Paul Cartledge | 23 mins


Introduction: From Myth to History

The chief purpose of this first part of the book is to set the scene, to establish the backdrop against which any history of historical Thebes may and must be essayed and assayed. It aims above all to make clear both the differences and the interconnections between the Thebes of Myth and the Thebes of History, the twin cities that are our inspiration and objective.

‘Historical’ Thebes may be taken to begin at around 700 BCE. But as noted at the beginning of Part II, all periodization is at least somewhat arbitrary and rough. My ‘Pre-History’, for example, includes what I have called ‘protohistory’ as well as what I and others call the ‘Dark Age’ or ‘Early Iron Age’. ‘Prehistory’, strictly, should be text-free, but historians of prehistoric Thebes have both the ‘Linear B’ tablets and the poetry of Homer to factor in, so the term has to be interpreted and applied rather liberally. To set the scene, a brief review of nomenclature and geography is followed by a survey of the available ancient sources of evidence, both written (including epigraphy) and unwritten (archaeology, including art history and numismatics).

The origins of the name ‘Thebai’, a plural form – hence the English transcription ‘Thebes’ or the German ‘Theben’ – are lost in the mists of time. But no self-respecting historical – and indeed historic – Greek city could be without a foundation story or myth (the Greek word muthos meant simply a traditional tale), or more than one if need be. The ancient Greeks (who called themselves ‘Hellenes’ – ‘Greeks’ is a legacy of the Romans, and not an entirely benign one) were myth-makers par excellence. Thebans, exceptional Greeks in many other ways, were no exception in this regard, and invented traditions with the best of them. In some ways, far better than most, as we will discover in , when we explore the stories of the city’s foundation.

There was, however, no ancient Greek ‘country’ nor a ‘state’ of ‘Greece’. Hellas, the Greeks’ own term, meant the ancient Greek world, a cultural as well as geographical space that embraced all areas of permanent Hellenic occupation where Hellenic mentality and social practices predominated (see ). The heartland – Old Greece – was the southern Balkan peninsula and adjacent islands, which is sometimes referred to as Aegean Greece. From there many Greeks emigrated permanently, beginning by settling in Cyprus in the Late Bronze Age, and moving thereafter ever further afield: to Asia Minor (western Turkey today) from the eleventh century BCE on; to the northern Aegean, the Black Sea approaches, southern Italy and Sicily from the eighth century; to all round the Black Sea itself and to North Africa (Cyrenaica, in today’s Libya) from the seventh; and to southern France and eastern Spain from the very beginning of the sixth. New Greek settlements were still being founded in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, when Plato amusingly wrote that the Greeks lived like ants or frogs around a pond (actually two ‘ponds’: the Mediterranean and Black Seas), and that was before the massive further expansion eastwards in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great (reigned 336–323).

Thebes lay firmly in the centre of Old Greece, in the region known as Boeotia (see ), but Boeotian Thebes was not the only mainland Greek Thebes. Not far to the north, in the region of Thessaly called Phthiotis, lay another; this was an altogether lesser affair. To complicate things further, there was also an ancient, non-Greek Thebes, a Nilotic town, lying within the Egyptian region of Waset. It was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and visited by Alexander the Great in the late 330s BCE, after his conquest of Egypt from the Achaemenid Persian Empire – that Egyptian Thebes sits within today’s Luxor.

Our Thebes lies in the fertile ‘Teneric’ plain in central mainland Greece, north of the Isthmus of Corinth, midway along a chain of hills running in a natural ridge from Mount Helicon (home of the divine Muses, although Homer also locates them on Mount Olympus) to Boeotian Tanagra (site of more than one major battle). Its prominent acropolis, known since antiquity as the Cadmea (Kadmeia), is a vast plateau measuring 700 metres in length by 400 in width. On all sides except the south it is blessed or cursed with steep slopes, making it difficult to access; moreover, it is flanked on the west and the east by two deep gullies. The ancient city where most inhabitants lived spread out to the north and east of this acropolis site. Another point of topography is hugely relevant: Thebes lies west-north-west of Athens, about 90 kilometres by today’s roads. A fast walker can get from one to the other in some twelve hours. Thebes and Athens, so often enemies, were far too close to each other for comfort.

Boeotia (see ) was mainly flat, relatively fertile and strategically crucial. It occupied around 3,000 km2 of central mainland Greece, with East (Opuntian) Locris to its north, Attica to its east and south, and Phocis and the Megarid (territory of Megara) to its south. Just as the history of Athens can be properly understood only within its overall regional context of Attica (Attikê in Greek), and ancient Sparta within its regional context of ‘Lacedaemon’, that is Laconia and Messenia combined in the southern Peloponnese, so the city and settlement of Thebes can be properly understood only in the wider context of Boeotia.

That context must, however, be both political and geographical, since, although Boeotia was bounded to the east by the sea, to the north, south and west there are no ‘natural’ fault lines determining its limits. The Boeotia visited by the Asiatic Greek traveller-pilgrim Pausanias in the third quarter of the second century CE was not the Boeotia of the geographer Strabo (also Asiatic Greek) in the late first century BCE/early first century CE, nor was Strabo’s Boeotia the same as that of Theban Epaminondas in the fourth century BCE, and Epaminondas’s again was not that of Boeotian poet Hesiod (from Ascra near Thespiae) in the late eighth/early seventh century BCE.

The eastern border district around Oropus often changed hands: in the years c. 500–411, c. 375–366, and 338–322 it was under Athenian domination. The town of Eleutherae was originally Boeotian, but became Athenian. And so on. Moreover, one major feature of the physical geography of ancient Boeotia that did play a determining – in the sense of decisively influential – role in the region’s ancient political history has simply disappeared: Lake Copais has been drained, even more drastically than the Fens of East Anglia. Finally, ethnic status, always to some extent a matter of self-ascription and self-identification, was liable to fluctuate: Orchomenus, for example, at its earliest mention in extant literature was described as ‘Minyan’, whatever exactly that meant, but in all historical periods was firmly Boeotian.

‘The Boeotians’ therefore are a bit of a moving target. But one way to begin to get a handle on those ancient Thebans and other Boeotians is to consider the work of a fourth-century BCE Athenian historian, formally anonymous to us, who owes his name (or names: the Oxyrhynchus Historian, or the Papyrus Historian, or simply plain P) to the fact that chunks of his work have been recovered not on parchment (vellum) but on papyrus – from rubbish dumps in an Egyptian town known in antiquity as Oxyrhynchus or (roughly) Sharp-Nosed Fishville. In a chapter of his Hellenic History, modelled quite closely on the masterpiece of his immediate predecessor Thucydides, our – to us – anonymous author most helpfully sets out in detail the political components, the member polities, of the Boeotian federal state (koinon) as that was constituted in, precisely, 395 BCE:

As regards the governance of Boeotia, all the inhabitants had been divided [since 447] into eleven districts, each of which provided one Boeotarch. Of those eleven Boeotarchs the Thebans by themselves accounted for and controlled four: two Thebans, and two representing [collectively] the citizens of Plataea, Scolus, Erythrae and Scaphae. Two Boeotarchs were provided by the citizens of Orchomenus and of Hysiae. Two [collectively] by the citizens of Thespiae, Eutresis and Thisbae. One by the citizens of Tanagra. One by [collectively] the citizens of Haliartus, Lebadea and Coronea. One by [collectively] Acraephiae, Copae and Chaeronea.

Seventeen places mentioned in all, sixteen of them dependent poleis: that is to say, more or less dependent on the one superordinate polis of Thebes (see ). They show both the fact that for a town or habitation in ancient Greece to have polis status it did not have to have full autonomy or political independence (see for more on this), and the fact that geography by itself was not a sufficient condition of a settlement’s achieving polis status. Some of the 1,000 or so ancient Hellenic poleis did indeed owe their origin and existence as such to geography: the island-poleis of Chios and Samos are obvious examples. But the island of Lesbos boasted five, originally six, separate poleis, and on the broad, unencumbered Boeotian plains there was no intrinsic geographical reason why as many as seventeen (and at other times more) poleis should have emerged.

However, it was Boeotia’s principal geographical feature, Lake Copais, that led directly to the principal geopolitical division of the territory in historical – and possibly even prehistoric – times between its two largest towns or cities; Orchomenus to the north-west and Thebes to the south-east. The political distribution of federal power in 395 BCE represented therefore the triumph of Thebes over Orchomenus, a triumph the Thebans were to translate thirty-one years later into something far more literally destructive and total. Likewise their treatment of Plataea even sooner.

In Classical and post-Classical times there were local Boeotian historians – Daemachus of Plataea, for example – but they were not judged worthy of preservation and presumably could not stand comparison with the likes of Thucydides or even Xenophon of Athens. However, Xenophon, despite a personal connection to a Theban comrade in arms, was an out-and-out Thebophobe, and cultural Athenocentrism yielded the soubriquet ‘Boeotian swine’ referred to by Pindar, a Boeotian and Theban by adoption, as early as 500 BCE. And although the ancient adage ‘an Attic [Athenian] neighbour’, meaning a seriously unpleasant neighbour, was not coined by Thebans, it could well have been; it nicely brings out the longstanding rivalry, if not hostility, between the two adjacent cities.

Apart from Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s didactic epic Works and Days, in terms of written/literary evidence we have to make do, paradoxically, with generally very much later writers, mythographers such as (Pseudo-)Apollodorus (first century CE) and travel writers such as Pausanias (second century CE). The so-called Archaic period, which means formatively and temporally pre- or proto-Classical rather than backward or old-fashioned, is best if sketchily covered in the Histories of Herodotus – Greece’s and indeed the West’s first proper historian – who was writing in the mid-fifth century BCE. ‘History’ for him meant enquiry or research, and what he enquired into principally were the oral traditions handed down officially or unofficially in families or through public remembrancers and priests and still vibrant in his own day.

Herodotus’s main subject was the Graeco-Persian Wars, the series of military encounters between 499 and 479 which occupied the last four of the nine books into which later scholars and librarians divided his huge prose work. But on top of and around those narratives he wove a vast and enormously rich and varied tapestry extending back as far as the eighth and seventh centuries, and ranging as far east from his native Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) in south-west Asia Minor as Babylon in what is now southern Iraq, and as far north and north-east as the northern shore of the Black Sea and beyond into the Eurasian, Caspian Sea hinterland; as far west as southern France, southern Italy, and Sicily; and as far south into Africa (‘Libya’ to him) as the Nile delta and Cyrenaica in eastern Libya (to us).

Thebes and Thebans do not feature as prominently in Herodotus as we might ideally wish, probably in large part because he found in Athens a culturally and politically far more congenial mainland Greek base. But nor does Herodotus disguise the fact that in the epochal conflict between (pitifully few) Hellene resisters and vast hordes of Persian invaders, as played out in the immortal land battles of Thermopylae and Plataea (the latter actually on Boeotian soil), Thebans fought, mostly, on the wrong side – that is, for the Persians.

Thucydides took up the stylus where Herodotus laid it down, beginning his narrative in 478 BCE, but really focusing on the events of what is often referred to largely in his honour as ‘the’ Peloponnesian War (431–404). Actually it was not just one war, but two, and those two bouts of continuous fighting between Sparta and Athens and their respective alliances (431–421, 413–404) were repeats of earlier flare-ups that would soon enough flare up again. By 431, moderately oligarchic Thebes had sided enthusiastically with Sparta, not least because in the interim between the Persian and Atheno-Peloponnesian Wars democratic Athens had insulted as well as injured the city by somehow occupying and controlling it and most of Boeotia for a whole decade (457–447), and Thucydides correspondingly opens his narrative with a typically Theban demarche – an attack on Boeotian Plataea, hated by Thebes for being a steadfast ally of Athens for some nine decades – rather than with the first systematic invasion of Attica by the Peloponnesian alliance, led in summer 431 by Sparta.

Unfortunately, Thucydides’s brilliant account breaks off in mid-sentence in the summer of 411 BCE, leaving a further seven years of his war undescribed and unanalysed – seven whole years in which Thebes seems to have spectacularly profited, literally as well as figuratively, from the occupation of northern Attica since 413 by a permanent Spartan garrison. It would have been good, too, to have had Thucydides’s account of how Thebes responded to Sparta’s eventual victory. As it is, Thucydides has left us valuable accounts of major fighting within Boeotian territory, and tantalizing hints of how the Boeotian federal state was constituted and managed by Thebes.

Those hints are happily fleshed out for us by the so-called Oxyrhynchus Historian, whose systematic description of the federation’s structure in 395 BCE was quoted above. This very good Athenian historian, who may well have been Cratippus, was one of the four writers known to us who resumed Thucydides’s narrative where he had perforce abandoned it, and the probability is that he continued his account from 411 down to the conclusion of a watershed peace sworn between Greeks and the Great King of Persia in 386: the Peace of the King (Great King Artaxerxes II) or Peace of Antalcidas (the Spartan chief negotiator), as it was alternatively known in antiquity; being also the first of a series of such ‘common’ peace treaties that came to a close first in 362 before being resumed by Philip of Macedon some twenty-five years later.

362 BCE was the end point chosen by Xenophon of Athens, one of several authors to continue the history of Thucydides. Xenophon, an upper-class adherent of Socrates, was by no means only or merely a historian: he covered the waterfront of the available literary and intellectual genres, writing philosophy, biography, economics and technical military manuals as well as his misnamed Hellenica or Greek History. Actually, it was more of a ‘Peloponnesian’ than a Greek History, as seen though the eyes of Xenophon and his pro-Spartan friends.

It was something of a comment on that work’s quality and range that the much later Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus, writing in the first century BCE, preferred to follow not Xenophon but the Oxyrhynchus Historian and his fourth-century successor Ephorus when it came to writing up the course of Sparta’s post-Peloponnesian War supremacy between 404 and 371. For that was precisely the problem: Sparta, led by one of its two kings, Agesilaus II, did exercise a very controversial hegemony during those three-plus decades, and Xenophon was not only heavily pro-Spartan but also very anti-Theban.

The battle fought at Leuctra in Boeotia in 371 and won hands-down by Thebes and its allies over a fading Sparta and its labile alliance was as decisive as almost any other battle ever waged on mainland Greek soil. Yet Xenophon somehow both failed to mention two of its principal Theban architects (Pelopidas and Epaminondas) until after the battle and – more heinous still – omitted to describe possibly its single most important consequence: Sparta’s loss of control of half its domestic polis territory (Messenia) and with it more than half its subjected Greek workforce (the Messenian Helots). It would be wonderful if we could say that Diodorus’s surviving Library of History (so called because it was cobbled together into a chronologically ordered, annalistic account from other authors’ books) did full justice by way of compensation for those gross Xenophontic flaws – but it does not. It is selective, inaccurate – and dull.

Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and the Oxyrhynchus Historian were ‘Hellenic’ as opposed to local historians. Local Greek history – horography – seems to have sprung up as an intellectual exercise and pursuit during the last quarter of the fifth century. Hellanicus, a native of Lesbos noticed and criticized by Thucydides, included among his output a Boeotian Histories. He was followed by local Boeotian writers: an Armenidas, and an Aristophanes, of no specified town, and by Daemachus of Plataea. It’s been strenuously argued that these all wrote in and about the last quarter of the fifth century and/or the first half of the fourth, but their extant ‘fragments’ are both few and uninformative.

After 362 BCE we are largely reliant on a very different kind of literary source – the speeches either delivered and written up by the Athenian orator-politician Demosthenes (384–322) or attributed to him in the collection put together by later grammarians and literary critics in Athens and Egyptian Alexandria (founded in 332 by Alexander of Macedon). These speeches are represented as more or less faithful renditions of what Demosthenes had once actually said either in the Assembly on Pnyx hill below the Acropolis of Athens or in the law courts down in the Agora, the Athenian civic centre.

Demosthenes did not come from an established political family, but he was seriously rich and went to great lengths to equip himself to serve as a rhetor (orator-politician). He began to come to public notice and make an impact in the mid-350s, in a quite conservative way; but around 352 he seems to have experienced a Damascene conversion – to a radical brand of democracy and, connectedly, an unremitting hostility to Philip of Macedon. Hence his four ‘Philippic’ orations – and our English noun ‘philippic’. He stirred up controversy throughout his exceptionally long career.

The year 362, as we shall see, marked the apogee of Theban power and influence way beyond the borders of Boeotia. The nadir was still a fair way off, but, with the rise of Macedon to pre-eminence under King Philip II (reigned 359–336) and his hegemony ever spreading southward into and through Thessaly and then, by 346, over all Phocis, Thebes found itself confronted again, in 340 as in 480, with a decision on whether to resist or to give in to the encroaching superpower. Thanks in significant part to Demosthenes’s persuasiveness – which was owed not only to his silver tongue but also to the fact that he served as the Thebans’ official diplomatic representative in Athens – the Thebans opted this time for resistance, united with resolutely anti-Philip Athens. It did not, however, go well.

In 338, the first of several major battles fought over the centuries at Boeotian Chaeronea resulted in total victory for Macedon and Philip – and his late-teenage son Alexander. Two years later, Philip was assassinated, and one way in which Alexander attempted to shore up his controversial accession at home and controversial rule over mainland Greece was to take on and take out rebel Thebes in 335. More of that anon. So far as our narrative historiographical evidence for Alexander goes, it is generally conceded that the best of a not particularly distinguished and very much non-contemporary and split source tradition is the account by the Graeco-Roman soldier-politician of the second century CE, Arrian of Nicomedia (another Asiatic Greek), who rightly highlights the 335 Thebes episode, which will mark for us a major hiatus.

For the historian of ancient Thebes, Chaeronea has another very particular resonance. It was the birthplace of one of the ancient world’s most distinguished intellectuals and littérateurs, known to us as Plutarch. In Greek he was Ploutarchos, in Latin L. Mestrius Plutarchus, for he was both a citizen of Chaeronea and a civis Romanus, a citizen of Rome and the Roman Empire – and a priest at Delphi into the bargain. At two vital moments of Theban history he becomes a major source of our evidence.

Born in about 46 AD/CE and living until about 120, he became one of the greatest ornaments of the movement known as the ‘Second Sophistic’ – second, after the ‘first’ Sophistic half a millennium earlier, exemplified by such sophistai (wise men) of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE as Herodotus and Aristotle. Those two had both engaged in what has been called ‘second-order reflection’, that is, an intense concentration on the nature and status of their own arguments and discourse. Plutarch did likewise.

His voluminous and well preserved oeuvre is divisible into two broad halves: on the one hand, his essays on diverse subjects – philosophical, scientific, mathematical and other, often lumped together as ‘moral’ essays; and, on the other hand, his biographies. We shall be drawing from works on both sides of the ledger.

Plutarch himself made it absolutely clear that he was not writing ‘history’ as that term might be applied to the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, even Xenophon, or even Diodorus. Of course he drew heavily on such works, but his own interest was rather in the characters, especially the moral characters (and quirks and foibles), of the illustrious Greeks and Romans whose lives he chose to write up. Conversely, when he did turn to ‘straight’ historiography, or historical criticism, as in his juvenile essay ‘On the Meanspiritedness of Herodotus’, he frankly did not make a very good fist of it. One of his key modes of critical appraisal was comparison, hence his composition of twenty-three sets of what in English are referred to as parallel – or paired – lives. One of those lives is that of Pelopidas of Thebes, a key actor in Theban and Greek politics during the first half of the fourth century BCE. It is one of the enduring sadnesses of the extant tradition that his biography of Pelopidas’s great Theban contemporary and coadjutant Epaminondas has not survived.

For Aristotle, according to his brief treatise Poetics, ‘history’ is intrinsically inferior to ‘poetry’, on the ground that the latter was more ‘serious’ and dealt in universals, the sorts of things that ‘could’ or ‘might’ happen, whereas history – merely – told ‘what Alcibiades did and what happened to him’. We shall, for once, ignore Aristotle here. For there is another, very different kind of ‘literary’ evidence available to us, and that is poetry. Though it lacks any overt historiographical intent or ambition, poetry is nevertheless a source of crucial information for reconstructing a cultural history of Thebes and Boeotia. Not all Boeotians were mere ‘pigs’. Hesiod of Ascra and Pindar of Thebes conspicuously and rather magnificently were not. They operated in very different genres – and metres.

Hesiod achieved the universal Hellenic acclaim of being coupled with Homer (whoever he was, or how many), both of them composing in the same dactylic hexameter epic form and being jointly credited by Herodotus with inventing, or at any rate giving definitive form to, nothing less than ancient Hellenic polytheism, for they together

were the first to compose for the Greeks an account of the gods’ and goddesses’ genealogy, to award them their cult-titles, to allot them their honours and particular talents and to signify their – anthropomorphic – forms. (Herodotus: The Histories, 2.53, trans. T. Holland, slightly modified)

Herodotus was thinking particularly of Hesiod’s Theogony, or ‘Birth of the Gods and Goddesses’, which is a sort of Greek equivalent to the biblical Book of Genesis. But Hesiod also composed – or was credited with composing – several other verse works, of which at least the Works and Days is without a doubt authentically Hesiodic. The latter poem, composed around 700 BCE, is ostensibly a didactic treatise on good farming practice, but it also includes matter of a precisely political nature, dealing as it does with the distribution and exercise of political power in the early Greek city. (We shall return to Hesiod in Chapters and , to Homer in .)

Pindar too was a highly politicized and political poet, but – rather in contrast to sour and surly seeming old Hesiod – he was above all in the business of praise, encomium, of both individuals and cities alike. And I do mean – as he too meant in another sense – business: he got into trouble – from people he had not praised – for being altogether too sordidly mercenary, for prostituting his very considerable verbal facility to the highest bidders, regardless of their moral or political worth. Pindar’s greatest claim to fame – huge fame – was the four sets of his ‘epinician odes’: four because they were written about and for victors in the four major panhellenic (all- and only-Greek) religious festivals; ‘odes’ from the Greek for ‘song’ (odê); and ‘epinician’ from the Greek meaning ‘as applied to’ (epi) a ‘victory’ (nikê). It was a fame from which his descendants were rather unexpectedly, if also rather tragically, to benefit five or so generations later.

We shall return to Hesiod and Pindar in their appropriate chronological and cultural contexts below. Nor must we forget that ancient Athenian drama, both tragic and comic, was also poetry, poiesis. Both in its contemporary context () and in terms of its modern reception () we shall attempt to bring out how far, in what ways, and why Athenian dramas such as the Antigone of Sophocles or the Bacchae of Euripides can be used to illuminate a cultural history of Thebes.

Another, albeit rather more mundane source available to us can be found in the modern scholarly study of texts inscribed on non-perishable materials (usually stone, bronze or fired clay). Epigraphy is a highly developed and highly prized subdiscipline within the field of ancient Greek historical studies. One monograph on the ‘local scripts’, or regional dialectal variations of Archaic (c. 750–500/479 BCE) and early Classical (479–400) Greece, lists some fifty such ‘Boeotian’ texts of very varied kinds. More recent finds include a seventh-century graffito on a pot from Kommos, Crete, mentioning Boeotian individuals, and a Thasian-made wine amphora found in the Athenian Agora of the later sixth century BCE with a Boeotian owner’s mark scratched underneath.

Other recent discoveries and renewed scholarly attention to inscriptions found in Thebes and elsewhere in Boeotia have illuminated the history of ancient Thebes in ways that go well beyond the ancient literary sources’ preoccupation with great battles. The examples that follow illustrate this beautifully, but they are only three of many.

In the suburb of Thebes called Pyri, something over a decade ago a kioniskos, that is a mini-column, made of whitish poros (limestone) was found in a well-built, tomb-like cist. It bore an inscription relating to the near-immediate aftermath of Sparta’s failed invasion of Attica in 506. Happily, this confirmed in a general way the account we already had in Herodotus, and from a Boeotian point of view.

A fifth-century example was discovered in 1965 through regular excavation by the German Archaeological Institute at Olympia (where its members have been digging since 1875): a bronze tablet bearing the inscribed text of a judgement passed in the years 476–473 by the Eleian judges (who presided over the management of the Olympic Games) regarding a dispute between Athens and the Boeotian federal state. An interesting pointer to the bad blood then running especially hot between those two states, which was to give rise to further negative encounters throughout the ensuing century (Chapters and ).

Finally, a fourth-century text that comes from Thebes itself; it is inscribed on a stone stele bearing a decree of proxenia (honorary consulship) conferred by the revamped, post-378 Boeotian federal state (koinon) in the early 360s (see ). The honorand was one Timeas, son of Cheiricrates, a ‘Lakon’. ‘Lakon’ could mean either a Spartiate (full Spartan citizen) or a Perioecus (perioikos), that is, a citizen of one of the fifty or so dependent poleis of Laconia and Messenia that went to make up the polis (state) of Lacedaemon ruled by Sparta. But, if he had been a Spartiate, he would more likely have been described either as ‘Spartiates’ or ‘Lakedaimonios’. The scholarly consensus is that he was a Perioecus – not the first Perioecus to be so honoured by a foreign power, but an excellent example of the way that Epaminondas in particular deployed diplomacy to divide and weaken the Spartan state.

We are often being told that new archaeological discoveries, whether on an Aegean island or in a cave in the Mani peninsula of the Peloponnese, are ‘rewriting ancient Greek history’. But what’s new, really, under the sun? It was apparently Plato who coined the term arkhaiologia, from which is derived the English word ‘archaeology’, but Plato of course did not mean and could not possibly have meant by the former what we understand by the latter. Arkhaiologia was logos (talk, discourse) about arkhaia (ancient things), so tales of olden times – allegedly something that the Spartans were particularly fond of, as they liked to hear about the deeds of the great heroes of the past. Not necessarily all that distant a past, of course – the heroes of Thermopylae and Plataea (see ) would do nicely for the Spartans of Plato’s day (c. 427–347).

For us, however, in its sense first developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, archaeology concerns the recovery, classification, analysis and interpretation of mute material remains of the more or less distant past, often brought to light through excavation, but, since excavation is also inevitably destructive, by various non-destructive methods too. Historical as opposed to text-free prehistoric archaeology is both more and less difficult: less difficult, because the availability of texts in the form of good, reliable, ideally documentary contemporary evidence can sometimes settle questions that the absence of such texts leaves necessarily open; more difficult, because archaeology and history do not always tell the same sorts of stories; or rather archaeology may be better at telling some sorts, e.g., of long-term historical and especially economic development, than others.

One very current example might be the recent findings by members of the British School at Athens on the islet of Dhaskalio, located in the Aegean Sea some 125 miles north-east of Athens. The finds are many and complex – marble statues broken and unbroken, copper daggers, spearheads, axes and other tools manufactured on the islet. The trouble is – from the point of view of their interpretation – that these finds date to the Aegean’s Early Bronze Age, the beginning of the third millennium BCE, long before the invention of any form of Aegean script. The spade may never lie, but of course it cannot speak; it has to be made to speak since it is mute. Moreover, archaeology can deal only with surviving, non-perishable remains: how wonderful it would be, for instance, to be able to view still the cedarwood statue of Apollo said to have been carved in Thebes by the Sicyonian sculptor Canachus (Kanachos) in the latter part of the sixth century BCE.

The archaeological record for the history – and prehistory – of Thebes has been assembled in a number of ways. At the outset, it is important to remember two things: first, that overall archaeology has probably done rather more for the prehistory than for the history of Thebes; and second, that the archaeological evidence should never be used solely or mainly for illustrative purposes, merely to add colour as it were to the picture to be gleaned from the written sources.

Before 1900, only sporadic excavations took place in Thebes and its surrounds. But between 1906 and 1929, with enforced interruptions, A. D. Keramopoullos excavated remains of the Mycenaean palace and fortifications on the Cadmea as well as several Mycenaean-period chamber tombs. He also investigated the Temple of Apollo Ismenius. A small museum was opened in Thebes to house these finds, together with those made elsewhere in Boeotia, and a catalogue of its collection was published in 1934. In the early 1960s, the Cadmeum and the Cabeirion were excavated. Excavations have continued in the decades since, and the findings are now housed – and fully catalogued – in a brand-new museum.

Excavation is not the only way to increase the archaeological record, and especially not the only way to diversify it. Intensive field-survey – repeated walking over specially designated transects (tracts) of land surface, and minutely detailed recording and re-recording of visible surface objects and features – began vigorous life as an archaeological technique in the New World, but has since been widely practised in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Boeotia occupies an honoured place in this new tradition of research, with successive teams of both professional archaeologists and undergraduates exploring the Boeotian Valley of the Muses, focusing on Thespiae, the ancient polis within which lay Hesiod’s hamlet of Ascra.

There have been excavations of Haliartus and Tanagra, too, as well as intensive surface surveys of Eleon in eastern Boeotia, and of the Oropus borderland. What such surveys mainly contribute is a better, more fine-grained understanding of rural habitation and agricultural land use over the long, sometimes very long, term. In other words, they tell you more about the daily lives of the vast majority of an ancient population than they do about individual, potentially unrepresentative elites whose families could afford to have them buried in durable and lavish form, or whose deeds were more likely to be reported in a literary source.

Numismatics – the study of currency and coinage in their many forms – is another important aspect of the archaeological evidence. Image and superscription tell a lot at a glance. Composition and weight (including weight standard) require further, scientific testing. Barclay V. Head, who published in 1911 what is still a quite standard reference work on all ancient Greek coinages (Historia Numorum), first sought to establish a chronological sequence for Boeotian coins in the 1880s. What’s really important about them, historically, is that they are precisely Boeotian – and not exclusively Theban or Orchomenian or otherwise. Ancient Greek coins – mainly silver in this case, though small bronze denominations followed for use as small change – were worth what they weighed; when stamped with a representative image and superscription, they asserted that they were authentic, and that there was a recognized, legitimate political authority both issuing and guaranteeing them. To some extent, therefore, they were both political and economic phenomena.

Scholarly controversy has arisen and to some extent persists over which kind of motivation – the political or the economic – was the more significant for the very origin of coining money in Greek cities. (Many states never did; some – e.g. Sparta – did so, but only much later than the pioneers.) It is at any rate clear that the non-Greek kingdom of Lydia got there first of all, so the question of origins is, in part, a question of why Greeks decided to follow suit. Since the earliest denominations were all rather large, small change for everyday economic use by ordinary individuals – most of whom were peasant farmers – was not the original motivation. Rather, coined money was first used by states, for example to receive payments of taxes or to make payments to mercenary soldiers. Coinage also served to advertise a state’s status as a proudly independent and sovereign political entity.

The first Lydian coins were of electrum, a naturally occurring local alloy of gold and silver. Few if any Greek cities possessed natural deposits of either gold or silver, let alone electrum, so the raw materials had to be imported in exchange for other goods or services. The earliest Greek electrum coins were fashioned around 600 BCE, not surprisingly on the Asiatic mainland – near Lydia and its capital at Sardis on the gold-bearing River Pactolus. But quite soon the preferred Hellenic medium was more or less refined silver, as struck by the island-city of Aegina. Aegina is not far from the (Attic/Athenian) mainland, and via Athens and Corinth the idea of a silver coinage seized hold quite quickly. Hence the origins of the Boeotian coinage in the latter half of the sixth century.

Coins, in order to serve their ‘nationalist’ political function, required a distinctive stamp – an image and/or superscription that would unambiguously individuate their source and guaranteeing authority. What is interesting about the earliest Theban coins is that they were also Boeotian: the issuing authorities chose a symbol common to all Boeotians, namely a particular form of the heavy-infantryman’s shield. We shall return below to this and other federal political developments of the Archaic era.