THEBES (anciently Θῆβαι, Thebae, or in poetry sometimes Θήβα, in modern Greek Phiva or, according to the corrected pronunciation, Thivae), an ancient Greek city in Boeotia, is situated on low hilly ground of gentle slope a little north of the range of Cithaeron, which divides Boeotia from Attica, and on the edge of the Boeotian plain, about 44 m. from Athens, whence it is reached by two carriage-roads and by railway since 1904. It has about 4800 inhabitants, and is the seat of a bishop. The present town occupies the site of the ancient citadel, the Cadmea; two fragments of ancient wall are visible on the north, and another, belonging either to the citadel or the outer wall, on the south. Two streams, rising a little south of the town, and separated by an average distance of about half a mile, flow on the two sides, and are lost in the plain. These are the ancient Ismenus on the east and Dirce (Δίρκη) on the west, which gave to the town its name διπόταμος. The Dirce, now Plakiótissa, has several springs. From the west side of the Cadmea another copious fountain (Paraporti) falls to the Dirce. In a suburb to the east is another (Fountain of St Theodore), and north-west are two more. The Cadmea itself is supplied with water brought from an unknown source to the south by works supposed of prehistoric antiquity. It now enters the town by an aqueduct of twenty arches of Frankish construction. The “waters” of Thebes are celebrated both by Pindar and by the Athenian poets, and the site is still, as described by Dicaearchus (3rd century B.C.), “all springs,” κάθυδρος πᾶσα. One, from which a pasha of Negroponte (Euboea) is said to have supplied his table, is still called “the spring of the cadi.” Some of the marble basins, seats, &c., remain, and, with the fragments of wall above mentioned, are the only relics of the classic time. The most curious of later buildings is the church of St Luke, south-east of the Cadmea, believed to contain the tomb of the evangelist. From the abundance of water the place is favourable to gardens, and the neighbouring plain is extremely fertile. But the population is scanty, and the town at present of no importance.
History.—The record of the earliest days of Thebes was preserved among the Greeks in an abundant mass of legends which rival the myths of Troy in their wide ramification and the influence which they exerted upon the literature of the classical age. Five main cycles of story may be distinguished: (1) the foundation of the citadel Cadmea by Cadmus, and the growth of the Sparti or “Sown Men” (probably an etiological myth designed to explain the origin of the Theban nobility which bore that name in historical times); (2) the building of a “seven-gated” wall by Amphion, and the cognate stories of Zethus, Antiope and Dirce; (3) the tale of the “house of Laius,” culminating in the adventures of Oedipus and the wars of the “Seven” and the Epigoni; (4) the advent of Dionysus; and (5) the exploits of Heracles. It is difficult to extract any historical fact out of this maze of myths; the various groups cannot be fully co-ordinated, and a further perplexing feature is the neglect of Thebes in the Homeric poems. At most it seems safe to infer that it was one of the first Greek communities to be drawn together within a fortified city, that it owed its importance in prehistoric as in later days to its military strength, and that its original “Cadmean” population was distinct from other inhabitants of Boeotia such as the Minyae of Orchomenus.
In the period of great invasions from the north Thebes received settlers of that stock which in historical times was homogeneously spread over Boeotia. The central position and military security of the city naturally tended to raise it to a commanding position among the Boeotians, and from early days its inhabitants endeavoured to establish a complete supremacy over their kinsmen in the outlying towns. This centralizing policy is as much the cardinal fact of Theban history as the counteracting effort of the smaller towns to resist absorption forms the main chapter of the story of Boeotia. No details of the earlier history of Thebes have been preserved, except that it was governed by a land-holding aristocracy who safeguarded their integrity by rigid statutes about the ownership of property and its transmission. In the late 6th century the Thebans were brought for the first time into hostile contact with the Athenians, who helped the small fortress of Plataea to maintain its independence against them, and in 506 repelled an inroad into Attica. The aversion to Athens best serves to explain the unpatriotic attitude which Thebes displayed during the great Persian invasion. Though a contingent of 700 was sent to Thermopylae and remained there with Leonidas to the end, the governing aristocracy soon after joined the enemy with great readiness and fought zealously on his behalf at the battle of Plataea (470). The victorious Greeks subsequently punished Thebes by depriving it of the presidency of the Boeotian League, and an attempt by the Spartans to expel it from the Delphic amphictyony was only frustrated by the intercession of Athens. In 457 Sparta, needing a counterpoise against Athens in central Greece, reversed her policy and reinstated Thebes as the dominant power in Boeotia. The great fortress served this purpose well by holding out as a base of resistance when the Athenians overran and occupied the rest of the country (457–447). In the Peloponnesian War the Thebans, embittered by the support which Athens gave to the smaller Boeotian towns, and especially to Plataea, which they vainly attempted to reduce in 431, were firm allies of Sparta, which in turn helped them to besiege Plataea and allowed them to destroy the town after capture (427). In 424 at the head of the Boeotian levy they inflicted a severe defeat upon an invading force of Athenians at Delium, and for the first time displayed the effects of that firm military organization which eventually raised them to predominant power in Greece. After the downfall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War the Thebans, Ending that Sparta intended to protect the states which they desired to annex, broke off the alliance. In 404 they had urged the complete destruction of Athens, in 403 they secretly supported the restoration of its democracy in order to find in it a counterpoise against Sparta. A few years later, influenced perhaps in part by Persian gold, they forced on the so-called Corinthian War and formed the nucleus of the league against Sparta. At the battles of Haliartus (395) and Coroneia (364) they again proved their rising military capacity by standing their ground against the Spartans. The result of the war was especially disastrous to Thebes, as the general settlement of 387 stipulated the complete autonomy of all Greek towns and so withdrew the other Boeotians from its political control. Its power was further curtailed in 382, when a Spartan force occupied the citadel by a treacherous coup-de-main. Three years later the Spartan garrison was expelled, and a democratic constitution definitely set up in place of the traditional oligarchy. In the consequent wars with Sparta the Theban army, trained and led by Epaminondas and Pelopidas (q.v.), proved itself the best in Greece. Some years of desultory fighting, in which Thebes established its control over all Boeotia, culminated in 371 in a remarkable victory over the pick of the Spartans at Leuctra (q.v.). The winners were hailed throughout Greece as champions of the oppressed. They carried their arms into Peloponnesus and at the head of a large coalition permanently crippled the power of Sparta. Similar expeditions were sent to Thessaly and Macedonia to regulate the affairs of those countries. But the predominance of Thebes was short-lived. The states which she protected were indisposed to commit themselves permanently to her tutelage, and the renewed rivalry of Athens, which had been linked with Thebes since 395 in a common fear of Sparta, but since 371 had endeavoured to maintain the balance of power against her ally, prevented the formation of a Theban empire. With the death of Epaminondas in 362 the city sank again to the position of a secondary power. In a war with the neighbouring state of Phocis (356–346) it could not even maintain its predominance in central Greece, and by inviting Philip II. of Macedon to crush the Phocians it extended that monarch’s power within dangerous proximity to its frontiers. A revulsion of feeling was completed in 338 by the orator Demosthenes, who persuaded Thebes to join Athens in a final attempt to bar Philip’s advance upon Attica. The Theban contingent fought bravely on behalf of Grecian liberty in the decisive battle of Chaeroneia, and bore the brunt of the slaughter. Philip was content to deprive Thebes of her dominion over Boeotia; but an unsuccessful revolt in 335 against his son Alexander was punished by the complete destruction of the city, except, according to tradition, the house of the poet Pindar. Though restored in 315 by Cassander, Thebes never again played a prominent part in history. It suffered from the establishment of Chalcis as the chief fortress of central Greece, and was severely handled by the Roman conquerors Mummius and Sulla. Strabo describes it as a mere village, and in Pausanias’s time (A.D. 170) its citadel alone was inhabited. During the Byzantine period it served as a place of refuge against foreign invaders, and from the 10th century became a centre of the new silk trade. Though severely plundered by the Normans in 1146 it recovered its prosperity and was selected by the Frankish dynasty de la Roche as its capital. In 1311 it was destroyed by the Catalans and passed out of history.
The most famous monument of ancient Thebes was the outer wall with its seven gates, which even as late as the 6th century B.C. was probably the largest of artificial Greek fortresses. The names of the gates vary, but four are constant—the Proetides, Electrae, Neistae or Neitae, and Homoloides; Pausanias gives the others as Ogygiae, Hypsistae, Crenaeae. There is evidence that the gate Electrae was on the south, and near it was the tomb of the Thebans who fell at the capture by Alexander. The gates shown to Pausanias as Neistae and Proetides led respectively north-west and north-east. Two of the springs have been identified with some probability—that of St Theodore with the Oedipodea, in which Oedipus is said to have purged himself from the pollution of homicide, and the Paraporti with the dragon-guarded fountain of Ares (see Cadmus). Dicaearchus, referring to the town of Cassander, gives two measurements for the circuit, equal to about 9 m. and 51 m.; the smaller fairly corresponds to the 41 m. over which the extant remains have been traced; it consisted of sundried brick on a stone foundation. Beyond this the topography is wholly uncertain. From the interest of the site in history and still more in literature, as the scene of so many dramas, the temptation to fix details has been specially strong. Conjectural plans or descriptions, differing widely, are given by Leake, Forchhammer, Ulrichs, Bursian, Fabricius and others (references below). There are two main difficulties to contend with. The description of Pausanias was written at a time when the lower city was deserted, and only the temples and the gates left; and the references to Thebes in the Attic dramatists are, like those to Mycenae and Argos, of little or no topographical value. The literary glory of Thebes is centred in the poet Pindar. It had a flourishing school of painting in the 4th century, of which the most famous representation was Aristides, who excelled in pathetic subjects.
Authorities.—Herodotus, bks. v.–ix.; Thucydides and Xenophon (Hellenica), passim; Diodorus xvii., xix.; Pausanias ix. 5–17; M. Müller, Geschichte Thebens (Leipzig, 1879); E. v. Stern, Geschichte der spartanischen und thebanischen Hegemonie (Dorpat. 1884), pp. 44–246; E. Fabricius, Theben (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1890); E. Funk, De Thebanorum actis, 378–362 (Berlin, 1890); B. V. Head, Historia Numorum (Oxford, 1887), pp. 295–299. See also Boeotia throughout. (E. Gr.)