The nice thing about Paul Cartledge’s Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece is that it’s a book you can read if you want to learn about Thebes, the forgotten city of ancient Greece. In simpler times this would be a silly thing to say, almost a tautology. In our times—times of nearly all-consuming sectarian hostility—one is always on alert to discern some ulterior political motive in even the most apparently innocuous work of non-fiction. Conservatives especially have been taught to regard ostensibly neutral cultural products with suspicion: the deeper our political disagreements become, the more likely it is that works of entertainment and general interest will come with a needless side of partisan venom.
In this cultural context it is refreshing to open a book like Thebes and find no axe-grinding or grandstanding—just a professional historian at the top of his game, educating his readers about a neglected region of the ancient Greek world. Cartledge is the A.G. Leventis Senior Research fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. He has had success reaching beyond the ivory tower in works like The Spartans: An Epic History (2002) and Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World (2006). As these titles suggest, Cartledge has the public intellectual’s knack for picking splashy topics with good name recognition, then distilling the latest scholarship about those topics for a general audience.
This makes Thebes an adventurous subject choice for him, since, as he reminds us, “Thebes has often been overshadowed by its two better-known rivals, Athens and Sparta.” These two big-name city-states produced warriors, writers, and politicians who were, on top of everything else, masters of what we now call branding. “Everything comes from all over the world into our city,” said the 5th-century Athenian statesman, Pericles, in Thucydides’ History (2.38). “We reap the fruits of other cultures just as naturally as we reap our own.” A breathtaking assertion, as much aspirational as descriptive. But Athens knew how to run a PR campaign.
Thus, Cartledge’s challenge in this book is not just to educate his audience on a subject that already commands their interest. He must assume that many readers will be starting from scratch. One way he helps ease us in is by showing how Thebes, situated in the “mainly flat, relatively fertile and strategically crucial” region of Boeotia north of Athens on the Greek mainland, played a pivotal role in many of the major events that we typically think of as purely Spartan or Athenian affairs. “Thebes and Athens, so often enemies, were far too close to each other for comfort,” writes Cartledge—a fact with which both Athens and Sparta would have to contend throughout their many protracted periods of rivalry and conflict.
So, if we are apt to hear “philosophy” and immediately think Athens, Cartledge reminds us that the vast majority of philosophers who worked there made pilgrimages from hometowns farther afield—including the Theban luminary Crates, who mentored Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism. “Crates deserves his honoured place in the Stoic philosophical tradition that was ultimately to capture the minds of many leading Romans, and indeed has a strong following to this day,” Cartledge writes.
Or maybe we hear “ancient warfare” and immediately think Sparta. But Cartledge ably demonstrates that Spartan military dominance in the Mediterranean was never absolute and frequently threatened by oliganthropia, a shortage of manpower. This fact would help facilitate Thebes’s own greatest moment of triumph, which included “announcing to a stunned world the demise of Spartan invincibility” at the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C.
Already in the late 400s, Thebes had given asylum to Athenian exiles against Spartan aggression at a pivotal moment, when Athens was under the oppressive rule of Thirty Tyrants installed by Sparta after its victory in the Peloponnesian War. Athens’s refugees, fleeing from the Thirty’s dark regime, “found a welcome and shelter even in oligarchic, Spartan-allied Thebes.” At this tense moment Thebes played a decisive role, as it often did, in the game of ever-shifting allegiances between cities that defined politics in the Greek-speaking world.
Thebes on its Own Terms
Narratives like this will do a lot to whet the general reader’s appetite: when Thebes’s history converges with those of better-known powers, it becomes clear that this “forgotten” city-state was not so B-list after all. But Cartledge is hardly content to let Thebes remain defined in relation to its more famous neighbors: he wants to tell the story of the city in its own right, as the proud birthplace of poets as famous as Pindar and myths as captivating as that of Oedipus.
Thebes’s history during antiquity was as dramatic and eventful as that of any rival. In the Archaic period, the age between 800 and 490 B.C., Boeotia was home to the poet Hesiod, who stands alongside Homer as an originary genius of Greek literature. But pretty early on the city zigged when it should have zagged. During the wars with the expansionist Persian empire, Thebes “medized”—it made common cause with Persia. At the time, this surely looked to the Thebans like a prudent way to avoid being crushed like other more rebellious Greeks, particularly those of Ionia in Asia Minor.
Because the rebels turned out in the end to triumph over the empire, Thebes never really lived down the shame of its medism. Some Boeotians and even some Thebans did opt to fight with Athens and Sparta against Persia. But as an institution, Thebes found itself on what you might call the wrong side of history. Since the Persian Wars were the defining conflict of the Greek golden age, perhaps this one misstep sealed Thebes’s fate as an also-ran in the eyes of posterity. Still, Thebes had better days ahead—including not only its strategically crucial participation in the Peloponnesian War, but a blazing period of what many scholars call “ascendancy” or “hegemony” during the 370s and 360s B.C.
As a defeated Athens licked its wounds and even Sparta’s greatness waned, Thebes emerged onto center stage under the charismatic leadership of two fast friends and valiant statesmen, Epaminodas and Pelopidas. Cartledge, following the judgment of none other than the swashbuckling English warrior, Sir Walter Raleigh, says that Epamonidas “was hardly to be matched in any age or country” for his virtues both military and intellectual. Had those virtues been manifest in a native of some better-fated city, Epaminodas’ name might come as readily to our lips as that of a Pericles or a Churchill. But the light of Thebes, however brightly it shined for one blessed moment, was soon to be eclipsed by the conquering juggernaut Alexander of Macedon, who had the city razed to the ground in 335 B.C.
Charm and Drama
The book’s early chapters (“Part I: Pre-History” and “Part II: Archaic Thebes”) focus mainly on cultural matters. This is fair enough, since art and legend make up most of what comes down to us from a past as distant as the Archaic period. But Cartledge really shines when the historical record becomes more reliable. The jewel of the book is his intricate retelling of Theban participation in Mediterranean politics during the Classical Period of 490-323 B.C. (“Part III: Classical Thebes” and “Part IV: Downfall”). By the time we get to a survey of Thebes’s various appearances in post-classical history and art (“Part V: Afterlife”), we have gotten to know the Thebans well enough that references like “Oedipal Complex” take on new meaning and significance.
Our surviving literary record is sparser and less regularly positive about Thebes—or indeed about any other city-state—than it is about Athens. But Cartledge knows well how to put the surviving evidence to good use, and how to do scholarly debates justice without getting bogged down in them. For instance: when it comes to the Spartan victory over Athens at the First Battle of Mantinea in 418, Cartledge neatly and concisely lets us know there’s disagreement over whether Thucydides got the number of Spartan belligerents right. Then he tells us why he himself thinks Thucydides got it wrong and lets the narrative rocket on ahead. This is the mark of a scholar who knows what will interest the non-specialist, and how to skip over arcane controversies without disrespecting those who spend their lives engaging in them.
Throughout, Cartledge’s prose remains lively and engaging. He is known for this, and it makes what might otherwise be relatively dry history into vividly human drama. This wry passage is emblematic of his approach:
Intra-ethnic or intra-regional internecine warfare was by no means unique to Boeotia. On the island of Lesbos the originally six poleis became at some point in the Archaic period five, when the other five ganged up on Arisba, destroyed it utterly and sold the surviving population abroad into slavery. Nice.
I imagine some readers will find that this convivial style shades over from time to time into the realm of the cutesy or the outright grating. For my money, though, it’s far better to err on the side of gimmicky than the side of boring.
The Point of It All
Both generalists and specialists will find their vision of the ancient world—and so of the world, full stop—made richer by what Cartledge has to teach. Perhaps, then, a final word is in order about the value of such a project more generally.
It is in the nature of contemporary politics to look at every moment as if it were the most important one ever. When you are living through a true sociopolitical crisis, as I believe we are in the West right now, the feeling of urgency becomes even more acute. Why spend any time reading, let alone writing, about an obscure people from the distant past having nothing directly to do with Republicans or Democrats? Why distract yourself when you could be devoting all of your time and mental energy to navigating our present disasters?
Perhaps something like this sentiment is what motivates a regrettable number of scholars to thread their chosen subject through with bids for “relevance.” This is a shame. To those who wonder what the use of a book like Thebes is, I can only invite them to read it and experience the tremendous relief of recalling that there are still diligent and principled scholars out there, mesmerized by the sheer fascination their subject holds, skillfully sharing what they know for the very sake of sharing it. And the irony is that if you truly immerse yourself in a well-written history, lessons for the present do emerge—among them the lesson that cities rise and fall, and no regime is forever. A certain kind of peace comes from being reminded that there is nothing new under the sun. This is a gift of inestimable worth.
That worth is not diminished by the catastrophes of the present, and will not be diminished by whatever may befall us in the future. “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable,” said C.S. Lewis to a congregation of Oxford students at the hellish onset of World War II. Perhaps one major thing we can learn from both the richness of Thebes’s history and its eclipse by other cities is this: human triumphs and tragedies alike are fleeting, the glory of man is evanescent, and we never know what will endure. We must not bring the high and noble endeavors of the world to a screeching halt because Joe Biden or Coronavirus or the Communist Party of China threatens to unmake us. There is no “better time” for which we can wait until we get about the business of learning and speaking the truth.
If nothing else, working patiently away at musty old books is an endeavor for which posterity is likely to be grateful, whatever comes. Foreseeing a day when the West would be reduced to cinders, Soviet Dissident Whittaker Chambers wrote: “we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else.” More fundamentally still, Aristotle tells us in his Metaphysics that “man by nature reaches out to know.” Who can say whether we will soon look back with nostalgia at a time when people wrote books like Thebes. But if so, then all the more reason to write such books, and to read them, and to preserve them—all the more reason, that is, why we should reach out in longing simply to know.