A hero from an earlier age

Epaminondas in Cicero and Roman antiquity

Were ancient figures all that they were cracked up to be? A brief look at the historiography of Epaminondas should make us wary of accepting everything we read in our sources.

Joshua R. Hall

Regarding historical figures as heroes is no longer as uncomplicated as it once was, thanks largely to society becoming more critical, more inclusive, and more empathic. Thus, Confederate generals, or slave holding university donors of yesteryear, now haunt modern institutions and cultural groups like ghouls out-of-time. Many of these figures that are celebrated by a portion of the population (however small) have reached almost mythical status.

This phenomenon is not unique to the modern world. Historical exempla were important devices used by orators, philosophers, and historians in the ancient world. The high praise or vehement condemnation showered on certain figures has influenced their reception by modern authors. Critically assessing the judgments that we find in our ancient sources before forming our own opinions on major personalities is extremely important for our understanding of the figure in question, those who wrote about them, as well as how modern historical “heroes” became what they are to some people today.

Here, I wish to explore this phenomenon by looking at Cicero’s famous praise of the fourth-century-BC Theban leader Epaminondas, who was judged by the Roman senator to have been the “first man of the Greeks” (Tusc. 1.4). By reviewing Cicero’s judgment in tandem with an examination of our other sources for Epaminondas’ life, this article creates a better understanding of him as an historical personality and serves as a warning against the spirited worship of historical personalities in the contemporary world. (Although I have attempted to be comprehensive, this article does not contain a complete list of references for Epaminondas. For this, see Swodoba’s entry for Epaminondas in RE 10.2674-707, M. Fortina, Epaminonda (Turin, 1958), and G. Vottéro, “Grandeur et déchéance d’un héros: Épaminondas le thébain”, in: J. Dion (ed.), Le paradoxe du héros ou d’Homère à Malraux (Paris, 1999), 43-86.)

In particular, this article has been inspired by the recent panegyrical reception of Epaminondas by certain modern authors (e.g. V.D. Hanson, “Epaminondas the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War”, in: V.D. Hanson (ed.), Makers of Ancient Strategy: from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome (Princeton, 2010), 93-117, and V.D. Hanson, The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (New York, 1999), 17-120).

“The greatest man of Greece”

The starting point for our discussion is an often cited passage from Cicero’s Tusculanae Disputationes. In an introductory discussion about the pleasurable arts and entertainments, Epaminondas is cited as an example of a great and honourable Greek who was musically skilled. As an aside to this note, though, we are also told that “in [Cicero’s] judgment he was the greatest man of Greece” (Tusc. 1.4).

This passage is readily repeated by modern authors without so much as a second glance or a comment on its context (e.g. G.L. Cawkwell, “Epaminondas and Thebes”, Classical Quarterly 22.2 (1972), 254). Cicero had a deep and long lasting connection to the Greek world, from political dealings to his personal friends. Hellenes also had an enormous impact on his education (R.J. Rowland Jr., “Cicero and the Greek World”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 103 (1972), 451-461). Additionally, ten years before writing the Tusculanae Disputationes, Cicero expressed similar feelings. Referring to Epaminondas, Cicero wrote “do I not know of a greater man in all of Greece?” (De or. 1.139).

It appears, then, that his judgment did not change over the course of a decade. How did Cicero come to this conclusion? To find an answer to this question we must examine Cicero’s other statements about the Theban as well as those of other authors from the Roman period.

In one of his earliest works, Cicero lauds Epaminondas for refusing to give up command of the army after a great victory over the Spartans (Inv. rhet. 1.55-56, 69). Although his refusal ran against the letter of the law, as his motives were for the greater good of Thebes, it could be argued that he had not deviated from legality if the intent of the law was taken into account.

Cicero also praised Epaminondas for how he died. The Theban general perished on the field in the midst of his greatest victory and Sparta’s greatest defeat, the Battle of Mantinea. Cicero compared it to that of Publius Decius Mus and Leonidas of Sparta (Fin. 2.61-62). (On Decius Mus, see Livy 8.9, and on Leonidas see Herodotus 7.224. Although the heroic image of Publius Decius Mus may be a fabrication of the Roman historical tradition, a conclusion partly based on the repeated devotio of family members (Livy 8.9, 10.28; Cic. Fin. 2.61; Tusc. 1.89), there is no reason to doubt Late Republican awareness of its supposed glory; cf. T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC) (London, 1995), 348, H.S. Versnel, “Two Types of Roman devotio”, Mnemosyne 29.4 (1976), 365-410, H.S. Versnel, “Self-sacrifice, Compesnation and the Anonymous Gods”, in Le sacrifice dans l’antiquité (Geneva, 1981), 136-85, and A. Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History (Berkeley, 1998), 82-111).

Cicero claimed that only three or four other Greeks can be counted as having given their lives in such an admirable manner. Later, in the same work, Cicero compares the deaths of Epaminondas and Leonidas to that of Epicurus, who supposedly died after a long and painful kidney stone-caused blockage, but kept teaching to the end (Fin. 2.97-98; cf. Diog. Laert. 10.22). That Epaminondas’ death played an important role in Cicero’s thinking about him is reflected by its inclusion in almost every source we have for the former’s life and career (cf. Vottéro (above), 75 s.v. sa mort).

In his De Oratore, Cicero includes Epaminondas in a small group who should be described as proper “generals”. This is a select group of men who have been whittled out of the larger corpus of military commanders based on a number of criteria (H. van der Blom, Cicero’s Role Models: The Political Strategy of a Newcomer (Oxford, 2010), 65-72, discusses the importance of historical and personal exempla to Cicero’s method. Despite there obviously having been some reasoning behind his selection of exempla, Elizabeth Rawson warned us that “no one of course should look for loft critical standards to be exercised on the [exempla],” of Cicero; E. Rawson, “Cicero the Historian and Cicero the Antiquarian”, Journal of Roman Studies 62 (1972), 33-45. In some ways, the current paper is doing just that, looking for what critical thought, if any, we can detect which went into Cicero’s decision to call Epaminondas the princeps of the Greeks). Generals, according to Cicero, are not only responsible for the conduct of war and successful in its execution, but are “those men who are intellectually and theoretically masters” of the subjects of war (De or. 1.210).

He cites as examples Scipio Africanus, Fabius Maximus, Epaminondas, Hannibal, and “men of that type.” It is a pronouncement of how important Cicero perceived Epaminondas’ military career that he was included in this list. After all, Epaminondas only had two major victories to his name. It may be coincidental, but Timoleon, the great liberator of the Sicilian Greeks in the fourth century was said to have “most emulated” Epaminondas (Plut. Vit. Tim. 36.1-2). Cicero was an admirer of ancient Syracuse, and perhaps his affection for Epaminondas may have been influenced by that of Timoleon?

Why praise a man?

Cicero praised Epaminondas’ death and military prowess, but not his abilities in the civil sphere. He does not include Epaminondas in his list of men who used their knowledge to successfully guide their state (De or. 1.211). Admittedly, Cicero does not name any non-Romans in this category, but he does note that there are more examples he doesn’t lists, including some from outside of Rome. The inclusion of only Roman names may be indicative of Cicero’s methodology more than his actual opinions. (On exempla and the situational nature of their relevance, see R. Langlands, “Roman Exempla and Situation Ethics: Valerius Maximus and Cicero de Officiis”, Journal of Roman Studies 101 (2011), 100-22.) It would be inappropriate, however, to read Epaminondas into this statement.

While Cicero described Epaminondas as the greatest man of Greece, and used him as an historical exemplum next to some of the greatest Romans of the Republic, he is not a common Greek exemplar in the Ciceronian corpus. The most common historical figure from Hellenic history used by Cicero as an exemplum is Themistocles. Indeed, he is invoked more often than any other Greek (Van der Blom, op. cit., 213-216. On Cicero’s knowledge of the history of Themistocles, see E. Bréguet, “A propos de quelques exemples historiques dans le De re publica de Cicéron I, 3, 5-6”, Latomus 26.3 (1967), 597-608.) In his treatise on friendship, Cicero acknowledges the position and power of Themistocles in the Greek mind, and believed that it was by his hand that the Greeks were saved from the tyranny of the Persians (Amic. 42).

Themistocles’ status as saviour of Greece is perhaps what led Cicero, in the Academica posteriora, to describe Themistocles as Graeciae princeps, first man of the Greeks (Acad. post. 2.2). Thus, the two figures that Cicero describes in this way are both saviours of the Hellenes in one way or another, one from the Persians and the other from the hegemony of the Lacadaemonians. Cicero’s opinion of Themistocles, though, may have also been influenced by his perception of their similar fate. He seems to have seen Themistocles’ exile as a parallel to his own experiences (Cic. Brut. 41-43; Amic. 42; A. Lintott, Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion (Oxford, 2008), 215-17; van der Blom (above), 215. See also M. Griffin, “From Aristotle to Atticus: Cicero and Matius on Friendship”, in: J. Barnes and M. Griffin (eds.), Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome (Oxford, 1997), 86-109). Clearly, Cicero’s personal identification with the plight of the Athenian may have helped influenced his opinion about the man.

It is impossible to say which of these two figures Cicero held in more respect. Themistocles is cited more than Epaminondas. Cicero also had less in common with Epaminondas. And while there was much for him to admire about the Theban, it’s possible that Cicero’s opinion of him was primarily based on what other people wrote and said. Perhaps we can trace Cicero’s attitude towards Epaminondas back to certain philosophers, who often spoke of him and were figures with whom Cicero readily identified (Fin. 2.67; G. Striker, “Cicero and Greek Philosophy”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 97 (1995), 53-61).

But if Epaminondas was a constant topic of conversation for philosophers and an idol for Cicero, he does not seem to have been a well-known figure for less educated, or perhaps less Hellenized, Romans. (He may not have been a universally known figure even in the Greek world. There is reason to believe that the people of Pursa, in Bithynia, in the first century AD, were not familiar with his story. Dio Chrysostom was forced to give a rather detailed introduction to the character of Epaminondas when addressing the community (Or. 43.4-5). This point was noticed by H. Lamar Crosby in his 1946 Loeb translation. Although this is evidence that the people of Pursa were unfamiliar with the history of Epaminondas, Dio Chrysostom actually preserves some elements of the legend not found elsewhere, but also a number of factual errors, see Vottéro (n. 1), 67.)

Cornelius Nepos, a contemporary of Cicero, was forced to write a qualifying statement in the opening of his life of Epaminondas, warning his Roman readers that they could not judge his accomplishments by their own cultural standards, as those of the Greeks were different (Epam. 1). This warning could be connected to Nepos’ purpose in writing the lives of the foreign generals, although that purpose is not entirely clear. It could also be reflective of his audience, who were probably a more general swathe of Roman society than that of Cicero (J. Beneker, “Nepos’ Biographical Method in the Lives of Foreign Generals”, The Classical Journal 105.2 (2009), 190-21. See also T. Hägg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2012), 187-238). Regardless, this warning is indicative of an audience that was not well acquainted with the character of Epaminondas (F.C. Thomes, Egemonia Beotica e Potenza marittima nella politica di Epaminonda (Turin, 1952), 10, suggested that Nepos may have used, or essentially copied, a eulogy of Epaminondas for his biography. If this is the case, it is possible that the preface may have been present in a copy of this circulating in Rome, though this is simply conjecture and seems improbable).

Nepos’ introduction is even more revealing when compared with that of his biography of Pelopidas, Epaminondas’ contemporary in the hegemony of Thebes. The biographer presumed that the Romans who would have been acquainted with Pelopidas were those with a knowledge of history, rather than the masses (Pelop. 1). These types of comments are unique to these two biographies within the extant corpus. It is clear that the figures of Epaminondas and Pelopidas were more obscure than the other Greek generals. Unlike Cicero, Nepos does not show exceptional affection towards Epaminondas. It is the Athenian general Thrasybulus who he ranked above other Greeks (Thras. 1). (In general, he wrote most highly of tyrant slayers throughout his biographies. See: A.C. Dionsiotti, “Nepos and the Generals”, Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), 35-49.)

This is not to say that Nepos did not portray Epaminondas in a favourable light. He does show him to be an exceptional historical personality. For Nepos, the highlight of his life was not in a military victory or in his glorious death, but rather in his acquittal when being tried for not giving up his command (R. Stem, The Political Biographies of Cornelius Nepos (Ann Arbor, 2012), 163-201).

Other authors could also put Epaminondas forth as a worthy exemplum, such as Dio Chrysostom (T. Schmidt, “L’Histoire au secours du politique: Épaminondas comme exemplum dans les Discours bithyniens de Dion Chrysostome”, Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, supplément 8 (2013), 379-96). Obviously, which figures from Greek history a Roman author saw as being the “greatest” was subjective, and as we have just seen even contemporaries and friends, such as Cicero and Nepos had differing opinions.

Other writers on Epaminondas

While Cicero praised Epaminondas’ sacrifice and Nepos his legal victory, in the early decades of the Principate we see a different emphasis on his qualities which highlighted his wartime deeds. His military accomplishments are well represented in the Strategemata of Frontinus. Exploits of the Theban commander are mentioned twelve times in the handbook (1.11.6, 16; 1.12.5, 6, 7; 2.2.12; 2.5.26; 3.2.7; 3.11.5; 3.12.3; 4.2.6; 4.3.6). This is three times the number of anecdotes related about Themistocles (1.1.10; 1.3.6; 2.2.14; 2.6.8), four more mentions than those of Alcibiades (2.5.44, 45; 2.7.6; 3.2.6; 3.6.6; 3.9.6; 3.11.3; 3.12.1) and Agesilaus (1.4.2, 3; 1.8.12; 1.10.3; 1.11.5, 17; 2.6.6; 3.11.2), and two less than the number of anecdotes about Alexander the Great (1.3.1; 1.4.9, 9a; 1.7.7; 1.11.14; 2.3.19; 2.5.10, 17; 2.11.3, 6; 3.7.4; 4.2.4; 4.3.10; 4.6.3).

Frontinus must have considered the military exploits of Epaminondas to have been quite impressive that he cites them as many times as he did in the Strategemata. It is possible that this was a result of frequent citations of these deeds in earlier strategic handbooks which are no longer extant. How faithfully historical facts were transmitted to Frontinus, or recorded by him, remains unclear. In a number of instances where we can check the exploits attributed to Epaminondas against other sources, it seems that we need to exercise caution when reading Frontinus (e.g. Strategemata 1.12.5 vs Diodorus Siculus 15.52.6-7).

Later Imperial authors give us a wider view of Epaminondas than his military exploits. Claudius Aelianus, although writing in Greek, was born in Praeneste and probably had a bias towards the literature circulating in Rome during his life. Epaminondas appears often in his Varia Historia. The Theban is first praised for his poverty, a common cause of admiration, alongside a number of other Greeks, such as Aristides, Phocion, Pelopidas, Lamachus, Socrates, and Ephialtes (VH 2.43). Epaminondas is noted for his poverty twice more (VH 5.5; 11.9). (The obscurity of Epaminondas’ father is perhaps also to be included in this list, VH 12.43.) His indifference to money was also noted by Nepos (Epam. 4). His modesty was praised further than other authors by Athenaeus (11.13).

Aelian noted Epaminondas’ militaristic side twice. In a list of the qualities most associated with historical figures from the Greek world he assigns oration to Demosthenes, magnanimousness to Agesilaus, boasting to Alcibiades, but warlike (stratêgikos) to Epaminondas (VH 4.16). This is a similar sentiment to Cicero naming him as one of the few men to be considered as a true general.

Against the background of Greek history, a general with but two major victories attributed to him seems like an odd figure to have made such an impact on the opinions of later authors. Aelian went on to note Epaminondas in a list of philosophers who went to war, of which there are many noted, such as Socrates and Xenophon. But it is only Epaminondas whom he says “became the first man of the Greeks” (VH 7.14). This is reminiscent of Cicero’s judgment. Aelian, though, also described Epaminondas as a statesman who was also a philosopher (VH 3.17). His philosophical side was also noted by Cicero (Off. 1.155).

Justin’s epitome of Pompeius Trogus preserved much of the history of Epaminondas. The epitome attributes the rise of Thebes from a humble condition to one of prominence to Epaminondas in its introduction to him (Epit. 6.4). There is no mention of the probably fabricated stratagem of watch-fires during the Mantinea campaign (Epit. 6.7). He also repeats a historically questionable version of Epaminondas’ death. In this version, the Theban general died a number of days after suffering his wounds at Mantinea (Epit. 6.8); other sources (e.g. Diod. Sic. 15.87) record that he died on the field. Clearly, Trogus (via Justin) had received a slightly different tradition than other authors. The general characterization of Epaminondas in Justin, however, fits well with the picture of Epaminondas as an eminent philosopher and an accomplished military commander (Epit. 7.5).

In search of the sources

We know little about how the story of Epaminondas was transmitted to the Roman world. Xenophon’s relative silence must have been problematic for elite Romans who, like Cicero, admired the Athenian author. Cicero cites Xenophon many times, often as a source of Socratic knowledge (e.g. Nat. D. 1.32; 2.18; Fam. 5.12.3), and had clearly read some of the treatises, such as the Cyropaedia (Leg. 2.56).

Cicero gave considerable praise to Xenophon, in one instance claiming that the Muses spoke with the voice of Xenophon (Orat. 62). He begged his readers to learn Xenophon with studious care, as his writings were very instructive on many subjects, citing first the Oeconomicos (Sen. 59). It is also evident that he had read the historical works (e.g. Div. 1.52-53; cf. Xen. An. 3.1.11; 4.3.8). Cicero followed Xenophon to some extent for the Battle of Leuctra (cf. Off. 1.84; Xen. Hell. 6.4.4-6), but also gleaned knowledge of the event from Callisthenes (Div. 1.74).

Although Xenophon paid little attention to Epaminondas, other near-contemporary historians probably did. Two Boeotians – Dionysodorus and Anaxis – wrote histories that covered the Greek world to the 360s BC (Diod. Sic. 15.95.4). Unfortunately, the men are simply names to us; we have no fragments or other attestations of their work. Presumably, they would have written flatteringly of Epaminondas, a fellow Boeotian.

The history of Ephorus covered the period of Epaminondas’ life and probably wrote favourably of Epaminondas, calling him the greatest man of his time (Diod. Sic. 15.88). He was favourable towards Thebes in general, and also wrote a eulogy of Epaminondas’ contemporary, Pelopidas (Diod. Sic. 15.81). Nepos probably used this in writing his biography of Pelopidas, and was likely also influenced by Theopompus and the other major historians who wrote near to Epaminondas’ lifetime (J.R. Bradley, The Sources of Cornelius Nepos (New York, 1991)). The intellectual links between Nepos and Cicero mean that the latter probably read the same authors (L.J. Sanders, The Legend of Dion (Toronto, 2008), 72-4 n. 160, lays out the relevant discussion).

Cicero tells us that Epaminondas was constantly on the lips of philosophers, perhaps of his time, but almost certainly of earlier periods as well. We know from Athenaeus that Clearchus was critical of Epaminondas’ relations with women, and perhaps this is evidence that he was a common topic of discussion amongst the Peripatetics (13.58). (This has been suggested, as well, by G. Shrimpton, “Plutarch’s Life of Epaminondas”, Pacific Coast Philology 6 (1971), 55-9, who cites four Peripatetic fragments which mention Epaminondas.)

There is reason to believe, as well, that biographical, and likely moralizing, works about Epaminondas existed by the Roman period. Diogenes Laertius knew of an author named Xenophon, an Athenian (though not the famous historian and philosopher), whose works included a biography of Epaminondas (2.6.59).

Cicero knew of a panegyric written for Epaminondas, listed amongst a number of others, including those written for Themistocles, Aristides, Agesilaus, Philip, and Alexander (De or. 2.341). It is notable that he does not mention that of Epaminondas when advising his audience to read those of Roman heroes rather than only those of Greek heroes, perhaps indicating that Cicero would not have recommended everyone to read it (Fin. 2.116).

The panegyric of Epaminondas is also omitted from a list of prominent figures who were preserved for later generations by certain authors. Cicero lists, as author and subject, Xenophon and Agesilaus, Timaeus and Timoleon, and Herodotus and Themistocles (Fam. 5.12). This may mean that the author of this panegyric was not respected or perhaps that he was simply not as widely known in Rome. Either of these possibilities would help to explain the comments of Cornelius Nepos in the introduction to his biography.

However little we have of the biographical, panegyrical, and historical tradition surrounding Epaminondas, it is obvious that it was comprised of a number of works with slightly different details. Nepos’ Epaminondas is clearly an orator. A number of speeches are attributed to him throughout the biography and it is upon his expert skill that he occasionally relies to achieve a goal. Diodorus (15.38.3, 54.4; 15.78.4) and Athenaeus (14.64) also knew of his oratory abilities. Cicero, though, only had suspicions, and no confirmation, that Epaminondas was a great orator (Brut. 50). It is interesting that between Nepos and Cicero there could be a divergence of confidence such as this. It seems unlikely that Cicero would have held back praise if the sources he trusted for Epaminondas’ life gave an indication of his oratory skill.

Closing remarks

How did Cicero come to his opinion of Epaminondas? He praised Epaminondas’ heroic death and military leadership, and was clearly impressed that he was often mentioned in discussions between philosophers. But what we know of Cicero’s process that led to Epaminondas being named as “the greatest of the Greeks” makes clear that it was based on relatively little.

In fact, Cicero wasn’t even aware of at least one quality known to others: Epaminondas’ oratory prowess. His judgment seems to have been based on a number of panegyrical pieces, written no doubt to encourage the heroization of Epaminondas, and perhaps focusing only on the most spectacular of his exploits: the glory he won on the battlefield.

Xenophon, whom Cicero held in high regard, almost entirely overlooked the figure of Epaminondas. Instead, Cicero seems to have relied on authors who had deliberately elaborated on the Theban’s story, an exercise that was common in educational settings in the ancient world (C.A. Gibson, “Learning Greek History in the Ancient Classroom: The Evidence of the Treatises on Progymnasmata”, Classical Philology 99.2 (2004), 103-29, at 111). Tellingly, Aelius Theon used Epaminondas’ death as an example of how and when an event may be expanded upon by an author (103-104 S = 21-22 K). Corruptions could have crept into the historical record through this or a similar process.

Cicero was no doubt influenced by the affinity he felt towards a “fellow” philosopher-leader. While it is interesting to point this out for those interested in Cicero’s thinking, it is as important when we shift our thinking back to the contemporary world. If a great thinker such as Cicero could come to a conclusion so jejunely, what should we make of the heroization of figures from our more recent history? How much of these opinions were formed by reading authors who knowingly elaborated the stories of historical figures?