Thebes, A City Formed by The Warriors Who Sprang from a Dragon’s Teeth
In ancient times, Thebes was one of the major Greek city states, and a rival of Athens. Later on, however, Thebes fell to the Macedonians, and was eventually conquered by the Romans. The post-Classical history of Thebes is perhaps less well-known. Whilst the site prospered during the Byzantine and Frankish times, it went into went into decline again during the Ottoman occupation.
The Mythology and History of Thebes
The archaeological evidence suggests that Thebes was already occupied as early as the 3 rd millennium BC and according to Greek mythology , the city was founded by the hero Cadmus. The city’s ancient citadel is said to have been built by the hero with the aid of the five Spartoi. According to the myth, the Spartoi, who were fearsome warriors, sprang from the dragon’s teeth that Cadmus sowed in the ground. By throwing a stone amongst them, the Spartoi began to fight one other, until only five were left. These are said to be the ancestors of the Theban aristocrats. Thus, the ancient citadel is called the Cadmea. Today, however, the Cadmea lies in ruins, following the destruction of Thebes by Alexander the Great in 335 BC.
In the centuries before its destruction, Thebes was one of the leading city states of ancient Greece. During the 6 th century BC, for instance, the Boeotian League was established as an alliance of foreign states, and in the following century, the league was dominated by Thebes. During the Graeco-Persian Wars, Thebes sided with the Persians, in part due to the city’s conflict with Athens over the district of Plataea. In the subsequent Peloponnesian War , Thebes once again opposed Athens, this time as allies of the Spartans. Following the defeat of the Athenians, the alliance between Thebes and Sparta broke down, and the two city states went to war. Thebes was eventually defeated, the Boeotian League disbanded in 386 BC, and the Cadmea occupied in 382 BC.
The Plague of Athens during the Archidamian War, part of the Peloponnesian War. (Fæ / Public Domain )
The defeat by Sparta was not the end of Thebes, as the city soon regained its status as one of the leading Greek city states. After 379 BC, the Thebans revolted, and reorganized the Boeotian League along democratic lines. In 375 BC, the Spartans were defeated at Tegyra, and four years later, at Leuctra. The latter marked the beginning of Thebes’ revival as a pre-eminent power in Greece. Epaminondas, the general who led the Thebans to victory at Leuctra, was instrumental in Thebes’ rise in the following decade.
The Thebans invaded the Peloponnesus peninsula as many as four times, which gradually weakened the Spartans and in 362 BC, defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Mantinea . Whilst Sparta was never able to recover from this defeat, Thebes was dealt a fatal blow as well, when Epaminondas was killed during the battle. Thebes rapidly declined in the years that followed. As both Thebes and Sparta were severely weakened, the Macedonians seized the opportunity to make themselves masters of Greece.
Philip II of Macedon and the Rise of Alexander the Great
The Macedonians, under Philip II of Macedon , began their involvement in mainland Greece during the Third Sacred War, which broke out in 356 BC. During that conflict, the Macedonians and Thebans were fighting on the same side, under the Amphictyonic League, an ancient religious association of Greek tribes. In the years that followed, Philip rapidly expanded Macedonian hegemony over the Greeks. In 338 BC, the Macedonians utterly defeated the Thebans and their allies at the Battle of Chaeronea. Thereafter, Philip prepared for his next campaign against the Achaemenid Empire but was assassinated before he could embark on his war. This task fell on the shoulders of his son, Alexander III of Macedon, better-known as Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great at Thessaloniki City, Greece ( Lambros Kazan / Adobe Stock)
Not long after Philip’s death, the Thebans revolted. As a result, Alexander attacked Thebes, massacred the population, and razed the city to the ground. The city was only rebuilt in 316 BC, by Cassander, the King of Macedon, and one of the Diadochi (the successors of Alexander who fought each other for control of the empire after his death).
Thebes Under the Might of Roman Rule
In the next two centuries, Thebes continued to play a role in Greek politics , though by then it had become quite an insignificant city state. Thebes participated in the Achaean Revolt against the Roman Republic. The Greeks, however, were defeated, and Thebes, along with the rest of mainland Greece, lost its political independence and was annexed by Rome. Under Roman rule, Thebes was reduced to a provincial town of little importance. During the later Byzantine and Frankish periods, however, Thebes became a prosperous administrative and commercial center, and was known particularly for silk weaving. During the Ottoman period, between 1435 and 1829, Thebes was once again reduced to a poor village.
Visiting Thebes and the Magnificent Archaeological Museum
Unfortunately, not much has survived of Thebes’ Classical past and only the ruins of the Cadmea remain today. The city has a small archaeological museum , established in 1905, which houses the archaeological finds from the area. It is situated on the site where the castle of Nicholas II of Saint Omer once stood and is one of the oldest museums in Greece. In 2007, the museum was expanded and reorganized, making it one of the best archaeological museums in the country.
Thebes (known locally as Thiva) can be reached by bus or by train from Athens, as well as by train from Thessaloniki. The former takes about an hour, whereas the latter between 3.5 and 4.5 hours. There is an admission fee for entry into the Archaeological Museum of Thebes.
Top image: Cadmus fighting the Dragon by Hendrick Goltzius Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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