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Thebes, Greece

For the ancient capital of Upper Egypt, see Thebes, Egypt.

Thebes was a city in ancient Greece, situated to the north of the Cithaeron range, which divides Boeotia from Attica, and on the southern edge of the Boeotian plain. In ancient times it was the largest city of the region of Boeotia.

Currently, the location of the ancient citadel, the Cadmea, is occupied by the town of Thívai.


The record of the earliest days of Thebes was preserved among the Greeks in an abundant mass of legends which rival the myths of Troy in their wide ramification and the influence which they exerted upon the literature of the classical age. Five main cycles of story may be distinguished:
  1. The foundation of the citadel Cadmea by Cadmus, and the growth of the Sparti or "Sown Men" (probably an aetiological myth designed to explain the origin of the Theban nobility which bore that name in historical times);
  2. The building of a "seven-gated" wall by Amphion, and the cognate stories of Zethus, Antiope and Dirce;
  3. The tale of the "house of Laius," culminating in the adventures of Oedipus and the wars of the "Seven Against Thebes" and the Epigonoi;
  4. The advent of Dionysus; and
  5. The exploits of Heracles.
It is difficult to extract any historical fact out of this maze of myths; the various groups cannot be fully co-ordinated, and a further perplexing feature is the neglect of Thebes in the Homeric poems. On the other hand, these myths cannot be entirely discarded, as shown by the recovery in the 1909 excavation of the "House of Cadmus", whom legend states was born in Tyre and taught letters to the Greeks, of a collection of Mesopotamian cylinder-seals, including one referring to a Kassite king who ruled between 1381 - 1354 BC. Further archeological excavations in and around Thebes have revealed cist graves dated to Mycenaean times containing weapons, ivory, and tablets written in Linear B. It seems safe to infer that it was one of the first Greek communities to be drawn together within a fortified city, that it owed its importance in prehistoric -- as in later days -- to its military strength. As a fortified community, it attracted attention from the invading Dorians, and the fact of their eventual conquest of Thebes lie behind the stories of the successive legendary attacks on that city.

The central position and military security of the city naturally tended to raise it to a commanding position among the Boeotians, and from early days its inhabitants endeavoured to establish a complete supremacy over their kinsmen in the outlying towns. This centralizing policy is as much the cardinal fact of Theban history as the counteracting effort of the smaller towns to resist absorption forms the main chapter of the story of Boeotia. No details of the earlier history of Thebes have been preserved, except that it was governed by a land-holding aristocracy who safeguarded their integrity by rigid statutes about the ownership of property and its transmission.

In the late 6th century BC the Thebans were brought for the first time into hostile contact with the Athenians, who helped the small village of Plataea to maintain its independence against them, and in 506 repelled an inroad into Attica. The aversion to Athens best serves to explain the unpatriotic attitude which Thebes displayed during the great Persian War. Though a contingent of 700 was sent to Thermopylae and remained there with Leonidas to the end, the governing aristocracy soon after joined the enemy with great readiness and fought zealously on his behalf at the battle of Plataea in 519. The victorious Greeks subsequently punished Thebes by depriving it of the presidency of the Boeotian League, and an attempt by the Spartans to expel it from the Delphic amphictyony was only frustrated by the intercession of Athens. In 457 Sparta, needing a counterpoise against Athens in central Greece, reversed her policy and reinstated Thebes as the dominant power in Boeotia. The great citadel of Cadmea served this purpose well by holding out as a base of resistance when the Athenians overran and occupied the rest of the country (457 - 447). In the Peloponnesian War the Thebans, embittered by the support which Athens gave to the smaller Boeotian towns, and especially to Plataea, which they vainly attempted to reduce in 431, were firm allies of Sparta, which in turn helped them to besiege Plataea and allowed them to destroy the town after its capture in 427 BC. In 424 at the head of the Boeotian levy they inflicted a severe defeat upon an invading force of Athenians at the Battle of Delium, and for the first time displayed the effects of that firm military organization which eventually raised them to predominant power in Greece.

After the downfall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War the Thebans, finding that Sparta intended to protect the states which they desired to annex, broke off the alliance. In 404 they had urged the complete destruction of Athens, yet in 403 they secretly supported the restoration of its democracy in order to find in it a counterpoise against Sparta. A few years later, influenced perhaps in part by Persian gold, they formed the nucleus of the league against Sparta. At the battles of Haliartus (395) and Coronea (394) they again proved their rising military capacity by standing their ground against the Spartans. The result of the war was especially disastrous to Thebes, as the general settlement of 387 stipulated the complete autonomy of all Greek towns and so withdrew the other Boeotians from its political control. Its power was further curtailed in 382, when a Spartan force occupied the citadel by a treacherous coup-de-main. Three years later the Spartan garrison was expelled, and a democratic constitution definitely set up in place of the traditional oligarchy. In the consequent wars with Sparta the Theban army, trained and led by Epaminondas and Pelopidas, proved itself the best in Greece. Some years of desultory fighting, in which Thebes established its control over all Boeotia, culminated in 371 in a remarkable victory over the pick of the Spartans at Leuctra. The winners were hailed throughout Greece as champions of the oppressed. They carried their arms into Peloponnesus and at the head of a large coalition permanently crippled the power of Sparta. Similar expeditions were sent to Thessaly and Macedonia to regulate the affairs of those countries.

However the predominance of Thebes was short-lived; the states which she protected refused to subject themselves permanently to her control, and the renewed rivalry of Athens, which had joined with Thebes in 395 in a common fear of Sparta, but since 371 had endeavoured to maintain the balance of power against her ally, prevented the formation of a Theban empire. With the death of Epaminondas at Mantinea in 362 the city sank again to the position of a secondary power. In a war with the neighbouring state of Phocis (356 - 346) it could not even maintain its predominance in central Greece, and by inviting Philip II of Macedon to crush the Phocians it extended that monarch's power within dangerous proximity to its frontiers. A revulsion of feeling was completed in 338 by the orator Demosthenes, who persuaded Thebes to join Athens in a final attempt to bar Philip's advance upon Attica. The Theban contingent fought bravely on behalf of Grecian liberty in the decisive battle of Chaeronea, and bore the brunt of the slaughter. Philip was content to deprive Thebes of her dominion over Boeotia; but an unsuccessful revolt in 335 against his son Alexander was punished by the complete destruction of the city, except, according to tradition, the house of the poet Pindar.

Though restored in 315 by Cassander, Thebes never again played a prominent part in history. It suffered from the establishment of Chalcis as the chief fortress of central Greece, and was severely handled by the Roman conquerors Mummius and Sulla. Strabo describes it as a mere village, and in Pausanias's time (mid-1st century) its citadel alone was inhabited. During the Byzantine period it served as a place of refuge against foreign invaders, and from the 10th century, became a centre of the new silk trade. Though severely plundered by the Normans in 1146 it recovered its prosperity and was selected by the Frankish dynasty de la Roche as its capital. In 1311 it was destroyed by the Catalan Company and passed out of history.

Portions of the historical section were taken from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.