Classics Ancient Thebes
Kevin F. Daly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0362


The principal city of Boiotia, Thebes exerted influence and at times control over the great expanse of Central Greece, from the South Euboean Gulf at east to the Gulf of Corinth at west. Lying north of the massif of Parnes (and its most famous spur, Cithaeron), Thebes bestrides the western reaches of a low mountain range running east toward Tanagra and governs access to the flatlands along the Asopus river to the south, to the plains stretching north and east toward Helicon and the Copais (the Teneric plain), and to the level expanses extending west toward the sea south of the Messapion-Ptoon line (the Aonian plain). Thebes itself sits on a dense cluster of hills. One such hill, the Cadmea, is the age-old acropolis. The river Dirce runs just west of the Cadmea. Two rivers lie east: the Strophia (or Chrysoroas), which runs immediately next to the Cadmea, and, further east, the Ismenos. Thebes has a grand mythic history. Founded by the Phoenician Cadmus (in one tradition) while in search of his sister, Europa, the city is the birthplace of two sons of Zeus, Dionysus and Heracles, and an imposing mortal line which includes Oedipus. Impressive Bronze Age remains have long lent intrigue to these traditions. Thebes had regional and extra-regional aspirations by the 6th century, with mythic, epigraphic, and historical references indicating rivalry with neighboring Boiotian communities as well as Athens and Thessaly. Famous for medizing during the Persian Wars, Thebes likely acted within a Boiotian collective by the middle of the 5th century. Thebans joined the Peloponnesian cause in the Peloponnesian War but thereafter came into running conflict with Sparta. The city expelled an imposed Spartan garrison in 379, and the leaders Epaminondas and Pelopidas brought forth a period of expansive Theban hegemony after Leuctra (371). Following the shared defeat at Chaeronea in 338—where Thebes’ renowned Sacred Band came to ruin—the city endured a Macedonian garrison. Destroyed by Alexander in 335 for rebellion, Thebes was rebuilt in the time of Cassander (316). The city functioned as a member of a Boiotian collective subsequently, but Sulla stripped its territory in 86 for Thebes’ backing of Mithridates. Thebes sank to relative insignificance thereafter and did not rise to prominence again until Byzantine times. A prosperous international city after Justinian and into the Middle Ages, Thebes’ importance receded under Ottoman domination.

General Works

As Thebes exerted expansive sway in many domains from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages, most scholarly studies center on the archaeology of particular eras, the part the city played in broader Greek history, Thebes’ regional role, or the town’s influential mythic and literary traditions. No single resource captures all aspects of Thebes’ influence and significance in all periods. Nonetheless, Cloché 1952, Rockwell 2017, and Cartledge 2020 attempt—with varying success—to describe the broad sweep of Thebes’ importance. Centering primarily on the archaeological remains from the city itself, Aravantinos 2010 and Symeonoglou 1985 provide sound footing for those investigating Thebes over the millennia. Aravantinos 2010 offers a concise overview of Thebes in the Bronze Age and the reemergence of the city in the Geometric and Archaic periods. Demand 1982, Buckler 1980, and Munn 2013 utilize the ancient sources to investigate the city and its actions in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Schachter 1981–1994 and Schachter 2014 survey the religious life of the city in the ancient period. Close examination of Bernardini 2000 yields a synoptic view of the numerous methodological approaches to the city and its far-reaching significance. The local archaeological museum has an informative, well-illustrated webpage available in both Greek and English.

  • Aravantinos, Vassilios. 2010. The Archaeological Museum of Thebes. Athens: The John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation.

    A lavishly illustrated guide to the renovated (and spectacular) local museum, this work walks through the history and remains of Thebes (and Boiotia) chronologically and succinctly. It covers prehistory through the Byzantine period (as well as a discussion of myth) in fifteen sections. With both Greek and English editions, the book is available in a free online version via the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation.

  • Archaeological Museum of Thebes.

    A very useful online source available in both Greek and English, this site gives illustrated overviews of the many sites, periods, and finds pertaining to Thebes throughout time.

  • Bernardini, Paolo Angeli, ed. 2000. Presenza e funzione della città di Tebe nella cultura Greca. Pisa, Italy: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali.

    The publication of a 1997 conference, this work contains a diverse series of papers demonstrating the wide range of Theban studies and includes chapters on the archaeology of the 1990s, ancient history, federalism, myth, literature, and art. Extremely useful for prior bibliography and for seeing the framework and potential of several scholarly questions relevant to ancient Thebes.

  • Buckler, John. 1980. The Theban hegemony, 371–362 BC. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The standard work on Thebes’ famous decade of political and military superiority, Buckler’s book addresses topography and the Boiotian confederacy at some length before turning to a chronological account of the period. Two appendices address matters of chronology and the literary evidence.

  • Cartledge, Paul. 2020. Thebes: The forgotten city of ancient Greece. London: Picador.

    Cartledge’s detailed overview of Thebes’ history and culture stretches from the Bronze Age to the destruction of the city by Alexander; chapter 12 treats the later city in a rather cursory fashion. Cartledge relies heavily on ancient biographical sources, and he often discusses general history more than Thebes. While idiosyncratic, the chapter on the literary and mythic influence of Thebes (chapter 13) attests to the city’s far-reaching influence.

  • Cloché, Paul. 1952. Thèbes de Béotie: des origenes á la conquête romain. Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de Namur 13. Namur, France: Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix.

    Cloché’s workmanlike effort creates a united historical narrative for the city of Thebes based on the ancient literary sources. Unfortunately, these ancient sources (apart from Pindar) are rather limited in the earlier periods (chapters 2–3). The book becomes stronger as the number of sources increases.

  • Demand, Nancy H. 1982. Thebes in the fifth century: Heracles resurgent. London: Routledge.

    Recently republished but not revised, this book works to frame a view of ancient Thebes from the 5th century in its many elements (variously treated in separate chapters): political and military, religious, philosophical, and artistic. Social history is woven throughout, and Demand offers special emphasis on the role of women.

  • Munn, Mark. 2013. Thebes and Central Greece. In The Greek world in the fourth century from the fall of the Athenian empire to the successors of Alexander. Edited by L. A. Tritle, 66–106. London: Taylor and Francis.

    Though not strictly aimed at scholars, this work offers a synoptic narrative of Thebes’ history in the 4th century. Munn aims for special emphasis on Thebes’ interactions with bordering regions, especially Thessaly. The study points to the major ancient literary sources.

  • Rockwell, Nicholas. 2017. Thebes: A history. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315620886

    The work delivers less than its title promises and at times—especially with respect to prehistory—reads like a general overview of Greek archaeology more than a text focused on Thebes. A cautious reader can find general guidance, useful citations of ancient sources, and some current (mostly English) bibliography.

  • Schachter, Albert. 1981–1994. Cults of Boiotia. 4 vols. BICS Supplement 38. London: Institute of Classical Studies.

    Arranged alphabetically by the cult’s recipient, this standard reference for regional cult presents archaeological and literary bibliography as well as interpretations of the divine figure in question. Divinities, heroes, and other figures are distinguished by location (hence, e.g., Athena at Alalkomenai is a distinct entry from Athena at Thebes). Patient perusal and focused use of the epigraphical index allows readers to piece together cult at Thebes.

  • Schachter, Albert. 2014. Cults and sanctuaries of historical Thebes. In 100 Χρόνια Αρχαιολογικού Έργου στη Θήβα: Οι Προωεργάτες των Ερευνών και οι Συνεχιστές τους. Edited by Vassilis Aravantinos and Elena Kountouri, 325–335. Athens: ΤΑΠΑ (Archaeological Receipts Fund).

    Author of the standard reference for regional cult (Cults of Boiotia), Schachter in this article narrows his view to Thebes and its major divinities and shrines. Like other articles in the volume, this study comes from a 2004 conference. Somewhat cursory in scope, the discussion rests primarily on literary texts with less attention paid to archaeological finds.

  • Symeonoglou, Sarantis. 1985. The topography of Thebes from the Bronze Age to modern times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400857678

    Although outdated, this single volume remains an excellent starting point for all explorations of Thebes. The work summarizes the major periods of Theban history using literary and archaeological sources and then provides a gazetteer of sites keyed to related bibliography. Two large plans and numerous smaller plans locate ancient sites and monuments in the modern town.

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