The Great Unknowns: 5 Military Commanders You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Khan Krum Using Nikephoros' Skull As a Cup. The Bulgarian History Podcast

Given the popularity of the first Great Unknowns article, I decided to dig up details of a few more great commanders that few non-history buffs have heard of. It turns out that there are dozens of legends to choose from so narrowing it down to five was a difficult task. Never fear, there are more where they came from.

Epaminondas and Pelopidas at Battle of Mantineia. Alchetron

1 – Epaminondas (410 – 362 BC)

Epaminondas is one of the lesser known great commanders of the ancient world. The Spartan dominance of Greece came to an end thanks to his battlefield prowess. Hailed as ‘the first man of Greece’ by Cicero, he was born in Thebes in the early 5th century BC. His considerable achievements are all but forgotten, perhaps because Alexander the Great obliterated Thebes just a generation after his death.

We don’t know a huge amount about his early life though he was educated by one of the top philosophers in Greece. In 382 BC, the Spartans were passing through Thebes and decided to capture its citadel and install a dictatorial leadership. Previous leaders such as Pelopidas were forced to flee the city, but Epaminondas refused to kowtow to the enemy. Three years later, Pelopidas returned and led a rising against the Spartans; Epaminondas played a pivotal role in the eight-year struggle known as the Theban-Spartan war (379-371 BC).

The Thebans were successful and forced the Spartans to make peace. By 371 BC, Epaminondas was one of the five magistrates of the Theban federation, known as the Boeotarch. He was angry that Athens and Sparta wanted to treat each Boeotian city separately; he wanted them to be represented by the Boeotian League. Eventually, the treaty was signed without Thebes.

It was from this point onward that Epaminondas gained his reputation as a legendary commander. Sparta invaded Boeotia but the Thebans, led by Epaminondas, inflicted a crushing defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. He adapted innovative tactics and killed so many enemies that it crippled the Spartan military. Throughout the next nine years, Epaminondas led a series of campaigns against the Spartans in the Peloponnese that destroyed their power permanently.

In 367 BC, the tyrant of Pherae, Alexander, captured Pelopidas but Epaminondas led an army to rescue the influential Theban. While Pelopidas died at Cynoscephalae in 364 BC, he won the battle. Epaminondas became the outright leader of the Theban military, and his fourth and final campaign in the Peloponnese occurred in 362 BC when he was victorious at the Battle of Mantineia. He died in the battle, and while he successfully subdued the Spartans yet again, his death was a shattering blow to Thebes. King Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, apparently visited Thebes when he was a boy and became inspired by Epaminondas’ military achievements which he studied in depth.