The record of the earliest days of Thebes was preserved among the Greeks in an abundant mass of legends which rival the myths of Troy in their wide ramification and the influence which they exerted upon the literature of the classical age. Five main cycles of story may be distinguished:
The foundation of the citadel Cadmeia by Cadmus, and the growth of the Spartoi or "Sown Men" (probably an aetiological myth designed to explain the origin of the Theban nobility which bore that name in historical times).
The building of a "seven-gated" wall by Amphion, and the cognate stories of Zethus, Antiope and Dirce.
The tale of Laius, whose misdeeds culminated in the tragedy of Oedipus and the wars of the "Seven Against Thebes", the Epigoni, and the downfall of his house; Laius' pederastic rape of Chrysippus was held by some ancients to have been the first instance of homosexuality among mortals, and may have provided an etiology for the practice of pedagogic pederasty for which Thebes was famous.
The immolation of Semele and the advent of Dionysus.
The exploits of Heracles.
The Greeks attributed the foundation of Thebes to Cadmus, a Phoenician king from Tyre (now in Lebanon) and the brother of Queen Europa. Cadmus was famous for teaching the Phoenician alphabet and building the Acropolis, which was named the Cadmeia in his honor and was an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural center.
Archaeological excavations in and around Thebes have revealed cist graves dated to Mycenaean times containing weapons, ivory, and tablets written in Linear B. Its attested name forms and relevant terms on tablets found locally or elsewhere include, te-qa-i, understood to be read as *Tʰēgʷai̮s (Ancient Greek: Thēbais, i.e. "at Thebes", Thebes in the dative-locative case), te-qa-de for *Tʰēgʷasde (Thēbasde, i.e. "to Thebes") and te-qa-ja, for *Tʰēgʷaja (Thēbaia, i.e. "Theban woman").
It seems safe[clarification needed] to infer that *Tʰēgʷai was one of the first Greek communities to be drawn together within a fortified city, and that it owed its importance in prehistoric days — as later — to its military strength. Deger-Jalkotzy claimed that the statue base from Kom el-Hetan in Amenhotep III's kingdom (LHIIIA:1) mentions a name similar to Thebes, spelled out quasi-syllabically in hieroglyphs as d-q-e-i-s, and considered to be one of four tj-n3-jj kingdoms worthy of note (alongside Knossos and Mycenae). *Tʰēgʷai in LHIIIB lost contact with Egypt but gained it with "Miletus" (Hittite: Milawata) and "Cyprus" (Hittite: Alashija). In the late LHIIIB, according to Palaima, *Tʰēgʷai was able to pull resources from Lamos near Mount Helicon, and from Karystos and Amarynthos on the Greek side of the isle of Euboia.
As a fortified community, it attracted attention from the invading Dorians, and the fact of their eventual conquest of Thebes lie behind the stories of the successive legendary attacks on that city.
The central position and military security of the city naturally tended to raise it to a commanding position among the Boeotians, and from early days its inhabitants endeavoured to establish a complete supremacy over their kinsmen in the outlying towns. This centralizing policy is as much the cardinal fact of Theban history as the counteracting effort of the smaller towns to resist absorption forms the main chapter of the story of Boeotia. No details of the earlier history of Thebes have been preserved, except that it was governed by a land-holding aristocracy who safeguarded their integrity by rigid statutes about the ownership of property and its transmission over time.
- ARCHAIC AND CLASSICAL PERIOD
As attested already in Homer's Iliad, Thebes was often called "Seven-Gated Thebes" (Thebai heptapyloi) (Iliad, IV.406) to distinguish it from "Hundred-Gated Thebes" ( Thebai hekatompyloi) in Egypt (Iliad, IX.383).
In the late 6th century BC, the Thebans were brought for the first time into hostile contact with the Athenians, who helped the small village of Plataea to maintain its independence against them, and in 506 BC repelled an inroad into Attiki. The aversion to Athens best serves to explain the apparently unpatriotic attitude which Thebes displayed during the Persian invasion of Greece (480–479 BC). Though a contingent of 400 was sent to Thermopylae and remained there with Leonidas before being defeated alongside the Spartans, the governing aristocracy soon after joined King Xerxes I of Persia with great readiness and fought zealously on his behalf at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The victorious Greeks subsequently punished Thebes by depriving it of the presidency of the Boeotian League and an attempt by the Spartans to expel it from the Delphic amphictyony was only frustrated by the intercession of Athens. In 457 BC Sparta, needing a counterpoise against Athens in central Greece, reversed her policy and reinstated Thebes as the dominant power in Boeotia. The great citadel of Cadmea served this purpose well by holding out as a base of resistance when the Athenians overran and occupied the rest of the country (457–447 BC). In the Peloponnesian War the Thebans, embittered by the support which Athens gave to the smaller Boeotian towns, and especially to Plataea, which they vainly attempted to reduce in 431 BC, were firm allies of Sparta, which in turn helped them to besiege Plataea and allowed them to destroy the town after its capture in 427 BC. In 424 BC at the head of the Boeotian levy they inflicted a severe defeat upon an invading force of Athenians at the Battle of Delium, and for the first time displayed the effects of that firm military organization which eventually raised them to predominant power in Greece.
After the downfall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Thebans, having learned that Sparta intended to protect the states which they desired to annex, broke off the alliance. In 404 BC they had urged the complete destruction of Athens, yet in 403 BC they secretly supported the restoration of its democracy in order to find in it a counterpoise against Sparta. A few years later, influenced perhaps in part by Persian gold, they formed the nucleus of the league against Sparta. At the Battle of Haliartus (395 BC) and the Battle of Coronea (394 BC) they again proved their rising military capacity by standing their ground against the Spartans. The result of the war was especially disastrous to Thebes, as the general settlement of 387 BC stipulated the complete autonomy of all Greek towns and so withdrew the other Boeotians from its political control. Its power was further curtailed in 382 BC, when a Spartan force occupied the citadel by a treacherous coup-de-main. Three years later, the Spartan garrison was expelled and a democratic constitution was set up in place of the traditional oligarchy. In the consequent wars with Sparta, the Theban army, trained and led by Epaminondas and Pelopidas, proved itself formidable (see also: Sacred Band of Thebes). Years of desultory fighting, in which Thebes established its control over all Boeotia, culminated in 371 BC in a remarkable victory over the Spartans at Leuctra. The winners were hailed throughout Greece as champions of the oppressed. They carried their arms into Peloponnesus and at the head of a large coalition, permanently crippled the power of Sparta, in part by freeing many helot slaves, the basis of the Spartan economy. Similar expeditions were sent to Thessaly and Macedon to regulate the affairs of those regions.
However, the predominance of Thebes was short-lived as the states which she protected refused to subject themselves permanently to her control. Their renewed rivalry with Athens, who had joined with Thebes in 395 BC in fear of Sparta, but since 387 BC had endeavored to maintain the balance of power against her ally, prevented the formation of a Theban empire. With the death of Epaminondas at the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC) the city sank again to the position of a secondary power. In a war with the neighboring state of Phocis (356–346 BC) it could not even maintain its predominance in central Greece, and by inviting Philip II of Macedon to crush the Phocians it extended that monarch's power within dangerous proximity to its frontiers. A revulsion of feeling was completed in 338 BC by the orator Demosthenes, who persuaded Thebes to join Athens in a final attempt to bar Philip's advance upon Attiki. The Theban contingent lost the decisive battle of Chaeronea and along with it every hope of reassuming control over Greece. Philip was content to deprive Thebes of her dominion over Boeotia; but an unsuccessful revolt in 335 BC against his son Alexander the Great while he was campaigning in the north was punished by Alexander and his Greek allies with the destruction of the city, except, according to tradition, the house of the poet Pindar and the temples, its territory divided between the other Boeotian cities. Moreover, the Thebans themselves were sold into slavery. Alexander spared only priests, leaders of the pro-Macedonian party and descendants of Pindar. The end of Thebes cowed Athens into submission. According to Plutarch, a special Athenian embassy, led by Phocion, an opponent of the anti-Macedonian faction, was able to persuade Alexander to give up his demand for the exile of leaders of the anti-Macedonian party, most particularly Demosthenes.
- HELLENISTIC AND ROMAN PERIOD
Ancient works tend to treat the destruction of Thebes as an excess and one of the few misdeeds by Alexander. Although Thebes had traditionally been antagonistic to whichever state led the Greek world, siding with Persians when they invaded against the Athenian-Spartan alliance, siding with Sparta when Athens seemed omnipotent, and famously derailing the Spartan invasion of Persia by Agesilaus. Alexander's father Philip had been raised in Thebes, albeit as a hostage, and had learnt much of the art of war from Pelopidas. Philip had honoured this fact, always seeking alliance with the Boeotians, even in the lead up to Chaeronea. Thebes was also perceived as the most ancient of Greek cities with a history of over 1,000 years. Plutarch relates that during his later conquests, whenever Alexander came across a former Theban, he would attempt to redress his destruction of Thebes with favours to that individual.
After Alexander the Great died, Thebes was re-established in 315 or 316 BC by Cassander, perhaps in his desire for fame. However Thebes never returned to its former prominence or power. It was besieged and taken by Demetrius Poliorcetes in 293 BC, and again after a revolt in 292 BC. This last siege was difficult and Demetrios was wounded, but finally he managed to break down the walls and to take the city once more, treating it mildly despite its fierce resistance. The city recovered its autonomy from Demetrios in 287 BC, and became ally with Lysimachus and the Aetolian League.
During the early Byzantine period it served as a place of refuge against foreign invaders. From the 10th century, Thebes became a centre of the new silk trade, its silk workshops boosted by imports of soaps and dyes from Athens. The growth of this trade in Thebes continued to such an extent that by the middle of the 12th century, the city had become the biggest producer of silks in the entire Byzantine empire, surpassing even the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The women of Thebes were famed for their skills at weaving. Theban silk was prized above all others during this period, both for its quality and its excellent reputation.
Though severely plundered by the Normans in 1146, Thebes quickly recovered its prosperity and continued to grow rapidly until its conquest by the Latins of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
Thanks to its wealth, the city was selected by the Frankish dynasty de la Roche as its capital, before it was permanently moved to Athens. After 1240, the Saint Omer family controlled the city jointly with the de la Roche dukes. The castle built by Nicholas II of Saint Omer on the Cadmea was one of the most beautiful of Frankish Greece. After its conquest in 1311 the city was used as a capital by the short-lived state of the Catalan Company.
In 1379, the Navarrese Company took the city with the aid of the Latin Archbishop of Thebes, Simon Atumano.
Latin hegemony in Thebes lasted to 1458, when the Ottomans captured it. The Ottomans renamed Thebes "İstefe" and managed it until the War of Independence (nominally to 1832) except for a Venetian occupation between 1687 and 1699.