Athens and Sparta tend to dominate the conversation when it comes to ancient Greek city-states. But ancient Greece didn’t rise to fame on the backs of just two cities. There were plenty others, and few can claim to have had as much of an impact on ancient Greek history as Thebes.”
On its own, Thebes did not achieve much until the end of the Classical Era, when it defeated Sparta and assumed control of the Greek world for a brief time. But before then, it’s not like it was just sitting around doing nothing. Instead, its significance was as a power broker.”
In other words, whoever Thebes chose to support in the many wars fought amongst Greek city-states often determined the outcome of those wars. For example, when it chose to help Athens, Athens did better. When it chose Sparta, Sparta did better.”
Eventually, all of this assistance allowed Thebes to develop a strong military tradition of its own, and its growing aggression helped bring about the end of the Classical Age of ancient Greece (c. 600- c. 200 BC).”
But how did Thebes get so much power?
Thebes…kind of a big deal?
Thebes was probably one of the first cities ever settled by the people we now call “Greeks.” It’s difficult to know exactly when people started living there, but there is evidence of a Mycenaean Thebes. This means people were living there at least as far back as 1500 BC, though some evidence suggests they were there even sooner.”
Being so old is part of the reason why Thebes became so cool. Older cities tend to be bigger, wealthier, and more powerful. For Thebes, though, much of its street cred came from mythology.
According to myth, Thebes was founded by the god Cadmus, one of Zeus’ many sons. While looking for his sister, Europa, Cadmus traveled to the Oracle at Delphi to ask for guidance. There, he was told to give up his search and found a city on the Boeotian plane, the region in which Thebes is located.”
Being directly founded by one of the gods already puts Thebes in a class of its own. But this was also one of the first examples of the Oracle at Delphi impacting Greek mythology and religion. Throughout ancient times, this Oracle played a crucial role in the courses and outcomes of Greece’s politics and wars.
Later, Dionysus, the god of wine and pleasure, was born in Thebes, and so was Heracles, the Greek god who inspired the Roman hero Hercules.
And as if this weren’t enough, Thebes was also the setting for the story of Oedipus, the infamous king who wound up marrying his mother, and the main character of one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated dramas.
These stories tie Thebes to those told and honored by Greeks from all over. At a time when people tended to keep to their own cities and people, these were forms of connection. The seeds of a common Greek identity.”
While this all sounds nice, it didn’t do a whole lot to prevent the near-constant warring between Greek city-states, and it didn’t make Thebes any more likely to play along with its neighbors. But it did help give Thebes special status, and the city turned this into power that would help decide the course of Greek history.”
The Rogue Greek City-State
Just like Athens and Sparta became rivals instead of friends, Thebes was also not eager to be too close to its fellow Greek cities.”
Thebes and Athens had a rivalry since they were relatively close to one another, and so they were often competing for land. Athens frequently claimed territory Thebes felt was in Boeotia, the region just north of Attica, where Athens is located.”
Of course, in addition to not wanting to lose its land, Thebes feared the influence the Athenians could have on the Theban commoner. Athens was a democracy, whereas Thebes was ruled by kings who most often acted as tyrants.”
These despots wanted to keep all those ideas of freedom and equality as far from Thebes as possible.”
In fact, Thebes hated Athens and Sparta (but really Athens) so much that when the Persians invaded in 489 BC, the Thebans ignored the Athenians’ plea to unity and chose to fight with the Persians.”
Even Sparta, which pretty much hated everyone and tried as best as it could to keep to itself, stayed and fought with Greece.
Then, in c. 434 BC, when the Peloponnesian War broke out between Athens and Sparta, Thebes chose team Sparta. An alliance between these two would have been dangerous, but shortly after Sparta’s victory over Athens, it broke. Thebes didn’t like how powerful Sparta was getting, so a rivalry between these two cities began.
Thebes joined up with Corinth and a few other Greek cities (including a rather weak Athens) to fight the Spartans in the Corinthian War, which severely limited Sparta’s growing power.
A lot of talk is given to the conflicts between Athens and Sparta. But more often than not, it was the cities that supported these great powers that determined the course of the conflict. Often, securing the support of the Thebans would bring about victory.”
This not only gave Thebes a great deal of influence on Greek affairs, it also provided the city with lots of opportunities to increase its power, opening the door for it to take a turn atop the Greek world.
Sparta went to war with Athens because it didn’t like Athens’ imperial ambitions. So, what did the Spartans do after victory?”
Launch an empire of their own.”
No wonder it was so hard for all the ancient Greeks to get along.”
Threatened by Sparta’s thirst for conquest (and perhaps bribed by the Persians, still looking for their revenge against Greece) the Thebans faced off with Sparta.”
Though Sparta remained atop the Greek world for some thirty years, all this time gave Theban troops the battle experience they would need to defeat their Spartan foes.” No small task, considering the Spartan army had long been considered the most powerful of the ancient world.
The Sacred Band of Thebes
One thing that came out of all of this fighting was the Sacred Band of Thebes.”
Besides a wonderful pun on “band of thieves,” this was a group of 300 elite Theban soldiers. Originally tasked with guarding the main citadel within Thebes, they eventually became an infantry force that would go off to war.”
Mimicking the intense training that the Spartans underwent in their agoge, the Sacred Band of Thebes had its own unique entry requirements.”
For example, there were 300 members because there were 150 couples.”
The Thebans felt that encouraging such close male-male relationships in their most prestigious fighting force would allow them to develop the group cohesion needed to defeat the Spartan phalanx.”
Whether or not this was the reason is something we can never prove. But we do know that over the course of the 4th century BC, the Theban army, led by the Sacred Band, was getting stronger.”
This caused Sparta all sorts of problems, the most significant being their defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. Despite outnumbering the Thebans, the Spartans lost the battle, and an unprecedented number of Spartan soldiers died.”
Due to Sparta’s strict citizenship requirements, the city never recovered from this loss, leading almost directly to the fall of Sparta.”
Just like that, after nearly three hundred years of dominance, Thebes basically told Sparta to go away and never come back.”
The Fall of Thebes
After defeating Sparta, Thebes became the cool kid in ancient Greece. Alongside the Boeotian League, the name given to the alliance of cities and towns in the region of Boeotia, Thebes served as the de facto leader of Greece for a few decades.
But that soon came to an end. In 338 BC, Thebes lost the Battle of Chaeronea to Philipp the II of Macedon. When his son, Alexander, soon to be Alexander the Great, took over the throne, Thebes rebelled. Alexander’s response? Burn the city to the ground.”
Just like that, no more Thebes.”
The city was rebuilt several times, but it never reached its former height. Later, when Rome invaded, its territory was cut in half, and Thebes became nothing more than an afterthought of history.”
Still, despite this quick exit, the city-state of Thebes made lots of noise throughout ancient Greece. By supporting the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, it helped bring about the decline of Classical Athens. Then, by fighting the Spartans, it also contributed to the fall of Sparta. Then, Thebes too fell.”
In this sense, Thebes, while existing in the background for most of ancient Greek history, was really a driving force between the rise and fall of the region’s most powerful and influential city-states.”
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao