proclamation being made of large rewards to those who should first force their way in—when the Lacedaemonian commander sent proposals for a capitulation.
Undisturbed egress from Thebes, with the honours of war, being readily guaranteed to him by oath, the Kadmeia was then surrendered. As the Spartans were marching out of the gates, many Thebans of the defeated party came forth also. But against these latter the exasperation of the victors was so ungovernable, that several of the most odious were seized as they passed, and put to death; in some cases, even their children along with them. And more of them would have been thus dispatched, had not the Athenian auxiliaries, with generous anxiety, exerted every effort to get them out of sight and put them into safety. We are not told—nor is it certain—that these Thebans were protected under the capitulation. . . .
Of the three harmosts [commanders of the Spartan occupation force in the citadel] who thus evacuated the Kadmeia without a blow, two were put to death, the third was heavily fined and banished, by the authorities at Sparta.
This revolution at Thebes came like an electric shock upon the Grecian world. With a modern reader, the assassination of the four leaders, in their houses and at the banquet, raises a sentiment of repugnance which withdraws his attention from the other features of this memorable deed. Now an ancient Greek not only had no such repugnance, but sympathised with the complete revenge for the seizure of the Kadmeia and the death of Ismenias; while he admired, besides, the extraordinary personal daring of Pelopidas and Mellon—the skilful forecast of the plot—and the sudden overthrow, by a force so contemptibly small, of a government which the day before seemed unassailable1. It deserves note that we here see the richest men in Thebes undertaking a risk, single-handed and with their own persons, which must have appeared on a reasonable estimate little less than desperate.
As the revolution in Thebes acted forcibly on the Grecian mind from the manner in which it was accomplished, so by its positive effects it altered forthwith the balance of power in Greece. The empire of Sparta, far from being undisputed and nearly universal over Greece, is from henceforward only maintained by more or less of effort, until at length it is completely overthrown.