After the mid-third century BC, so claims the historian Polybius, the Boeotians gave up playing any part in wider Greek affairs, “but plunged into gluttony and drunkenness, and became utterly flabby in both body and mind”. Cartledge agrees, and he whips through the entire history of Thebes in the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern periods in a cursory five pages: “Although a comfortable enough place to live in, no doubt, the rebuilt Thebes never recovered anything like its Classical-era political and military significance”. The underlying assumptions here about what constitutes “significance” do worry me a bit: historians of Classical Greece have a bad habit of assuming that Greek cities stop being of interest the moment they stop butchering or bullying their neighbours. Still, Cartledge deserves full credit for his spirited and readable attempt to put Thebes back on the map, though I doubt many readers will be inspired to put Thebes at the top of their list for a post-lockdown holiday. Apparently the beaches are quite nice.
It’s surprising that Cartledge does not take much interest in Ismenias (or Hismenias, a variant spelling), given how central he was to the sea change that made Thebes a leading power and a democracy. Indeed Cartledge’s book, though in most respects excellent, has one, perhaps inevitable flaw: its focus on Thebes is at odds with its diachronic structure. In its march through the centuries, it covers many eras and events to which Thebes was at best peripheral. Cartledge’s discussion of the Peloponnesian War, for example, is rich and detailed – considerably longer than his chapter on the fourth-century ‘Theban Heyday’ that followed. Thebes played a much bigger role in the later era, but the earlier one looms larger in the history of Greece. Cartledge does his best to bring out a Theban perspective even when other cities (mostly Athens and Sparta) supply the main story, but it sometimes seems as if he has dragged Thebans on-stage when they really belong in the wings.
Cartledge, matching his unrivalled command of the complex, fragmentary and often contradictory sources to his talents as a storyteller, traces the arc of the Theban story as well as anyone is likely to do. Beginning amid the murk of the Mycenaean period, with a collection of 13th-century BC clay tablets that feature the very earliest mention of ‘Thebans’, he takes his narrative all the way up to the liberation of Boeotia from Turkish rule, when for the first time ‘genuine research into the antiquities and history and legacy of ancient Greek Thebes could be seriously undertaken’.
After a slightly pedestrian introduction — it read better a second time as a summing-up after finishing the book — and the lack of a Theban Thucydides to put meat on the bones of their decades on the naughty step, Cartledge’s narrative comes to life as the city of Thebes flourishes. The story of their rise and fall in the second half of the book is told as vividly as he relates their myths in the enjoyable second chapter. Alas, for Thebes, glory was all too fleeting.