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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

John Buckler,

Maria C. Pantelia


[This entry includes two subentries, on the history of Thebes and on Theban myths.]

The History of Thebes

Thebes, the principal city of Boeotia, commands its eastern basin of some 4,800 square miles (12,400 square kilometers). This rich and well-watered land allowed Thebes early to extend its power throughout Boeotia. The Cadmea, a plateau more than two hundred feet (about sixty-three meters) high, formed its acropolis.

Numismatic evidence indicates that by the late sixth century bce Thebes had organized a rudimentary confederacy with some of its neighbors. Theban efforts to include Plataea in 519 failed in the face of Athenian intervention, from which sprang future Theban hostility toward Athens. Although during the Persian Wars most Thebans medized (supported the Persians), one group served with other Greeks at Thermopylae in 480. Once Xerxes had conquered central Greece, Thebes energetically supported the Persians, most notably at Plataea in 479. Although the victorious Greeks punished only the leading pro-Persians, Thebes suffered political isolation during the following years.

In 457, Sparta, its army then in Boeotia, broke Theban isolation by concluding an alliance to which Athens responded by invading Boeotia. Sparta and Thebes defeated the invader at Tanagra, but sixty-two days later Athens again attacked Boeotia, defeated it at Oenophyta, and overran it. Rallying, Thebans and other Boeotians defeated Athens in 447 at Coronea, and thereafter they created the first extensive and enduring federal government in Greek history (Hellenica Oxyrhynchia 19).

Allied with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431–404), Thebes fought both to defeat Athens and to strengthen its position within Boeotia. Thebes began hostilities in 431 by attacking Plataea before the general declaration of war. Prolonged siege led to Plataean surrender in 427 and severe punishment for the survivors. Thebes subsequently assumed Plataean land and votes in the Boeotian Confederacy. In 424, Thebans and fellow Boeotians defeated Athens at Delium, after which Thebes destroyed the walls of Thespiae and appropriated its federal vote. Thebes thus effectively controlled the confederacy.

After lending some support to Syracuse in 414, Thebes efficiently plundered eastern Attica during the Decelean War (412–404: the last part of the Peloponnesian War). Upon Athens’ surrender in 404, Thebes vainly demanded both the destruction of Athens and a tithe of the spoils of war. Sparta's refusal so angered Thebes that it supported Thrasybulus in overthrowing the pro-Spartan Thirty Tyrants in Athens. Together with Athens, Corinth, and Argos, Thebes accepted Persian money to instigate the Corinthian War against Sparta (395–387). Opposing Spartan ambitions in the east, Thebes insulted Sparta's king Agesilaus in 395 for improperly sacrificing at Aulis, thereby making him its lifelong enemy. During the war Thebes with its allies defeated Sparta at Haliartus in 395, lost at the Nemea River the next year, and trounced Sparta at Coronea in 394. Thebes surrendered to Sparta at the King's Peace of 386, which entailed the dissolution of the Boeotian Confederacy and its own isolation.

In 382, Sparta illegally seized Thebes in peacetime only to provoke successful rebellion and the re-creation of the confederacy in 378. Thebes won the battle of Tegyra in 375 and the decisive Leuctra in 371. In the following years Thebes ravaged Laconia and the northern Peloponnesus, thus destroying Sparta as a major power. Thebes also extended its influence into the north. Theban ascendancy ended with the death of its general Epaminondas at the victorious Battle of Mantinea in 362. Thebes defended Delphi during the Sacred War (356–346), while cultivating the friendship of the Macedonian king Philip II. He nonetheless defeated Thebes and Athens at Chaeronea in 338.

Although Philip spared Thebes, Alexander destroyed it after its revolt in 335. Cassander rebuilt the Cadmea in 316, but Sulla severely punished Thebes in 86, after which it played a minor role in antiquity.


Buckler, John. The Theban Hegemony, 371–362 BC. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.Find this resource:

    Cloché, Paul. Thèbes de Béotie des origines à la conquête romaine. Namur, Belgium: Secrétariat des Publications, Facultés Universitaires, 1952.Find this resource:

      Symeonoglou, Sarantis. The Topography of Thebes from the Bronze Age to Modern Times. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

        John Buckler

        Theban Myths

        Thebes, the principal city of Boeotia in Greece, occupied the plain among the mountain ranges of Parnes, Cithaeron, Helicon, and Parnassus and lay next to the main route to Attica and southern Greece. Archaeological excavations and clay tablets in Linear B indicate that the city was an important center during both the Bronze Age and the Classical period, second only to Athens and Sparta. Its citadel was named Cadmea, after Cadmus, the legendary founder of Thebes, and was surrounded by great walls distinguished by seven gates.

        The prominence of Thebes in the Greek literary tradition is attested in one of Sophocles’ fragments (fragment 773 Radt), where it is described as “the only city where women are mothers of gods,” referring to Dionysus and possibly Heracles, both natives of Thebes. The mythical history of the city was related in a collection of four epics known as the Theban Cycle. The Oedipodea, attributed to Cinaethon, told the story of Oedipus and Sphinx's riddle. The Thebais, the most prominent among the epics, was attributed by ancient writers to Homer and described the war pitting seven kings (known as the “Seven against Thebes”) under the leadership of Oedipus’ son Polynices against the army of Thebes led by Eteocles. The Epigonoi (Next Generation), attributed in antiquity either to Antimachus of Teos or to Homer, was a continuation of the Thebais and covered the successful attack on Thebes mounted by the Epigonoi, the children of the Seven. And finally the Alcmeonis narrated the story of Alcmaeon's murder of his mother Eriphyle to avenge the death of his father Amphiaraus—a story that bears some resemblance to Orestes’ story in the Trojan Cycle. With the exception of a few fragments, the Theban epics are now lost, but their stories survived in later literature and provided material for some of the best known Athenian tragedies, namely Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, and Euripides’ Phoenician Women and Suppliant Women.

        Most of the Theban legends predate the Trojan War by as many as two generations, and Thebes itself is not mentioned in Homer's Catalog of Ships (Iliad 2) because the city had already been destroyed by the Epigonoi. Homer mentions Oedipus in passing in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Jocasta (or Epicaste) is one of the women whom Odysseus sees during his visit to the Underworld in book 11 of the Odyssey. The Theban seer Tiresias, a recurring character in several Greek tragedies, is important in the Odyssey as the wise prophet who gives Odysseus advice about his return home. In Hesiod's account of the Ages of Men, Thebes is one of the cities destroyed in a great war during the Age of the Heroes, the other being Troy. References to the saga of Laius, with Oedipus and his progeny at its center, abound in ancient literature. Equally important are the stories of Cadmus and Harmonia, the various legends about the Spartoi (Sown Men), and the myth of Dionysus and Pentheus.

        Foundation Stories.

        Unlike other ancient Greek cities, Thebes has two foundation stories. The most prominent tradition assigns the founding of Thebes to Cadmus, the leader of a Phoenician colony. Cadmus’ founding of the city is recounted in detail by Euripides in his Phoenician Women (639–675), as well as in Ovid's Metamorphoses (3.3–130). Cadmus, son of the Phoenician king Agenor, was sent out to search for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus. Unsuccessful in his quest, he came to Delphi to consult the oracle, which advised him to give up his hopeless search for his sister and to follow a cow. The cow led Cadmus to southern Boeotia, where he founded the city of Cadmea, later called Thebes. In order to claim the site, Cadmus had to slay the serpent that guarded the spring. At the instruction of Athena he sowed the serpent's teeth in the ground, and from this sprang armed men, called Spartoi (Sown), who killed each other. The five who survived assisted Cadmus in building the new city and became the founders of the noblest families of Thebes.

        Some of the Spartoi had their own legend. Zethus and Amphion, for example, the twin sons of Antiope, were descendants of Chthonius, one of the five Spartoi. Zethus and Amphion became rulers of Cadmea and built the walls of Thebes, thus establishing a second founding tradition for Thebes. The city was renamed Thebes after Thebe, Zethus’ wife. This story is known to Homer (Odyssey 11.260–265) and Hesiod (fragment 183 M-W). In contrast to Cadmus’ story, which essentially attributes the founding of the city to an outsider, this alternate version establishes—similar to the Athenian myths of Cecrops and Erichthonius—an indigenous tradition by associating Thebes with the lineage of the Spartoi, who are autochthonous (“sprung from the earth”).

        As a result of slaying the serpent, Cadmus had to do penance to Ares for eight years. At the end of his service he was freed and given Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, as his wife. Their splendid wedding was attended by the gods. Pindar in his third Pythian Ode (86–104) uses the event as an example of the uncertainty of human life and compares it to another unfortunate union, the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the precursor of the Trojan War and of the eventual death of Achilles. One of the wedding gifts, a necklace for Harmonia, was meant to bring misfortune to its owner. In fact, Cadmus and Harmonia's children had accursed lives and became characters in Greek tragedy. Ino killed her children before she jumped off a cliff, Semele was consumed by Zeus’ fire, Agave killed her own son Pentheus, and Autonoe saw her son Actaeon devoured by his own hounds. Actaeon's story became a popular motif both in ancient art and in Renaissance and post-Renaissance depictions. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, Actaeon was a rival of Zeus for Semele, his mother's sister, whereas in Euripides’ Bacchae he is said to have boasted that he was a better hunter than Artemis. Ovid tells that Actaeon accidentally saw Diana while she was bathing. Artemis changed him into a stag, and he was eventually killed by his own hounds. Actaeon's story highlights the theme of sparagmos (tearing apart), which is central to the cult of Dionysus and a feature of Thebes.

        ThebesClick to view larger

        Theban Myth. Cadmus fighting the Python. Red-figure calyx krater, 340 bce, by the Python Painter. Musée du Louvre, Paris/Reunion des Musées Nationaux/Hervé Lewandowski/Art Resource, NY

        Cadmus and Harmonia ruled Thebes for many years. Worn out by grief for the misfortune of their children, they left their city and traveled to Illyria, where Cadmus became king. According to Ovid and Hyginus, they were changed to serpents before their death and sent to the Elysian fields by Zeus. In Euripides’ Bacchae, Cadmus is turned into a serpent after Dionysus overthrows Thebes. The recurrence of the serpent theme in Cadmus’ story may point to an Eastern prototype for the myth, possibly to the Babylonian creation myth and Marduk's victory over the monster Tiamat. Cadmus’ Eastern origins can also be seen in the tradition that he introduced literacy to Greece by bringing with him the Phoenician script (Phoinikeia grammata: Herodotus Histories 5.58), that is, the syllabary on the basis of which the Greeks invented the alphabet. The story lacks historical foundation because the alphabet was developed in Greece around the eighth century bce and clearly postdates the myth of Cadmus, whose story belongs to the Bronze Age and predates the Trojan War.

        Oedipus and His Children.

        Cadmus’ successor in Thebes was Pentheus, son of Echion, the strongest of the Spartoi, and Agave, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. In Euripides’ Bacchae, young Pentheus attempts to eliminate the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus returns to Thebes and causes Pentheus’ mother and her sisters Ino and Agave to rush to Mount Cithaeron in a bacchic frenzy. Pentheus incarcerates Dionysus, who breaks out of prison and eventually convinces Pentheus to go to the mountains and spy on the bacchic rites. While moving closer to view the women performing the Dionysian rites, Pentheus is taken to be a wild animal and is torn apart in another sparagmos by the women of Cadmea, including his mother, Agave.

        After Pentheus’ death, a new dynasty is founded by Labdacus, who may have been a descendent of Cadmus. Labdacus’ son, Laius, was driven into exile after the death of this father. While in exile he stayed at the palace of Pelops in Elis and fell in love with Pelops’ son Chrysippus, whom he abducted. By doing so he violated the sacred institution of guest-host relationship and brought a curse upon himself and his descendents. This curse accounted for the suffering of his son Oedipus and his family and the eventual destruction of Thebes. To avoid Pelops’ curse and the prophecy that he would be killed by his own son, Laius exposed his infant son on Mount Cithaeron with a spike driven through his ankles—hence Oedipus’ name, which means “swollen-footed.” Oedipus, however, was saved by shepherds and taken to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, where he was raised as their son. Many years later, Oedipus was told by the oracle that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. In his attempt to evade the oracle, he fled from Corinth to Thebes, where he accidentally killed Laius. Upon his arrival at Thebes, he relieved the city from the Sphinx by solving its riddle and became king of Thebes and husband of its queen Jocasta, his own mother.

        Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex dramatizes Oedipus’ discovery of his true identity, which leads to Jocasta's suicide and to Oedipus’ self-blinding. Oedipus’ blinding is not part of Homer's or Hesiod's narration and may be Sophocles’ invention. A sequel to Oedipus Rex, also by Sophocles, is Oedipus at Colonus. In this play Oedipus becomes a wanderer and finally finds refuge at Colonus, outside Athens, where Theseus, the king of Athens, takes care of him and his daughter, Antigone. Oedipus dies peacefully, and his grave is said to be sacred to the gods.

        The myth of Oedipus was also the subject of an entire trilogy by Aeschylus. Only the third play, Seven against Thebes, has survived; it describes the events surrounding the attack on the seven gates of Thebes by seven kings and their armies led by Oedipus’ son Polynices, against the army of Thebes headed by Polynices’ brother Eteocles. The same story is told in Euripides’ Phoenician Women, and an earlier version was contained in the lost Thebais. Much like the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ Theban trilogy deals with the tribulations of a royal family over three successive generations. When Oedipus stepped down from the throne, he handed the kingdom over to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who agreed to rule in alternate years. After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down, and Polynices attacked Thebes with the eponymous Seven. At the end of the play Eteocles and Polynices kill each other in battle. Their bodies are brought onstage, and the chorus mourns them. The original play was supposed to end with the mourning for the two dead brothers. But because of the popularity of Sophocles’ Antigone, the ending of Seven was changed after Aeschylus’ death to include a prohibition against burying Polynices and Antigone's announcement of her intention to defy this edict.

        Sophocles’ Antigone focuses on the character of Oedipus’ daughter and her decision to bury her brother Polynices, risking Creon's wrath and execution. Since the time of Sophocles, Antigone has been the symbol of the individual conscience in the face of unjust laws, and her legend has received many reinterpretations. The city of Thebes was finally destroyed by the Epigonoi led by Alcmaeon and the sons of the Seven. On the advice of Tiresias, the Thebans abandoned their ruined city. In the Iliad's Catalog of Ships only Lower Thebes is mentioned as having sent an army, implying, perhaps, that the city of Thebes was in no position to participate.

        ThebesClick to view larger

        [House of Thebes.]

        The Theban legends make up a complex cycle of traditions mixed with folklore and Orientalizing elements. Wars and familial strife are common motifs in many of its stories, as are turbulent opposites. However, unlike the Trojan Cycle or the myths of Athens, in which familial strife is resolved and often leads to the establishment of new institutions or hero cult—witness Orestes and his acquittal by the Areopagus, Hippolytus, or the reestablishment of domesticity at the house of Menelaus after the war—Theban stories show no sign of peaceful power transfer and political continuity or hope for a better future. The Theban cycle of myths was a plastic one. It has been recently argued, for instance, that Thebes was modeled by fifth-century Athenian playwrights as an “anti-city,” that is, as the negative paradigm to Athens’ own self-image. Whether this ideological construct continued to resonate outside Athens and after the fifth century is another question.


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                      Maria C. Pantelia

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