December 9, 2005

Wars of freedom...

[This is a re-post of a piece from December 2002]

I hadn't intended to write about war right now, but I keep thinking that it was just about this time of year that Epaminondas persuaded the Thebans to march against Sparta. That was one of the best and most surprising events in history.

Surprising first because in the ancient Mediterranean world, citizen-armies never fought in winter. Ships were laid-up, and men stayed home by the fire.

Surprising because the Theban Confederacy, comprising most of Boeotia (bee OH shuh) had just become a democracy, the last flowering of democracy in Greece before the Macedonian conquest. And in some ways the best, because Boeotia was conservative and rural, and avoided the corrosive radicalism of other Greek democracies, with their masses of urban poor.

And surprising most of all, because Sparta was then the pre-eminent land-power of Greece, and all Greek states tried their best to avoid fighting her invincible army.

Surprising also because this Theban army was about the last hurrah of the Hoplite Phalanx, those armies of free Greek citizens who, densely arrayed, in heavy bronze armor, would decide a war in an single hour's brutal clash, and then return to their farms. Thebes had long been ruled by a small aristocracy, upheld and bullied by Sparta. The coming of democracy made all Theban citizens eligible to fight as Hoplites, and they now formed a mighty force that was able to challenge Sparta for the first time. Sparta was eager to crush this new threat, and several battles were fought, culminating in a heavy Spartan defeat at Leuctra, in 371 BC.

The Thebans might have thought this sufficient, but a remarkable man, Epaminondas, one of the Theban generals, (and a Pythagorian philosopher) dreamed of ending the Spartan threat forever. Spartan power rested on the ability of all her citizens to be full-time soldiers, devoting their whole lives to military training. This was possible because they had long-before conquered the large neighboring province of Messenia, and reduced its people to near-slaves, the Helots, held down by brutal totalitarian tactics, including a ruthless secret police.

If Messenia could be freed, the basis of Spartan power would be destroyed. This is what Epaminondas persuaded the Thebans to undertake. And it was the rise of democracy and freedom in Thebes that gave the Thebans the upsurge of energy and courage to accomplish what no one had dreamed of before. They were fighting for practical reasons, to destroy a threat and to have revenge for past wrongs. But they were also fighting to free the most wretched and oppressed people in Greece.

When the Thebans marched into Laconia, the Spartan homeland, the Spartans did not dare to come out and fight them in the open-- in itself a momentous change and a huge psychological victory. From there they marched west into Messenia, and with the Messenians, built, with astonishing speed, a new walled city and fortress, Messene, and endowed it with the plunder of the campaign. From this stronghold the Messenians could defy Spartan power.

Walls of Messene
We might keep that long-ago war of liberation in mind, as we face the likelihood of our own coming campaigns to destroy our enemies and free the oppressed. The similarities are many. then as now there were sophisticated and nuanced types who loathed the whole enterprise and would have thwarted it if they had had the military strength. Back then it was the Athenians, who held the rustic Thebans in contempt. Beoetian was used as a sneer, as we might use bumpkin ... or cowboy. The Athenians were helping the Spartans in this war, for reasons a Scowcroft or a Chirac would understand.

Then and now, it's the Beoetians of the world who treasure liberty, and who do the dangerous and dirty work needed to preserve it. (And it's the clever Athenian/lefty types who write the books, which is why we don't hear often of Epaminondas as one of the greatest of the Greeks) The book you want to read is The Soul of Battle, by Victor Hanson.

The picture shows the ruins of the walls of ancient Messene.

Posted by John Weidner at December 9, 2005 8:51 AM
Weblog by John Weidner