At the beginning of the 4th Century BC, the cities of Thebes and Sparta were engaged in perpetual dispute and sporadic warfare as the Spartans sought to maintain their position as the predominant Greek city-state and the Thebans struggled to expand their autonomy.
One of the issues between the two powers was the region of Boeotia, at the time under the sway of Thebes. Matters came to a head when a group of Boeotian city-states appealed to Sparta to free them from the Theban yoke (surely a case of asking the lion to save you from the leopard) and the Spartans demanded the Thebans disband their army of occupation accordingly. To no one’s surprise, the Thebans declined to oblige, and so the Spartan King Cleombrotus marched to war from Phocis, where he and his army had been reminding the Phocisians of how loyal they were to their Spartan overlords. Rather than take the expected, easy route into Boeotia through the usual defile, the Spartans marched over the hills via Thisbae and took the fortress of Creusis (along with twelve Theban warships) before the Thebans were aware of their presence. Cleombrotus then marched up the coast and made camp at Leuctra. The Thebans, under their General, Epaminondas, advanced to meet them.
Both commanders were under some pressure to give battle.
Cleombrotus had, in the past, been accused of being too soft on the Thebans, and knew that this was probably his last chance to disprove the allegation before being replaced by someone with an even more bellicose attitude towards them.
Epaminondas, for his part, knew that any show of weakness would result in support from Thebes’ allies leaking away; and that the city of Thebes itself could ill withstand another siege. His men had also had their morale bolstered by the fact that any battle, if one was to be fought now, would take place at a site where an oracle had predicted the “Lacedaemonians would be defeated” after some Theban women had committed suicide at the spot after being “outraged” by rampaging Spartan-types.
The two armies met on the open ground at the base of the hill on which the Spartans had encamped.
The Spartans deployed their infantry in one battle-line. From right to left: Spartan peltasts; Spartan hoplites; ally Hoplites; ally peltasts. They positioned their cavalry in front of the Spartan hoplites (see Map 1).
Epaminondas placed all his Theban hoplites, including the elite Sacred Band, on his left opposite the Spartan hoplites. The Boeotian allies and peltasts were positioned to the right of this double-stacked phalanx, but held back in an echelon formation. The Theban cavalry formed up opposite the Spartan horse (see Map 1).
The Theban cavalry, veteran troopers from their recent conflicts with the Orchomenians and Thespians, quickly disposed of the raw Spartan horse, sending it crashing back into the Spartan foot. The Theban infantry followed up quickly: crashing into the Spartan hoplites with the Sacred Band at their head.
Despite being outnumbered and partially disordered from the flight of their own cavalry, the superb Spartan foot were initially successful, but soon Theban numbers began to tell. Cleombrotus was killed, and the Spartans driven backwards with the remaining Theban cavalry harrying their flanks.
Seeing the “invincible” Red Cloaks crumbling under the Theban advance, the Spartan allies decided that all was lost, and retreated without actually having seen any action. Xenophon, in his account of the battle, suggests that this was because the Spartan allies were actually pleased to see their Lacedaemonian masters beaten by the upstart Thebans. See Map 2.
Leuctra is an interesting to re-fight as the weaker side won the original battle through the use of innovative tactics. On paper, in a straight base-for-base match-up, the Spartans should win the day every time.
The question is whether the Theban player can repeat the success of Epaminondas: especially if the Spartan player is aware of the historical course of the battle. The Theban player does have some advantages: a huge superiority in cavalry, plenty of Officers to ensure good command and control, and the fact that the Sacred Band is rated as heavy rather than medium infantry. However, he is outnumbered 13 hoplite bases to 8, and those elite Spartan hoi homoioi are murderously effective in melee.
Although considerably outnumbering his opponent, the Spartan player does have several disadvantages. The fact that over half of his army is rated as Ally will cause him considerable command and control problems. Once his ally bases have been issued with orders, they will be difficult to change: it would take nine command points to change the orders of all of his Leaders in one turn as opposed to the Theban Sub-General who can make do with six. His Levy cavalry and multiple defeat conditions are a big weakness too.
I have included army sheets for Vis Bellica for both the Spartans and the Thebans. The small size of the battle should give a good 2-3 hours play: ideal for an evening’s game.
For those using other systems, approximate numbers were:
- 2,000 Spartan Hoplites
- 8,000 Allied Hoplites
- 300 Spartan peltasts
- 800 Allied peltasts
- 1,000 cavalry
- 800 Sacred Band hoplites
- 6,000 hoplites
- 1,000 peltasts
- 1,500 cavalry
Spartan and Sacred Band hoplites should be counted as elite quality troops. Theban cavalry should be counted as Veteran quality troops. Spartan cavalry should be counted as Poor quality troops. All other troops are of average quality.
Players wishing to attempt to repeat history should begin with each army’s bases deployed as it was historically i.e. with the Spartans in a single line facing the Thebans arrayed in echelon, as per Map 1.
Alternatively, each commander should deploy as they wish, with the proviso that Leader bases are not used and that the Spartan player deploys first and at the base of the hill containing their camp.
As noted above, players should deploy their bases and mark orders without the need for scouting or Leader bases.
Note that the Spartans have three defeat conditions to the Thebans’ one: Big Man Down on both Cleombrotus and the hoi homoioi, and All Gone.
Routed Spartan bases should head for the Spartan camp and are considered “off the table” once they reach it.
This article reproduced from Slingshot, the magazine of the Society of Ancients (issue dated September 2003)