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City of Boeotia, in central Greece, north-west of
Athens (area 2).
Thebes was the largest and richest city of Boeotia, owing to the fertility of its territory. In mythological traditions, it was founded by Cadmus, a Phoenician, son of Agenor, king of Sidon (or Tyre, in Phoenicia), himself the son of Poseidon and a descendant of Zeus and Io through his mother Libya. Cadmus had a sister named Europa who was abducted by Zeus under the guise of a bull (Zeus brought her to Crete and, from her, had three sons : Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus). Agenor then ordered Cadmus and his brothers Thasus , Phoenix and Cilix to go search for their sister and not come back till they had found her. Each one took a different road and, unable to find her, they kept going, founding city after city along their way. These wanderings led Cadmus in Crete, Thera, Samothrace, Rhodes and in many other place.
Cadmus was eventually ordered by the oracle of Delphi to stop searching his sister and found a city where, upon following a cow, the animal would stop of exhaustion. The cow he thus followed stopped at the location of what became Thebes. In order to cleanse the cow before offering it in sacrifice to Athena, Cadmus sent some of his companions draw water from a neighboring spring. But there, they were killed by a dragon. Upon seeing that, Cadmus fought and killed the dragon and Athena, appearing to him, suggested that he sow the teeth of the dead animal. As soon as he had done this, armed warriors sprang from the earth. Feeling threatened by these men, Cadmus threw stones in the middle of them. Not knowing where the stones came from, the "sowed men" (the Spartoi, as they became called) killed each other, except for five of them, one of whom, Echion, later married Agave, a daughter of Cadmus. To expiate the murder of the dragon, Cadmus had to serve Ares for eight year, and after that, with the help of Athena, he became king of Thebes and Zeus gave him Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, for wife. All the gods attended the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia, where the Muses sang, and they brought gifts to the bride, including a wonderful dress weaved by the Graces (Charites inGreek), daughters of Zeus, and a golden necklace made by Hephaistus (which would later play a role in the expedition of the Seven against Thebes, in the time of Adrastus, king of Argos).
[Herodotus, in his Histories,
V, 57-58, credits Cadmus and his Phoenician companions
with introducing many new techniques in Greece, including the alphabet (and
indeed, the Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician alphabet, which is
the first known alphabet, that is, a writing system based on letters
representing elementary sounds rather than ideograms, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs,
or syllables, like the Cretan Linear A and B writing systems that preceeded
it ; this alphabet was invented by the Phoenicians around 1100 B. C. and
introduced in Greece probably around the end of the IXth century B. C. or beginning
of the VIIIth ; the main innovation of the Greeks with respect to writing
was to add letters for vowels to an alphabet which, like today's Hebrew or Arabic
alphabets, included only consonants).
Plato too alludes to the story of Cadmus in several places : at Menexenus, 245d, he mentions the offspring of Cadmus as not being genuine Greeks ; at Laws, II, 663e, he mentions the story of "the Sidonian" and the sowing of the teeth as an example of how easy it is to make people believe a worthy lie, in keeping with what was said at Republic, III, 414b, sq about the noble lie, with a reference to the same "Phoenician story" ; the story of the sowed men fighting each other is behind Plato's reference to "Cadmeian victories" at Laws, I, 641c to show the ill effects of pride in victory ; then, in the Phædo, Socrates compares Simmias and Cebes, who are Thebans, to Harmonia and Cadmus respectively, when moving from the answer to Simmias objection of the soul-harmony to the answer to Cebes' objection (Phædo, 95a). ]
Cadmus and Harmonia had several children : Polydorus, a son, and four
daughters, Autonoe, Ino, Agave and Semele. Semele was loved by Zeus and, when
Hera learned that she was pregnant, filled with jealousy, she suggested Semele
to ask Zeus to appear to her in all his glory. Zeus, who had promised her to
do all she would ask, showed himself amidst lightnings and thunderstorms, which
Semele couldn't bear and which caused her death. Zeus immediately removed the
child she was bearing (she was in her sixth month of pregnancy) and sewed him
in his own thigh, until the time of birth came and Dionysus (the "twice-born")
was born in perfect health. Zeus entrusted the baby to Hermes, who gave him
to his mother's sister Ino and her husband Athamas, king of Coronea
(or Orchomenus) in Boeotia,
and brother of Sisyphus, king of Corinth.
But Hera, still jealous, struck Athamas with madness, so that he killed one
of the sons he had had from Ino. Ino herself, rendered mad by this, killed her
other son, Melicertes, by plunging him into a pot of boiling water, and then,
killed herself by jumping into the sea, somewhere between Corinth
and Megara, with the body of her dead son, and thereafter
became a marine goddess under the name Leucothea ("the white goddess"). According
to some traditions, the Isthmian games, that
were celebrated near Corinth, were instituted by Sisyphus
in honor of his nephew Melicertes.
As for Dionysus, he was carried by Zeus away from Greece to be raised by nymphs of a country variously located in Asia, Ethiopia or Africa, daughters of Atlas, that later became the stars of the Hyades. When grown up, he discovered vine and its use, but was struck with madness by Hera. He wandered through Egypt and Syria before reaching Phrygia, where the goddess Cybele purified him and initiated him to her cult. Then, he went to Thracia where the local king, Lycurgus (not to be confused with the legislator of Sparta) refused to let him pass through his kingdom and tried to capture him. Dionysus took refuge in the sea near the Nereid Thetis, and Lycurgus, who had managed to capture Bacchæ accompanying Dionysus (whose other name is Bacchus), was struck with madness while the Bacchæ were miraculously freed, and, with an axe, killed his own son that he had mistaken for a vine. Lycurgus recovered his reason but his country had become sterile and, following an oracle, his people had to put him to death to stop the malediction, which they did by having him torn apart by four horses (this episode inspired a trilogy to Æschylus, the Lycurgia, of which only fragments are extant).
From Thracia, Dionysus moved to India, that he conquered, before coming back to Thebes, the native land of his mother, where Pentheus, the son of his mother's sister Agave and of Echion, one of the few surviving "sowed men" born from the teeth of the dragon, was now king. There, he introduced Bacchanalia, orgiastic festivals in his honor, but Pentheus opposed such dangerous rites. In retaliation against him and against his mother Agave, who wouldn't believe that her sister Semele had been loved by Zeus, but claimed she had had an affair with a mortal and had been punished by Zeus for putting the blame on him, Dionysus managed to have Agave kill her own son Pentheus during one of these festivals, mistaking him for a wild beast (this episode is the theme of Euripides' Bacchæ).
Dionysus then went to Argos, where he similarly struck with madness the daughters of Proetus and the women of Argolis, so that they roamed the country pretending to be cows, forcing Proetus to call upon Melampous to heal them, which cost him part of his kingdom as fee for Melampous' intervention. Next, Dionysus tried to reach the island of Naxos with the help of pirates. But when he saw that the pirates were trying to bring him to Asia to sell him there as a slave, he changed their oars into snakes, grew ivy in their boats, played invisible flutes and paralyzed their boats in vine, so that the pirates, become mad, jumped into the sea where they were changed into dolphins. After that, Dionysus was recognized as a god and could return to heaven, now that his cult had been established everywhere, but not before going to Hades free his mother Semele. From heaven, Dionysus came back to Naxos, where Theseus had just abandonned Ariadne who had helped him out of the Labyrinth. They fell in love and Dionysus took her with him to the Olympus and married her.
When Cadmus was old, for unknown reasons, he left Thebes with his wife and went to Illyria, leaving the throne of Thebes to Pentheus, the son of his daughter Agave and of Echion, one of the Spartoi (or, according to other sources, to his own son Polydorus, who was later ousted by Pentheus). As indicated above, Pentheus was killed by his own mother when Dionysus came back to Thebes and introduced Bacchic cults there. From his wife Nycteis, daughter of Nycteus, the son of Chthonius, another surviving "sowed man", Polydorus had a son named Labdacus. But he was then too young to rule, so the regency was entrusted to his grandfather Nycteus who, along with his brother Lycus, had befriended Pentheus. Nycteus had an incredibly beautiful daughter, named Antiope, who was loved by Zeus under the guise of a Satyre (Antiope was sometimes said to be the daughter of the river-god Asopus). Having become pregnant, she fled to Sicyon for fear of her father, and seeked refuge at the court of Epopeus, the king of the place. Sadenned by the disappearance of his daughter, Nycteus killed himself, but, before dying, asked his brother Lycus to avenge him. Lycus attacked Sicyon, killed Epopeus and took Antiope with him to bring her back to Thebes. During the trip back, at Eleutheræ, Antiope gave birth to twins, Amphion and Zethus. Lycus exposed the babies on a nearby mountain and continued his journey to Thebes with Antiope, whom he forced to serve his wife Dirce, who was jealous of her beauty, as a slave. The twins were saved and raised by a shepherd living nearby. As they grew older, Zethus became fond of violent activities and manual work, wrestling, toiling the soil, raising cattle, while Amphions, who had received a lyre from Hermes, dedicated himself to music (at Laws, III, 677d, Plato has Clinias credit Amphion for the invention of the lyre), and the two brothers would spend hours comparing the merits of their respective trades.
Meanwhile in Thebes, Labdacus had come of age and he became king of Thebes. During his reign, Thebes was involved in a border conflict with Pandion, the king of Athens, leading to a war which the Athenians won with the help of Tereus, the king of Thracia. When Labdacus died (some say in the same manner and for the same reason as Pentheus, that is, in opposing Bacchic cults), his son Laius was too young to succeed him and the regency was given to Lycus, who still held Antiope in his custody. But one night, Antiope was miraculously freed of her chains and escaped surrepticiously to the place where her sons, now adults, lived. Amphion and Zethus, having learned who she was from the shepherd who had raised them, set to avenge her, went back to Thebes and killed Lycus and Dirce, the later by tying her behind a bull which dragged her on rocky slopes Later, Antiope, in reprisal for the murder of Dirce, was struck with madness by Dionysus and wandered throughout Greece until she was met by Phocus, the first king of Phocis, who healed and married her. (the story of Antiope, Amphion and Zethus inspired Euripides a drama (no longer extant) called Antiope which Plato quotes in the Gorgias through the mouth of Callicles in his introductory speech (484e-486d) : in this speech, Callicles quotes the words of Zethus (485e) to criticize Socrates, whose devotion to philosophy makes him in his eyes a like of Amphion, while at the same time giving a brotherly look to his criticism ; and when, later, Callicles threatens to quit, upset by Socrates' dialectic, Socrates is all too happy to remind him that he owes him Amphion's answer (506b)).
Having killed Lycus, Amphion and Zethus took over kingship in Thebes, where they built the walls of the city, Zethus carrying rock on his shoulders while Amphion would move them simply by playing his lyre. Amphion married Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus and sister of Pelops (not to be confused with the daughter of Phoroneus), and they had seven sons and seven daughters. Niobe was so proud of her children that she once declared herself superior to Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, who had only one son and one daughter. Upset at hearing this, the goddess sent her childs to avenge her : with their bows and arrows, they killed, Artemis the girls and Apollo the boys and their father. Only one boy and one girl survived. The surviving girl had become so pale at seeing what had happened to her brothers and sisters that she was hereafter called Chloris (a word meaning "pale" in Greek). She later married Neleus, the king of Pylos, and was the mother of Nestor, the wise old king of the Iliad. In her grief at the death of her children, Niobe returned to the country of her father, in Asia Minor, where the gods turned her into a weeping rock (Plato refers to Niobe's grief at Republic, II, 380a).
Meanwhile, young Laius, deprived of his kingdom, had fled Thebes and seeked refuge at the court of Pelops. There, he fell in love with Chrysippus, a son of Pelops (some say he was thus the first to get involved in homosexual love) and abducted him. This earned him a curse on the part of Pelops that is at the root of all the evils that befell his family hereafter. After the death of Amphion and his children, and of Zethus, Laius came back to Thebes and recovered his kingdom. Laius married Jocasta, daughter of Menoeceus, himself a grandson of Pentheus (there are in fact various traditions on the name and ascendance of Laius' wife ; this one is the one found in the Greek tragedies). But an oracle told him that, if he had a son, this son would kill him and bring all sorts of evils on his progeny. Not listening to the advice, Laius had a son from Jocasta, named Oedipus, and, to try and escape the oracle, exposed the baby as soon as he was born.
The traditions vary on how Oedipus was saved from death, but they all agree that he was raised at the court of Polybus, a king of Corinth (or, according to other traditions, of Sicyon), of which he firmly believed during all his youth he was the son. Having reached adulthood, one day, for some reason, either to run after stolen horses, or to go consult the oracle of Delphi about his true parents after someone had told him he was a foundling, he left Corinth. In one version of the story, he went to Delphi, where the oracle told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother ; so, because he still thought he was Polybus' son, he decided not to return to Corinth and took the road to Thebes. No matter what, the fact is that, on his way, somewhere at a crossroad on narrow paths, he met Laius, not knowing who he was. After Laius' herald had asked him to give way to the king and had killed one of his horses because he was not fast enough to move, an angered Oedipus killed both of them. Arriving near Thebes, Oedipus met the Sphinx, a monster half-woman, half-lion, who used to asked travellers riddles and devour those unable to solve them, which was the case for all so far. Oedipus was submitted to the test and had no trouble solving the riddle, after what he killed the Sphinx. Thankfull for having been rid of the monster, the Thebans, who had just lost their king (Laius), asked him to marry Laius' widow and to become their king, which he did.
Yeas later, after Oedipus and Jocasta had had four children, two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, the truth started to unfold. In Sophocles' version (Oedipus Tyrannus), a plague in Thebes was the occasion. To know the cause of the plague, Oedipus sent Creon, Jocasta's brother, consult the oracle at Delphi, and learned that the plague would only cease after the murderer of Laius had been punished. As the inquiry proceeded, conducted by Oedipus himself who had cursed the murderer in advance, and despite the silence of Tiresias, the seer who knew the truth but didn't want to tell it, so horrendous it was, more and more hints pointed at the inquirer himself, each attempt by Jocasta to disprove the oracles turning, after investigation, into one more lead toward the truth, till the arrival of a herald from Corinth announcing the death of Polybus, who had left his throne to Oedipus. Oedipus was now convinced that the prophecy about him killing his father would not come true, only to learn minutes later that he was indeed a foundling and that Polybus was not his true father. This was the last straw and all the pieces could now fit together Once the truth had been unveiled, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself, before being banished from Thebes. He then began a life of wandering, accompanied only by his daughter Antigone, and was eventually offered hospitality by Theseus in Attica. He died in Colonus, a village near Athens, and was buried there.
Yet, before leaving Thebes, Oedipus had cursed his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, predicting that they could never live in peace and would kill each other, because neither had come to his rescue and helped him avoid banishment. So, the two brothers decided that, rather than staying together, they would reign over Thebes in turn, one year each. Eteocles was first and Polynices left the city. But when, one year later, he came back to take his turn, Eteocles refused to give way. So Polynices went to Argos to seek help from Adrastus, one of its kings at the time. Adrastus and Polynices, who had by then married one of Adrastus' daughters, drummed up support and assembled an army to march against Thebes led by seven princes, them included, under the supreme command of Adrastus, to help Polynices recover his throne. During the battle that took place in front of Thebes, so the story goes, each one of the seven princes fought in front of one of the seven gates of the city. Polynices fought at the gate that was guarded by his brother Eteocles and, during the fight, they killed each other. In fact, the expedition, known as the expedition of the Seven against Thebes, ended in failure and all the leading princes on Polynices' side died except Adrastus (a more detailed account of this expedition is available in the section on Adrastus of the entry on Argos).
After the death of Oedipus' sons, as Eteocles' son was too young to become king, Creon, Jocasta's brother, assumed the regency in Thebes (in some traditions, he had already reigned there after the death of Laius and before Oedipus killed the Sphinx, and it is him who had promised his throne to whomever would rid the city of the monster ; it was also sometimes said that, when Oedipus was recognized as the murderer of his father and had to leave Thebes, he had taken over kingship while Eteocles and Polynices were too young to be kings). Creon's first decision after taking power was that Eteocles should receive proper burial, but that Polynices, who had borne arms against his own city, should be deprived of burial and left to rot where he had died. Yet Antigone, their sister, who had come back to Thebes after the death of Oedipus at Colonus, refused to obey the decree and to let her brother without burial rites, prefering to honor the gods rather than to obey the law. Despite guards posted by Creon near Polynices' body to enforce his decree, she managed to lay a handful of dust on him, which was enough to accomplish the sacred rites required by the gods. As a result, Creon condemned her to death and had her buried alive in her family's grave, where she hanged herself. But Creon's son, Hæmon, who was in love with her, killed himself on her body and, when learning that, his mother Eurydice, Creon's wife, hanged herself.
[The story of Oedipus and his children was the most famous legendary cycle of ancient Greece after the Trojan cycle. It inspired Æschylus a cycle known as the Theban tetralogy, made up of three tragedies : Laius, Oedipus and The Seven against Thebes, and a satirical drama : The Sphinx, of which only The Seven against Thebes is still extant ; it also inspired several tragedies to Sophocles, of which Oedipus Tyrannus, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus are still extant, and to Euripides, including a lost Antigone and the extant Phoenician Women and Suppliants ; Oedipus is mentioned only twice in Plato's dialogues, both times in the Laws : first, at Laws, VIII, 838b-c, as an example of the role of tragedy to teach us laws against incest, then at Laws, XI, 931b-c, as an example of the fact that the gods listen to the prayers of parents, even when they curse their own children, which should induce us to worship our parents ; this last instance may be at the root of two mentions of Oedipus in the Second Alcibiades, at 138b-c and 140e-141a, a dialogue that has come down to us under the name of Plato].
Ten years after the first expedition against Thebes, at a time when Laodamas, the son of Eteocles, had become king after Creon's regency, Adrastus sponsored a second expedition against Thebes, known as the expedition of the Epigones, with the sons of the princes killed during the first expedition. Its purpose was to restore Thersandrus, the son of Polynices and Argia (Adrastus' daughter), on the throne owed his father. The Epigones, on the faith of an oracle ensuring them success by so doing, wanted Alcmæon for their leader. Alcmæon was the son of Amphiaraus, a remote cousin, and brother-in-law, of Adrastus who was also a seer and had ben forced by his wife Eryphile (Adrastus' sister, bribed by Polynices who offered her, to ensure her support, the necklace of Harmonia, stolen by him before fleeing Thebes) to take part in the first expedition as one of the seven leaders, though he knew he would die there. Indeed, Amphiaraus, before leaving for the doomed campaign, had made his sons promise to avenge him and to undertake a second expedition that, he foresaw, would be successful. But Alcmeon was hard to convince and only Eryphile, his mother, could decide him, after she had been bribed by Thersandrus, Polynices' son, as she had been by Polynices in the time of the first expedition to send Amphiaraus to his death (this time, the bribe was Harmonia's dress). During the war that ensued, which was waged in the villages around Thebes, Laodamas killed Ægialeus, the son of Adrastus, but then, Alcmæon killed Laodamas, and this ensured victory to his party.
After that victory, Thersandrus was installed as king of Thebes. He married Demonassa, daughter of Amphiaraus and sister of Alcmæon and took part in the first expedition against Troy at the beginning of the Trojan War, where he was killed by Telephus, a son of Heracles and Auge (daughter of Aleus, king of Tegea, a city of Arcadia) who had settled in Mysia and was fighting on the Trojan side. His son Tisamenus was too young to lead the Thebans during the second expedition against Troy and was replaced in that role by a certain Peneleos, but after having come of age, he reigned over Thebes. His son Autesion could not succeed him and took the road of exile to end up in Sparta that was then ruled by the Heraclidæ. He was the father of Theras, who left Sparta to settle in the island of Calliste, which took his name to become the island of Thera (Herodotus, IV, 147-149). In Thebes meanwhile, the offspring of Peneleos took over kingship.
Thebes was also the birthplace of Heracles, at a time when his mother Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon, both grandchildren of Perseus where in exile there at the court of Creon. But, owing to his parents' origin, Heracles always considered that Argos, not Thebes, was his true homeland, and that he was a Peloponnesian and more specifically an Argive. That is where he and his sons after him always tried to return but were prevented to do so so long as Eurystheus was alive. Eurystheus was another grandson of Perseus who had become king of Mycenæ with the help of Hera, jealous of Alcmene after Zeus had seduced her to become the true father of Heracles and he is the one who imposed upon Heracles his twelve labors.
By the third quarter of the VIth century B. C., Thebes had become the head
of the Boeotian Confederacy, an alliance of all Boeotian cities. Thebes and
most of the Boetian cities (with the exception of Platæa
and Thespiæ) played an ambiguous role during
the Persian wars : they submitted to Xerxes,
offering him "earth and water" (Herodotus'
Histories, VII, 131-132) while he was approaching, yet, they were forced
to fight with the Greeks at the battle of Thermopylæ(480)
but switched side during the battle (Histories,
VII, 202, 205,
and fought on the side of the Persians at the battle of Platæa
in 479 (Histories,
IX, 31). As a result, the Boeotian Confederacy was dissolved by the winning
allies and Thebes was reduced to a much less prominent life.
It is during that time that the most famous of Thebes' poets, Pindar, flourished.
When the relations between Athens and Sparta started deteriorating, Thebes sided with the later and contributed to the defeat of Athens at the battle of Tanagra in 457, only to be defeated by Athens at Oenophita two months later after the Spartans had returned home (see Thucydides, I, 107-108). About ten years later, Boeotian oligarchs started retaking control of Boeotian cities despite Athenian support of democratic regimes. Athens was once again defeated by the Thebans at Coronea in 447 (see Thucydides, I, 113) and Thebes took advantage of its victory to reconstruct the Boeotian Confederacy. It was the failed attempt by Thebes, a few years later, in 431, in violation of the Thirty Year Peace of 446 between Athens and Sparta, to recapture the Boeotian city of Platæa, which had remained a faithful ally of Athens, which marked the start of the Peloponesian war (see Thucydides, II, 2, sq). In that war, Thebes sided with Sparta and brought about the total destruction of Platæa after a two years' siege (427), defeated Athens at Delium (424) and razed the walls of Thespiæ, accused of sympathy for Athens (423, see Thucydides, IV, 133) thus getting rid of all opposition in Boeotia.
At the end of the war (404), Thebes had fully restored its leadership over Boeotian cities and was, along with Corinth, a leading voice in asking the allies a complete destruction of Athens (Xenophon's Hellenica, II, 2, 19), a demand which was rejected by Sparta. A few years later, Thebes sided with Athens, Corinth, Argos and other Greek cities in a coalition against the growing power of Sparta fomented and largely financed by the Persians of Artaxerxes II, that led to the so-called Corinthian War of 395-386. At the end of this war, the "Peace of the King" imposed by the Persians, required the autonomy of all Greek cities, thus leading once again to the dissolution of the Boeotian Confederacy that was at the root of Thebes' power.
Yet, Thebes managed to once again reconstruct the Confederacy and, under the leadership of Gorgidas and, above all, Epaminondas, reached the peak of its glory. In 371, Epaminondas defeated the Spartan army at Leuctra, putting in effect an end to Sparta's hegemony and reputation of invincibility. For a while, Epaminondas' Thebes took over the role of leading Greek city, freeing the Messenians from Spartan dominion, intervening in all parts of Greece, until Epaminondas was killed in 362 at the battle of Mantinea while fighting a coalition led by Athens and Sparta reconciled against him.
The death of Epaminondas put an end to Thebes' glory and power. In trying to restore its influence over its neighbors, Thebes seeked help from Philip II, king of Macedon, at a time he was a growing menace for Greece. Eventually persuaded to switch sides by Demosthenes and to team up with Athens against Philip, Thebes took part in the battle of Chæronea (338), where the victory of Philip and is 18 years old son Alexander over the Greek coalition marked the end of Greek autonomy. Thebes was once more deprived of its leadership over Boeotian cities and Philip installed a Macedonian garrison in Thebes. Three years later, in 335, Thebes tried to rebel against Macedon upon rumors that Alexander who, one year earlier had succeeded his assassinated father, had been killed in Thracia. But Alexander, who was in fact alive and well, took no time to return to Thebes, quench the rebellion and raze the city, with the exception of its temples and Pindar's house.