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In 371 BC the nearly invincible Spartan military would lose to the Theban army at the Battle of Leuctra for one major reason. This was one of the most important battles in the history of western civilization due to wrecking the Greek city-states so that Alexander the Great’s father Philip of Macedon could conquer them 30 years later in 338 BC.
The main reason why the Spartan army lost to the vastly outnumbered Theban army at the Battle of Leuctra was because of the Echelon formation maneuver. This military maneuver involved massing one flank of a line of soldiers to pierce the enemy line and swinging to envelop the rest of the opponent.
Thebes invented the Echelon formation of military maneuvers. This was one of the first examples of how a faster moving column of soldiers could easily overpower a slower moving one. Below we go into depth on how the battle played out and why Thebes managed to achieve total victory over the superior Spartan force.
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Without further ado, here is the reason why Sparta lost the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.
The Classical Greek Phalanx And The Problem Of Right-Hand Phalanx Drift
Both the Spartan and Theban armies fought with similar tactics and equipment. Contrary to popular belief by this point in Classical Greece nearly all soldiers of Greece had a similar amount of training in how to fight.
The typical strategy for classical Greek commanders was to line their soldiers up in phalanx lines of about 5 rows of soldiers. These soldiers were equipped with a shield and a spear.
The shield of the traditional hoplite was designed to protect themselves and the soldier on their right. The shields would overlap and create a nearly impenetrable force. Over the shields the soldiers would thrust with their spears. The other 4 lines of men behind the first line would push forwards and also thrust with their spear over the shield wall.
In essence, classical Greek armies were giant armored units. During a classical Greek military engagement the idea was to break the opposing infantry line so that you could push through to their camp and capture the survivors.
There was one major problem with this strategy of a hoplite shield wall. Since all the shields overlapped there would be a natural right-hand drift. Without an experienced commander the entire phalanx would slowly turn to the right during a battle. This would create a windmill pattern on the field.
As a result of this Sparta would field its strongest soldiers on the far right side of this phalanx to prevent the entire line from pivoting to the right. Thebes would exploit this natural right-hand drift which resulted in the Spartans losing the Battle of Leuctra.
How Thebes Invented The Echelon Formation To Win The Battle Of Leuctra
The reason why Sparta lost the Battle of Leuctra was because of the Echelon or Oblique maneuver that was invented by Thebes.
Thebes knew that the weakest point of the Spartan phalanx was going to be the right side. Here the Spartan King Cleombrotus I would put his elite Spartan heavy troops called the Hippeis along with himself. This protected the right side of the Spartan flank and also protected the entire Phalanx from the right-hand drift.
Thebes on the other hand realized that if they could quickly defeat the far right side of the Spartan line they could then swing around and encircle the rest of the Spartan army.
In order to do this the Theban commander Pelopidas stacked the far left side of the Theban phalanx with another 45 rows of soldiers. The rest of the Theban phalanx would swing back to the right in a pinwheel direction. This was both a feigned retreat as well as a lighting fast attack straight to the most important part of the Spartan line.
Before the Spartan’s knew what happened it was too late. Their right flank had been destroyed and the Theban army had begun to encircle around the back of the Spartan line.
The Echelon maneuver/formation relies upon two major things.
First, the enemy commander must not know what you’re doing. If the Spartan King Cleombrotus figured out what was happening he could have pulled his right side back and begun to counter pinwheel spin. This would have allowed the Spartans to outflank the Theban line.
Second, a military commander using the Echelon formation must have faster moving troops. This is the major component. A military commander must have his troops be able to maneuver faster then the opponent can maneuver theirs. If not then the commander risks having the maneuver turned against them and being outflanked.
The Echelon maneuver/formation was the major reason why the Theban army defeated the Spartan army at the Battle of Leuctra.
How The Theban Echelon Maneuver Forever Changed Military Formations
The Echelon formation forever changed Greek warfare. Around 30 years after the Theban victory at the Battle of Leuctra Alexander the Great would employ the same Echelon formation over and over again in his battles across the known world.
From Persia to Egypt and India Alexander the Great would use the Theban tactic of spearheading through the opposing army with fast maneuvering tactics. From there Alexander would encircle around and take the rest of the army prisoner.
The Echelon formation did not die with Alexander the Great. Instead it would only continue to grow. Today all military generals are taught this maneuver when dealing with larger forces.
From George Washington to Genghis Khan all generals after the Battle of Leuctra have employed this Echelon formation tactic. Today you are most likely to see this tactic in either armor columns or combat fighters.
As such the Battle of Leuctra remains one of the most important battles of all time. This is because it was the first battle in recorded history where the Echelon maneuver was successfully used.
There you have it; an entire article dedicated the reason why Sparta lost the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.
Here at The History Ace I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then feel free to subscribe to the free newsletter and share around the web.
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