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Thebes (Greece)

Thebes (Greece)

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Thebes is a town in central Greece which has been continuously inhabited for five millennia. It was an important Mycenaean centre in the middle to late Bronze Age and was a powerful city-state in the Classical period, participating in both the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, reaching its peak of influence in the early 4th century BCE when it was the most powerful city in Greece.


In mythology the city was founded by Kadmos, son of Agenor, brother of Europa, and ancestor of Oedipus. After killing a giant serpent (or dragon) which Ares had sent to protect the Areia Spring, Athena instructed Kadmos to sow the serpent's teeth into the ground from which sprang up warriors who would found the city of Thebes. The myth of Kadmos may hint at the eastern origins of the city, as his name may derive from the Semitic word qedem, meaning east. Also, according to Herodotus, it was Kadmos who introduced the Phoenician script to Greece.

Thebes was, according to legend, the birthplace of the mythological pan-Hellenic hero Hercules. It was also the place where the Sphinx - a mythical creature with a woman's head and a winged lion's body - appeared to terrorize the area until her riddle was solved. Her riddle asked passersby to identify the creature that may have two, three, or four feet, can move in air, water, and on land, and moves more slowly the more feet it has. Oedipus solved the riddle - man - and in a rage the Sphinx leapt to her death from the Theban acropolis.

Another mythological story connected to the city is the legendary expedition of The Seven Against Thebes (and subject of the play of the same name by the 5th century BCE tragedian, Aeschylus). This was traditionally dated a generation before the Trojan War. A war had started between the two sons of Oedipus, Polyneikes had been exiled by his brother Eteokles, and the former enlisted the help of the Achaeans from the Peloponnese to re-take the city. However, when scaling the walls of Thebes, six of the seven champions, including Polyneikes, were killed. Nevertheless, the attackers were successful and the Kadmeians of Thebes fled to the north. Thus a less civilized force took over the citadel. The myth was perhaps a symbolic metaphor for the general situation in Greece following the end of the Mycenaean civilization.

Historical Overview

Strategically situated on a low plateau commanding the surrounding plains of Boeotia, Thebes (also known as Kadmeia) was first inhabited around 3000 BCE. The fact that the modern town lies directly upon the historical site has created difficulties in reconstructing an accurate history for the ancient city. In the early to mid-third millennium, there is evidence of fortified buildings with rock-cut foundations, stone-paved courtyards, mud-brick walls and drains.

Following the Dark Ages in Greece (c.1100 to 700 BCE), Thebes re-emerged as an influential Greek city-state.

From 2500 BCE there is evidence of food and wool production and storage - grinding stones and terracotta loom-weights and spools, and bronze carpentry tools. Trade, both local and further afield, is suggested by the presence of precious goods such as gold, silver, ivory, and Cycladic influenced stone vessels. From 2000 BCE the site expanded with the first presence of stone cists and pits for burials and shaft graves which contained precious objects.

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From 1700 BCE the settlement became more dense, and during the 14th century BCE the site reached its Bronze Age peak during the Mycenaean period. There is evidence of palatial buildings of two stories and with wall paintings, greater fortifications (probably of a Cyclopean nature and referred to in Homer's Iliad), workshops (especially for jewellery), and stone-built aqueducts with terracotta pipes. Clay Linear B tablets and seals suggest the site was an important trading centre in olive oil, wood, livestock, wool, and leather goods. Finds of Cretan stirrup jars suggest that contacts were spread across the Aegean. From the 13th century BCE there are also chamber tombs with benches and drains, some with wall paintings and precious grave objects such as gold jewellery and bronze weapons. The end of this period is marked by evidence of earthquake and fire damage.

Following the Dark Ages in Greece (c.1100 to 700 BCE), Thebes re-emerged as an influential Greek city-state and for the next four centuries the city would be a constant rival to Athens and Sparta for regional dominance. In 480 BCE Thebes sided with Persia when Xerxes invaded Greece, and the city was a major protagonist in the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BCE, siding with Sparta against Athens.

In the 4th century BCE, two Theban leaders achieved long lasting fame: Pelopidas, who was the subject of one of Plutarch's Lives, and the brilliant military strategist and student of philosophy, Epaminondas. These two generals, Pelopidas campaigning in central and northern Greece and Epaminondas in the Peloponnese, were largely responsible for Thebes' greatest period of regional dominance.

An unusual feature of the Theban army was the Sacred Band. This was a military corps founded by Gorgidas and consisting of 300 infantrymen linked in homoerotic pairs, the idea being soldiers would fight better if their lover were at their side. The Sacred Band, used for the first time as an independent unit by Pelopidas, defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BCE. Even more decisive was the Battle of Leuktra in 371 BCE, where the Spartans were roundly defeated and where the victory monument set up by the Thebans is still visible today. This was sweet revenge for Sparta's imposition of a garrison at Thebes from 379 to 376 BCE. Victorious, Thebes created a new Arcadian capital at Megalopolis and was now firmly established as the most powerful city-state in Greece. Incidentally, a young Philip, the future king of Macedonia, was captured by Pelopidas whilst campaigning in Thessaly and taken hostage to democratic Thebes where he studied military tactics. The Sacred Band remained undefeated until 338 BCE and the invasion of the Macedonians.

In 364 BCE Pelopidas was killed (but victorious) in the Battle of Kynoskephalai which forced Macedonia to join the Theban led Boiotian League. Shortly after, in 362 BCE, Epaminondas fell in the indecisive Battle of Mantinea against a Spartan and Athenian led alliance. With the loss of their two great generals, Theban dominance began to wane and Sparta and Athens would become the two major players in Greece.

In 338 BCE Thebes joined old rivals Athens and Corinth in order to face the invading Philip (now King) of Macedonia in the Battle of Chaironeia. Thebes ended on the losing side, though, and Philip established a Macedonian garrison in the city. However, Thebes - noted for its scheming against local rivals - was even more harshly treated by Philip's heir, Alexander, who destroyed the city and sold the population into slavery.

Thebes (Greece)

Thebes (/θiːbz/ Greek: Θήβα, Thíva [ˈθiva] Ancient Greek: Θῆβαι, Thêbai [tʰɛ̂ːbai̯]) is a city in Boeotia, central Greece. It played an important role in Greek myths, as the site of the stories of Cadmus, Oedipus, Dionysus, Heracles and others. Archaeological excavations in and around Thebes have revealed a Mycenaean settlement and clay tablets written in the Linear B script, indicating the importance of the site in the Bronze Age.

Thebes was the largest city of the ancient region of Boeotia and was the leader of the Boeotian confederacy. It was a major rival of ancient Athens, and sided with the Persians during the𧋠 BC invasion under Xerxes. Theban forces under the command of Epaminondas ended the power of Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. The Sacred Band of Thebes (an elite military unit) famously fell at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC against Philip II and Alexander the Great. Prior to its destruction by Alexander in 335 BC, Thebes was a major force in Greek history, and was the most dominant city-state at the time of the Macedonian conquest of Greece. During the Byzantine period, the city was famous for its silks.

The modern city contains an Archaeological Museum, the remains of the Cadmea (Bronze Age and forward citadel), and scattered ancient remains. Modern Thebes is the largest town of the regional unit of Boeotia.

Ancient Greek Thebes vs Sparta

In 424 BC 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 became aware that Sparta intended to protect the states which they desired to annex, broke off their alliance.

In 404 BC they had urged the complete destruction of Athens, yet in 403 BC they secretly supported the restoration of its democracy in order to find in it a counterpoise against Sparta. In the early Byzantine period, Thebes played the role as a place of refuge against foreign invaders.

From the 10th century onwards, Thebes became a center of the new silk trade. The silk workshops got a tremendous boost from Greek imports of soaps and dyes from Athens. The growth of this trade in Thebes continued to such an extent that by the middle of the 12th century, the city had become the biggest producer of silks in the entire Byzantine Empire, surpassing even the Byzantine capital, Constantinople.

The women of Ancient Greek Thebes became well known for their skills at weaving. Theban silk won numerous prizes for both its quality as well as for its excellent reputation. Additionally, in spite of being severely plundered by the Normans in 1146, Thebes quickly recovered its prosperity and continued to grow rapidly until the final dissolution of the Byzantine Empire by the Fourth Crusade which came about in 1204.

Today, Ancient Greek Thebes stands as a bustling market town, well known for a variety of products and wares. Until the 1980s it had a flourishing agrarian production with some industrial complexes. However, it was only during the late 1980s and 1990s that the bulk of industry moved further south, closer to Athens.

Tourism in the area is based mainly in Thebes and the surrounding villages, where a lot of places of interest related to antiquity exist like for instance the place where the Battle of Plataea took place but it is still in an infant state and has ample scope for further growth. However, the proximity to other, more famous travel destinations, like Mount Athens and Chalkis, and the less developed prospect stands as one of the biggest archaeological sites in Greece to have kept the tourist numbers low.

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

In the annals of ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta looms large. Athens is the city of democratic politics and intellectual refinement, the arts and theatre. Sparta is the manly city, the city of soldiers, kings, and heroic battle. Within that dialectical dynamic, all other cities in ancient Greece get lost in the mist of forgotten memory. But that wasn’t always the case.

Thebes was another great city in ancient Greece. Even if Thebes has fallen on hard times, Thebes is still somewhat known by ancient aficionados. Thebes is the city that Sophocles’s “Theban Trilogy” is set in. Oedipus and Antigone are heroes of the classical literary world and they reside in the once well-known city that achieved hegemony over Greece right before the ascendancy of Macedon. But if we still remember Thebes only because of a few Athenian plays, including Euripides’s Bacchae, then that’s about it.

Paul Cartledge, one of Britain’s foremost popular classicists, has attempted to correct this drift Thebes has experienced. As Cartledge writes, “But why and how has ancient Greek Thebes been ‘forgotten’? And how can we best rescue it, permanently, from oblivion?”

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, is Cartledge’s attempt to “best rescue” Thebes “from oblivion.” The book follows a somewhat rudimentary formula common in popular history books concisely dealing with a vast swath of time. There is the Thebes of myth, known to us through recent archeological discoveries and ancient poetic stories. And Thebes was the city of mythological stories. Thebes, not Athens, was the mythological center of what became ancient Greece: It is the city of Cadmus, Heracles, and Dionysus. Some of the earliest and most recognizable ancient Greek mythological heroes and gods, not to mention stories, have their origins with Thebes. Then there is the Thebes of history, following the Herodotean cycle, of birth, acme, and downfall. Lastly, we find a contemporary Thebes, a city revived with its “revival.”

Cartledge’s history may be frustrating for some readers. Those who have some familiarity with Greek history won’t find too much new contained in its pages. Anyone who has read even parts of Herodotus, Thucydides, Diodorus—and a few modern histories of ancient Greece—will be retreading familiar territory. The Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Corinthian War, the Theban Hegemony, the Sacred Band, and Alexander the Great all enter Cartledge’s narrative.

Admittedly, the opening of the book is when it is weakest. The rapid tour through limited archeological discoveries and evidence is marred by that unusual problem of trying to popularize very technical data that often becomes a snooze fest for everyone who is not an archeologist. The early chapters portending to be on archeology and religion are, in fact, bereft of substance. All that we really gain is that Thebes did have some gates and walls, perhaps not the famous seven gates of Theban myth, and that Thebes was a center of ancient Greek religious rites and temples.

The book comes into its own in Cartledge’s crafty retelling of familiar ancient Greek (Athenian and Spartan) history but from a Theban, rather than Athenian or Spartan, perspective. And this is desperately needed in a publishing medium that focuses on Athens and Sparta for its commercial value. Why aren’t there many books on Thebes? Thebes doesn’t sell. Simple as that. We know Athens and Sparta. As Cartledge acknowledges in his preface, if Westerners have any familiarity with Thebes it is probably the Thebes of Egypt and not the Thebes of Greece.

While Athens and Sparta still loom large throughout this book on Thebes, Cartledge offers a necessary corrective to the Athenian and Laconic popular imagination where Athens and Sparta are all that matter. Thebes was a significant player throughout ancient Greek history. Thebes sided with the Persians during Xerxes’s invasion. Thebes allied with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War and played an important role as Sparta’s most powerful ally, especially early in the war. The rise of Athens coincided with the declination the Theban-led Boeotian federation, a democratic confederation Cartledge says was akin to the early United States. Thebes was also the city that backstabbed Sparta, granted refuge for the Athenian democratic revolutionaries, and aided Athens’s democratic restoration after Lysander had punished and humiliated Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

The most exciting chapter deals with Thebes’s high watermark. Thebes emerged extremely strong after the Peloponnesian War and was one of the undisputed winners with the humbling of Athens. Thebes then began to flex some of its muscles and allied with Athens to counter Spartan hegemony, eventually leading to the Battle of Leucrtra (371 BC) which brought forth the brief spell of Theban hegemony.

Two men dominate the Theban hegemony: Pelopidas (d. 364 BC) and Epaminondas (d. 362 BC). Both men were so well-known that they merited Plutarch’s attention in his Parallel Lives, though only the biography of Pelopidas survives. Epaminondas was so well-respected that even men like Sir Walter Raleigh (not to mention Montaigne) considered this Theban hero one of the greatest men who had lived in human history. Through the decisive leadership and military exploits of these two men, Thebes experienced a meteoric rise before Philip II’s invasion that led to decisive defeat of the Theban-Athenian alliance orchestrated by the famous Athenian statesman and orator Demosthenes.

“The city of Pelopidas and Epaminondas” is something that should attract our attention. These two men were once well-known, even two millennia after their deaths. As mentioned, not only does Cartledge refer to Sir Walter Raleigh’s invocation of Epaminondas as a great man, but both men were the focus of some of the great classical and neoclassical painters. Benjamin West’s “The Death of Epaminondas” and Andrey Ivanovich Ivanov’s “The Death of Pelopidas” stand as enduring reminders of how important these men were and har far fallen they are indeed since almost no one today is familiar with these heroes of the ancient world. It is here, dealing with Thebes’s “heyday,” that Cartledge’s book shines most brilliantly by bringing back into posterity’s vision the memory of these great men.

But why did Thebes fall so far while the specters of Athens and Sparta still haunt Western Civilization? Sadly for Thebes, and for Cartledge, certain dynamics of the modern world unfairly lead Thebes down the trash bin of history road. Even this book, heroic as it might be in attempting to restore Thebes to the troika of great ancient Greek cities that it deserves to be, still has a lot to overcome.

While Cartledge does an admirable job highlighting the more democratic nature to Thebes’s politics, Athens was the more famous democracy and, therefore, remains the go-to ancient city for a universally democratic West that still wants some historical patrimony to gravitate to. Furthermore, the great underdog story of Greece vs. Persia has Thebes on the wrong side. Moreover, Thebes—irrespective of its rich mythological heritage—didn’t play any decisive role like Alexander the Great did in Hellenization and implanting a long-lasting legacy in the ancient world. Lastly, the age of heroic virtue and great men is undeniably over or at least it is shunned. So why read Plutarch and encounter Thebes and Theban heroes?

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece finds itself in a difficult spot. A lot of the history that Cartledge recounts is already well-known, even by modest readers in ancient history. Although placing Thebes at the central vantage point, some readers may find this repetitive history boring even if told from the Theban perspective. The great highlight of the book, the sole chapter on Pelopidas and Epaminondas, is too short to justify the book in of itself. Unfortunately for Thebes, the forgotten city is crowded out by more active players and a stronger imaginative memory.

Thebes was not Athens or Sparta. Pelopidas and Epaminondas were not Leonidas, Solon, Pericles, Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, or even Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Thebes may have been the city in which some Greek tragedy was set, but we’re more interested in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and not the city that some of their plays are set in. So we look to Athens and not Thebes after all, it is Athens and Jerusalem and not Thebes and Jerusalem.

Paul Cartledge undertook an important effort to restore Thebes to a deserving place in ancient historical memory and love. For those wishing to expand beyond the continuous publication of books on Athens and Sparta, this is a refreshing short read. But one may not find much altogether new, and where new material is covered and exciting it is over right when the reader wishes for more.

Paul Krause

Paul Krause is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView. He is a teacher, writer, and classicist. His first book, The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books is forthcoming from Wipf and Stock.

The battles involving the Sacred Band of Thebes

The city-state of Sparta was a winner of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). After the war, they dominated the Greek world. Thebes challenged the supremacy of Sparta, starting the Theban–Spartan War (378–362 BC). Because of brilliant military tactics and the Sacred Band, the Thebans were able to defeat Sparta.

During the conflict, two major battles happened. The Battle of Tegyra and the Battle of Leuctra. The Battle of Tegyra, in 375 BC, was the first time that the Spartans lost despite having a bigger army: 300 warriors of the Sacred Band routed 1.800 Spartan soldiers.

At the Battle of Leuctra, in 371 BC, Thebes fought with a force of 7.500 soldiers against 12.000 Spartans.

The Sacred Band hacked through the elite units of the Spartan army. They killed 1.000 of their most experienced soldiers, including the Spartan king: Sparta asked for a truce.

From then on, the Ancient Greeks considered these gay warriors invincible. The total Theban victory at the Battle of Leuctra led to the decline of Sparta and to the dominance of Thebes.

The Sacred Band of Thebes met its end at the Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 BC. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great invaded central Greece. The Greek city-states led by Athens and Thebes fought back, but the Greek hoplites were no match against the Macedonian phalanx.

At the end of the battle, the Greeks fled the battlefield. The Sacred Band continued to fight, despite being surrounded and outnumbered. All 300 men died fighting for each other. Their leader Theagenes fell last, trying to protect the body of his dead lover.

Philip II cried when he saw the dead bodies of these elite warriors.

He knew the Sacred Band very well. Thirty years before the Battle of Chaeronea, Philip II was a hostage in Thebes. During that time he became the eromenos (beloved’) of Pelopidas, the commander of the Sacred Band. The Sacred Band served as a model for the reformation of the Macedonian army.

The Macedonians destroyed the city of Thebes in 335 BC.

Thebes of Myth and History

Thebes was one of about 1,000 poleis (city-states) spread all over the mainland of classical Greece, the islands of the Aegean and Ionian seas, the Black Sea coast, Asia Minor, north Africa, southern France, eastern Spain and southern Italy and Sicily.

There were so many Greeks and Greek city-states in Italy and Sicily the Romans described the region as Magna Graecia. Plato used to joke that the Greeks were like frogs playing in a pond, the Mediterranean. He ignored the Black Sea pond.

Surrounded by Athens and Sparta

Thebes, along with Athens and Sparta, was unusual. It was a relatively strong polis in central Greece or Boeotia, continuously inhabited for five millennia. Yet Thebes’ more powerful neighbors, Sparta and Athens, and, in the fourth century BCE, Macedonia, made the life, the historical life of Thebes unpleasant to the extreme. Thebes almost disappeared from history. Athenians often called Thebans Boeotian swine.

But the Thebans were not swine. They were at the heart of Greek culture. The fatal error of Thebes was to side with the Persians in 480 BCE while the multitudes of King Xerxes threatened the very survival of Hellas. Sparta, Athens and Macedonia never forgot that treason.

Yet 400 Theban fighters fought with King Leonidas and his small number of hoplites against the Persians in the heroic battle of Thermopylae in August 480 BCE.

Olympics in the midst of carnage

This was not the only surprise: 480 BCE was the year of the Olympics. And despite the Persian danger, the games went on. Hellas was flooded by enemy Persians slaughtering Leonidas and his brave soldiers at Thermopylae and then they burned Athens.

By that time, August 480 BCE, athletes and thousands of Hellenes were in Olympia for the games. Athletes came from Thebes hosting Persians, Argos that stayed “neutral,” Syracuse and other poleis of Magna Graecia and the Aegean islands of Thasos and Chios. Athens and Sparta were fighting and sent no athletes to the Olympics.

The celebrated pentathlon athlete Phayllos of Kroton in southern Italy did not compete in the 480 BCE Olympics. Instead, he funded and led a warship, which fought in the battle of Salamis in September 480 BCE. The Athenians honored him with a statue on the Acropolis.

Thebes was part of that Hellas in mortal danger. Few people could have foreseen the results. We don’t know why the leadership of Thebes chose Persia. It could be fear of Persians or hatred for Sparta and Athens. Hundreds of other Greek states stayed out of the Hellenic union against Persia. Myths may also have had something to do with the history of 480 BCE.

Thebes of hero-gods and poetry

In the case of Thebes, myths and history often tangled with each other, enriching Greek drama, poetry, life and civilization.

After all, despite 480 BCE, this was the polis of two hero-gods, Dionysos and Herakles, both of enormous importance to all Greeks and their civilization. In addition, Thebes was the homeland of the great epic poet Hesiod, nearly of equal status with Homer, the giant of Hellenic epic poetry and civilization. The great lyric poet Pindar was Theban as well.

Oedipus: madness and revenge

Oedipus (Oidi-Pous, Swell-Foot) was another inhabitant of Thebes. He solved the riddle of the Sphinx: that man had four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening.

Oedipus’ intelligence served him badly. It made him king, but unleashed a series of calamities for himself and his family and Thebes. Oedipus did not know that as a baby his royal Theban parents had given him to a shepherd for exposure and death because of a horrific Delphi oracle predicting an adult Oedipus, the man who won over the terrible Sphinx, would marry his mother and kill his father.

So, Oedipus did kill his father Laios and married his mother Iokaste. His two sons, Eteokles and Polynikes, fought a bitter civil war and killed each other with their own hands. Their sister, Antigone, died defending divine tradition over the law of the tyrant Kreon, brother of Iokaste. He forbade the burial of Polynikes bur Antigone defied him, burying her brother.

This legacy of divine wrath informed humans of the unforgettable crimes of killing one’s parents and marrying within the family. The Oedipus tragedy inspired immortal plays by the Athenian tragic poets Aeschylos and Sophocles. Aeschylos composed Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles wrote Antigone.

Thebes’ short-lived supremacy

Historical Thebes was no less exciting. In the fourth century BCE, Thebes became a superpower in the Greek world. It put Sparta out of its military business in its crushing and decisive victory in the battle of Leuktra in 371 BCE. This was unprecedented in Greek history. Sparta, the Greek superpower of early fifth century BCE, lost half of its territory and all its Helots raising its food.

The result of Leuktra raised Thebes to the pinnacle of political power in Hellas. Thebes ordered Greek politics to its liking. Then Alexander the Great annihilated Thebes in 335 BCE. He probably remembered that Thebans fought on behalf of the armies of Xerxes against Hellas in 480 BCE, and that Thebes kept his father Philip under house arrest from 368 to 365 BCE.

The kingdom of myth and the Phoenician prince Kadmos

It all started with a mythic migrant prince from Phoenicia (Lebanon) named Kadmos. We are supposed to believe that this foreign prince founded Thebes. He sowed the land with dragon’s teeth and harvested Sown-Men (Spartoi) warriors, ready for war and for building the city.

But the immigrant Phoenician did not come to Boeotia simply to build a city. His goal was to find his sister Europa who was so beautiful she attracted Zeus, the greatest and mightiest of the Greek gods. Zeus sent a gorgeous white bull to the playground of Europa. The bull lured her to ride him and then, effortlessly, carried her to Crete where Zeus made love to her and Europa gave birth to three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon.

The sons did well for themselves. Rhadamanthys became the immortal judge of the dead in Hades. We don’t know the future of Sarpedon. But Homer talks about another Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Laodameia, daughter of the hero Bellerophon, possibly son of Poseidon. This Homeric Sarpedon went down from the spear of Patroklos, friend of Achilles, the greatest Greek hero of the Trojan War.

As for Minos, he triumphed. He became the king of Crete in the second millennium BCE, indeed he was so famous, the brilliant civilization of Crete took his name: Minoan.

The bull became the constellation Taurus and Europa gave her name to Europe.

Kadmos did not find Europa. He became another Greek hero. He is supposed to have married Harmonia, daughter of the war god Ares and the goddess of love Aphrodite. Kadmos gifted Harmonia with a necklace made by the god of craftsmanship and metallurgy Hephaistos. The Greek gods even showed up to his wedding.

His daughter, Semele, like his sister, Europa, was too beautiful to escape the attention of Zeus. But Semele foolishly demanded that Zeus presents himself to her in his real divine nature. Reluctantly, Zeus did and Semele disappeared like a flash of lightening. Zeus, however, saved his son Dionysos from the burning body of Semele, inserting the fetus Dionysos into his thigh for nourishment. Eventually, Dionysos / Bacchos made Thebes his permanent home.

A grandson of Kadmos, King Pentheus, was offensive to Dionysos. The blind Theban seer Teiresias warned Pentheus to come to his senses and show respect for the god. But the arrogant Pentheus went out of his way to treat Dionysos like a criminal. The consequences of such impiety were deadly.

Agave, sister of Semele and mother of Pentheus, was among the Maenads / Bacchants who worshipped the wine god Dionysos. Their frenzies were ecstatic and beyond reason. In their madness, they dismembered Pentheus. The Athenian tragic poet Euripides immortalized this Dionysian drama in his play Bacchae.

It’s this fascinating and utterly tragic mythology that captivated Hellas and, to this day, attracts scholars in decoding both the myth and history of Thebes.

Reviving Thebes

One of the most successful scholars to grasp the importance of Thebes for Hellenic and Western civilization is Paul Cartledge, A. G. Leventis professor emeritus and now Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge University. His book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece (Abrams Press, 2020) does revive Thebes.

“My goal,” he says, “is to bring the ancient city of Thebes vividly back to life.” He almost does that with meticulous research of mythical, literary, historical, and archaeological sources. The result is a thorough, lively, timely, and important story of the Thebes of myth and history. Read his book.

Thebes, Cartledge says, is not a footnote but “central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ multiple achievements” in politics, culture and civilization affecting Western Europe, America, and the world. Thebes, he says, is alive today “as a city of the imagination… the city of Myth.”

Thebes (city of ancient Greece)

Thebes, chief city of Boeotia, in ancient Greece. It was originally a Mycenaean city. Thebes is rich in associations with Greek legend and religion (see Oedipus the Seven against Thebes Epigoni). Sometime before 1000 BC, Thebes was settled by Boeotians and rapidly replaced Orchomenus as the region's leading city. At the end of the 6th cent. BC it began its struggle with Athens to maintain its position in Boeotia and in Greece. In the Persian Wars, Thebes, motivated by hostility to Athens, sided (480� BC) with the Persians. When the Persians were defeated, Thebes was punished, and only the intervention of Sparta, which saw in the city a balance to the power of Athens, saved it from destruction. Thebes supported Sparta against Athens in the Peloponnesian War but, fearing Spartan territorial ambitions, withdrew this support and joined (394 BC) the confederation against Sparta. Sparta was able to place (382 BC) a garrison in Thebes, but the city was freed by one of its great generals, Pelopidas, three years later. This freedom was insured (371 BC) by the Spartan defeat at Leuctra by the Theban Epaminondas. Thebes joined Athens against Philip II of Macedon and shared in the defeat at Chaeronea (338 BC). A revolt at Thebes caused Alexander the Great to attack and destroy (336 BC) the city. Cassander rebuilt Thebes c.315 BC, but it never regained its former greatness. The modern Thívai occupies the site of the Theban acropolis, part of which still survives. There are also remains of the prehistoric city and the temple of Ismenian Apollo.

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The Most Elite Special Forces of Ancient Greece

Two soldiers fight art on ceramic vase from Athens Museum. Credit: Athens Museum / CC BY 2.0

The special forces of Ancient Greece, from the Band of Thebes to the Hetairoi of the army of Alexander the Great, went down in history as some of the greatest elite army groups of all time.

Thanks to Homer’s Iliad, the Myrmidons of Achilles are the most widely known army of great Greek warriors. Yet the Myrmidons belong to the ethereal realm of Greek mythology.

However, elite forces were real in Ancient Greece, and were known as some of the most dangerous and lethal powers for the enemy. Many of their brave deeds were documented in the historical record.

The Sciritae who fought alongside Spartans

According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, during the epic Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), a small band of men broke into the enemy camp and reached the tent of the Persian King, Xerxes.

Xerxes was not in the royal tent himself, but his two brothers, generals Avrokomis and Yperanthis, were sleeping inside. The Greek soldiers killed them both.

After the great feat of assassinating the two generals, all the Greek soldiers carrying out this “Mission Impossible” were tragically slaughtered by the Immortals, the Persian royal guard.

The men who dealt that severe blow to the invading Persian army were not Spartan warriors. They were Sciritae, a mountainous people of Laconia who were subject to Sparta. It was a special force that played a pivotal role in a number of battles.

Originally called the Band of Sciritae, they were considered elite soldiers. Their symbol a white hawk on a black background, the band consisted of men selected for their physical strength, endurance and battle skills.

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote that in battle the Sciritae held the left side of the formation, next to the king, while the right was held by the Spartans.

According to historians, when the Spartan Phalanx came to engage with the enemy, the Sciritae were the only unit moving in front of the king. They acted as a vanguard and were sometimes even further ahead of the cavalry.

At night they took full guard responsibility, scouting the ground and camps in places where they could see enemies and their movements from afar.

The Sacred Band of Thebes

The Sacred Band of Thebes was formed in 378 BC by the Theban general Gorgidas. This legendary special force was made up exclusively of 150 same-sex couples.

Only the finest warriors from the city-state were invited to join this elite band. According to regimental tradition, junior recruits were romantically paired with more experienced fighters.

Hand-picked for their prowess, physiques, and fighting skills, recruits received arduous physical training in wrestling, horsemanship, and even dancing that was designed to foster an elite and highly bonded unit.

Although couples were originally dispersed throughout the ranks of the army, it was later decided to create a singular body of lovers that fought as a single battlefield unit.

The reasoning was that once bonded, the loving partners would fight much harder in battle to protect one another, whereas individual heterosexual soldiers were much more likely to abandon their fellow soldiers if things became desperate.

“Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” wrote Plato about the famed Theban hoplites in Symposium.

Other than fighting as a unit, the Sacred Band were often deployed in the front ranks of regular phalanxes to lift the morale of ordinary soldiers.

The Sacred Band was established at a time when the city-state of Sparta was very powerful and had invaded Central Greece.

The Sacred Band fought admirably in the Boeotian War against the invading Spartan forces and beat them in several battles in the mid-4th century BC.

It was only the mighty Macedonia army that eventually wiped out the Sacred Band at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.

The Macedonian Hetairoi

What is not widely known is that an important part of that army was the Companion Cavalry or Hetairoi, an unbeatable special force.

The Companion Cavalry, the biggest special force of Ancient Greece, consisted of 2,600 men, to whom Alexander had provided the best weaponry, armor and horses.

The Macedonian special force was crucial in beating the Thebans at Chaeronea, part of a legendary army that went on to change the entire ancient world.

The Hetairoi was a body of elite horsemen, all noblemen who fought closest to the king — hence the name. They fulfilled the role of both royal household guard and elite mounted shock-troops of the Macedonian army.

The Companion Cavalry were the elite of all the cavalry units within the army and were led by Alexander himself. They were traditionally deployed on the right of the battle line and frequently at the point of maximum offensive impact.

The Hetairoi galloped into battle in virtually unstoppable wedge formations. Their legendary shock-and-awe style assaults seemed to come out of nowhere.

They typically targeted the undefended rear echelons of enemy phalanxes. Such attacks often scattered entire Persian armies.

Ancient Greece Thebes

A fact remains that the Athenians used to hate the Thebans and such sad and scary stories are a result of it. Ancient Greece Thebes was actually a city-state in Ancient Greece a little North to Athens. It was a farming city-state ruled by an oligarchy. This means that land in Thebes was owned only by a few rich people.

Athens and Thebes got into a war on an issue of land between these two city-states. During the second Persian war, the Thebans surrendered to the Persians while in the war at Plate, the Thebans sided with the Persians against other Greek city-states. Greece won this war and hence Thebes was hated by many Greek city-states since then.


Thebes is a city in the region of Boeotia in Greece, which provided the setting for various myths and stories. Cadmus, a Phoenician king, was the mythical founder of the city the myth has it that after getting advice from the Oracle of Delphi, he had to follow a cow and build a city wherever the animal would stop. After it stopped, Cadmus decided to sacrifice it to the gods and asked his men to get some water from a nearby spring, which was guarded by a dragon. The dragon killed most of his men, before it was slain by Cadmus. Advised by Athena, Cadmus sew half of the dragon's teeth, and armed soldiers sprang out of the ground, the Spartoi. Cadmus threw a stone among them, who confused about who had done it, started fighting each other. Only five survived, who helped Cadmus build Thebes.

However, one of the most prominent sagas of Greek mythology that took place in Thebes was the story of Laius, and everything that resulted from his deeds. Although he was the rightful heir to the throne, it was usurped by Amphion and Zethus. Laius found refuge in the court of Pisa in the Pelopponese, where King Pelops warmly welcomed him. He then raped and abducted Pelops' son, Chrissipus, and went back to Thebes, where he was restored to the throne. Later, he married Jocasta, but he received an oracle that he should not have a child or the child would kill him and marry his wife. However, one night he was so drunk that he slept with Jocasta and impregnated her with Oedipus. The story of Oedipus also takes place in the city of Thebes.

See Also: Cadmus, Spartoi, Athena, Laius, Oedipus, Amphion, Zethus, Pelops, Chrissipus, Jocasta

Watch the video: 10 Best Places to Visit in Greece - Travel Video (May 2022).


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