For his education he was chiefly indebted to Lysis of Tarentum, a Pythagorean exile who had found refuge with his father Polymnis. He first comes into notice in the attack upon Mantinea in 385 BC, when he fought on the Spartan side and saved the life of his future colleague Pelopidas.
In his youth Epaminondas took little part in public affairs; he held aloof from the political assassinations which preceded the Theban insurrection of 379 BC. But in the following campaigns against Sparta he rendered good service in organizing the Theban defence.
In 371 BC he represented Thebes at the congress in Sparta, and by his refusal to surrender the Boeotian cities under Theban control prevented the conclusion of a general peace. In the ensuing campaign he commanded the Boeotian army which met the Peloponnesian levy at Leuctra, and by a brilliant victory on this site, due mainly to his daring innovations in the tactics of the heavy infantry, established at once the predominance of Thebes among the land-powers of Greece and his own fame as the greatest and most original of Greek generals.
At the instigation of the Peloponnesian states which armed against Sparta in consequence of this battle, Epaminondas in 370 BC led a large host into Laconia; though unable to capture Sparta he ravaged its territory and dealt a lasting blow at Sparta's predominance in Peloponnese by liberating the Messenians and rebuilding their capital at Messene.
Accused on his return to Thebes of having exceeded the term of his command, he made good his defence and was re-elected boeotarch. In 369 BC he forced the Isthmus lines and secured Sicyon for Thebes, but gained no considerable successes.
In the following year he served as a common soldier in Thessaly, and upon being reinstated in command contrived the safe retreat of the Theban army from a difficult position. Returning to Thessaly next year at the head of an army he procured the liberation of Pelopidas from the tyrant Alexander of Pherae without striking a blow.
In his third expedition (366 BC) to the Peloponnese, Epaminondas again eluded the Isthmus garrison and won over the Achaeans to the Theban alliance. Turning his attention to the growing maritime power of Athens, Epaminondas next equipped a fleet of 100 triremes, and during a cruise to the Propontis detached several states from the Athenian confederacy.
When subsequent complications threatened the position of Thebes in Peloponnese he again mustered a large army in order to crush the newly formed Spartan league (362 BC). After some masterly operations between Sparta and Mantinea, by which he nearly captured both these towns, he engaged in a decisive battle on the latter site (see Battle of Mantinea (362 BC)), and by his vigorous shock tactics gained a complete victory over his opponents. Epaminondas himself received a severe wound during the combat, and died soon after the issue was decided.
His title to fame rests mainly on his brilliant qualities both as a strategist and as a tactician; his influence on military art in Greece was of the greatest. For the purity and uprightness of his character he likewise stood in high repute; his culture and eloquence equalled the highest Attic standard. In politics his chief achievement was the final overthrow of Sparta's predominance in the Peloponnese; as a constructive statesman he displayed no special talent, and the lofty pan-Hellenic ambitions which are imputed to him at any rate never found a practical expression.
- The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny. (Victor Davis Hanson) Anchor Books, 1999.