Epaminondas the Theban and the
Doctrine of Preemptive War
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
THE SIXTEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH RENAISSANCE ESSAYIST Michel de Montaigne once compared what he thought were the three great captains of antiquity. He strangely concluded that the now rather obscure Epaminondas the Theban (d. 362 BC), not Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, was the most preeminent because of his character, the ethical nature of his military career, and the lasting consequences of his victories.
Montaigne, a keen student of classical antiquity, was hardly eccentric in judging an obscure liberator of serfs in the southwestern Peloponnese superior to two imperialists who had respectively conquered much of the Persian Empire and Western Europe. Instead, he simply reflected the general sentiment of the Greeks and Romans themselves, who put a high premium on military brilliance in service to political idealism. For example, the Roman statesman Cicero, archfoe of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, three centuries after the Theban general's death saw a kindred defender of republican liberty in Epaminondas, and similarly dubbed him princeps Graecia—“first man of Greece.” The lost fourth-century BC historian Ephorus, a contemporary of the Theban hegemony, who wrote in the shadow of the autocrat Philip II, in hagiographic fashion considered Epaminondas the greatest of all Greeks, a military genius who fought for a cause other than personal aggrandizement.1
But while the ancients saw the Theban destruction of Spartan power and liberation of the Messenian helots as one of the landmark moral