This has come from my counsel:

Sparta has cut the hair of her glory:

Messene takes her children in:

a wreath of the spears of Thebe

has crowned Megalopolis:

Greece is free.

(Epitaph of Epaminondas, d. 362, as
preserved by Pausanias, Description of
Greece, trans. P. Levi)

The chief beneficiary of the mutual attrition of the Athenians and the Spartans was Sparta’s central Greek ally, Thebes. Here is another city with a foothold deep in mythic territory. It was the birthplace of the god Dionysus and of the überhero-turned-god Heracles, and (though his failure to realize it at first was to prove tragically fatal for him) of King Oedipus. It was also the target residence of choice for famous immigrant Cadmus from Phoenicia, who was credited anachronistically with bringing with him from Tyre the art of alphabetic writing; the Greeks with rather surprising humility referred to their alphabet as either ‘Phoenician’ or ‘Cadmean’ letters. Were the modern town of Thebes not plonked directly on top of the ancient prehistoric and historic cities, we would know an awful lot more about the prehistoric city built upon the Cadmea acropolis, with its Mycenaean palace that has yielded the most recent sizeable haul of Linear B texts—including use of a word that looks something like ‘Lacedaemon’, the name of the region of the southeast Peloponnese that Sparta came to dominate.

Historical Thebes too had its major points of cultural interest, notwithstanding the fact that their snooty neighbours in Athens liked to sneer at the The-bans as mere ‘Boeotian swine’. For in the late sixth century Thebes produced the leading lyric poet Pindar (c.518–446)—not to mention that Hesiod (flourished c.700) had also been a Boeotian, from the village of Ascra within the city of Thespiae. Thebes, moreover, developed and controlled a flourishing federal state, which offered an original and alternative mode of political organization to the single polis. For some decades in the fourth century BCE Thebes was actually the single most powerful city in mainland Greece and a forcing-house of the political transformation that eventuated through the reigns of the Macedonian kings Philip II and his son Alexander the Great.

Some sort of Boeotia-wide federation was in existence before the last quarter of the sixth century. A common silver coinage bearing the obverse device of an infantryman’s shield attests a form of political unity, since coinage in Greece was always as much a political as an economic manifestation. This unity was expressed and reinforced in the characteristic Greek way, by a common religious cult: the Pamboeotia (‘All-Boeotia Festival’) celebrated annually at Onchestus. Another major Boeotian sanctuary that flourished in the sixth century was the Ptoion, not far from Thebes, which was dedicated to Apollo. As many as a hundred lifesize marble statues of the kouros (naked youth) type were dedicated here, a sure index of great local wealth as well as piety.

Boeotian unity, however, let alone unification, was never complete. Far from it. Indeed, such was the intestine strife among the cities of Boeotia that Pericles—admittedly not a disinterested witness—likened the Boeotians to tall trees, whose tops crash together in a storm and act as their own executioners. Within the federation a constant struggle was waged between the two major cities, Thebes and Orchomenus (another place with a major Mycenaean past), each dominating its own region, that culminated in the outright destruction of the latter by Thebes in 364. Two Boeotian cities (Eleutherae and Plataea) actually ‘got away’, in the sense that they became allied to, or even incorporated politically within the territory of, Thebes’s main neighbour—and usually enemy—Athens. (Although the proverb an ‘Attic (Athenian) neighbour’, meaning a dreadful one, was not in fact spawned by Thebes’s relations with Athens, it could well have been.) But the normal fate of the majority of Boeotian cities, which were small, was to be subordinated to the nearest larger entity, supposedly for the greater collective good.

As in the case of Argos, only more so, the Persian invasion of 480 seriously compromised Thebes’s claims to Hellenicity. Whereas Argos feebly stayed neutral, the ruling hierarchy of Thebes actually opted for the Persian side—a sufficiently blatant and memorable act of treachery (‘medism’) to constitute a plausible justification, even a century and a half later, for the total destruction of Thebes in its turn, at the behest of Alexander the Great in 335. A later generation of Thebans had sought to explain it away on the grounds that Thebes was not then ruled in a properly constitutional way but had fallen into the hands of an extreme oligarchic junta, a dunasteia or collective tyranny. Whether that was true as a matter of fact, it reflected Greek political thought’s careful attention to nice distinctions of kind and degree—though it did nothing to stay Alexander’s hand.

The year 335 was the endpoint of Thebes’s most brilliant four decades, the origins of which may be traced back to the mid-fifth century. Having recovered first from the humiliation of medism in 480 and then from the humiliation of occupation by Athens between 457 and 447, the Thebans re-established a Boeotian federal state on new lines, with their own city clearly in the driving seat from the start, that flourished down to 386. We happen to have an account of this remarkable federal constitution, preserved on a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in the Fayum in Egypt, composed by an unusually well-informed and accurate (but anonymous) historian. It was oligarchic but moderately so; high office and effective political and military power were confined to the top 30 per cent or so wealthier citizens who could afford to equip themselves as cavalrymen or at least as hoplites. Citizenship of any sort was denied to traders and craftsmen, since such people were deemed to have soiled their souls as well as their hands by engaging in economic production and exchange other than agricultural. A complicated system of local representation on the governing federal Council gave disproportionate power and influence to Thebes from the start.

This position Thebes was able further to enhance and exploit as a loyal ally of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. That loyalty was demonstrated especially in 421 when two other allies, Corinth and Elis, defected, but Thebes remained steadfast precisely because it considered Sparta’s general support for oligarchy to be in its own best interests. In 427, moreover, the Thebans achieved a long-cherished aim, with direct and powerful Spartan encouragement. If they could not persuade the Plataeans, who were ethnic Boeotians, to abandon their alliance with Athens (concluded as long ago as 519, and lying behind the remarkable co-operation between those two cities at Marathon in 490), then they must at least destroy it. This achieved, a few years later they seriously reduced the independence of Athens-leaning Thespiae by tearing down its walls. During the final phase of the Peloponnesian War (413–404) it was Thebans who benefited the most economically, whether from pilfering Athenian country houses under the protection of a Spartan garrison located near the Boeotian border, or by buying up cheap the thousands of slave runaways from the Athenians’ silver-mines.

But there was always a counter-current, if not quite an opposition, to the dominant political strata. At Thermopylae in 480 a number of Theban volunteers, Greek patriots presumably, had fought on the same side as Leonidas. During the Athenian occupation of 457–447 there was a strong pro-Athenian democratic faction in a number of cities, such as Thespiae. And at and after the end of the Peloponnesian War, even oligarchic Thebes grew increasingly disaffected with Spartan high-handedness, to the extent that in 403 it offered shelter to democratic exiles from the Spartan imposed and backed Thirty Tyrants junta and in 395 joined an anti-Spartan Quadruple alliance that included likewise disaffected Corinth as well as resolutely anti-Spartan Argos and, naturally, Athens.

Yet the Spartans, with the renewed financial backing of their opportunistically embraced Persian sponsors, won that Corinthian War (395–386), and exploited their victory in an extreme fashion; the peculiar animus of King Agesilaus II towards Thebes is apparent. The Boeotian federal state was disaggregated altogether, reduced back to its constituent cities and even villages, and then, to guarantee the new, reactionary order, the Spartans imposed garrisons on a number of key Boeotian cities including of course Thebes (the garrison occupied Thebes’s acropolis, the Cadmea), even though that was in flagrant breach of the autonomy clause of the King’s Peace (see Glossary). A number of influential Thebans escaped into exile, to Athens above all—the Athenians hereby repaying the The-bans’ favour of 403.

And in 379/8, with crucial Athenian help, a band of these Theban exiles not only liberated Thebes from Sparta but straightaway placed it on an entirely new footing by introducing a democratic constitution at home and then re-founding the Boeotian federal state on the same moderately democratic basis. In this, they were for once marching with the times. For the first half of the fourth century BCE was the great age of democracy in the Greek world as a whole, not—as might have been supposed—the second half of the fifth, when democratic Athens and its empire had ruled supreme. Further confirmation of this more widespread democratic emergence in the earlier fourth century has very recently emerged from the city of Argos, where a few years ago a cache of over 130 inscribed bronze tablets was uncovered, the dated financial records of the democracy that then prevailed. However, a peculiarly vicious bout of civil war at Argos in the late 370s, known graphically as the ‘Clubbing’ (in a far from convivial, entertainment sense—some 1,000–1,500 oligarchs were clubbed to death), reminds us of the tenseness and fragility of political governance in these hothouse and all too face-to-face communities.

Nor were the Thebans’ innovations confined to the political sphere by any means. The Boeotian military too flourished as never before, thanks both to its federalist character and to its innovative structure (a remarkable feature of which was the Theban Sacred Band, an elite strike force composed of 150 homosexual couples). All that was complete anathema to Sparta—including the Sacred Band: for though the Spartans had made homosexual relations between an adult male and an adolescent boy an integral part of their educational system, they had not also sought to integrate it into their army arrangements. Fittingly, therefore, it was Thebes under Epaminondas and his sidekick Pelopidas (one of the former exiles at Athens), together with the Sacred Band’s founder Gorgidas, that put an end to Sparta as a great power for good, first by winning hands down the Battle of Leuctra in 371 and then, not least, by liberating at last the greater number of Sparta’s Helots. Both Plato and Aristotle had criticized Sparta’s Helot-management on purely utilitarian, pragmatic grounds. ‘God has made no man a slave’, wrote another contemporary intellectual in support of Helot liberation—which was as close to abolitionist talk as a fourth-century Greek was likely to get. But it took a star like Epaminondas to translate pious talk into concrete deeds.

Thanks largely to the brilliant and enlightened statesmanship and generalship of him and Pelopidas, Thebes briefly became the most important and powerful city in all mainland Greece. Not only was Sparta cut down to (a much reduced) size, but two new Greek cities, Messene (369) and Megalopolis in Arcadia (368), were founded under Epaminondas’s direct supervision to ensure that it remained impotent for the foreseeable future. It comes as no surprise that Argos vigorously assisted in the foundation of Messene, and made a huge song and dance about it at Delphi. Within Boeotia itself Thebes seized the opportunity in 364 to destroy Orchomenus, its only serious rival for local federal hegemony. More surprising was that the Boeotians for the first time ever got together a fleet and Epaminondas cruised with it in the northern Aegean and even up as far as the Bosporus, but to no serious practical effect. It was further symptomatic of Thebes’s hegemonic reach—not the same as grasp—after Leuctra that between 368 and 365 Prince Philip of Macedon was held hostage for his kingdom’s good behaviour under house-arrest in Thebes.

Such were the temporary power and influence of Thebes in the 360s that democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta even felt obliged to ally with each other once more to meet this mutual Theban threat, but to no military avail. For once again, on the battlefield of Mantinea in Arcadia in 362, the Theban alliance led brilliantly by Epaminondas won the day—though the great general himself lost his life (see epigraph for his obituary notice). Thereafter, according to the conservative Athenian historian and thinker Xenophon, who concluded his Greek History on this sombre note, there was even greater confusion internationally in Greece than before. But Xenophon’s word should not be taken on trust. He despised Epaminondas’s Thebes and as a loyal client and partisan of Agesilaus was one of those who yearned for the good old Spartan-dominated oligarchic order. That could never be reinstated, as the career of Philip of Macedon was soon cruelly to demonstrate.

The future King Philip II’s three-year captivity in Thebes taught him a lot that he needed to know about diplomatic, fiscal, and military affairs when he became king of Macedon in 359. Macedon thitherto had been an outlier of mainstream Greek culture both geographically and politically. Indeed, down to Philip’s reign it had for long stretches been little more than a geographical expression, being politically neither advanced (it was resolutely non-polis and non-urban) nor unified (the upland West was almost a separate entity from the lowland East region). During Philip’s relatively long (by Macedonian standards) reign (359–336) Macedon first was unified, then began to urbanize and finally not only achieved control of all mainland Greece to its south, defeating the coalition of Athens and Thebes in 338 at the Battle of Chaeronea in Boeotia (Plate 15) and neutralizing Sparta along the way, but also embarked on the conquest of Asia too (see further next chapter). This was the death-knell of the traditional polis as a power-unit in Greek history, though there are occasional later exceptions, such as the island-city of Rhodes in the third and even the early second century.

Indeed, in the post-Alexander Hellenistic period even Macedonia became a region of Greek cities, with all the usual amenities and accoutrements of urbanism, including demarcated public central spaces, spacious gymnasia, and the erection of inscribed public documents. The way had been prepared, little though the Macedonians themselves could have guessed it, for expansionist imperial Rome to make of Macedonia its first eastern province (in 147)—unless largely Hellenic Sicily (made a province in 241) is counted as ‘eastern’. Following Alexander’s destruction of it in 335, Thebes had been rebuilt from 316 BCE on, but on a much smaller scale, and, though a comfortable enough place to live in under the Roman dispensation, it never recovered anything like its Classical-era political and military significance.

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