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An history of the Greek city-state of Thebes

Updated on October 25, 2015
from a Theban workshop (Oinochoe type), 7th century BC
from a Theban workshop (Oinochoe type), 7th century BC

The Greek city-state of Thebes is even older than the Egyptian Thebes (called Thebia by the ancient Greeks). While a good deal of its ancient history is gleaned from mythology, written history has confirmed a good basis for the myths. Called the City of Legends, the big and fertile Boeotian plain has been occupied by humans since the Neolithic ages. The Ecrenians are considered the oldest inhabitants, with Ogyges as their leader, before 2500 BC.

Between 2500 BC and approximately 1500 BC, the area was occupied by Minyans, who named their city-state Orchomenos. These people were known eventually for a rich and cultured society, and issued one of the first Greek coins. They are also known for the construction of a 42-kilometer-long canal, 133 feet wide and 16 feet deep.

Around 1500 BC, Kadmos (better known as Cadmus) led Phoenician soldiers to take over the area, founding Thebes. On Kadmeia, a high-ground area of Thebes, Kadmos built a palace. There are a great many myths about Kadmos, and a number of stories rivals the Homeric Odyssey version of how the city founded. It is believed that Kadmos introduced the Phoenician alphabet, but it was centuries before it was used.

After Kadmos, there was a succession of kings – Polydoros, Labdakos, Laios, Nykteus, then Lykos. Nykteus had a daughter who was famous for her beauty, Antiope. Antiope was abducted by the city-state of Sikyon. Nykteus waged war and failed to recover his daughter; he returned to Thebes and appointed his brother, Lykos, as regent. Lykos also waged war over Antiope and got her back. Antiope’s return to Thebes was extremely unpleasant so she fled to join her sons who were near the city Eleutherae. The twin sons, Amphion and Zethos, avenged their mother and took over Thebes. The walls around the city, common to all Greek city-states except Sparta, are believed to have been built during the twins’ reign

Around this time Oedipus is reputed to have been born and immediately banished because of prophecies about his future. As an adult, he became king of Thebes, then went into exile around the 13th century BC. Two of his sons, Eteokles and Polyneikes, stayed and ruled Thebes, but Polyneikes was exiled for trying to take full control. To reinstate himself to the throne, Polyneikes joined with six other chiefs to wage war against Thebes; these chiefs were Adrastros, Amphiaraos, Kapaneus, Hippomedon, Parthenopaeos and Tydeus. This gave rise to the legend of “The Seven against Thebes”, written by Aeschylus. Each chief attacked one of the seven gates to Thebes. However, they did not succeed in gaining control of Thebes and had to leave.

Ten years later Adrastos returned with the sons of the other six slain chiefs, attacked the Theban army and forced them back within the walls of Thebes. Under advice of an oracle, the Thebans surrendered and fled the city. Epigonoi installed Thersander, son of the exiled Polykneikes, on the throne. Adrastos died of grief on his way home because his son was killed during the war, but the Thebans didn’t forget him; they built a monument to him in the agora

Thebes then had a strong and confident army and continued attacking other city-states, sometimes with success, sometimes not. Thebes repeatedly attacked Athens and tried to include other city-states in this endeavor, but many did not want to invade Athens; the Theban efforts were in vain. They did, however, gain a reputation as the only city-state to defeat the Spartans. By 400 BC, Thebes was a part of the Boeotian league, and had developed a reputation as a noble and prosperous city-state run by democrats.

From 382 BC until 375 BC, Sparta threw the democrats out of Thebes and ruled the city-state. At that point, Pelopidas, an exiled Theban, gathered the Sacred Band (leros lochos) of 300 soldiers, attacked Sparta and defeated the Spartan armies. By 371 BC, Thebes, rather than Sparta, was the strongest city-state in Greece. However, the prominence of Thebes lasted only ten years. Lack of experience and knowledge caused a failing economy; the city-state lost control of the other conquered city-states by 364 BC.

In 336 BC, Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) forced the Thebans to surrender to his army. The city was burned and plundered, saving the temples and Pindar’s house. From that time and through the Hellenistic period, Thebes was regularly destroyed and rebuilt, ending with two earthquakes in 1853 and 1893 AD, leaving few artifacts of its history.

After that, Thebes was built anew to the modern city we know today. Called Thiva by modern Greeks, it is still northwest of Athens, centered on the acropolis of the ancient city. It has abundant springs. including the famous Dirce, which irrigate the fertile surrounding plain. The city is rich in wheat, olive oil, wine, tobacco and cotton. The silk manufacturing it developed in the second century AD is still thriving. Some remnants of the original city walls still exist, as well as the palace of Cadmus (1450-1360 BC) and the Ismeneion (temple of Apollo Ismenius). Meanwhile, the legends, myths and stories of Heracles, Oedipus, Troy and Laius abound.

© 2015 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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