Its position on the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth, extending westwards between Thessaly and Peloponnesus to the Isthmus of Corinth; the strategic strength of its frontiers; and the ease of communication within its extensive area gave it significant political importance. On the other hand the lack of good harbours hindered its maritime development. The Boeotian people, although including great men like Pindar, Hesiod, Epaminondas, Pelopidas and Plutarch, were proverbially dull.
In the mythical days Boeotia played a prominent part. Of the two great centres of legends, Thebes with its Cadmean population figures as a military stronghold, and Orchomenus, the home of the Minyae, as an enterprising commercial city. The latter's prosperity is indicated in archaeological remains (notably the "Treasury of Minyas"). The Boeotian population seems to have entered the land from the north at a date possibly before the Dorian invasion. With the exception of the Minyae, the original peoples were soon absorbed by these immigrants, and the Boeotians henceforth appear as a homogeneous nation.
In historical times the leading city of Boeotia was Thebes, whose central position and military strength made it a suitable capital, the other major towns were Orchomenus, Plataea, and Thespiae. It was the constant ambition of the Thebans to absorb the other townships into a single state, just as Athens had annexed the Attic communities. But the outlying cities successfully resisted this policy, and only allowed the formation of a loose federation which, initially, was merely religious.
While the Boeotians, unlike the Arcadians, generally acted as a united whole against foreign enemies, the constant struggle between the cities was a serious check on the nation's development. Boeotia hardly figures in history before the late 6th century. Previous to this its people are chiefly known as the makers of a type of geometric pottery, similar to the Dipylon ware of Athens. About 519 BC the resistance of Plataea to the federating policy of Thebes led to the interference of Athens on behalf of the former; on this occasion, and again in 507 BC, the Athenians defeated the Boeotian levy.
During the Persian invasion of 480 BC, Thebes assisted the invaders. In consequence, for a time, the presidency of the Boeotian League was taken from Thebes, but in 457 BC the Spartans reinstated that city as a bulwark against Athenian aggression after the Battle of Tanagra. Athens retaliated by a sudden advance upon Boeotia, and after the victory at the Battle of Oenophyta took control of the whole country except the capital. For ten years the land remained under Athenian control, which was exercised through the newly installed democracies; but in 447 BC the people revolted, and after a victory at the Battle of Coronea regained their independence.
In the Peloponnesian War the Boeotians fought zealously against Athens. Though slightly estranged from Sparta after the peace of Nicias, they never abated their enmity against their neighbours. They rendered good service at Syracuse and at the Battle of Arginusae; but their greatest achievement was the decisive victory at the Battle of Delium over the Athenian army (424 BC), in which both their heavy infantry and their cavalry displayed unusual efficiency.
About this time the Boeotian League comprised eleven groups of sovereign cities and associated townships, each of which elected one Boeotarch or minister of war and foreign affairs, contributed sixty delegates to the federal council at Thebes, and supplied a contingent of about a thousand foot and a hundred horse to the federal army. A safeguard against undue encroachment on the part of the central government was provided in the councils of the individual cities, to which all important questions of policy had to be submitted for ratification. These local councils, to which the propertied classes alone were eligible, were subdivided into four sections, resembling the prytaneis of the Athenian council, which took it in turns to vote on all new measures.
Boeotia took a prominent part in the war of the Corinthian League against Sparta, especially at Haliartus and the Battle of Coronea (395-394 BC). This change of policy seems due mainly to the national resentment against foreign interference. Yet disaffection against Thebes was now growing rife, and Sparta fostered this feeling by stipulating for the complete independence of all the cities in the peace of Antalcidas (387). In 374 BC Pelopidas restored the Theban dominion and their control was never significantly challenged again.
Boeotian contingents fought in all the campaigns of Epaminondas against the Spartans, most notably at the Battle of Leuctra in 371, and in the later wars against Phocis (356-346); while in the dealings with Philip of Macedon the cities merely followed Thebes. The federal constitution was also brought into accord with the democratic governments now prevalent throughout the land. The sovereign power was vested in the popular assembly, which elected the Boeotarchs (between seven and twelve in number), and sanctioned all laws. After the battle of Chaeroneia, in which the Boeotian heavy infantry once again distinguished itself, the land never rose again to prosperity.
The destruction of Thebes by Alexander the Great (335 BC) seems to have removed the political energy of the Boeotians. They never again pursued an independent policy, but followed the lead of protecting powers. Though military training and organization continued, the people proved unable to defend the frontiers, and the land became more than ever the "dancing-ground of Ares". Though enrolled for a short time in the Aetolian League (about 245 BC) Boeotia was generally loyal to Macedonia, and supported its later kings against Rome. Rome dissolved the league, which, however, was allowed to revive under Augustus, and merged with the other central Greek federations in the Achaean synod. The death-blow to the country's prosperity was given by the devastations during the First Mithradatic War.