Cornelius Nepos : Life of Pelopidas

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.


XV.   Epaminondas   


  [1] L   Pelopidas, the Theban, is better known to historians than to the general public. I am in doubt how to give an account of his merits; for I fear that if I undertake to tell of his deeds, I shall seem to be writing a history rather than a biography; but if I merely touch upon the high points, I am afraid that to those unfamiliar with Greek literature it will not be perfectly clear how great a man he was. Therefore I shall meet both difficulties as well as I can, having regard both for the weariness and the lack of information of my readers. **   

  2 When Phoebidas, the Lacedaemonian, was leading his army to Olynthus and went by way of Thebes, he took possession of the citadel of the town, called the Cadmea, at the instigation of a few Thebans, who, in order the more easily to resist the party of their opponents, espoused the cause of the Lacedaemonians ; but he did this on his own initiative and not at the direction of his state. 3 Because of this act the Lacedaemonians deprived him of his command and condemned him to pay a fine, but for all that they did not return the citadel to the Thebans, thinking that, having incurred their enmity, it was better to keep them in a state of siege than to free them. Indeed, after the Peloponnesian War and the defeat of Athens they looked upon the Thebans as rivals and as the only people that would dare to resist them. 4 Owing to this feeling, they had given the highest offices at Thebes to their sympathisers, and had either put to death or exiled the leading men of the opposite faction. Among these this Pelopidas, about whom I have begun to write, had been driven from his native land into exile.   

  [2] L   Nearly all those who had been banished took refuge in Athens, not in order to live in idleness, but to make an effort to recover their native land at the very first opportunity that fortune offered. 2 Accordingly, as soon as they thought that the time for action had come, with those of their fellow-citizens in Thebes who had the same sentiments they agreed upon a time when they were to surprise their enemies and free the city, choosing the day on which the chief magistrates were in the habit of meeting at a banquet. ** 3 Great things have often been accomplished with not so very great forces, but surely never did so humble a beginning result in the overthrow of so mighty a power. For only a dozen young men came together of those who had been punished with exile, and there were not more than a hundred in all to confront so great a peril. Yet it was by that small number that the power of Lacedaemon was shattered. 4 For they made war, not more upon the party of their opponents than on the Spartans, and that too when the Spartans were the masters of all Greece. But Sparta's imposing power, after being shaken by this enterprise, soon afterward fell in ruins at the Battle of Leuctra.    

  5 Those twelve heroes, then, led by Pelopidas, left Athens by day, in order to be able to reach Thebes at nightfall. They took with them hunting dogs and nets, and wore the garb of peasants, that their  expedition might attract less attention. At the very  time that they had planned they arrived at Thebes, and went to lodge at the house of Charon, the man who had named the day and hour.   

  [3] L   Here I should like to digress, although it has no direct connection with my narrative, to point out how great danger there usually is in excessive confidence. For it came at once to the ears of the Theban magistrates that the exiles had arrived in the city; but busy as they were in drinking and feasting, they considered the news so unimportant that they did not even take the trouble to inquire into a matter of such moment. 2 Another thing made their folly still more apparent; for a letter was brought from Athens, written by Archinus to one of their number, Archias, who at the time was the chief magistrate in Thebes, ** in which full details of the expedition were given. The letter was handed to Archias when he had already taken his place at the banquet, but without breaking the seal he put it under his pillow, with the remark; "Serious matters may wait until tomorrow." 3 Now all those magistrates, in the course of that night, were slain in their cups by the exiles, headed by Pelopidas. That done, the people were called to arms and to liberty; they hastened to the spot, not only from the city, but from all the countryside, drove the Lacedaemonian garrison from the citadel, and freed their country from oppression. Of those who had caused the occupation of the Cadmea some were slain, others driven into exile.   

  [4] L   During this time, so full of trouble, Epaminondas, as I have already said, ** remained quietly at home, so long as the contest was with fellow-citizens. Hence this glorious deed of freeing Thebes belongs wholly to Pelopidas, but almost all the rest of his renown was shared with Epaminondas. 2 For example, in the Battle of Leuctra, although Epaminondas was commander-in-chief, Pelopidas was the leader of the select corps ** that was first to break the Lacedaemonian phalanx. 3 Moreover, he shared in all his other dangers (thus in the attack on Sparta he commanded one wing), and in order to hasten the restoration of Messene, he went as an envoy to the Persians. ** In short, he was one of the two great citizens of Thebes, and although he was second, yet he was next to Epaminondas.   

  [5] L   But Pelopidas contended also with ill fortune; for in the beginning, as I have stated, he was driven from his country into exile, and when he wished to bring Thessaly under the sway of Thebes and thought that he was amply protected by the inviolability of ambassadors, since that was observed sacredly by all nations, he was arrested with Ismenias by Alexander, tyrant of Pherae, and thrown into prison. 2 He was rescued by Epaminondas, who made war upon Alexander. After that experience Pelopidas could never be reconciled with the man who had outraged him, and it was for that reason that he persuaded the Thebans to go to the aid of Thessaly and free it of its tyrants. 3 When he had been given the chief command in that war and had set out with his army, he did not hesitate to join battle immediately on catching sight of the enemy. 4 In the action that followed, inflamed with wrath at the very first sight of Alexander, he spurred his horse against the tyrant, and being thus separated some distance from his men, he fell, struck down by a shower of weapons. This happened in the full tide of victory, for the tyrants' forces had already given way. 5 Because of that exploit all the states of Thessaly presented the dead Pelopidas with crowns of gold and statues of bronze, and his children with a great amount of land. 

XVII.   Agesilaus →



1.   Nepos makes it clear here that he is not an historian, but a biographer, and that he dwells upon the virtues of his subjects as models for conduct; also that he is addressing the general, unlearned, public.   

2.   The festival of the Aphrodisia, at the end of the office of the three annually elected polemarchs.   

3.   He was one of the Boeotarchs, or representatives of the cities of the Boeotian league, of which Thebes had two.   

4.   Cf. xv. 10. 3.   

5.   The so-called Sacred Band of 300 heavy-armed soldiers, in which pairs of intimate friends fought side by side.   

6.   Pelopidas went to Persia in 367 B.C.; Messene had been restored (that is, made an independent state) in 370 B.C.   

XVII.   Agesilaus →

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