Because of the circumstances of history, a detailed archaeological record of Thebes is difficult to achieve. Not only does most of ancient Thebes lie under the modern town, rendering it inaccessible, but the city was famously razed to the ground more than once, both in mythology and in history. Much of our knowledge comes from literature and the odd lucky find.
During the Bronze Age, Thebes was one of the most powerful cities of mainland Greece and traces
of palaces survive on the Cadmeian Hill in its southwest quadrant. Archaeology has revealed trading and social links both with local towns, such as nearby Orchomenos (itself a wealthy centre), and with Crete, Egypt and Miletus on the western shore of Asia Minor. Like other Mycenaean sites, Thebes was deliberately destroyed around the turn of the twelfth century bc.
By the sixth century bc, thanks to its agricultural wealth, Thebes’ position as the strongest city in Boeotia led to the first of many conflicts with neighbouring Attica over the border-city of Plataea. Accepting the principle that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Thebes sided with the Persians against Athens during the Persian Wars, earning opprobrium from the victorious Greeks. Later in the fifth century bc, it again allied itself with Athens’ enemies, this time the Spartans, in the Peloponnesian War, one of the first acts of which was Thebes’ siege of Plataea. Nonetheless in 403 bc, Thebes graciously helped Athens overthrow the Thirty Tyrants imposed on it at the end of the war by Sparta.
The city’s heyday came in the fourth century bc, when – after a hostile Spartan occupation in 382 bc – the politician Pelopidas and general Epaminondas built Thebes into a formidable player on the Greek stage. In 371 bc Epaminondas’ defeat of Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra altered the balance of power in the Peloponnese and wider Greece, and earned him the title of ‘Greece’s Liberator’. However, Epaminondas’ death at the Battle of Mantinea in 362 bc marked the end of Thebes’ brief Golden Age.
Thebes in History & Today Photo Gallery
In 338 bc, along with its allies (now including Athens), Thebes’ army was defeated by the Macedonians at the Battle of Chaeronea. Its celebrated Sacred Band, a regiment formed exclusively from pairs of homosexual lovers, was cut down to a man. They were buried in a common grave – the monumental lion erected over it still guards the road into Chaeronea. Two years later the Thebans, wrongly believing Alexander the Great was dead, revolted from Macedonian rule. Alexander’s response was extreme. He razed the city to the ground, sparing only its temples and the house of the fifth-century bc poet Pindar, its most famous literary son.
In 316 bc, Alexander’s successor-general Cassander rebuilt Thebes, and some decades later the traveller Heracleides described it as ‘lush and well-watered, with more gardens than any other city in Greece’. However, it had a reputation for lawlessness – its men were quick to pick a fight and murders were committed for the slightest motive.
They are the tallest, the most beautiful and the most elegant of any in the whole of Greece. They veil their faces so that only their eyes can be seen, and every one of them wears a white dress with purple shoes, laced to show off their feet. They tie their blond hair in a topknot and have bewitching voices – unlike the men, whose voices are rasping and deep.
After Rome annexed Greece in 146 bc, Thebes allied itself with Mithridates of Pontus, earning severe punishment from the Roman general Sulla. In 86 bc he sacked the city and redistributed its land. It never really recovered. When Pausanias visited, Thebes was little more than a village. It enjoyed a brief flowering in the twelfth century thanks to its silk factories, but, when the centre of production moved to Sicily, Thebes sank once more into decline. Despite its lack of loveliness, the modern town of Thivai represents a welcome return to relative good fortune.
Such buildings as survived Thebes’ many sacks lie under the modern town, though tantalizing fragments can be seen. Among these are sparse foundations of the Cadmeia, Thebes’ Bronze Age palace, near the modern market place, from which a trove of Linear B tablets has been unearthed; the remains of the agora and theatre on Kastelli Hill; the site of the Temple of Apollo Ismenus on Ismenus Hill; and some desultory remnants of the Electra Gate on Odos Amphionos.
The museum (closed indefinitely at time of writing) boasts a fine selection of Bronze Age cylinder seals, inscriptions, armour and worked ivory as well as an impressive thirteenth-century BC larnax (coffin) with a painting of five women tearing their hair in grief.
In the early nineteenth century AD, the Theban plain was rich in antiquities. Sadly, thanks to enthusiastic looters and developers, this is no longer the case. Close by Thebes are Chaeronea (with its lion-memorial to the Theban Sacred Band and rock-cut theatre), Orchomenos (another fine theatre and the tholos called ‘The Treasury of Minyas’), the Mycenaean fortress of Gla to the north, and the haunting sites of Plataea and the battlefield of Leuctra to the south.