FFRXF7 OEDIPUS AND THE SPHINX. /nThe young Oedipus ponders the riddle of the Sphinx. Red-figured Greek pottery painting.

Thebes: city of myths

Sparta is famous for its warrior tradition, Athens for its intellectual and artistic achievement. But what of Thebes? As ancient historian Paul Cartledge explains, Thebes too had a most distinctive image.


‘Ancient Greece’ conjures up many different things to many different readers. Typically – and to put it rather crudely – Sparta does war, Athens does art (very broadly interpreted), and Alexander the Great of Macedon does empire.

Alamy Stock Photo Oedipus and the Sphinx, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, c.470 BC. Attic red-figure kylix, found at Vulci, Italy. IMAGE: Alamy.

Of course, it is a lot more complex than that. Athens does much more than (visual, theatrical, rhetorical) art: for example, democracy, philosophy, and indeed high culture generally made Athens the key city for the Romans wishing to inherit and claim descent from ‘Hellenic’ culture, via Alexandria’s Museum and Library. Sparta’s legacy too has been far from purely or solely a military one – as a reading of Elizabeth Rawson’s The Spartan Tradition in European Thought (1969) amply demonstrates – though that is the predominant element in its reception today for sure, as it was in 19th-century Prussia and 20th-century Nazi Germany. And Alexander the Great’s undoubted imperialism embraced as its legacy, among much else, the aforementioned Museum and Library located in the eponymous Egyptian city he founded.

But what that triangulation so signally fails to include and omits to convey is the fourth term: the ancient Greek city that does mythology, like no other. From the point of view of the perception and reception of myth in the wider Greek world, and perhaps in later expressions in Western art (broadly interpreted to include theatre, music, and poetry), ‘ancient Greece’ should also instantly conjure up Thebes. There are a number of reasons, some good, why it typically does not. There are many more reasons, all good, why it should. I begin with the former, then shall spend most of my time on the latter.

opposite Oedipus and the Sphinx, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, c.470 BC. Attic red-figure kylix, found at Vulci, Italy. below A romantic view of Thebes painted by Carl Rottmann (1797-1850) as part of a series of paintings of ‘historically charged topography’ of Greece commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, 1842. Oil on canvas.
A romantic view of Thebes painted by Carl Rottmann (1797-1850) as part of a series of paintings of ‘historically charged topography’ of Greece commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, 1842. Oil on canvas. IMAGE: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Neue Pinakothek, Munich [CC BY-SA 4.0].

The Thebans – like the Spartans, but very unlike the Athenians – were, as a people, not notably cultured. The Athenians (who were their near-neighbours in central Greece, only some 90km away south-south-east) could even dismiss them all collectively as ‘Boeotian swine’ – Boeotia being the region of which Thebes was the principal city. Of course that was not the whole truth, and there were some magnificent exceptions (Pindar the praise-poet, Pronomus the flautist, Crates the philosopher), but the mud stuck, because by and large it was the Athenians who set the tone, culturally speaking, for ‘ancient Greece’. In the words of one of its most brilliant intellectuals, Plato, Athens was the ‘City Hall of Wisdom’ in Greece. In the words of another, Pericles (as represented by the also Athenian historian Thucydides), Athens, democratic Athens, was simply ‘an education for all Hellas [Greece]’.

The Spartans would not have been much bothered by this anti-intellectual, uncultured reputation of Thebes, since their own reputation went in exactly the same direction, indeed even further. One particularly snooty Athenian intellectual, Isocrates, went so far as to claim – falsely, and dishonestly – that all Spartans were illiterate: analphabetic, as the Greeks put it.

But actually the Thebans did have their own rich and distinctive literary traditions, both collectively and anonymously, and what those literary traditions did spectacularly well was myth. The trouble was that, thanks to the Athenians getting in the way, indeed appropriating some very significant instances of those literary, mythical traditions, the Thebans have too often been robbed of their due credit as originators.

Kadmos and the Dragon, attributed to the painter Python, c.350-340 BC. Paestan red-figure calyx-krater, found at Sant’Agata de’ Goti, Italy. IMAGE: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Hervé Lewandowski.

Take the earliest mode or form of ancient Greek verse. This was the ‘epic’: the dactylic hexameter of ‘Homer’, the latter being a catch-all title for the author of what were in fact the products of many generations and many centuries of orally transmitted verses. From that oral, formulaic tradition, Homer (whoever he was or they were) carved out two original masterpieces, each unified magically by theme: respectively, the anger of Achilles (the Iliad), and the travels and travails of Odysseus, one of the other Greek heroes who had fought ten long years to recover the stolen Spartan princess and queen Helen from Troy (the Odyssey). Unlike Achilles, killed at Troy, Odysseus had then taken exactly the same number of years to make his way back to his little rocky island kingdom of Ithaca off western Greece and to the faithful and loving arms and bed of his also Spartan queen Penelope.

oppposite Kadmos and the Dragon, attributed to the painter Python, c.350-340 BC. Paestan red-figure calyx-krater, found at Sant’Agata de’ Goti, Italy. above Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, Kadmos Sowing Dragon’s Teeth, 17th century. Oil on panel.
Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, Kadmos Sowing Dragon’s Teeth, 17th century. Oil on panel. IMAGE: Rijksmuseum/De Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland [CC0].

The Thebans, too, did epic. The ancients knew of four specifically Theban epic poems. Modern scholars do, as well. There is even a recent, very good book called The Theban Epics (2014), by Malcolm Davies. And in the Loeb Classical Library bilingual series – ancient Greek text on the left-hand page, with facing English translation on the right – there is a volume entitled Greek Epic Fragments (2003), which includes ‘The Theban Cycle’. ‘Fragments’, alas, is the giveaway clue, and there are barely 20 of them in all, the rather pitiful remnants of originally thousands of lines of hexameter poetry. In other words, whereas ‘Homer’ was thought worthy of preservation (and indeed augmentation from time to time), all other ‘epic’ poems of heroic derring-do did not make the cut. Or rather, they were cut – more or less totally – from the canon of works that ancient critics, heavily Athenocentric and Athens-biased, deemed fit and worthy to be copied, taught in school, and thereby preserved for posterity.

And there’s reason for thinking that the anti-Theban movement had been started really quite early – that is, by poets working within the Trojan cycle who, in a typically ancient Greek spirit of eris (strife) and agonia (competitiveness), wished to do down the rival poets of the ‘Theban’ tradition. I give just one example. In a famous passage of what later scholar-critics defined as ‘Book 2’ of the Iliad, the poet takes a deep breath, calls on supernatural inspiration from the divine Muses, and enunciates a very long ‘Catalogue of the Ships’, listing ships that had set out for Troy from Aulis (in Boeotia) under the leadership of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, together with the kingdoms or regions that had supplied them (in detail going down by name to the constituent towns and villages). Boeotia, it transpired, had together contributed the second largest individual contingent of all, second only to that of supreme lord Agamemnon himself. And yet… in the enumeration of the Boeotian section of the Catalogue there is no mention of ‘Thebes’ as such, but only of ‘Underthebes’, as if meaning to refer to the part of the city that lay around and ‘under’ Thebes’ famous acropolis. The Iliadic poet knew full well that there was or had been a mighty (Late Bronze Age) Thebes – with a palace and all – but he/they were damned if they were going to give it its due. Elsewhere in the Iliad, Thebes is mentioned as such – but only to contrast it somewhat derogatorily with its Egyptian namesake: whereas Greek Thebes was (only) seven-gated, its Egyptian counterpart had one hundred gates!

opposite John Flaxman, Seven Chiefs Against Thebes, 1775-1826. Pen, grey ink, and graphite on paper.
John Flaxman, Seven Chiefs Against Thebes, 1775-1826. Pen, grey ink, and graphite on paper. IMAGE: Art Institute of Chicago, Sidney A Kent Fund [CC0].

What the Homeric poet(s) could not, of course, deny or disguise was that their audiences would have known full well about Thebes – the Thebes of Myth and Epic. They would have known the name of that mighty and massive acropolis, the Kadmeia, named for the city’s mythical founder, Kadmos. And thereby hung quite a tale, since Kadmos was not himself Greek, but what the Greeks called a Phoenician, and his native city was Tyre (that is, Biblical Tyre, in what is today Lebanon). What, then, had prompted him to up sticks and become a permanent immigrant in central Greece? The snatching or rape of his sister Europa by none other than supreme Olympian god Zeus. Europa thereby gave her name to a whole continent, even though she was European only by adoption. Kadmos, magically sowing dragon’s teeth in the soil of what was to become the city of Thebes, thereby produced its first denizens – fierce, fighting dragon-men. Of such stern stuff was the Theban origin myth made.

And then there was more, much more. As the editor of that Loeb volume mentioned above (the late Martin West OM) puts it: ‘the poems of the Theban cycle breathe a different spirit from the Iliad and the Odyssey. With their emphasis on family quarrels and killings, vengeful exiles, and grimly ruthless women and warriors, they have reminded more than one scholar of Germanic saga.’ Maybe so. But keep in mind that the ‘family’ in question is that of Oedipus (who, clever enough to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, was not clever enough to see through the Delphic oracle foretelling that he would kill his own father and marry and have children with his own mother), and the literary progeny engendered by these originally Theban myths embrace the three ‘Theban plays’ of the Athenian Sophocles (Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus) and Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, to name only extant examples. We do not need to think of any non-Greek tradition of saga, then, but can only stand back and gawp in amazement at the legacy of Athenian tragic theatre, made possible only because the Thebans had got there first and dreamed up the rudiments of these quite literally horror stories.

And there’s more still. The third member of the ‘Big Three’ Athenian tragic playwrights was Euripides. His contribution to the Theban reception (or appropriation) included not only his Suppliant Women (in which a herald from Thebes is made to look extremely foolish and out of touch for his ignorance of how the Athenians conducted their public affairs in the time of their legendary king Theseus) but also his Bacchae. The latter was not written for the Athenian stage, and it went back in time to an earlier period in the history of Thebes’ dynasty – right back to the time of Kadmos. And the play is set in Thebes because one of the greatest of Greek gods, the patron of all Greek theatre no less, Dionysus, had a Theban mother. The plot involves the women of Thebes going literally mad for the – as he is represented – brand-new divinity Dionysus (also known as Bacchus; hence Bacchae, meaning female devotees of Dionysus, who are also known as ‘maenads’ or ‘madwomen’). At the head of the resistance is the reigning king, a nephew of Kadmos, whom Euripides chooses to call Pentheus.

Boeotian Pigs

I put it that way because, although such a mythical Theban king was known before Euripides (so Euripides didn’t make him up, as he is known to have made up other characters and plotlines), he was originally called Tentheus not Pentheus. I can’t prove it, but I am pretty sure that the spelling change was Euripides’ deliberate tweaking of the – Theban – tradition. For Pentheus was bound to come to grief (he is actually murdered, unwittingly, by his own mother), and penthos was the Greek word for precisely ‘grief’.

below Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. Oil on canvas.
Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. Oil on canvas. IMAGE: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of William H Herriman, 1920 [CC0].

Whether that is so or not, what is very striking about the Athenian plays on Theban myth-history is just how very nasty indeed they all are. Patricide, filicide, suicide, sibling homicide/fratricide, incest – all human life, or rather death, is there. It can be argued, of course, that as the plays were all put on in a religious setting of time and space, and all involved religion in some way or another, religion was the playwrights’ major or even overarching concern. On the other hand, it can also be pointed out that none of them made Thebes or the Thebans look good, and even that the Thebans’ gross and flagrant contravention of what the Greeks called the ‘unwritten laws’ of human familial, social, and political behaviour were just exactly what a mainly Athenian audience might be invited to expect of those filthy ‘Boeotian pigs’.

And so it is that, while Athenian art sailed triumphantly on to educate and instruct as well as entertain future generations, the Theban subjects themselves in no way earned our admiration, let alone love (with only a couple of exceptions, the standout of course being the character Antigone). So Athenian does the very genre of drama seem – and indeed the Athenians were the pioneers in tragedy, if not completely so in comedy or satyr-drama – that it comes as a bit of a surprise (at least it did to me) to learn that one of the greatest masters of the musical art that was deemed indispensable to the performance of all plays was a Theban, a younger contemporary of Sophocles and Euripides. He was Pronomus, whom I mentioned before, and he played the aulos, a double-reeded wind instrument something like our oboe. Here at least the Thebans did get the chance to reclaim him as one of their own. When their city was rebuilt, pretty much from scratch, in about 315 BC, they set up a monument proclaiming him as all Greece’s finest aulos-player.

Pentheus torn apart by Bacchae, c. 450-425 BC. Attic red-figure lekanis (cosmetics bowl) lid. IMAGE: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Stéphane Maréchalle.

But hang on: why did Thebes have to be rebuilt? What was wrong with the city whose origins were legendarily ascribed to Kadmos? The answer, in a word, was Alexander – Alexander III, King of Macedon, later to be dubbed ‘the Great’. In 338 BC, he and his father Philip II had comprehensively defeated Thebes, then in alliance with Athens, in a major and decisive battle. As punishment, Philip had enforced regime change on Thebes and locked down the city by imposing a Macedonian garrison. Philip, however, was murdered a couple of years later, and in the early, shaky period of Alexander’s reign the Thebans, believing a false rumour that the young Macedonian had been killed in battle far away, chanced their arm and revolted. Big mistake. Soon Alexander was before the gates of Thebes with a crack army, defeated the Thebans easily, and then made of Thebes a terrible example and warning. He had the city, physically and literally, all but annihilated, not to be reoccupied or resurrected for some two decades.

left Leon Bakst, costume design for a Boeotian in Narcisse, 1911. below Domenichino, Timoclea before Alexander the Great, c.1615. Oil on canvas.
Leon Bakst, costume design for a Boeotian in Narcisse, 1911. IMAGE: Alamy

There were in Alexander’s eyes good, prudential, opportunistic reasons for exacting such a condign punishment. But Alexander, as a romantic Hellene already designated as commander-in-chief of the anti-Persian expedition launched by his father the year before, decided to turn it into a crusade. Harking back to the great Greco-Persian Wars of the early 5th century BC (the victorious campaign so brilliantly retold by Herodotus), Alexander offered as supreme justification for his massively brutal act the fact that in those wars Thebes had been on the wrong side – had, in fact, chosen to side with the invading barbarian Persians against their fellow-Greeks. If Athenian art was the reason for the suppression or subversion of the Thebans’ own home-grown epic tradition, it was Theban treachery (as represented not only by Athens this time, but also by Sparta, which headed up the Greek resistance) that saw to the denigration of the real as opposed to the mythical city of Thebes in Hellenic tradition – and in much of the modern reception too.

Domenichino, Timoclea before Alexander the Great, c.1615. Oil on canvas. IMAGE: Alamy.

Thebes – both the mythical city and the real city – deserves better, and I have sought in my book to give them better. Had it not been for originally Theban myth, the Athenian and so the Western literary and theatrical tradition would have been immeasurably weaker. And had it not been for the real Thebes – it is a story for another time, but cannot go altogether unmentioned here – tens of thousands of Greeks would have continued to live in servitude as the helots of the Spartans, for it was a Theban army that finally broke the power of their masters and liberated them from the yoke of slavery imposed on them and their ancestors for centuries. Thebes may have lacked a Sophocles or a Thucydides – but it did have a Pindar, a Pronomus, and, not least, an Epameinondas the Liberator.

Further reading
Thebes: the forgotten city of ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge is published by Picador in hardback in November, and costs £25 (ISBN 978-1509873166).