This artwork, by the Dutch artist Isaac Walraven (c. 1686-1765), was painted as a deathbed scene for Epaminondas (c. 410-362 BCE), a statesman and general from ancient Greece. Epaminondas of Thebes was a brilliant general who defeated the Spartan army in a pitched battle at Leuctra (371 BCE), shattering Sparta’s carefully-crafted reputation of having a near-invincible land army. He pressed the advantage by launching several military campaigns into the Peloponnese, even laying siege to the city of Sparta at least two times, in 370 BCE and 362 BCE. He ended his career with another pitched battle victory against Sparta and its allies at the Second Battle of Mantinea in 362 BCE, but the victory came at a steep cost—Epaminondas was mortally wounded during the fight and died of his injuries. Isaac Walraven’s painting shows the generals final moments, with him and his comrades still dressed for battle. Epaminondas’ death caused great dismay for the ambitious Thebans, and, conversely, it inspired thanksgiving and relief to the battered and humiliated Spartans. The great biographer and essayist, Plutarch, described Epaminondas’ death and the Spartan reaction to it:
“A few days afterwards the two sides fought a battle near Mantinea. Epaminondas had already routed the Spartans’ front ranks, and was eagerly pressing forward in pursuit, when a Spartan named Anticrates faced him and struck him down. Dioscorides’ story is that he used a spear, but the Spartans to this day refer to Anticrates’ descendants as Machairiones because he struck the blow with a sword (machaira). Epaminondas had inspired such dread in the Spartans while he was alive that they felt an extraordinary admiration and affection for his killer; they voted honours and rewards for Anticrates himself, as well as exemption from taxes for his descendants…” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Agesilaus, chapter 35).
Although Epaminondas had won the Second Battle of Mantinea, his people were in no mood to celebrate their victory without their leader. As he died, so too died the driving force behind Thebes’ ambition and military prowess. As for Sparta, although it celebrated Epaminondas’ death, the Spartans were never able to recover from the military, reputational and political damage that they had incurred at the hands of the slain Theban leader.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.