Though frequently overshadowed by rival city-states Athens and Sparta, Thebes played an integral role in the achievements and culture of ancient Greece. Paul Cartledge brings the city back to life through the myths of Oedipus and Heracles, the dramas of Pindar and Sophocles, and the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plutarch.
Mr. Cartledge’s command of the historical material is effortless and exhaustive, and his appreciation of Thebes is persuasive. Between the radical but self-destructive democracy of Athens and Sparta’s totalitarian oligarchy (both imperialist), Thebes and Boeotia stand in the middle as an early model of democratic federalism ... It was Thebes that dealt a critical blow to Spartan domination, and a Theban leader who freed a long-enslaved people. Alexander the Great himself adopted military tactics from Epaminondas. If Thebes’s period of hegemony was brief—barely a decade—it also changed the course of the ancient world.
Cartledge, matching his unrivaled 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 trace it ... The great value of Cartledge’s book is that it enables us to see Thebes at long last, not as Athens saw her, but as the Thebans themselves did.
Thebes, a survey of a thousand years of Theban myth and history, marks a new phase in Paul Cartledge’s career. ... in the last decade Cartledge has turned his attention to the topic of democracy as practised both in ancient Greece and in the modern West. His previous book, Democracy: A Life, made a brief case for seeing the rise of Thebes as evidence of democracy’s vitality. In this book, he expands on that thesis, seeing the heyday of Theban power as part of a ‘great age of democracy in the Greek world as a whole’ ... Throughout his career, one of Cartledge’s strengths as a Hellenist has been his awareness of the way sexual love between older and younger males influenced Greek political and military power structures. This topic is too often ignored or, occasionally, over-stressed by scholars for subjective reasons. Having already dealt with the subject deftly in his biography of Agesilaos and elsewhere, Cartledge again shows admirable insight into the historical importance of Greek male homosexuality.