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Epaminondas › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 22 March 2016
Greek Victory (The Creative Assembly)
Epaminondas (or Epameinondas, c. 420 - 362 BCE) was a Theban general who famously defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE. The daring and brilliant pre-meditated tactics of Epaminondas earned a decisive victory over Sparta and established Thebes as the most powerful city-state in Greece. Epaminondas once again employed innovative tactics in his final battle at Mantinea in 362 BCE, effectively using mixed troops to bring a victory he himself did not live to enjoy. Shortly after the fall of their great general, so too, fell the Theban empire.


Born around 420 BCE, Epaminondas was the son of Polymis. According to the historian Diodoros, he came from an aristocratic but poor family and never married. Epaminondas studied Pythagorean philosophy and rhetoric under Lysis of Tarentum. Unfortunately, Plutarch ’s biography of Epaminondas does not survive but the Greek historian does describe an episode in his biography of the contemporary Theban general Pelopidas. The two fought side by side around Mantinea in 385 BCE and Epaminondas, although twice wounded, fought desperately to protect his even more badly wounded compatriot, saving his life.
When Sparta seized Kadmeia in 382 BCE, Epaminondas was exiled but in 379 BCE he was able to return to Thebes.Epaminondas was elected Boeotarch (one of seven leading federal officials) and participated in the Spartan peace negotiations of 371 BCE where he argued with the Spartan king Agesilaus over Thebe's right to represent all her allies in Boeotia. Epaminondas stormed out of the conference in protest. Known as an austere and principled leader – he was said to have owned only a single cloak and so was confined to his house on washday - Epaminondas' diplomacy skills may have been lacking but he would soon prove to be the most innovative and successful general Thebes had ever had and one of Greece's finest ever commanders. As Xenophon states, "in terms of preparation and boldness, the man was second to none" and he "led is army forward like a trireme " ( Hellenika, 7.5).



In the early 4th century BCE, the Greek poleis or city -states, following a century of mutually damaging on-off conflicts which included the Peloponnesian War, had established an uneasy peace but as ever-ambitious Sparta called for the Boeotian Confederacy led by Thebes to be abolished, war seemed once again on the horizon. Thebes quite naturally rejected the Spartan demands, a reaction not unexpected as is evidenced by the fact that Sparta had already mobilised their army and taken a position on the western border of Boeotia before the Thebans gave their answer. The two sides would meet in battle at Leuctra not far from Thebes itself.


Sparta and its allies were led by King Cleombrotus. Their army consisted of 10,000 men and 1,000 cavalry. Thebes, led by Epaminondas, had at its disposal some 7,000 hoplites which included the 300 members of the elite Sacred Band, a unit of homoerotic pairs who swore to defend their lovers to the death and who at Leuctra were led by the gifted and charismatic Pelopidas. The Thebans also had 600 cavalry who, battle-hardened, were probably the best in Greece at that time. In addition, there was a small force of light infantry ( hamippoi ) who were armed with javelins and supported the cavalry.
Some of the Theban commanders at first thought it prudent to retreat behind the walls of Thebes and invite a siege rather than face the fearsome Spartans on the open battlefield. However, Epaminondas persuaded them otherwise. Always able to use propaganda and imagery to boost morale, Epaminondas recalled the notorious rape of two local virgins by two Spartans at Leuctra. The two victims had committed suicide in shame, and a monument in their memory had been set up. Epaminondas made sure suitable homage was paid to this monument before the battle, and another symbolic gesture he was credited with was the brandishing of a snake in front of his troops. Epaminondas said that by striking the head of the snake - the Spartan army - the whole snake would die - Spartan dominance of Greece.


The first action was a brief skirmish between Theban non-combatants (baggage porters, merchants etc.) and a Spartan force led by Hieron. The Thebans were forced to re-join the main force but Hieron was killed. Cleombrotus then positioned his troops in the traditional phalanx formation of heavily armoured hoplites 12 men deep with two wings. Cleombrotus himself, surrounded by his elite hippeis (300-man bodyguard), took up position on the left side of the right wing.
Battle of Leuctra, 371 BCE

Battle of Leuctra, 371 BCE

Epaminondas was much more innovative and put his cavalry and light infantry in front of his own phalanx formation. Rejecting the convention of making one's right wing the strongest, he made his left wing extraordinarily deep - 50 ranks of men - and made his lines narrower than the Spartans. The Sacred Band was also positioned on the left wing with the Boeotian allies being stationed on the right wing, 8-12 men deep.
Cleombrotus responded to this surprising development by re-organising his own lines, moving his cavalry out front and extending his line in an effort to outflank Epaminondas' left wing. This relatively complex series of battle manoeuvres exposed Cleombrotus' immediate left side, and as the Spartan cavalry were no match for the Thebans who soon routed them, the Spartan horsemen were forced back onto their own lines and through the gap which had opened on Cleombrotus' left. The Thebans followed them through this gap and proceeded to create chaos in the Spartan formation. Epaminondas, meanwhile, attacked at an angle towards the left so that, in effect, Cleombrotus was being pushed away from his own line. Epaminondas' attack was also conducted with his own right wing slightly in arrears in an echelon formation (hence Xenophon's 'trireme' allusion) to protect his own exposed flank as he attacked the Spartan hippeis. At this point, Pelopidas and the Sacred Band also attacked Cleombrotus' position resulting in the fatal wounding of the Spartan king and the complete defeat of the Spartan right. The Spartans lost 400 of their 700 hoplites, a huge blow from which they would never fully recover.


Thebes had won and was now the most powerful polis in Greece. After 200 years of victories on land, the myth of Sparta's military invincibility was finally smashed. The strategies that Epaminondas had employed in the battle were not entirely new, but in the past they had been used more out of necessity rather than planning, and no one had ever combined them to create such a winning formula. The massively strengthened left wing, the use of cavalry in front of the hoplite lines, attacking at an angle, employing an echelon formation, and going for a direct frontal attack on the opposing commander's position were, collectively, the most innovative and devastating pre-meditated military strategy ever seen in Greek warfare and the defeat of mighty Sparta shocked the Greek world. Naturally, Epaminondas was feted as a military genius and promptly re-elected Boeotarch for 370 BCE.


Sparta's defeat led to the disintegration of the Peloponnesian League and the complete upheaval of the status quo in Greece. Athens called for a peace conference in late 371 BCE but Thebes refused, perpetuating the power struggle between various Greek poleis which had bedevilled Greece for the last century or more. Athens even sided with its old enemy Sparta, but Thebes continued its expansionist policies. Epaminondas campaigned in the Peloponnese to promote the independence of cities from Sparta to ensure the city did not rise again to its previous prominence.
Map of Greece under Theban Hegemony

Map of Greece under Theban Hegemony

Unusually, Epaminondas did not extract tribute from defeated cities or sell battlefield captives into slavery. He famously established the city of new Messene and had fortifications built to withstand Spartan attack, a move which further undermined Sparta's traditional source of manpower and wealth in Laconia. For the same purpose another new city was built, Megalopolis.
In 369 BCE Epaminondas' fortunes took a U-turn, as, in conflict with the Theban government over his policies in the Peloponnese, he was tried for treason. The general was accused of continuing his command beyond his term of office and criticised for not sacking Sparta itself but the charges were later dropped. However, he was not re-elected as Boeotarch. Back, then, as an ordinary hoplite legend has it, Epaminondas was called upon and successfully saved the Theban army from a disaster in Thessaly in 368 BCE. Seeing a weakness in these Theban political divisions, Lykomedes of Mantinea took the opportunity to challenge Theban dominance in the Peloponnese.
Meanwhile, in 367 BCE Epaminondas, back as a Boeotarch again, led a successful expedition to Thessaly where he freed his fellow general Pelopidas from Alexander of Pherai. When the tyrant had heard Epaminondas was on his way north it was said "He cowered slave-like, as a beaten cock. That lets its feathers droop, (Plutarch, 96)" such was the Theban general's fearsome reputation.
Then in 366 BCE, with the backing of Persia, Epaminondas sought to finally defeat Athens by building a Theban fleet. By 364 BCE, 100 ships had been built and with these Epaminondas harassed the Athenian empire but with little lasting effect.Meanwhile, in the Peloponnese fighting continued between the Eleans and Arcadians, the latter being defeated and their confederation disbanded.


Then, in 362 BCE, Epaminondas once more led the Theban army and defeated a Spartan and Athenian alliance at the battle of Mantinea in northeast Arcadia in 362 BCE. The battle was perhaps the first effective use of mixed troops in Greek warfare.First the Theban cavalry along with light infantry ( hamippoi ) attacked and were then supported by the heavy hoplite infantry on the left flank. The Thebans won but Epaminondas himself was killed in the battle, and such was the glory of felling the great general that a man from each of the allies of Sparta, Athens, and Mantinea claimed it was their spear that had done the deed.
There next followed a damaging struggle amongst Epaminondas' successors and despite the continued weakness of Athens and Sparta, the short-lived Theban dominance of Greece came to an end. The Greek cities, weakened by in-fighting, were now ripe for conquest, a situation Philip II of Macedonia would take full advantage of in 338 BCE.

Enryakuji › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 01 June 2017
Bell Tower, Enryakuji (663highland)
The Enryakuji is a Buddhist monastic complex on the sacred Mt. Hiei, near Kyoto, Japan. The site was selected by the monk Saicho to become the headquarters of the Tendai sect, which he founded in Japan in the early 9th century CE.Enryakuji became one of the great seats of learning and had 20-25,000 residents at its peak. Systematically destroyed in the 16th century CE after it had become a troublesome military stronghold, many of its buildings have since been restored and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Saicho (767-822 CE) was a monk who became disillusioned with the increasing worldliness in Buddhism, and so, in 785 CE, he decided to live as an ascetic hermit on the slopes of Mount Hiei (Hieizan) near Kyoto. There, in 788 CE, he built the first shrine of what would later become the huge temple complex. He began to study all he could on every variation of Buddhism and to attract followers, and in 798 CE Saicho began what became a major series of annual lectures on Mount Hiei. The monk then visited Tang China in 804 CE, studied different branches of Buddhism there and returned with a mass of manuscripts and ritual objects to begin spreading the word in Japan.


Saicho sought to simplify the teachings of Buddhism and so he founded the eclectic Tendai Sect (Tendaishu), which was based on the Chinese Tiantai Sect and the Lotus Sutra (the last teachings of Buddha, aka the Hokekyo). Saicho believed that the best and quickest way to reach enlightenment was through esoteric ritual, that is rites which only the priesthood and initiated had access to. At the same time, the teachings of the Lotus Sutra allowed for many different ways to reach enlightenment.
Tendai Buddhism was eventually given royal approval and Mt. Hiei considered the protector of the north-eastern side of the then capital Heiankyo (Kyoto), the side of the city with the Devil's Gate which was thought especially vulnerable to attack from evil spirits. On his death in 822 CE, Saicho was given the honorary title Dengyo Daishi and considered a bodhisattva, that is, one who has reached nirvana but remains on earth to guide others. In 823 CE the Tendai sect was officially recognised as an independent sect by the emperor.
Saicho (Dengyo Daishi)

Saicho (Dengyo Daishi)


The headquarters of Tendai Buddhism at Enryakuji, as it became known from 824 CE (named after the name of Emperor Kammu ’s reign period: Enryaku ), became even more popular after its founder's death and, as Tendai encouraged the study of all Buddhist texts, the complex became a major seat of learning in Japan, boasting up to 3,000 buildings and 25,000 residents in its heyday. Many great names in Buddhism studied at Enryakuji including, Eisai (1141-1215 CE), who established Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Japan; Dogen (1200-1253 CE), who further spread Zen Buddhism; Nichiren (1222-1282 CE), who founded the sect named after him; Ippen (1239-1289 CE), founder of the Ji sect; Honen (1133-1212 CE), the founder of the Pure Land sect; and Shinran (1173-1262 CE), the most influential disciple of Honen.



Enryakuji did not enjoy the peaceful existence one would suppose of a monastery, and the site was attacked several times by rival temples and warlords, famously warding off an army of 20,000 men from the Nara temple of Kofukuji in 1113 CE. This was because the monks frequently meddled in politics and many times warrior monks ( sohei ) descended from their retreat on Mt. Hiei to demonstrate in, or even attack, the capital. The Emperor Go-Shirakawa (r. 1155-1158 CE), according to the Heikemonogatari, famously said, “Three things refuse to obey my will: the waters of the Kamo River, the fall of backgammon dice, and the monks of Enryakuji Temple” (Whitney Hall, 683).
Nevertheless, Enryakuji prospered for the next few centuries and, like many other monasteries around the world, it did rather well on sales of alcohol (sake in this case) and the monks had a nice sideline going in moneylending, issuing business licenses, accepting bribes for tax exemptions on their land, and even a protection racket. The temple site had its religious rivals, too, notably the Miidera temple (aka Onjoji) near Lake Biwa. The rivalry gave rise to a myth involving the legendary and giant warrior monk Benkei who was said to have sauntered over to Miidera in his famous black-lacquered armour and pinched their large bronze bell. When he returned to Enryakuji with his prize the abbot admonished him for his impropriety, and so Benkei sent it all the way back to Miidera with a single nonchalant kick. In another version of the myth, the bell was only kicked back to its rightful owners because it refused to ring in its new home and would only toll "I want to return to Miidera." As a reward for his deed, Benkei was allowed to eat a great meal, and the cauldron he ate from is still to be seen at the complex today, teeth marks and all.
Konponchudo, Enryakuji

Konponchudo, Enryakuji

The monastery met its greatest disaster in 1571 CE when it was systematically destroyed by Oda Nobunaga, the feudal warlord or daimyo. Nobunaga was concerned at the power of the monastery of Enryakuji and its large army of warrior monks who still descended from the mountain whenever they felt they were not receiving their share of state handouts. Nobunaga solved the problem by having his troops surround the slopes of Mt. Hiei and setting fire to the forest. Thousands were killed, including women and children, as they tried to escape the blaze and the sacred site was burnt to the ground. Fortunately for future generations, Enryakuji was restored to its former glory from 1595 CE onwards.


Enryakuji has three distinct precincts spread over several kilometres across the mountain's wooded slopes: Yokawa, To-to (Eastern Pagoda), the area first settled by Saicho, and Sai-to (Western Pagoda). The most important building at the site is the Konponchudo which was built on the site of Saicho's first hut on the mountain, now the Eastern Precinct. The present version is a reconstruction dating to 1642 CE. Inside is an altar and ever-burning flame, said to have been lit since the site's foundation. The Daikodo or Great Lecture Hall has many portraits of Enryakuji's famous alumni. Next to the Great Lecture Hall stands the Bell of Good Fortune suspended in its own roofed structure. Other buildings in the To-to precinct include the reconstructed Kaidan-in or Ordination Hall, which was built to replace an older building commemorating the recognition of the Tendai sect by the emperor in the 9th century CE, the Amida Hall which was rebuilt in 1937 CE and has a two-storey pagoda, and the Monju-ro Gate.
Ordination Hall, Enryakuji

Ordination Hall, Enryakuji

The Chu-do or Central Hall of the Yokawa precinct was built in the 9th century CE by the renowned monk and abbot of Enryakuji, Ennin, but later destroyed by a lightning strike. It was rebuilt in 1971 CE. The most important structure in the Western Precinct is the Shakado, which was moved from its original location at the Miidera temple in 1595 CE and originally built by Saicho's disciple Encho. Between the Sai-to and To-to precincts, nestling in the forest is the tomb of Saicho and the Jodo-in or Worship Hall. As Tendai Buddhism recognises the existence of Shinto kami or spirits, there are several small Shinto shrines dotted around the complex, many dedicated to Oyamakui, the Shinto spirit of Mt. Hiei, and several torii or sacred gates.
This article was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Mithridates' Poison Elixir: Fact or Fiction? › Antique Origins

Ancient Civilizations

by Marc Hyden
published on 02 June 2016
King Mithridates VI of Pontus, also known as Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus and Mithridates the Great (135–63 BCE, r. 120-63 BCE) was a dogged Roman foe for much of his life. In 88 BCE, he orchestrated the mass killing of up to 150,000 Roman and Italian noncombatants in a single day, if the number of victims Plutarch gave is to be believed, and over the course of decades, he was embroiled in intermittent, bitter conflicts with the Roman Republic. Mithridates' relentless attempts at empire building and his pugnacious foreign policy ensured his place in the annals of history, but his rampant paranoia and obsession with toxicology also guaranteed that his name would forever be associated with poison.
Mithridates Silver Tetradrachm

Mithridates Silver Tetradrachm


For most of his life, Mithridates understandably worried that he was the target of homicidal plots. Given that royal court intrigues were relatively commonplace in the ancient East, his concerns were probably well founded. Consequently, as Mithridates grew older, he sought to fortify himself against assassination attempts. He exercised to increase his strength, carried a weapon, and dabbled with toxicology. According to legend, Mithridates studiously researched and examined all known toxins and experimented with potential remedies by using prisoners as his guinea pigs. Supposedly, Mithridates' toils paid off because numerous ancient authors, including Pliny the Elder, claimed that he created and regularly ingested a universal antidote for all identified toxins, and it became known as mithridate (mithridatium).


Ancients and moderns alike have diligently attempted to discover Mithridates' panacea, and in fact, purported versions of the Pontic monarch's elixir have existed for thousands of years. But was Mithridates' theriac real, and if so, what were the ingredients? According to Pliny the Elder, the concoction was an amalgamation of over 50 different additives, and allegedly, all of the ingredients were ground into powder, mixed with honey, and formed into almond-sized chewable tablets. However, many of the elements probably acted differently. It has been theorized that Mithridates may have cleverly included miniscule amounts of arsenic, venoms, and other poisons to immunize his body to the deadly toxins. It is possible that he also added additional components to render other poisons impotent, but unfortunately, the original recipe now appears to be hopelessly lost.


While many have sought to unearth Mithridates' cure-all potion, few have actually taken the time to doubt the veracity of Mithridates and the ancient authors' assertions. What if Mithridates' panacea was an elaborate ruse meant to persuade his enemies that all poisoning attempts were futile? Mithridates did not conceal his love for toxicology nor did he try to suppress the purported fact that he was in possession of mithridate. He supposedly even publicly ingested fatal doses of poison to prove his invention's efficacy. What a great way to demonstrate to his enemies that he was impervious to toxins! But was he actually consuming poison or a similar looking benign substance? Moderns may never know with certainty, but it seems incredibly likely that he was not hazardously sprinkling lethal doses of poison on his food.
If Mithridates really did possess a panacea, then the wise king would have prudently kept that knowledge a guarded secret.First of all, many others would wish to steal the recipe from him, and considering that Mithridates had a propensity towards poisoning his foes, he would have had good reason to hide his theriac from his adversaries. Secondly, by keeping the concoction a secret, he could find out who his foes were after their failed attempts to assassinate him using toxins. However, instead of keeping the mithridate's existence confidential, it became widely known, which ostensibly halted many of his enemies' assassination attempts. This was probably part of the shrewd king's plans all along. What is the next best thing to having a cure-all antitoxin? Publicly lying about having a cure-all antitoxin to make poisoning attempts seem pointless.
It seems that Mithridates' personal theriac must have either been inadequate or a hoax because he always kept a fatal helping of poison in his sword's hilt in case he decided to kill himself. If he was immune to all toxins, then why did he carry a suicidal dose? Perhaps it was the only poison without a cure. Maybe his panacea only worked if he took it on a daily basis, or quite possibly, the universal antidote was a complete sham.
Crater of Mithridates Eupator

Crater of Mithridates Eupator

There are still other deficiencies in the Mithridatium myth. In order to build immunity against certain poisons, it has been asserted that Mithridates consumed small amounts of arsenic and possibly venoms, which may have been included in his chewable tablets, and while this could work in theory, the results would probably have been disastrous. Without modern expertise in dosing, Mithridates would have likely killed himself eventually. If he did not die from accidently consuming a lethal dose, then the effect on his body after years of ingesting toxins would have been severe. Mithridates enjoyed partaking in eating and drinking contests. In fact, he boasted that he could outdrink anyone in his kingdom, which would have left the monarch who lived into his seventies with debilitating liver damage. The combination of a lifetime of binge drinking and consuming toxins would have left his organs in tatters. If he really did drink to a great extent and repeatedly poison himself, then he likely would not have reached the ancient world's ripe old age of seventy-one.


Those who believe that Mithridates did discover an effective, comprehensive antitoxin claim that the king's botched suicide is proof. In 63 BC, as it became clear that his life was doomed, he attempted suicide by ingesting poison, but he failed to die as a result. It is likely that he only possessed one dose, and he shared the single helping with his two daughters. Yes, the princesses died, and he only became ill. However, it should be noted that he was a large and powerfully built man, and his daughters were likely much smaller, which could explain why the leftover poison was not enough to smite Mithridates. At least a full dose would have been required for a man of his size.
Nevertheless, Mithridates did die but with the help of a blade, and his adherents cared for his corpse and even embalmed it.However, when Pompey the Great arrived to inspect the body, Mithridates' face had decomposed to such a degree that he was unrecognizable. Supposedly, his attendants didn't remove the brain, which allegedly caused the decay, but if Mithridates had spent much of his life consuming small amounts of arsenic, which is a potent preservative, then would his body really have decomposed so quickly? It seems unlikely.
Even though it is doubtful that the Pontic King ever invented an effective and universal panacea, that does not mean that he did not try or even take certain precautions against poisonings. Mithridates was clearly fascinated by toxicology, but the field of study was primitive at the time. There were undoubtedly some known cures for certain ancient toxins, and the intelligent king may have even discovered a few remedies himself. He probably combined and consumed these meager antidotes in Pontus' version of a multi-vitamin, but it likely was not very effective nor was it comprehensive, which the monarch surely understood.However, this would have left someone as paranoid as Mithridates wholly unsatisfied. He probably continued funding research in a desperate attempt to find a universal cure while bragging that he already had obtained it to ward off any attempts on his life. Considering that he was never assassinated by poison, his ploy seems to have been successful.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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