Thick as Thebans

Frederic Raphael reveals how Paul Cartledge makes the case for a central historical role for Oedipus’s home town

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, in romantic heat, declared that “we” were/are all Greeks. Young Byron dreamed that Greece might yet be free; later, when in Missolonghi, he had some practical experience of just how fractious flesh-and-blood Hellenes could be, even when allegedly united against the vengeful Turk. “The Greeks, it seems, have run away from Xerxes” summarised one such episode.

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge, Picador £25

John Stuart Mill rated the Athenian triumph at Marathon as more important in English history than the battle of Hastings. Did he mention the almost immediate humiliation, by the Athenians, of their victorious general Miltiades? After his brilliant victory at Salamis, ten years later, Themistocles was banished from Athens and ended serving the Persians whose fleet he had destroyed. A tough house to play, old Hellas. The Athenians did the chat; the Spartans the silences. And Thebes? Supplied settings and plots, mostly in the form of awful warnings.

Paul Cartledge makes the case for a central historical role for Oedipus’s home town. As scholarly as he is revisionist, his handsomely garnished Thebes is neither freckled with footnotes nor fancy with Gibbonian phrases. The Thebans’ exceptional capacity for disastrous decisions begins in mythology with the rejection by king Pentheus of the androgynous divinity Dionysus, dramatised in Euripides’s Bacchae.

There followed the king’s death at the hands of his own raving, Bacchanalian mother and the seismic ruin of the city. Homosexuality has no place in Cartledge’s index, but Oedipus’s father Laius, mythical king of Thebes, is the first man said to have swung both ways. The Sacred Band, in classical times, was a select Theban formation of pairs of male lovers, all full citizens.

However gay ancient Hellenes were (not all that, some say, certainly not all), the Sacred Band’s reputation suggests that a zest of scandal accompanied its bravura. Sexual aberration was integral to their city’s fame. Oedipus’s inadvertent marriage with his own mother, Jocasta, led to the mutual slaughter of their sons, as well as to the refusal of his daughter Antigone to marry Haemon, the prince chosen for her by King Creon. Creon then walled her up, the original ochi (NO!) girl. It needed the Athenian Sophocles to make a play out of it. Modern Greeks celebrate ochi day every 28 October, anniversary of the date in 1941 when their dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, refused to surrender to Mussolini and so refurbished himself as a national hero.

As scholarly as he is revisionist, his handsomely garnished Thebes is neither freckled with footnotes nor fancy with Gibbonian phrases

Thebes and the confederation of Boeotian states it headed figured on no honours board during the fifth century BC, presumed, until recently, to be the Golden Age of ancient Hellas. When Xerxes marched into Greece in 480 BC, the Theban oligarchs took advice from the Delphic oracle — they may well have leaned on it first — and so had a divine excuse for not offering any obstacle to the barbarian invaders.

Half a century later, the Thebans’ levelling of plucky little Plataea, the Athenians’ sole ally at Marathon, was a lowlight of the Peloponnesian war. It was matched only by their vindictiveness after defeating an Athenian army (including infantryman Socrates and the subaltern Alcibiades) at Delium. They left the enemy dead to rot rather than hand over the bodies.

In 480 BC, a battalion of Theban dissidents had been present at Thermopylae, but the Spartans, under king Leonidas, did all the renowned dying: “Go tell the Spartans,” sang the poet Simonides; the others were left to be forgotten. The pass had been sold by a local opportunist, Ephialtes, whose name, in modern Greek, means nightmare. Cartledge refrains from flashing Cavafy’s Thermopylae and its celebration of gallant failure.

Mythical Thebans figure again and again in the work of the great Athenian dramatists, almost always as bad examples. The city and its neighbours may have originated political federation, but it produced no remarkable artist, no Demosthenic orator, no great dramatist. As far as the arts are concerned, Cartledge cites only Pronomus, the pied piper whose mastery of the aulos (not so much flute as “double-oboe”) won wide renown. Nostalgic seniors may recall Danny Kaye’s line, “The oboe, it is clearly understood / Is an ill-wind that nobody blows good.”

Thebes specialised in wrong turnings. During its two decades of ascendancy in the fourth century BC, it sought to keep Macedon in its place by holding the young Philip II hostage. Having learnt the military skills of his captors, the unforgiving outsider returned to chasten them. His son Alexander finished the job by literally flattening the city, save for the house of its greatest poet, Pindar, and the temples of gods whose favours he hoped to enjoy when he set off to purge and pillage the Persians. No second Pindar hymned his conquests; the Greeks never took him for one of their own. His death in his early thirties prompted an immediate rebellion against Macedonian dominion.

Expectation of life in classical Hellas (“Graecia” was a Roman coinage) was no greater than a man’s forties; childbirth rendered females even more mortal, so to say. Poetry seems to have been a good specific for longevity. Aeschylus might have lived much longer if, as the story promises, an eagle had not mistaken his bald pate for a boulder on which it dropped a turtle in the hope of cracking its shell. Sophocles lasted into his nineties, long enough to be accused by his son and heir of being gaga, upon which he dropped the text of Oedipus at Colonus on the young man’s head, evidence that his own was still on straight.

Philosophy also had a tonic effect: Aristotle’s successor as head of the Academy, Theophrastus (Mr Spellbinder) complained that even a hundred years — which he is said to have attained — docked him of time to have his full say. His nickname did not deceive the saleswomen in the Athenian agora who detected his Eresian accent (from Lesbos), despite his long residence in Attica. Alertness to accentual differences went with Athenian contempt for Boeotians. “Thick as Thebans” was a commonplace.

Cartledge claims that Thebes is “central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ multiple achievements — whether viewed politically or culturally — and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of Western Europe, the Americas and indeed the world”. That is, as they say, going in with both feet. Can all the energy and liveliness devoted to redeeming ancient Thebes from the shadows jack it up to equality with the old double act of Athens and Sparta? Keen as Cartledge is to make his case, he is too scrupulous to cite Herodotus’s perhaps tongue-in-cheek story that Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the folkloric Attic tyrannicides who, at the end of the sixth century BC, led — if indirectly — to the rise of Athenian democracy, were “Boeotians of Phoenician stock”. Imagine if Nigel Farage turned out to be of Belgian origin, a Brussels sprout as it were.

Thebes’s undoubted glory days came after the Peloponnesian war. The new volatile situation inclined even the victorious Spartans to yearn for a return to the old two-power stand-off, rather as some Western diplomats look back fondly on the Cold War, which served to bind minor powers in their places. The Theban supremacy was established, however briefly, by two generals of genius: Epaminondas and Pelopidas. Epaminondas’s tactical innovation of thickening the phalanx, hence its bristling thrust, led to the conclusive defeat of the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 BC.

Next came the liberation of the Helots, generations of native Greeks, mostly Messenians, reduced to slavery by Sparta’s ruthless domestic economy. The Thebans then fortified Messene, so that Sparta was forever menaced, on its western flank, by a city hostile to its resurrection. The site lacks architectural lure but it takes a couple of agile hours to walk around the still impressive walls not far from Kalamata, where the best Greek olives grow.

Art, literature and philosophy have been salient in promoting Athens in particular to primacy

Epaminondas’s death in battle against an alliance of the old enemies, Athens and Sparta, which had been preceded, two years earlier, by that of his colleague Pelopidas, in the moment of victory elsewhere, left the way open to the Macedonian ascendancy. Thebes’s finest hour came too late for celebration by any author of the quality of Thucydides or the journalistic brio of Xenophon. Julius Caesar ordered things better when he wrote a glowing review of his own unprovoked slaughter of a million or more Gauls. Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, did for the Thebans yet again when they backed Antony and Cleopatra against him.

Cartledge brims with rare minutiae. Oedipus, for instance, is reported, in some versions of the story, to have killed the Sphinx (and her “sister”) after solving her riddle. Greek inventiveness barnacled and skewed all manner of myths. It seems odd that when discussing the battle of Arginusae, which should have won the Peloponnesian war for Athens, Cartledge does not mention that Pericles’s bastard son (by Aspasia) — one of six generals executed for failing to rescue drowning sailors after the victory — would not have been eligible for his fatal promotion had his father not secured him the honour of citizenship after the death in battle of the Olympian’s legitimate sons. Dramatic irony leaks into history.

That Cartledge’s topic has never been central to centuries of scholarship indicates that, until very recently, art, literature and philosophy have been salient in promoting Athens in particular to primacy. Classical studies used to entail close attention to ancient texts and grammar. Academic Greek was decorated with accents which were the devil to get right and had, in truth, no place in ancient script.

Now the Greek world can be studied, at advanced level, without anyone having to learn what a perispomenon was, where iotas are subscript, or the imprecatory meaning of ei with the optative. Good news? The old cult of the First Class Mind insisted that command of Greek and Latin encouraged independent thought, disdain for cliché, moral integrity, confidence to speak out when people are talking rot. What better recipe for disappearing without any call for seismic assistance in today’s woke world?

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