Around 362 BCE, the Spartan king, Agesilaus II (r. 400-360 BCE) left Sparta with an army intended to help the Mantineans rebel against Thebes. When the Theban military leader, Epaminondas, heard of the approaching army, he decided that Sparta needed to be dealt with before he could focus on subduing Mantinea. Therefore, he evaded King Agesilaus and began marching his Theban forces against the undefended city of Sparta.
Before the 4th century BCE, nobody would have dared to march against the Spartan homeland. The Spartans were so sure of their military might that they never built a wall around their city and they proudly bragged that no woman in Sparta had ever seen smoke from an enemy campfire. Yet, Epaminondas had shattered this arrogance. He had defeated a Spartan army in a pitched battle at Leuctra, in 371 BCE, and followed that up by besieging the city of Sparta in the winter of 370 and early 369 BCE. During that siege, king Agesilaus kept a strictly defensive strategy, and, for unknown reasons, Epaminondas eventually called off the siege and withdrew.
So, when Epaminondas marched into the Peloponnesus in 362 BCE, it was nothing new to him or to Sparta. Thankfully for the Spartans, King Agesilaus discovered Epaminondas’ plan and was able to return to Sparta before the forces from Thebes besieged the city. Although Agesilaus had chosen a defensive strategy in the earlier siege of 370 BCE, his reaction to the 362 BCE siege was vastly different. This time, the aging king (reportedly eighty-two years old) had the Spartans repel the Thebans by overwhelming force.
The Greek-Roman historian, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), described the siege in his biography of King Agesilaus II, included in his Parallel Lives. He wrote that the Spartan forces faced the Thebans in the narrow streets of the city. King Agesilaus micromanaged his troops with skillful coordination, attacking where the besiegers were thin and sending reinforcements to where his own soldiers faced pressure. Plutarch wrote that many Spartans showed heroism during the battle to end the siege, but that a young man named Isadas was the hero that stood out above the rest.
At the time of the siege, Isadas was in his teens or early twenties. Or, as Plutarch put it, “Handsome in appearance and tall in stature, he was at the age when the human physique reaches perfection as boyhood merges into manhood” (Life of Agesilaus, chapter 34). When the Spartans began to counter-attack, this ideal Spartan youth apparently burst out of his home completely in the nude and charged at the enemy with nothing but a spear in one hand and a sword in the other. Equipped in this manner, the naked warrior ran past his startled comrades and plunged straight into the shocked enemy lines. According to the tale, he struck down countless foes while not even suffering a scratch during his frenzied fight. The Thebans were apparently convinced that the nude warrior was protected from harm by the gods and granted superhuman strength. Against such staunch defenders, Epaminondas once again abandoned his siege of Sparta and withdrew his forces.
Plutarch wrote that the government of Sparta recognized Isadas’ valor after the battle. The youth was given an honorary crown by the Ephors of the city, a governing council that shared power with the Spartan kings. Yet, they also wanted to use the occasion as a teaching point—in addition to the crown, they fined Isadas 1,000 drachmas as punishment for the idiocy of charging into battle without armor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Ancient Greek running warrior by a Colmar Painter (–520–445 BCE), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.