Is this understanding of Leuctra correct?

May 2013
So what I've come to understand about Leuctra is that the Spartan core were few in number (~1000), and knowing this, Epaminondas used an oblique formation to overload his left wing and destroy the Spartan core via concentration of force, while delaying the engagement of his right wing.

Is this a correct assessment, or is there an important detail I've missed?

Also, in hindsight, what do you think the Spartans should/could have done to counter such tactics? For me Hannibal's tactic at Cannae comes to mind.
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Jan 2015
Yes and no. There is little doubt that the Theban left defeated the Spartan right very decisively, and left the rest of their army in echelon to keep it out of trouble. It was a brilliant plan and it worked.

Now, popular wisdom holds that this was a clear demonstration of the overwhelming power of the 50-deep Theban formation, which swept the Spartans off the field or just steam-rollered them. The problem is that none of the ancient sources say that, in fact they seem to contradict it! There are, as I recall, SIX ancient descriptions of the Battle of Leuctra, more than any other ancient battle. They are all different. Xenophon's is considered one of the best but it's really an explanation of why the Spartans lost, and he leaves out piddly details like Epaminondas being in command of the Theban army!

But from what we can tell, not only had the Spartan cavalry just been driven back into their phalanx, causing a lot of disruption, the Spartan infantry may also have been in the middle of one of their famous flanking maneuvers. They would march some of their force out to their right, turn left in column to get on the flank of their opponents, then face inwards to roll up the enemy line. THAT is the point at which the Theban column slammed into the Spartans, and according to the description "a furious fight broke out." It sounds like the Spartans stopped that massive block cold. There is absolutely no indication that they were swept or shoved bodily off the field, only that there was a raging, ferocious battle.

That would explain why the rest of the Greek world didn't jump to copy that Theban deep phalanx. Either it didn't work, or it was meant to do something else entirely. In fact, I wonder if that deep phalanx was not to crush the opponent in front, but simply to counter exactly the kind of flanking move the Spartans seemed to have been attempting. For all we know, the 50-deep part was not the whole width of the Theban contingent, but only 6 or 8 files on the far left, a sort of refused flank. If that were the case, it did work--the Spartans failed to outflank the Thebans.

SO, Yes, the Thebans used a 50-deep formation of some sort, and Yes, they very much crushed the Spartans that day, spelling doom for the Spartan domination of Greece. The rest of the details, well, hard to say, eh?

Jan 2015
Such a revisionist viewpoint would somewhat diminish Epaminondas' popularity as innovator of the infantry echelon.

I tend to agree with Matthew here though.

Oh, I don't want to sound like I'm taking a dig at Epaminondas! He deserves any credit we can give him. Whatever the details of that 50-deep formation, and whatever he planned with it, something worked bigtime! The echelon was brilliant, too, the perfect way to keep shaky allies from bolting at the wrong time.


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