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Review: Thebes

8 mins read

Thebes: the forgotten city of ancient Greece
Paul Cartledge
Picador, £25
ISBN 978-1509873173
Review by: Andrew Selkirk

Thebes is the forgotten city of ancient Greece. It lies 32 miles north-west of Athens, at the heart of sleepy Boeotia, but it has now been rescued from obscurity by Paul Cartledge, former Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. It was a city rich in Greek myth. Thebes was where Oedipus, having solved the riddle of the Sphinx (see the cover of the book, above, with Oedipus seated and the Sphinx on the pillar), went on to become king, in the course of which he killed his father and married his mother, thus providing the ideal basis for the greatest of all Greek plays, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

Thebes also had a rich history. On the Cadmea, the acropolis of Thebes, the remains of an extensive Mycenaean palace have been discovered. And then in the Archaic period, from the 7th century BC, Thebes produced two of the great early Greek poets. First came Hesiod, the rival of Homer, a grumpy farmer who wrote a great poem about the hardships of a farmer’s life. He was followed a century later by Pindar, a lyric poet who grew rich by writing horribly abstruse poems in praise of the winners of athletic games. But at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, when the Persians invaded Greece, Thebes joined the wrong side and supported the Persians – a move they were never allowed to forget. Throughout the 5th century, when Athens was at its height, Thebes was a backwater.

Then in the 4th century, after Sparta had defeated Athens in war but then lost the peace, Thebes briefly became top dog. Their army acquired a secret weapon – a sacred band was formed, 300 strong, consisting of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers who became a formidable fighting force; and in 371 BC, at the Battle of Leuctra, they defeated the Spartans and broke forever the Spartan reputation for being invincible. They then went on to destroy Sparta’s economic base by freeing the Messenians, who for 300 years had been the slaves of the Spartans, producing the food that supported the army. However, the Theban supremacy did not last long, for soon the new fighting force of the Macedonians, under their king Philip and his son Alexander, defeated the Thebans and destroyed the city.

A victory monument to the Boeotian victory over the Spartans at Leuctra. [Image: George E Koronaios]

One side of the coin?

Boeotian coins can be identified by the logo of a Boeotian shield. [Image: akg-images/Liszt Collection]

Paul Cartledge gives a masterclass on the history of Greece in its great Classical period, which I read with great pleasure. (This is how I should have written my essays 50 years ago when I was studying Greece.) But – and it is a big but – he largely omits the archaeology. This is a pity, for it is surely the archaeology that holds the key to what happened in Thebes in the 5th century BC. In my view, we need to look at money, or rather the lack of it. The 5th century was the time that Athens made the breakthrough in the use of money and became a market economy, which produced the zing that made Athens great. Sparta, on the other hand, ostentatiously rejected money and became ostentatiously barbarian: good fighters, no art. Thebes became half and half. It did produce money, marked by its logo of a Theban shield, but Boeotian coins are not very common.

Indeed, the coins reveal another problem, for whereas Athens was the predominant city in its territory of Attica, Thebes was always merely the leading city in its territory of Boeotia, and many of the shield coins come from the lesser Boeotian towns such as Tanagra and Orchomenos. It was not until the middle of the 4th century that the Boeotian coinage appeared in any quantity, at the time when Thebes was achieving military glory.

There are other hints that Thebes maintained the old economy, such as Plutarch’s throwaway comment that Epaminondas, when he died, left behind ‘nothing but an iron spit’. An iron spit was a primitive form of money in Greece, and Epaminondas was ostentatiously declaring that he did not believe in all this market economy nonsense.

Pottery tells the same story. In fine wares, Athenian pottery is predominant and the pictures of pottery with which Professor Cartledge adorns his book are all Athenian pottery, telling Theban mythology. One would very much like to know about the coarse pottery in Boeotia: were there a number of local kilns in the countryside supplying local needs, or did the coarse pottery too come from Athens?

In the 7th century BC, Thebes produced some fine metalwork. This statue of Apollo was dedicated to the god by Manticlus as a gift exchange. There is an inscription carved on the leg in the local Boeotian alphabet. [Image: Museum of Fine Arts Boston]

One would also liketo know what was happening in Theban architecture. My wife and I went to Greece in 1968 – it was our delayed honeymoon – and I wrote it up in CWA’s sister publication Current Archaeology (CA 7). We went to Thebes and enthused about the Mycenaean discoveries; it was only the fourth place in mainland Greece that Minoan Linear B sherds had been discovered, and I looked forward to later discoveries. But what has happened since? Surely there must have been at least some rescue excavations. In particular, has the agora, the marketplace, been discovered? There are a number of references to rural shrines, but though the gods are described in some detail, their shrines are not. The rural countryside of Boeotia has been the subject of a major field-walking exercise by John Bintliff and Anthony Snodgrass, but this is passed over in a single paragraph.

Paul Cartledge has done a splendid job in resurrecting Thebes and restoring it to its position as one of the major towns of ancient Greece. But this is only half the story, based on the written history. Can we please have Part Two? The archaeology.


This review appeared in issue 105 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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