Cornelius Nepos : Life of Epaminondas

Translated by J.C. Rolfe (1929). Click on the L symbols to go to the Latin text of each chapter.   Click on ** to go to the translator's footnotes.


XIV.   Datames  


  [1] L   Epaminondas, the Theban, son of Polymnis. ** Before writing about this man, I think I ought to warn my readers not to judge the customs of other nations by their own, ** and not to consider conduct which in their opinion is undignified as so regarded by other peoples. 2 We know, for example, that according to our ideas music is unsuited to a personage of importance, while dancing is even numbered among the vices; ** but with the Greeks all such accomplishments were regarded as becoming and even praiseworthy. 3 Since, then, I wish to portray the life and habits of Epaminondas, it seems to me that I ought to omit nothing which contributes to that end. 4 Therefore I shall speak first of his family, then of the subjects which he studied and his teachers, next of his character, his natural qualities, and anything else that is worthy of record. Finally, I shall give an account of his exploits, which many writers consider more important than mental excellence.   

  [2] L   Well then, he was born of the father whom I have mentioned; his family was an honourable one, but had been in moderate circumstances for some time; yet in spite of that he received as good an education as any Theban. Thus he was taught to play the lyre, and to sing with an instrumental accompaniment, by Dionysius, who in the musical world was equal in reputation to Damon or Lamprus, whose names are known everywhere. He learned to play the pipes from Olympiodorus and to dance from Calliphron. 2 In philosophy he had as his master Lysis of Tarentum, the Pythagorean, and to him he was so attached that in his youth he was more intimate with that grave and austere old man than with any of the young people of his own age; and he would not allow his teacher to leave him until he so far surpassed his fellow-students in learning, that it could readily be understood that in a similar way he would surpass all men in all other accomplishments. 3 Now these last, according to our views, are trivial, or rather, contemptible; but in Greece, especially in bygone days, they were highly esteemed.   

  4 As soon as Epaminondas attained military age and began to interest himself in physical exercise, he aimed less at great strength than at agility; for he thought that the former was necessary for athletes, but that the latter would be helpful in warfare. 5 Accordingly, he trained himself thoroughly in running and wrestling, but in the latter only to the extent of being able, while still standing, to seize his opponent and contend with him. But it was to the use of arms that he devoted his greatest efforts.   

  [3] L   To the bodily strength that he thus acquired there were added still greater mental gifts; for he was temperate, prudent, serious, and skilful in taking advantage of opportunities; practised in war, of great personal courage and of high spirit; such a lover of the truth that he never lied even in jest. 2 Furthermore, he was self-controlled, kindly, and forbearing to a surprising degree, putting up with wrongs, not only from the people, but even from his friends; he was most particular in keeping secrets, a quality which is sometimes no less valuable than eloquence, and he was a good listener; for he thought that to be the easiest way of acquiring information. 3 Therefore, whenever he was in a gathering where there was an argument about affairs of state or philosophical discussion, he never left until the conversion was ended.   

  4 He found it so easy to endure narrow means that from his public services he gained nothing but glory, and he declined to use the wealth of his friends for his own necessities. In aiding others, on the contrary, he made such use of their trust in him that one might suppose that he and his friends shared all their possessions in common. ** 5 For if anyone of his fellow-citizens had been taken by the enemy, or if a friend's daughter was of marriageable age but could not be wedded because of lack of means, he took counsel of his friends and fixed the amount of the contribution which each was to make, adapting the sum to the contributor's means. 6 And having made up the necessary amount, before taking the money he presented the one who was in need to the contributors, in order that the man who received help might know how much he owed each one.   

  [4] L   His integrity was tested by Diomedon of Cyzicus, who, at the request of King Artaxerxes, had undertaken to bribe Epaminondas. Diomedon came to Thebes with a great amount of gold, and with five talents won the support of a young man named Micythus, to whom Epaminondas was greatly attached at that time. Micythus went to Epaminondas and explained the reason for Diomedon's coming. 2 But the great man dealt with the Persian face to face, saying: "There is no need of money; for if what the king wishes is to the interest of the Thebans, I am ready to do it free of charge; .but if the contrary is true, he has not gold and silver enough; for I would not take all the riches in the world in exchange for my love of country. 3 As for you, who do not know me, I am not surprised that you have tried to tempt me and believed me to be a man like yourself, and I forgive you; but leave here at once, so that you may not corrupt others, since you have failed with me. And you, Micythus, give this man back his money; and if you do not do so immediately, I shall hand you over to the magistrates." ** 4 When Diomedon asked that he might go away in safety and be allowed to take the money that he had brought with him, Epaminondas replied: "I will grant your request, not, however, for your sake, but for my own; for I fear that if your money should be taken from you, someone might say that the sum which I had refused when it was offered as a gift had come into my hands through confiscation."  

  5 Epaminondas then asked the Persian where he wished to be taken, and when Diomedon named Athens, he gave him an escort, to secure his safe arrival. And he was not even satisfied with that, but through Chabrias, the Athenian, of whom I have already spoken, he saved Diomedon from being molested before he embarked. 6 Of Epaminondas' integrity this will be sufficient proof. As a matter of fact, I might cite a great many instances, but I must use restraint, since I have planned in this one volume to include the lives of several distinguished men, to whose individual deeds various writers before me have devoted many thousand lines.   

  [5] L   Epaminondas was also so good a speaker that no Theban equalled him in eloquence, and he was not less clever in brief answers than brilliant in. a set speech. 2 He had a detractor in the person of one Meneclides, also a native of Thebes and his rival in the administration of the state, who too was a practised speaker, at least for a Theban; for that people possesses more bodily strength than mental ability. ** 3 This man, observing that warfare brought glory to Epaminondas, used to urge the Thebans to seek peace rather than war, in order that they might not need the aid of that great man as their commander. To him Epaminondas said: "You are deceiving your fellow-citizens by using the wrong word, when you dissuade them from war; for under the name of peace it is slavery that you are recommending. 4 As a matter of fact, peace is won by war; hence those who wish to enjoy it for a long time ought to be trained for war. Therefore if you wish to be the leading city of Greece, you must frequent the camp and not the gymnasium."   

  5 When this same Meneclides taunted him with not having children or marrying, and especially with arrogance in thinking that he had equalled Agamemnon's renown in war, Epaminondas answered: "Cease, Meneclides, to taunt me about marriage; there is no one whose example in that regard I should be less willing to follow" ; and, in fact, Meneclides was suspected of adultery. 6 "Further, in supposing that I regard Agamemnon as a rival, you are mistaken; for he, with all Greece at his back, needed fully ten years to take one city, while I, on the contrary, with this city of ours alone, and in a single day, routed the Lacedaemonians and freed all Greece." **   

  [6] L   Again, when he had entered the assembly of the Arcadians, urging them to conclude an alliance with the Thebans and Argives, Callistratus, the envoy of the Athenians and the most eloquent orator of that time ** advised them rather to ally themselves with the people of Attica, and in his speech made many attacks upon the Thebans and Argives. 2 For example, he declared that the Arcadians ought to bear in mind the character of some of the citizens that those two cities had produced, since from them they could form an estimate of the rest. Thus from Argos came Orestes and Alcmaeon, the matricides; from Thebes, Oedipus, who, after killing his father, begot children from his mother. 3 In replying to him Epaminondas, after having first discussed the other questions, finally came to these two taunts. He was amazed, he said, at the folly of the Attic orator, who did not understand that those men were all blameless at the time of their birth in their native land, but after they had committed their crimes and had been exiled from their country, they had found asylum with the Athenians.   

  4 But his most brilliant display of eloquence was at Sparta, as envoy before the Battle of Leuctra. For when the representatives of all the allies had assembled there, in the presence of that great throng he denounced the despotism of the Lacedaemonians in such terms that he did not shake the Spartan power more by the battle of Leuctra than by that famous address. For it was then - as afterwards became clear - that he succeeded in depriving the Lacedaemonians of the support of their allies.   

  [7] L   That he was patient and submitted to the injustice of his fellow-citizens because he thought it impious to show anger towards his country, appears from the following evidence. The Thebans because of jealousy had refused to make him commander of their army and had chosen a leader without experience in warfare. When the man's blunder had resulted in making that large force of soldiers fearful of their safety, since they were shut up in a narrow defile and blockaded by the enemy, they came to feel the need of Epaminondas' carefulness; and he was present, as it happened, serving as a soldier without a commission. 2 When they appealed to him for help, he entirely overlooked the slight that he had suffered, freed the army from siege, and led it home in safety.   

  3 And this he did not once, but very often. Conspicuous among these was the time when he led the army to the Peloponnese against the Lacedaemonians and had two colleagues, one of whom was Pelopidas, a man of courage and energy.   

  All these generals had become, through the charges of their opponents, objects of suspicion, and for that reason their command had been taken from them and other leaders had been appointed in their place. 4 Epaminondas refused to obey the people's decree, persuaded his colleagues to follow his example, and continued the war which he had begun; for he knew that unless he did so, the entire army would be lost, owing to the incapacity of the generals and their ignorance of warfare. 5 There was a law at Thebes which punished with death anyone who had retained a command beyond the time provided by that law. Since Epaminondas realised that the law in question had been passed for the safety of his country, he did not wish it to contribute to the ruin of the state; consequently, he retained his command for four months longer than the time fixed by the people.   

  [8] L   After they returned home, his colleagues were brought to trial for their disobedience. Epaminondas allowed them to throw the entire responsibility upon him and to urge in their defence that it was due to him that they had disobeyed the law. That plea freed them from danger, and no one thought that Epaminondas would put in an appearance, since he had nothing to say in his defence. 2 But he came into court, denied none of the charges of his opponents, admitted everything that his colleagues had said, and did not refuse to submit to the penalty named in the law. He made only one request of the judges, namely, that they should enter the following record of his sentence. **   

3 "Epaminondas was condemned to death by the Thebans because at Leuctra he compelled them to vanquish the Lacedaemonians, whom before he took command no Boeotian had dared to face in battle, 4 and because in a single contest he not only saved Thebes from destruction, but also secured freedom for all Greece and so changed the situation of the contending parties that the Thebans attacked the Lacedaemonians, 5 while the Lacedaemonians were satisfied with being able to save themselves; and he did not bring the war to an end until by the restoration of Messene he placed Sparta in a state of siege."   

  When he had said this, there was laughter and merriment throughout the assembly and no juror ventured to vote for his condemnation. Thus from a capital charge he gained the greatest glory.   

  [9] L   Finally, when commander at Mantinea, in the heat of battle he charged the enemy too boldly. He was recognised by the Lacedaemonians, and since they believed that the death of that one man would ensure the safety of their country, they all directed their attack at him alone and kept on until, after great bloodshed and the loss of many men, they saw Epaminondas himself fall valiantly fighting, struck down by a lance hurled from afar. 2 By his loss the Boeotians were checked for a time, but they did not leave the field until they had completely defeated the enemy. 3 But Epaminondas, realising that he had received a mortal wound, and at the same time that if he drew out the head of the lance, which was separated from the shaft and fixed in his body, he would at once die, retained it until news came that the Boeotians were victorious. As soon as he heard that, he cried: "I have lived long enough, since I die unconquered." Then he drew out the iron and at once breathed his last.   

  [10] L   Epaminondas never took a wife. Because of this he was criticised by Pelopidas, ** who had a son of evil reputation; for his friend said that the great Theban did a wrong to his country in not leaving children. Epaminondas replied; "Take heed that you do not do her a greater wrong in leaving such a son as yours. 2 And besides, I cannot lack offspring; for I leave as my daughter the Battle of Leuctra, which is certain, not merely to survive me, but even to be immortal." 3 When the exiles, led by Pelopidas, took Thebes and drove the Lacedaemonian garrison from the citadel, so long as the citizens were being slain Epaminondas remained in his house, ** since he was unwilling either to aid the traitors or to fight against them, from reluctance to stain his hands with the blood of his countrymen; for he thought that every victory won in a civil war was pernicious. But as soon as the combat began with the Lacedaemonians at the Cadmea, he stood in the forefront.   

  2 Enough will have been said of this great man's virtues and of his life, if I add this one thing, which nobody will deny. Before the birth of Epaminondas, and after his death, Thebes was subject constantly to the hegemony ** of others; but, on the contrary, so long as he was at the head of the state, she was the leading city of all Greece. This fact shows that one man was worth more than the entire body of citizens. 

XVI.   Pelopidas →



1.   On the form of this Life see Introduction, p. 360.   

2.   Cf. Praef. 2.   

3.   See Cic. pro Mur. 13.   

4.   After the manner of the Pythagoreans; see Gell. i. 9. 12.   

5.   Magistratui is used collectively; cf. ii. 7. 4 and the note.   

6.   Cf. vii. 11. 3.   

7.   At Leuctra, 371 B.C.   

8.   See Gell. iii. 13. 2 ff.   

9.   For this meaning of periculum see Cic. Verr. iii. 183, eorum hominum fidei tabulae publicae periculaque magistratuum committuntur.  

10.   Cf. 5. 5.   

11.   Cf. xvi. 4. 1.   

12.   See note on ii. 6. 3.   

XVI.   Pelopidas →

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