Thebes was the leading city of Boeotia, a region in central Greece. During the city’s long history, it played an important role in the life of ancient Greece. Thebes also was associated with Greek legend and myth. Named as the birthplace of the hero* Heracles, it was the home of the legendary house of Oedipus, immortalized by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
During the Bronze Age, Thebes was a strong, prosperous city that rivaled Mycenae for the leadership of early Greece. Archaeological evidence shows that the city was looted, burned, and abandoned sometime in the 1200s B.C. By the 500s B.C., Thebes had regained its power, and it became leader of the Boeotian League, a confederacy* of cities and towns in central Greece.
In about 519 B.C., hostility arose between Thebes and Athens over control of Boeotia. During the Persian Wars, the people of Thebes sided with Persia against Athens. When the Persians were defeated, Thebes lost its leadership of the Boeotian League. After an Athenian victory over Thebes in 457 B.C., the government of the city was changed from an oligarchy, or rule by a few, to a democracy. The oligarchy was restored when Thebes won a victory over Athens in 447 B.C. During the Peloponnesian War, Thebes sided with Sparta against Athens. Later, however, it fought against Sparta and eventually drove the Spartans from central Greece.
King Philip II of Macedonia captured Thebes in 338 B.C. When Thebes revolted against Philip’s son Alexander the Great a few years later, the Macedonians destroyed the city. Although it was rebuilt, Thebes never regained its former greatness. Under Roman rule, the city revolted twice and suffered more destruction. During the later Roman Empire, barbarian* tribes from the north captured the city twice. (See also Greece, History of; Myths, Greek; Polis.)
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* confederacy group of states joined together for a purpose
* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized