Ancient Greece Thebes was city-state in the bronze age of the Mycenaean era. It was an important city-state and has references in Greek history as well as mythology. It was not as big as Athens or Sparta but it has an equally significant history if we look back at Ancient Greece.

Thebes Greek Mythology

Ancient Thebes played a very prominent role in Greek mythology. It is said to have been the birthplace of Oedipus and was also founded by Kadmos, his ancestor. It is also the place where Oedipus encountered Spinx, the deadly four-legged creature who terrorized its residents, and Oedipus got rid of him but solved his riddle. Even the Ancient Greek hero, Hercules is said to have been born in Thebes.

There are different stories in Greek mythology which mostly come from Athenians. One of the more regularly heard stories about Thebes is that Oedipus used to live in Thebes with his sister-wife Jocasta. Another story about Thebes is that it was this place where Dionysos drove Pentheus mad and Medea killed her children.

There are several other mythological stories about this place, most of them iterated by the Athenians. A question arises, why did Athenians say such things? Were these incidents true?

Ancient Greece Thebes


Many confuse Thebes with the famous Egyptian city also named Thebes. Although its history is sometimes overlooked, it was a great state which was located in the middle of the Greek mainland in a region known as Boeotia. It was said to be the biggest city in the plain of Boeotia.

The central, strategic and Greek military position of the city coupled with its security naturally tended to raise it to a commanding position among the Boeotians, and from early days its inhabitants endeavored to establish a complete supremacy over their kinsmen in the outlying towns. This centralizing policy is regarded as the cardinal fact of Theban history for counteracting the efforts of the smaller towns.

Early Settlements

As far as the early history of this city was concerned, the ancient Greeks attributed the foundation of Thebes to Cadmus who was a Phoenician king of Tyre which is located in the present day Lebanon and the brother of Queen Europa. Cadmus was famous for teaching the Phoenician alphabet and building the Acropolis, which was named the Cadmeia in his honor and emerged as an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural center.

There is evidence of settlement from about 2500 BC, with evidence of food and wool production. It is said to have expanded more from 2000 BC with trading in precious gems like gold, silver, etc. We find evidence of pit burials and precious objects as grave goods.

It reached its peak around the Mycenaean period when it became the fortified city in ancient Greece. There were two-storied palatial buildings, wall paintings, and terracotta pipes which showed its prosperity. It became a great center of trade in olive oil, wool, wood, and livestock.

But the decline of the bronze age and the ensuing chaos in this phase resulted in the decline of Thebes with Dorian invasions and natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes.

Archaic and Classical period

Thebes again established itself as a powerful state with the constant threat to the duopoly of Athens and Sparta. They had supported Persis during their second invasion under Xerxes after being defeated in the battle of Thermopylae and were seen with contempt by most in Greece after the event due to their treachery.

They had supported Sparta during the Peloponnesian war but soon turned against their allies after their win due to disagreements on colonies. After this they helped Athens to restore its democracy after its loss in the Peloponnesian war. They increased their military capacity and even defeated Sparta in the battle of Leuctra to break the Spartan hegemony over Greece to establish itself as the dominant power in ancient Greece

Thebes rivalry with Athens

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.

Greek city of Thebes by olderock

The Largest town in Boeotia

During the Byzantine period, the city became famous for its silks. The modern city contains an Archaeological Greek Museum, the remains of the Cadmea (Bronze Age and forward citadel), and scattered ancient remains. Modern Thebes is the largest town in Boeotia. It is situated at highway E962, some 4 km south of the junction with E75.

Ancient Thebes Military

Ancient Thebes was known to consist of one of the fiercest warriors in ancient Greece. Their cavalry was one of the best and their army was not like the other typical hoplite armies of other states. It consisted of not only hoplites but also cavalry, and light troops and they tried innovations to boost their power.

They formed a sacred band of Thebes which consisted of 300 Elite soldiers handpicked by their leader, Gorgidas. Half of the bands were experienced older men and the other half consisted of young males. It was one of the fiercest bands of soldiers formed without any notion of birth and class, being picked only based on their skill and talent. With the help of these sacred bands, they managed to defeat Sparta at the height of their power, breaking the Spartan hegemony to build a strong base for Thebes.

Cultural Achievements

Thebes was a great cultural hub with great achievements in literature, dramas, music, philosophy, etc. It had been a place for engaging in the epics from the time of Homer and even other Greek mythological tales like the one we discussed before about the Sphinx was based on Thebes.

One of the greatest playwrights and tragedians, Sophocles wrote his famous plays like Antigone as a part of his Theban plays. The myths of Thebes even inspire dramatists like Aeschylus  Euprodes to base their popular plays on Thebes as their backdrop.

Pindar was also one of the greatest ancient Greek poets to have been born in Thebes. His poems focused mostly on Olympic champions and his most famous was poem dedicated to Zeus of Olympians. His greatness contradicted Athens’ assertion of Thebans as ‘Boeotian swines’.

It is also the birthplace of one of the greatest musicians of ancient Greece, Pronomus who received his fame at the theatre of Dionysus in Athens. Along with these it also housed Crates and Simias who were one of the prominent students of Socrates. Crates was another philosopher from Thebes who contributed to the philosophical style of cynicism.

Thebes vs Sparta

Thebes joined the Sparta forces against the Athens in the Peloponnesian War. In this war, Thebes turned out to be on the victorious side but they were not rewarded for it by the Spartans. As a result of this issue, the Sparta-Thebes alliance was broken. Later in 379 BC, Thebes turned to a democratic government. They fought a huge battle with Sparta and won it in 371 BC. During this period the Thebes forces were one of the strongest in entire Greece.

Times of Thebes and its people changed when the Macedonians invaded Greece. Alexander the Great destroyed the Thebes in 335 BC just to show his power to other Greek city-states which would have otherwise revolted against him. He sold all the people of Thebes into slavery. Such was the rise and fall of the ancient city-state of Thebes.

Decline and Destruction

Thebes soon lost its dominance with the resurgence of Athens and Sparta. Soon they lay the decisive battle of Chaeronea to lose its prominence and soon they went under the control of the Macedonian king.
They tried to regain their independence but their revolt was crushed by Alexander the Great who destroyed the city of Thebes to the extent that it was almost lost in the pages of History.
Very few records and remains are found of ancient Thebes and another factor that obstructs its reconstruction is that the modern city of Thebes is placed just on the spot of ancient Thebes unlike most other ancient Greek cities which makes it difficult to get any remains from under the modern and sprawling city.

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