Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece 
by Paul Cartledge.
Picador, 320 pp., £12.99, May, 978 1 5098 7317 3
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Anyone​ who doubts that Thebes is indeed a ‘forgotten city’ hasn’t spent much time in Greek souvenir shops. In a marketplace shaped by the interests of foreign tourists, there are countless mementos of Athens and Sparta, but barely a trace of a city that was at one time their equal and even, for a brief stretch, the leading power of Hellas. Two years ago, after a diligent search through the Plaka neighbourhood in Athens, I found a single souvenir recalling the glory days of classical Thebes: a tiny replica coin stamped with a figure-of-eight infantry shield, the artless image that appeared on nearly all the currency minted in ancient Boeotia, the region surrounding Thebes. Among dozens of Athenian owls and coins portraying Alexander the Great, it didn’t spark the shopper’s imagination.

The high point of Theban achievement, roughly the first four decades of the fourth century bc, came directly after the golden age of Athens. But while Athenian writers, especially Thucydides, give us ready access to the life of Athens in the classical age, the Theban record is much thinner. No Theban writers survive from this period except Pindar, the lyric poet of the mid-fifth century, and his odes deal only marginally with his own region. Xenophon, the Athenian soldier of fortune whose Hellenica follows events in Greece from 410 to 362, might have borne witness to the great age of Thebes, but in fact did more than anyone to make sure the city was ‘forgotten’. A Spartophile who admired the Spartan king Agesilaos to the point of hero worship, Xenophon detested the Thebans for the defeats they inflicted on Agesilaos himself and the Spartan army. He did his best to exclude them from Hellenica and to minimise their achievements. The historian Ephorus, his contemporary, might have provided a counterbalance, but most of his writings have perished.

Classical Thebes has been unlucky in its chroniclers: thanks to the survival of Greek tragedy, the Thebes of myth is far better known. Athenian playwrights were drawn to the tales of Heracles and Dionysus, gods who were born at Thebes, and to the sufferings of the house of Cadmus, the city’s legendary founder. Among the descendants of Cadmus was Pentheus, whose story is dramatised in Euripides’ Bacchae; he brought disaster on Thebes, and a gruesome death on himself, by scorning the divinity of his cousin Dionysus. Thebes suffered further paroxysms under its most famous king, Oedipus, and his two warring sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Three of the surviving plays by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, and one by Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes, trace the tortured history of the clan, for whose sins the city suffered plague, civil war and dictatorship. Through these dramas, Antigone especially, an idea of Thebes as a site of sin and suffering has endured.

Cadmus, a Phoenician prince, was said to have founded Thebes at the direction of the Delphic oracle, on the spot where a particular cow lay down to rest. That spot became known as the Cadmea, the high ground of Thebes. The city walls had seven gates, at which its seven mythic attackers perished. New walls were built later, enclosing a much larger area, and the Cadmea became for Thebes what the Acropolis was for Athens: the religious and ceremonial heart of the city, as well as a refuge from invaders. But the Cadmea never sported a temple half as grand as the Parthenon or the Erechtheum. Nor did Thebes, unlike Athens, have any silver mines or imperial revenues to fund architectural wonders. Its economy was agrarian, its resources modest, as attested by the Boeotian poet Hesiod, whose Works and Days describes the life of a hardworking, rough-hewn, small-plot farmer.

Athenians mocked Thebans for their perceived lack of urban elegance. ‘Boeotian swine’ was a common insult in cosmopolitan Athens. Both Aristophanes and Plato lampooned the rustic Boeotian dialect, with its broad, flat ‘ah’ sounds in place of the Attic ‘ee’. (Theban names often end in -das, Epaminondas, rather than the more familiar Athenian -des.) But the greatest ignominy for Thebes was its decision in 480, in the face of a massive Persian invasion of mainland Hellas, to support the Persians. This ‘medism’ was deeply resented, especially since other Boeotian cities did not make the same choice, and one, Plataea, played a heroic role in driving off the Persian threat. After the war, Sparta and Athens together put Thebes under siege and forced the surrender of its leaders, who were whisked off to Corinth and put to death.

The Thebans submitted to the will of their two more powerful rivals several times over the century that followed. They endured subjection to Athens for a decade in the mid-fifth century, and in the 380s spent several years under Spartan domination, after a coup installed a pro-Spartan regime backed by a garrison. But a hundred years after the medism debacle, Thebes rose to vie for hegemony over mainland Greece. It adopted a form of democracy, after the Athenian model, and also tapped a resource of its own – a uniquely positive view of erotic love between men – to produce an army capable of defeating even the super-soldiers of Sparta.

Thebes, a survey of a thousand years of Theban myth and history, marks a new phase in Paul Cartledge’s career. The story of Sparta was long central to his work: in 2005, the Greek government made him an honorary citizen of the city. His many books include a biography of Agesilaos (1987) and a set of translations of Xenophon (1997): evidence of a deep engagement with two men who despised Thebes and sought to obliterate it, the former by military, the latter by literary means. But in the last decade Cartledge has turned his attention to the topic of democracy as practised both in ancient Greece and in the modern West. His previous book, Democracy: A Life, made a brief case for seeing the rise of Thebes as evidence of democracy’s vitality. In this book, he expands on that thesis, seeing the heyday of Theban power as part of a ‘great age of democracy in the Greek world as a whole’.

Pro-democratic change in Thebes began, for unclear reasons, just after the end of the Peloponnesian War. The Thebans had fought doggedly on the Spartan side, ‘precisely because Sparta favoured their oligarchic mode of self-government and was likely to be willing to help defend it,’ as Cartledge writes. After Sparta’s victory in 404, Thebes, along with Corinth, is said to have demanded the total destruction of Athens – both cities would have gained enormously from the resulting plunder. Yet the very next year, Theban leaders defied a Spartan order to banish pro-democracy activists who had fled Athens to escape the junta imposed on them by the Spartans. It then compounded its defiance by helping the Athenian exiles retake their city and restore democracy. In a matter of months, Thebes appears to have moved from seeking the annihilation of Athens to helping it strike a decisive blow against Sparta.

It would be good to know more about what happened in Thebes during those crucial months, but very few surviving sources give any insight into its politics, and one that does is preserved only in anonymous fragments, the tattered scraps of papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus. The Oxyrhynchus historian takes a strong interest in Thebes’ affairs around the time of its sudden switch to a pro-Athenian stance, making it clear that the shift was largely due to a Theban leader called Ismenias, while adding, in a passage partially restored by editorial guesswork, that ideology had little to do with it: that is, Ismenias leaned towards Athens but not towards democracy. Presumably the Oxyrhynchus historian went on to say what his motives were, but the text breaks off. Perhaps Ismenias was driven by mistrust of Sparta – this pattern was often seen in the decades to come, as mainland Greece evolved from a bipolar world into what a contemporary observer called a ‘three-headed monster’.

There are other mysteries surrounding Ismenias. In Plato’s Meno (set in 402), Socrates mentions that Ismenias recently became hugely rich. Great wealth would ordinarily cause a Greek leader to Laconise, to turn towards Sparta, yet it was around this time that Ismenias Atticised. Did he get rich from Athenian bribes? Later, in the 390s, he reportedly took gold from the Persians to stir up war against Sparta – the so-called Corinthian War, which forced Sparta to withdraw its forces from an inchoate campaign in what is now western Turkey. When the Spartans seized control of Thebes in 382, they executed Ismenias for colluding with the Persians against them. But given how badly they needed a scapegoat for their retreat from Asia, and how easily a charge of medism could be made to stick to a Theban, they may have had few real grounds. It was more likely his collusion with Athens that had stuck in the Spartan craw.

It’s surprising that Cartledge does not take much interest in Ismenias (or Hismenias, a variant spelling), given how central he was to the sea change that made Thebes a leading power and a democracy. Indeed Cartledge’s book, though in most respects excellent, has one, perhaps inevitable flaw: its focus on Thebes is at odds with its diachronic structure. In its march through the centuries, it covers many eras and events to which Thebes was at best peripheral. Cartledge’s discussion of the Peloponnesian War, for example, is rich and detailed – considerably longer than his chapter on the fourth-century ‘Theban Heyday’ that followed. Thebes played a much bigger role in the later era, but the earlier one looms larger in the history of Greece. Cartledge does his best to bring out a Theban perspective even when other cities (mostly Athens and Sparta) supply the main story, but it sometimes seems as if he has dragged Thebans on-stage when they really belong in the wings.

The Peloponnesian War left Sparta the leading power of mainland Greece, but hardly a superpower. Its citizen population had been declining for decades; they were increasingly reliant on their beleaguered Peloponnesian neighbours, some now kept in line by garrisons, and by levies from sub-citizen groups living at Sparta, which even included the enslaved helots. Epaminondas, the visionary who guided Theban policy from the 370s, saw the weaknesses that Agesilaos was doing his best to conceal, and resolved to drive a wedge between Sparta and its so-called allies, many of whom were sick of Spartan bullying and eager to line up with those who, like the Thebans, would stand up to it. (Athens by this time had begun to put ideology aside and to lean towards alliance with Sparta.)

Epaminondas’ leadership lasted little more than a decade (and that of his partner, Pelopidas, was also short-lived), but Cartledge’s treatment of the Epaminondas era is the richest chapter in this book, in part because the extant sources are far more extensive. Plutarch, a native of Chaeronea in Boeotia, took a strong interest in his region’s heroes, though he wrote more than five centuries after their time. He probably gave his biography of Epaminondas pride of place as the opening chapter of Parallel Lives; it was later lost when an early copy of the Lives was damaged, but his account of Pelopidas survives intact, as do shorter biographies of both men by the Roman historian Cornelius Nepos.

The story of Thebes’​ bid for leadership of Greece begins with Pelopidas. Exiled by the Spartan coup of 382, he took refuge in Athens. In 379 he led a small band of commandos back to Thebes to unseat the Spartan-backed puppet regime, a journey Cartledge compares to Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917, a suggestive parallel: Thebes had been led by oligarchs, and under the Spartans a wealthy elite held the reins of power even more tightly; when Pelopidas and his comrades booted that elite out and took power themselves, they put into practice much of what they had learned in Athens. Direct evidence of their constitutional reforms is unfortunately lacking, but Cartledge persuasively demonstrates that its spirit must have been democratic.

The new Theban leadership made haste to restore the Boeotian League, a regional federation that Sparta had quashed. Cartledge rightly stresses the significance of the league, in effect the first state on European soil to forge a single political entity out of many autonomous cities. It augmented Theban power in the same way Athens had been strengthened by its naval empire, and aroused similar opposition from Sparta. The league was effectively banned by a Spartan-enforced treaty signed in 387, but in 371, when a new treaty was under review, Thebes insisted the ban be lifted. Epaminondas, in his first recorded appearance on the international stage, defended the league with vigour in an argument with Agesilaos. Enraged, the Spartan king struck Thebes out of the treaty and prepared for war.

The resulting battle, at Leuctra on the Boeotian plain, did more to shift the balance of power in Greece than any of the far better-known confrontations of the fifth century. Epaminondas massed his best troops at one end of his line and aimed them straight at the enemy leadership, not engaging at the other end at all (a tactic known as ‘cutting off the snake’s head’). Cleombrotus, a Spartan king, was killed in the onslaught, as were some four hundred full Spartan citizens, perhaps a third of its soldiers in active service. The ‘Spartan mirage’ was utterly dispelled.

The Thebans followed up their victory by invading the Peloponnese. Epaminondas liberated the helots and built a fortified city, Messene, to safeguard their freedom. Sparta’s long-bullied neighbours, the Arcadians, formed a league along Boeotian lines and, assisted by troops sent by Thebes, built another new city, Megalopolis, as its capital. These two cities served as bastions of the new democratic order in Greece and as checks on Spartan power, which never recovered.

Cartledge’s treatment of the Theban heyday is all too brief, in part because the lives of the Theban leaders were so brief. Pelopidas died in battle in 364; Epaminondas lived only two years longer. Called back to the Peloponnese by the fracturing of the Arcadian League, he again clashed with a Spartan-led army, near Mantinea this time, and was felled by a spear at the moment of victory. Officially the battle was judged a tie but for Thebes it turned out to be a resounding defeat. The city didn’t have any leaders able to sustain its forward surge. A quarter-century later, at Chaeronea, it was defeated, alongside Athens, by Philip of Macedon, who in his youth had spent several years at Thebes, observing the methods and strategies of Epaminondas.

Among the casualties of Chaeronea was the remarkable infantry corps Thebes had assembled forty years before, the Sacred Band, made up of 150 pairs of male lovers. Throughout his career, one of Cartledge’s strengths as a Hellenist has been his awareness of the way sexual love between older and younger males influenced Greek political and military power structures. This topic is too often ignored or, occasionally, over-stressed by scholars for subjective reasons. Having already dealt with the subject deftly in his biography of Agesilaos and elsewhere, Cartledge again shows admirable insight into the historical importance of Greek male homosexuality. Boeotians, as he notes, were known among the Greeks to be uniquely supportive of male pair bonding, and their formation of the Sacred Band attests to this. Like most other Hellenists, Cartledge believes that a mass grave uncovered in the 19th century, beneath Chaeronea’s famous lion monument, contains the remains of the band, destroyed there by Philip’s teenage son, Alexander the Great. The modern reconstruction of that lion has helped Thebes, the ‘forgotten city’, not to be forgotten.

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