Thebes – Its Rise and Fall
Thebes was the primary city-state of Boetia, a broad and very fertile plain in central Greece. It is the legendary home of Herakles, Oedipus and Cadmus, a prince of Tyre who on his journey from Phoenicia is said to have founded the city. Cadmus is also noteworthy for being the brother of one of Zeus’ many consorts, Europa, for whom the continent is named. (The citadel, the Cadmium, was named for him).
To say that Thebes had a checkered history with its neighbors is more than just an understatement. Like many cities in the middle and northern parts of Greece (including Macedon), it sided with the Persians in their invasion of 480 BC. (Something Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander, would use as an excuse in their own invasion, which Thebes, Athens and other Greek cities confronted – unsuccessfully – at Chaeronea in 338 BC). After the Persian (and Theban) defeat at Platea in 479 BC, they sought the protection of Sparta – with whom they allied in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Phlegmatic to the core, Thebes turned on Sparta and under its brilliant citizen-soldier general Epaminandos led a coalition that destroyed the core of the Spartan army at Leuctra (371 BC). He led an invasion of Sparta, freed its subject cities and most of its slaves, and built new, fortified cities for those freedmen to keep the Spartans humbled, hobbled and hemmed in.
Thebes, however, was too small of a city-state to hold on to let alone impose hegemony on Greece. Nor did it seek such hegemony, as except for a small cadre of 300 (“The Sacred Band” – see image below) its army was made up almost entirely of part-time citizen-soldiers. At Chaeronea that company made a heroic last stand – cut down by cavalry led by the prince of Macedon – Alexander.
Three years later he would return to attack the city, and confront its citizen-soldiers anew, including a company led by “A Captain of Thebes.”