The history of Thebes is as mysterious as its Sphinx –

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

Paul Cartledge

Picador, pp. 448, £25

The Spartans were not the only Greeks to die at Thermopylae. On the fateful final morning of the battle, when Leonidas, knowing that the pass had been sold, ordered the vast majority of the contingents stationed at the Hot Gates to retreat and live to fight another day, two detachments stayed behind to join the 300 in their heroic last stand against Xerxes.

Both these detachments came from Boeotia, the fertile plain which stretched directly south of Thermopylae and extended as far as the frontier with Athens. One of these two detachments came from Thespiae, a small but famously cussed city in central Boeotia: 700 hoplites who, alongside the Spartans, fought, died and were lauded as martyrs for Greek liberty. What, though, of the 400 men who constituted the other contingent? Their fate was altogether more contested. The reasons for this tell us much about the challenges of studying the history of ancient Greece — and the history of one city in particular.

Thebes, the largest and most powerful city in Boeotia, had viewed the approach of the Persians with a certain ambivalence. Hostile though the Thebans might be to barbarian kings, they were even more hostile to Athens, their unsettlingly dynamic neighbour, and the city which constituted the particular focus of the Persian invasion. Weighing up their options, then, the oligarchs