Nine things you really ought to know about the ancient city of Thebes

Once the most powerful city in Ancient Greece, Thebes has long been overshadowed by Athens and Sparta. Here Paul Cartledge tells us why we must not forget about this most fascinating of ancient cities. 

Myth and legend surround the once powerful and influential ancient city of Thebes; birthplace of ancient Greek hero Hercules. It is said that Thebes was founded when the ground was sown with dragon’s teeth, and the city was razed to the ground by Alexander the Great. And yet the rich history of Thebes has been largely forgotten in favour of its rivals Athens and Sparta. Here, Paul Cartledge, historian and author of Thebes, shares just a few fascinating facts about the ancient city. From the founding of Thebes and origins of the Oedipus myth, to the stories of Crates of Thebes and Pindar the poet, this is history that should be remembered. 

I have long had the ambition to write a book about the ancient Greek city of Thebes, partly because for lengthy periods it was the capital of a federal regional system, partly because for a time (371-362 BC) it was the most powerful and influential city in all Greece, and partly because it produced some quite remarkable individuals who deserve to be better known. I gave a hint of the fascinating history of this ancient city in my book Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction. But when it came to writing up a fullscale account, what struck me was how often and to what extent ancient Thebes had not been given its due, or had even indeed been ‘forgotten’. 

So, why and how has ancient Greek Thebes (ever) been 'forgotten'? In brief, for three main reasons or in three main senses. First, Thebes never produced a local historian to rival Thucydides of Athens, and Thebes suffered from being not only Athens’ near-neighbour but also, for long periods, its active enemy. Second, in 335 the city of Thebes was nearly obliterated, and, although it was resurrected twenty years later, it never regained its previous fame or quality. The reason given for this brutal treatment was an act of betrayal 145 years earlier – as Thebes sided with Persian invaders. Thebes paid a very heavy price for that not altogether incomprehensible earlier decision. Finally, the original verses in which the founding and other early myths of Thebes were framed did not survive as such, and it is only due to artistic and dramatic retellings that those myths have survived at all. Ancient Thebes deserves its place in the Hellenic sun, which is what I have sought to give it in Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, and here I share nine amazing facts about Thebes that should never be forgotten.

1. Ancient Thebes was located in Greece

Thebai (the ancient spelling of Thebes) is not in Egypt but somewhere in the middle of mainland Greece, about 90 km NW of Athens by road. There was indeed a Thebes in Egypt, which was actually the capital of New Kingdom (late second millennium BCE) Egypt. But unlike Greek Thebes, that city has rarely if ever been totally forgotten.

2. Thebes was the origin of many great Greek myths.

Greek myths have a timeless, ubiquitous, resonant charm – capable of being told and re-told, and appealing to people of all ages. The Greek word muthos means simply a(ny) traditional tale. Some Greek myths – like the Homeric ones – are epic (from ancient Greek epos, which just means 'word'); others were more ordinary. Thebes was one of the most fertile generators of epic myths that have stood the test of time. 

3. Thebes was founded by Kadmos, who sowed the ground with dragon’s teeth.

Thebes was founded not by a Greek person, but by Kadmos, a Phoenician. Kadmos came from the Near East, specifically from the city of Tyre, located in what is Lebanon today. As the story goes, Kadmos made the trip across the eastern Mediterranean to mainland Greece, not to found a city but to rescue his sister, Europa, who'd been snatched (and in some versions, raped) by a Greek. But not by any old Greek, in fact by no lesser a figure than the king and father of all the Greek immortal gods, great Zeus himself. Kadmos, though, didn't content himself with finding and saving his sister: he stayed put in Greece, settled down – and founded Thebes. Not in any ordinary way, mind. The city’s first inhabitants sprang from the ground into which they had been 'sown' in the form of dragon's teeth. Soon the city was surrounded by massive stone walls and equipped with a – suitably magical – number of gates: seven.

4. Oedipus was born in Thebes.

This new city of Thebes was the mythical city in which a certain Oedipus was later born. His parents had been foretold, by the great oracle of the shining archer-god Apollo, that their as yet unnamed son was destined, doomed, to murder his father before marrying (and having children with) his very own mother. Those basic rudiments of the Oedipus myth are probably quite widely known, and they are horrifying enough. But the many bells and whistles added to the myth heaped horror upon horror. With his mother-wife he sired four children who were also his half-brothers and sisters. When he discovered the fact that he was not only a patricide but also monstrously incestuous, he blinded himself; and when his mother-wife learned the truth, she committed suicide. Oedipus was then exiled, but his two sons/half-brothers fell out with each other and fell into civil war in which they killed each other. Of the two daughters/half-sisters, the more famous is Antigone – condemned to death for impious treachery by her dictatorial maternal uncle, she hastened it by committing suicide by hanging. 

5. Oedipus and many other Theban myths inspired some of the greatest playwrights of ancient Greece. 

The Athenian Sophocles' tragic play Antigone (c. 440 BCE) is one of the most performed plays in the entire Western canon. Yet Antigone is just one of the great Sophocles's extant 'Theban plays': he also wrote two Oedipus plays, one set in the unfortunate's native city (Oedipus Tyrannus, or Oedipus the King), the other in the playwright's own home village (Oedipus at Colonus). And what of the other two members of Athens' 5th-century BC holy trinity of astonishing tragic dramatists, Aeschylus (the older) and Euripides (the younger)? Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes (probably 467 BC) survives, as does Euripides's Bacchae (405 BC, named for the 'mad' female devotees of the ecstatic god of theatre himself, Dionysus, whose mother was Theban). So – what was it about those (pretty horrendous) Theban myths that so attracted some of the greatest playwrights of ancient Greece – and indeed of the world – and their audiences? I have a go at trying to answer that tough question in the book. 

6. Pindar, one of the great Ancient Greek poets, came from Thebes. 

The Classical Athenians thought they were a cut above other Greeks, culturally speaking. They were particularly snotty and snooty towards their Theban near-neighbours, whom they derided and derogated as mere 'Boeotian swine', more interested in the belly than in the mind or the soul. Not so! One of my main reasons for trying to make us remember the Thebans was that in fact some of them made huge contributions to the high-cultural life of ancient Greece. 

Take Pindar, for prime example. Pindar was a lyric poet who was born in the late 6th century BC and lived until the mid-5th. His speciality was epinician verses – verses commissioned by victors in the four great panhellenic games, which were famous athletics festivals. The greatest of all was the ancient Olympics, dedicated to mighty Zeus of Mount Olympus. The first verse of Pindar’s first Olympian Ode famously begins: 'Best is water . . .' But, being Greek, he then at once qualifies that with a 'but . . .' 

Such was his fame as an emblem of Greekness that, when King Alexander had Thebes almost totally razed to the ground in 335 BC, as punishment for its betrayal of the Greek cause in the Persian Wars of 480-479 BC, the house Pindar had lived in over a century earlier was the sole secular structure he allowed to stay standing. That near-annihilation caused Thebes to be 'forgotten' in the most literal sense for 20 years – it simply ceased to exist. 

7. One of ancient Greece’s most revered musicians was born in Thebes 

 Pronomus was a skilled musician who lived around 400 BC. Pronomus came from a family of musicians, but he was the most famous, and, what’s more, he achieved his fame on the toughest of stages – the theatre of Dionysus at Athens! Tragedies and satyr-dramas were set to music and accompanied on an oboe-like reeded instrument called the aulos. Pronomus was a champion auletes; indeed, his fellow-countrymen, when their city was re-founded in about 315 BC, hailed him as the supreme champion on the aulos in all Hellas (Greece). 

Around 400 BC a potter and painter working in the Potters’ Quarter of Athens created a magnificent volute-amphora celebrating Pronomus. He is depicted surrounded by the chorus of a winning satyr-drama and with none other than Dionysus himself in attendance. Like many of the finest Athenian vases, it was exported to Apulia (Puglia) in south Italy, where it was interred as a grave-good and excavated over 22 centuries later in 1835. 

8. Thebes was the birthplace of some of ancient Greece’s most renowned philosophers.

 Two of Socrates’ most prominent pupils, Cebes and Simmias, published philosophers in their own right, though their writings have not survived, hailed from Thebes. Even more remarkably unconventional than they, perhaps, was another Theban immigrant philosopher, Crates (born about 365 BC), who abandoned a life of comfort in Thebes for a life on the streets in Athens – and thereby helped to give a boost to the new-fangled philosophic lifestyle known as Cynicism. But he also taught another immigrant, Zeno (from Cyprus), the recognised founder of another new and far more influential philosophy, Stoicism (so named because Zeno taught within the Painted Stoa or Colonnade in the agora of Athens). Where would the Romans (among others) have been without Stoicism?

9. The founding father of Messene and Megalopolis came from Thebes.

Epameinondas was born some time in the latter part of the 5th century BC and died, in battle, in 362. He was in the view of a reliable commentator (Sir Walter Raleigh) the greatest ancient Greek of them all – an opinion I’m inclined to share. We unfortunately know far less about him than we would like to, but what we do know is this. Epameinondas apparently never married; he seems to have been a preferred homosexual, in a city where that sexual preference was actively supported rather than excoriated. Famously, the Theban so-called ‘Sacred Band’, an elite infantry force first prominent in the 370s, consisted of 150 adult male homosexual couples. He was also the principal founding father of the cities of Messene and Megalopolis. Both were Peloponnesian, both anti-Spartan, the latter the capital of a new Arcadian federal state, the former an enduring symbol of liberation. For hundreds of years, most Messenians had been Helots of Sparta, enduring a quasi-servile status that denied them the Hellenic birthright of political as well as personal freedom. By freeing the Messenians from the Spartan yoke, Epameinondas deserves to be ranked alongside the other great ‘liberators’ of history – Bolivar, Sherman, Garibaldi . . .  How it would have grieved him, had he lived a further 27 years, to witness the near-annihilation of his beloved Thebes.  


by Paul Cartledge

Book cover for Thebes

Acclaimed historian Paul Cartledge brings ancient Thebes vividly to life in this fascinating account of what was once the most powerful city in Ancient Greece. With a history as rich as its mythic origins, Paul argues that Thebes is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements – and thus to our own culture and civilization.