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Pelopidas was a member of a distinguished family, and possessed great wealth, which he expended on his friends and on public service, while content to lead the rough life of an athlete. In 384 BC he served in a Theban contingent sent to the support of the Spartans during the Siege of Mantinea, where he was saved, when dangerously wounded by the Arcadians, by Epaminondas and Agesipolis.
Plutarch says that this incident firmly cemented their friendship, and Pelopidas would be Epaminondas's partner in politics for the next 20 years.
According to Plutarch's Life of Pelopidas (from Plutarch's Parallel Lives in which Pelopidas's life was paired with the life of Marcellus), he lessened his inherited estate by showing constant care for the deserving poor of Thebes, taking pleasure in simple clothing, a sparse diet, and the constant hardships of military life. People said that he was ashamed to spend more on himself than the lowest of the Thebans spent on himself. Once, when friends argued that he needed to care for his finances since he had a wife and children, and that money was a necessary thing, Pelopidas pointed to a blind, crippled pauper named Nicodemus and said, "Yes, necessary for Nicodemus."
Upon the seizure of the Theban citadel by the Spartans (382 BC), he fled to Athens and took the lead in a conspiracy to liberate Thebes. Spartans had kingship in their home and were supportive of oligarchic governments in other cities in pursuit of the Spartan hegemony: (contrariwise, cities with oligarchic and not democratic political system tended to support Sparta). In 379 BC, his party (the democratic) surprised and killed their chief political opponents in Thebes (members of the aristocratic party that supported the Spartans), and roused the people against the Spartan garrison, which surrendered to an army gathered by Pelopidas.
In this and 12 subsequent years he was elected boeotarch, or warleader, and about 375 BC he routed a much larger Spartan force at the battle of Tegyra (near Orchomenus). This victory he owed mainly to the valour of the Sacred Band, an elite corps of 300 seasoned soldiers. At the battle of Leuctra (371 BC) he contributed greatly to the success of Epaminondas's new tactics by the rapidity with which he made the Sacred Band close with the Spartans. At Leuctra Epaminondas, a brilliant and intuitive general, used the oblique order for the first time. After the battle at Leuctra, Thebes began to replace Sparta as the leading city of Greece.
In 370 BC he accompanied his close friend Epaminondas as boeotarch into the Peloponnese, where by re-founding as an independent city Messene Sparta's former dependency, they were able to consolidate their success, and permanently deprive Sparta of its hegemonic power. On their return, both generals were accused, unsuccessfully, of having retained their command beyond the legal term. In fact, the democrats and some aristocrats of Thebes acknowledged that Pelopidas and Epaminondas were the two most capable and important personalities of their city. Both were trying to establish a state that would unite Greece under the Theban hegemony - what Xenophon called a policy "continuously direct towards securing supremacy in Greece".
In 367 BC Pelopidas went on an embassy to the Persian king Artaxerxes II. Backed by the prestige of his Leuctra victory, Pelopidas was able to induce the king to prescribe a settlement of Greece according to the wishes of the Thebans, with particular reference to the continuing independence of Messene.
The 360s saw Pelopidas leading a military/diplomatic advance by Theban power into Central and Northern Greece. In 369 BC, in response to a petition of the Thessalians, Pelopidas was sent with an army against Alexander of Pherae. After driving Alexander out, he passed into Macedon and arbitrated between two claimants to the throne. In order to secure the influence of Thebes in Macedon, he brought home hostages, including the king's brother Philip II, a young man who one day became king. In Thebes, Philip learned about the military tactics and politics of the Greeks.
The next year, Pelopidas was again called upon to interfere in Macedonia, but being deserted by his mercenaries, was compelled to make an agreement with Ptolemy of Aloros. On his return through Thessaly, he was seized by Alexander of Pherae, and two expeditions from Thebes were needed to secure his release.
In 364 BC, he received another appeal from the Thessalian towns against Alexander of Pherae. Alhough an eclipse of the sun prevented his bringing with him more than a handful of troops, he overthrew the tyrant's far superior force on the ridge of Cynoscephalae. However, wishing to slay Alexander with his own hand, he rushed forward too eagerly and was cut down by the tyrant's guards. Plutarch considered him as a prime example of a leader who threw away his life through recklessness and anger.