Ever since the shock news that the UK voted to leave the EU, there has been much talk about the unprecedented nature of the vote. In a strict sense, that is correct — no nation has ever voted to leave the European Union before in its history.

Now that it is summer, I have a lot more time to do readings that I enjoy, and one of the books I have been reading is Victor Davis Hanson’s The Soul of Battle. It chronicles how Theban General Epaminondas struck a near death blow against Spartan society, how William Tecumseh Sherman marched to the south, and how George Patton and his Third Army crushed the Nazis.

While reading about Epaminondas, I was struck by how Thebes’s quest to leave the Spartan yoke seemed fairly reminiscent of a military type of Brexit.

A simpler version of what follows is that Thebes was a city state that had once been allied with an oligarchic Sparta, but they eventually found Sparta’s reign far too oppressive, so they fought against them, invaded them, and decimated their army in a single season.

This map is helpful to keep in mind when reading about Epaminondas's campaign against Sparta. Image via WikiBooks,
This map is helpful to keep in mind when reading about Epaminondas’s campaign against Sparta. Image via WikiBooks.

As some background, Thebes had a very poor record of picking winners and losers in Greek conflicts. Before Epaminondas’s march against Sparta, “it had joined the enemies of Greece, fought not to liberate Hellas from northern invaders, and, oddly, to aid the Persians in the conquest of their countrymen.” In the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Thebans sided with Sparta due to a longstanding hatred of Athens, and although they picked the winning side in that war, they soon became enemies with their one-time ally.

This is where the similarities between the Theban situation and Brexit come into picture. After the Peloponnesian War, “landed government in Boeotia (Thebes) continued to be dominated by aristocrats rather than yeomen,” and these governmental elites sought to increase ties to Sparta, meaning that there was “no unification in either the legal or spiritual sense” in its society. Spartan government, and society as a whole, was far from the democracy that Athens represented, and this posed problems for the Thebans who were more democratically minded. In response to “continued oligarchic control, more popular Boeotian factions arose in the 390s and 380s, openly calling for resistance to the Spartan policy of hindering popular governments and fragmenting the towns of Boeotia.”

This dream was, of course, a “nightmare” to Spartans, who could not conceive of a “truly democratic Boeotia…with officials now to be elected by the entire citizenry regardless of property or census qualification. The idea of a “classless democracy in the Greek hinterlands was a bold idea,” because democracies were normally relegated to the coastline. Athenian democracy, and other systems like it, were “supposedly anti-agrarian, anti-infantry, and usually commercial and naval, in which class hatred simmered beneath the surface.” The Theban model, however, imagined a society where “middling farmers, joined by wealthier horsemen, might voluntarily share power with the poor to create a real democratic culture in the rural backwaters without parallel in the history of Greece.” Given the hostility that existed between Thebes and Athens, it was even more remarkable that “democracy could take root among rural conservatives…[with] a traditional allegiance to property qualifications,” and in fact this had never happened in ancient Greece.

Similarly, the idea that a member state of the EU voting to leave had also never been thought of before. Well before the Peloponnesian War divided most of the Greek city states into alliances with either Athens or Sparta (those who chose to remain neutral, such as the Melians, were prone to being wiped out), most of the city-states had “an illustrious three-century tradition  under exclusive constitutions of small yeomen hoplites.” Similarly, there was a Britain before the EU, with its own constitution and laws, and with its own sovereignty.

Many point to various incidents that spurred the Leave side to victory–including Barack Obama’s speech urging a Remain vote and Angela Merkel’s immigration policy–and in the Theban case, the “Spartan takeover of the Sacred Theban Cadmea (382) — the city’s spiritual and political center — [which] was the most foolhardy foreign policy enterprise in the entire history of Spartan foreign policy,” finalizing the shift from a one-time ally to a mortal enemy, with “such a flagrant attack on an autonomous Greek city in times of peace energiz[ing] the people of Thebes as nothing had before.”

This episode would not be forgotten or forgiven by a core group of Thebans, who seized upon “the issue of whether Boeotia was to be controlled by larger landowners as a Spartan satellite, or become an agrarian democracy of independent infantrymen with an autonomous foreign policy.” The stage was set in 379, when “a group of Boeotian insurrectionists…overthrew the Spartan garrison and assassinated some of their quisling Theban sympathizers.” These Thebans were inspired by, of all things, Athenian democracy, which means that their once mortal enemy now became a source of knowledge (Athenians once hated Thebans so much that they were reluctant to ever believe a single positive word said about them), and in turn “inaugurated real democracy in Thebes and most of the nearby towns of Boeotia.”

In a similar way to how supporters of the Leave campaign viewed distant bureaucrats in Brussels with disdain, “landed government of the past was seen by most Boeotians as indistinguishable from narrow oligarchy and thus both were now discredited.” The hatred that Thebans had for Sparta was “growing and near-fanatical,” and it stemmed from “the power of local oligarchs or to the presence of foreign troops — and in their eyes, Sparta was responsible for both.” Although there are no foreign troops stationed in England, many in the Leave camp have pointed to Europe’s immigration policies, as well as the loss of sovereignty to the EU (Note: the fact that the House of Commons Law Library claimed that “up to half of British laws come from Europe” is a truly insane finding) as reasons to vote Leave.

An interesting parallel between the Remain side of the Brexit debate and Epaminondas is the doom and gloom predictions if they were to fail. One of the main arguments the Remain side put forth was that if Leave won, there would be dire economic consequences (and many of those seem to be correct), and Epaminondas successfully rallied his army before winning the Battle of Leuctra by warning them that “if they lost, the Spartans had planned to kill all the males, enslave their women and children, and raze the city to the ground.” In Remain’s case, the argument was unpersuasive, but in Epaminondas’s case, “his army purportedly believed such propaganda [which] should tell us something about their terror and loathing of all things Spartan.”

Not everyone is concerned about the short term economic impact of Brexit.
Not everyone is concerned about the short term economic impact of Brexit.

Sparta and the Remain campaign both did all they could to prevent Theban democracy and a Leave vote, respectively, from becoming too successful. Sparta did so by invading Thebes four times, and Remain did so by waging an electoral campaign using similar techniques that had allowed Prime Minister David Cameron to successfully win reelection. Every invasion Sparta attempted only served to make Thebans more resilient. In one instance, “Epaminondas’s colleague, Pelopidas, when surprised and outnumbered by Spartans at the battle of Tegyra (375), and told by a scout that ‘we have fallen into the enemy hands,’ replied, ‘Why not they into ours?’ He then led his men right through their vaunted phalanx.”

At the aforementioned Battle of Leuctra, the Thebans were carried to victory largely by “the personal magnetism of Epaminondas,” which is similar to how Leave was buoyed when former Cameron ally Boris Johnson joined their cause, which transformed it from a perceived motley crew into a force to be reckoned with. After Leuctra, “the vastly outnumbered Theban democrats had not so much pushed the Spartan phalanx off the battlefield as obliterated the very core of their military elite.” After the Brexit vote, Cameron announced his plans to resign, and Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party, faces a rebellion from within that might oust him as well, leaving Boris Johnson the odds on successor to Cameron.

After Leuctra, Sparta was vulnerable without its hoplite army, walls, and with a “restive class of oppressed and indentured serfs, a declining population of Spartiate warriors, internal dissension among the baffling array of classes and orders, factions allies in the Peloponnese–and a now discredited and hobbled military.” Epaminondas actually wanted to pursue and destroy the fragments of the Spartan army immediately after the battle, but he was “persuaded to delay.” Similarly, many are now looking to the next countries to split from the EU, with Sweden, Denmark, and Greece being considered as potential candidates for future exit campaigns.

There are obvious differences between these two historical events, and this comparison would be more accurate if Britain had embarked on a military campaign against the EU, the similarities in the catalysts were strong enough that I thought a case could be made. It remains to be seen if their outcomes follow a similar path. Epaminondas was successful in the short term with his defeat of Sparta’s military, but he was ultimately killed in battle, and Sparta erected a monument in honor of the man who killed him. Thebes’s quest for survival was successful for several more decades, but Alexander the Great ultimately wiped them off the map under 50 years after Epaminondas marched to Sparta.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was asked whether or not one of Remain’s main promises would be acted upon. Throughout the UK, buses were plastered with ads falsely claiming that “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS (National Health Service) instead,” and Farage told a reporter that “I can’t [guarantee it], and I would never have made that claim. That was one of the mistakes that I think the Leave campaign made.” Leave campaigners have also hedged on other promises, including a reduction in immigration (“Of course there is still going to be immigration. There are still going to be people coming here to work and you will look in vain for anything the Leave campaign said at any point that suggested there would be any kind of border closure or pulling up of the drawbridge”) and an immediate invoking of Article 50 that would lead to an immediate withdrawal from the EU (“A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again and that [invoking article 50] is one of them”). These anecdotes notwithstanding, the long term effects of Brexit are obviously undeterminable as of now.

Brexit leader Boris Johnson in front of one of the many buses urging a Leave vote. Image via The Independent.
Brexit leader Boris Johnson in front of one of the many buses urging a Leave vote. Image via The Independent.

In both of these occurrences, a city state and nation asserted sovereignty against an entity that was not used to internal rebellions. What remains to be seen are the outcomes of Britain’s momentous vote earlier this week. Time will tell if the comparison with Epaminondas is accurate.

If you enjoyed this historical perspective on current events, check out the articles I wrote about America’s First Donald Trump and the Wisconsin primary’s significance.