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Category Archives: Places

Pithecusae: Island of Firsts

by September 3, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Home to thermal springs and verdant landscapes, the idyllic island of Ischia also houses the first Greek settlement in all of Europe. Enterprising pioneers from the Greek island of Euboea, founded the colony in the mid-eighth century BCE, naming it Pithecusae from the Greek word pithekos meaning “ape” or “monkey.” But was the island truly named for monkeys?
Situated in the Bay of Naples, Pithecusae was never inhabited by apes or monkeys, leading some scholars to speculate that its name may come instead from the Greek word pithekizo which meant “to monkey around.” Another thought is that this term was used derisively by mainlanders to refer to the speculative and profiteering islanders who originally hailed from the Athens environs, over seven hundred miles away.
Modern day Ischia

Modern day Ischia

Which begs the question, why on earth would settlers from Euboea, a sea-faring island to the east of Athens, be interested in colonizing what was then the westernmost boundary of the Mediterranean?
The Metal of Choice
In order to answer this question definitively, it is important to understand what was occurring in ancient Greece at the time. Never known for its arable land, the farmland shortage became pronounced during the population explosion of the Archaic Age. It was from the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE that colonizing other lands became fashionable to the intrepid ancient Greeks.
Although the rich fertility of Pithecusae’s volcanic soil was desirable to the Euboean settlers, more alluring to the Iron Age colonists were its ample iron ore reserves. In the eighth century BCE, iron was the new bronze and the adventurous settlers were willing to travel far and wide for their current metal of choice.
Because of its protected, well-positioned harbor along with its vast resources, trade networks were bountiful in Pithecusae. The island traded heavily not only with their mainland neighbors of Campania, Apulia, Etruria and Latium but also with the Near East and Carthage, amongst others. Throughout Greek settlements, Pithecusae was recognized as having the widest-range of objects from the farthest reaches of the Iron Age Mediterranean.
The Cup of Nestor?
Today, chief among Pithecusaean objects of interest is a seven-inch cup, originally made on the island of Rhodes and dated to around 750 BCE. Battered and diminutive, at first glance this artifact is unimpressive, but upon closer inspection an engraving can be found that has sparked no small amount of interest in the academic community.
the "cup of Nestor"

The “Cup of Nestor”

The etching, believed to have been scribbled in Pithecusae around 725 BCE, is not only the earliest example we have of Greek writing, more compelling still is that this is the first example we have of Greek poetry! Two of the three lines of text are in Homeric hexameter and refer to Nestor, a character from Homer’s Iliad:
“I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”
Ironically, the earliest recorded evidence we have of Homer’s epic hymn is in the form of a joke. Both as a pun demonstrated by its modest size as in The Iliad Nestor’s cup was notorious for being too heavy to lift; and as a bawdy quip as the reference to Aphrodite bespeaks. That eighth century Greeks living on the edge of Magna Graecia could jest about the Homeric legends testifies to how deeply ingrained, even prosaic, Homer’s narratives must have been. Undeniably, The Iliad was originally composed as an oral hymn, to be sung or recited, possibly as early as 1200 BCE with its written format believed to have been penned anywhere from 725 BCE to 634 BCE.
As a result of the discovery of the etching on this obscure cup in the backwaters of ancient Greece, some scholars now argue that the date of Homer’s poem must be pushed back for knowledge of his verses to be as common as this cup attests.
Homer recites poem

Homer recites a poem

Sadly, in contrast to its amusing engraving this cup has a more sobering epilogue; it was discovered in the grave of a ten-year old boy offered by his father in a funeral pyre. Doubly tragic is that the young lad, who was in death its final recipient, would never know the adult delight the cup’s inscription signified. The somber conclusion of this cup’s destiny is a reminder that in the Greek world omnipresent death was humor’s dark companion.
Which brings us to the fate of Pithecusae; in a land of firsts with a population boasting ten thousand at its zenith in 700 BCE, why was this plucky Greek settlement not better known? While it was the rich volcanic soil that initially lured the Greeks to settle the island of Pithecusae, the reason for its demise lies also in the soil’s combustible origins.
According to geographer and historian Strabo (64 BCE to 24 CE), severe volcanic and earthquake activity impacted Pithecusae’s acclaim leading one classical scholar to term it “the lid of a cauldron.” Indeed, due to its geological volatility, an exodus ensued and Pithecusae’s bustling trade was eventually transferred to the nearby Greek settlement of Cumae on the southern Italian mainland. Most historians agree that by 500 BCE the settlement of Pithecusae was all but destroyed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Epomeo, the island’s largest volcano.
Perhaps in a fitting Homeric denouement, the fiery fate of Nestor’s Cup foreshadowed the incendiary collapse of the once burgeoning land from which it sprung.

Athens

by July 19, 2019

Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze.

Athens and Sparta were two of the most influential city-states in the ancient world. They both held sway over the history of ancient Greece and to this day have spawned much comparison and analysis. And as we wrote in a previous article, Sparta was known for their militaristic civilization and for their affinity for war.
Conversely, Athens would be remembered for it’s remarkable progress in the fields of philosophy, politics and literature. And for all of it’s beauty and devotion to intellectual progress, it was a city-state that was often harrowed with tragedy. In the words of the medieval, christian scholar Alcuin of York:

“At Athens, wise men propose, and fools dispose.”

Democracy athens

Democracy in Athens
painting by. Philipp Foltz

Athens

It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered “The Birthplace of Democracy”.

In addition to being the birthplace of democracy, Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization. This is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s  Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.

schoolxl

School of Athens
by. Raphael

Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on ethics, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was ‘looking for an honest man’; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.

Atheniannavy

Athens possessed a powerful navy

While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories in during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody  Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis; where  the Athenian commander  Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, effectively ending the second Persian invasion.

The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
Women in a procession

Ancient Greek women

When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
death of socrates

The Death of Socrates
by. Jacques-Louis David

During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.
 
 

Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

by March 5, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Egyptian city of Alexandria was established in 331 BCE by its Eponymous founder, Alexander the Great. Despite its humble beginnings as a port city, Alexandria developed into one of the most prosperous metropolitan areas in the ancient world. It grew to boast such wonders like the library of Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis, and the Pharos of Alexandria (the lighthouse).
Map of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

City Plan of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

Foundation of Ancient Alexandria
In his “Life of Alexander,” Plutarch describes the foundation of the city Alexandria. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, which was part of his campaigns all over the eastern Mediterranean, he planned to settle a large Greek city, “which would bear his name.” Alexander had imagined a city that would be home to men of all nations, and one that would abound in resources. Cleomenes, Alexander’s commander, was left in charge of the construction and expansion of the city. Following in Cleomenes’ footsteps, Ptolemy further built up the city and subsequently his own familial dynasty ruled Egypt from 332-30 BCE.
Pharos of Alexandria

Illustration of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria’s Rise to Prominence

Since Alexandria came to replace the previous Egyptian capital of Memphis, and Tyre, a significant port city, was destroyed by Alexander, the new capital filled a vacuum of both political and commercial means. Alexandria became a lucrative node in the trade network of the Mediterranean, and attracted commerce from the east, north, and west.
This allowed for the local economy to prosper, which in turn led to investments in institutions like the Library of Alexandria. The city was known for attracting scientists, philosophers, artists, and mathematicians (like Euclid!)

Illustration of the library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria, Egypt

Institutions of Alexandria
Of course, one of the most famous products of Alexandria is the library. It was one of the most ambitious projects not only of the ancient world, but even by today’s standards. The Library of Alexandria aimed to collect all the knowledge of the world and house it in a single place. Ptolemy I began work on the library and located it in the royal district of the city. No doubt modeled in grand fashion, we have no surviving accounts of the architecture and can only speculate as to its appearance. With the intent of the library being to collect a copy of every book in the world, it is no surprise that Ptolemy II instituted a practice that required every ship docking at the port to hand over any books on board to be copied out for the collection.
Unfortunately, this gold mine of science, history, math, and literature was destroyed. As the city of Alexandria changes rule several times throughout its history, the new governing body viewed the Library of Alexandria as a threat to their control rather than a fountain of information. The use of the library waned over the years and its reported that several periods of fire took place, destroying scrolls and manuscripts.
Another prominent installation of Alexandria at her height of power was the Serapeum. The temple, which was constructed under Ptolemy III in the 3rd century BCE, was dedicated to the protector of Alexandria, Serapis. Strabo tells us that the temple was housed in the western portion of the city. Like the Library of Alexandria, the Serapeum does not survive and we can only assume what it looked like.
Alexandria Lighthouse Coin

Coin depicting the Lighthouse of Alexandria

However, an article discussing Alexandria would be remiss if it did not include a discussion of the lighthouse of Alexandria. Considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it became the model of lighthouses then and now. The lighthouse, or Pharos, served as a practical component of Alexandria, helping guide ships into her harbors; but it also was a feat of technology, reaching a staggering height and becoming a symbol of the city, as we can see on coin depictions.
Illustration of Roman Alexandria

Ancient Roman Alexandria, Egypt

Roman Alexandria
With the Roman victories in the Punic Wars, Rome reigned supreme in the Mediterranean and Alexandria came under her rule. For roughly two centuries, this didn’t impact the prosperity of Alexandria too terribly much. She still continued to be a prominent port city with a bustling social sphere. It was during the breakdown of the First Triumvirate, though, that we see direct negative sanctions being placed on Alexandria. Pompey’s loss to Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus led to his flight to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. However, he was killed by Ptolemy XIII and Caesar arrived, declaring martial law of the land. In the following years of civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, the city of Alexandria suffered destruction and fires.
After the death of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, and the consolidation of power by Augustus, Alexandria became a province of the Roman Empire, lacking any real political autonomy. The city was rebuilt after the fires and recovered from the internal turmoil of the 1st century BCE, but never quite to the level of pre-Roman occupation.
Illustration of Alexandria Fire

Fire at the library of Alexandria

Decline of Alexandria
Having been such a hot bed for knowledge, learning, and advancements for centuries, Alexandria’s involvement in the Christianity vs. paganism schism does not come as a surprise. Still under Roman rule, Theodosius I outlawed paganism, promoting instead the conversion to Christianity. As Alexandria had been a prosperous and robust city for centuries, temples, sanctuaries, and monuments reflecting the newly outlawed religion abounded. Christians of the city clashed with pagans in Alexandria and the city plunged into religious and ideological distress. Scholars that had once felt safe, encouraged, and supported now fled the city in search of calmer surroundings. The draw of Alexandria as a cultural, political, and commercial center no longer persisted due to the constant religious tension and the city fell by the wayside.
The city of Alexandria certainly had an active history, serving as the stage for political rivalries, scholastic breakthroughs, and religious wars. The longevity of the city’s occupation allowed her to be involved in several events of the wider Mediterranean. Of course, we all dream about what could have been if only the Library of Alexandria were still around today.

Sparta Vs. Athens

by February 19, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
SPARTA

Emblem of Sparta

Sparta, also known by its ancient name Lacedaemon in honor of their legendary founder, is often considered to have been the most dominant military presence in ancient Greece. Their infantry soldiers were said to have been among the most skilled and fearsome warriors of the ancient world. Dedicating the majority of their lives to perfecting the art of warfare, the ferocity of the Spartan hoplite would grant the city-state several military victories and lead to the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
This obsession with fighting was supported by their culture. The Spartan lifestyle, especially that of the Spartan men, was dedicated to learning the art of fighting and the craft of war. At birth, Spartan babies were examined for weaknesses. If they were deemed frail or deformed, they were tossed into a chasm on Mount Taygetos. At a young age the boys would be taken away from their homes and participate in an education system known as Agoge. In this state mandated training curriculum, young male citizens would be taught how to be a warrior. They were educated in the ways of warfare, fighting as well as reading and writing. They would endure physical hardships and often be submitted to harsh, violent punishments.

Statue of a Spartan

This militaristic state was only possible because of the complex societal structure of Sparta. While native born Spartans enjoyed full rights and freedoms, there were others who were not so fortunate. The Perioikoi were a secondary type of Spartan citizen who, although not full citizens and therefore unable to participate in the Agoge training, still enjoyed freedom in the Spartan community. They acted as skilled craftsmen and reserve warriors when needed.
The Helots were state owned serfs who bordered narrowly on being classified as slaves. The Helots were lower class citizens who were responsible for the agricultural stability of Sparta. It was only through the farming work of the Helots that the other Spartans were able to free up their time to participate fully in military training. Even though the Helots were essential to Spartan society, they were also prone to uprisings and would be a constant source of trouble for the Spartan city.
An interesting note about Spartan society was that women enjoyed a level of freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world. Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers, and they were not restricted to their homes as was common in Athens. The daughters and sisters of Sparta were allowed to play outdoors and even compete in sports. While it was common in other city-states to marry off girls at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan women tied the knot in their late teens or early twenties. This was done as an effort to spare women the health dangers of pregnancies in adolescents. As a result of their superior diet and bountiful exercise, Spartan women often lived into old age more frequently than in any other part of the ancient world.

Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae

The military contributions of Sparta can not be overemphasized. During the Classical age of Greece, they were unmatched as a land military force, playing decisive roles in several battles during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. Sparta is perhaps best remembered for it’s heroic stand at the battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (along with roughly 6000 other Greek hoplites) fended off the massive Persian army before being outflanked and eventually massacred on the third day of battle. Thermopylae remains one of the most famous last stands of military history and continues to be a topic of fascination for modern classical enthusiasts.

ATHENS

Emblem of Athens

It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered the birthplace of democracy.
Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization; this is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.

Plato

Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on the examined life, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was looking for an honest man; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.
While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis where the Athenian commander Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, turning the tides of war in the Greeks favor.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However, that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.
Whoever you side with there is no doubt that both Athens and Sparta were flourishing civilizations in their own rights. It could be argued that these two city-states were two of the most dominant super powers of the ancient world. We may consider ourselves lucky that their history and rich legacy has survived thousands of years; so that we might peer through the looking glass and witness the glory of our ancestors from a time long past.

The History of Thebes

by November 20, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Having been inhabited for roughly 5,000 years, Thebes possesses a wealth of history and culture. Thebes is located in central Greece and garnered military might and political power, not least of which resulted from their leadership in the Boeotian League and the Sacred Band of soldiers in the 4th century.
Map of Thebes

Plan of Thebes

Archaeological excavations have revealed fortified buildings with rock-cut foundations as well as courtyards (stone-paved) and mud brick walls dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Around 2500 BC, we see evidence for food and wool production and trade, thanks to recovered grinding stones and terracotta loom weights and spools.
Jumping ahead to the Mycenaean period, Thebes boasted a Mycenaean palace called Kadmeion, located in the center of the acropolis. It was a large independent structure comprised of corridors, rooms for work and storage, as well as workshops that were vital to the existence of Thebes. Also found were Linear B tablets and seal stones, along with Cretan stirrup jars, that demonstrate that Thebes had widespread contacts in the Aegean. While the trade alone is not surprising for this time period, it does help us understand the role and significance Thebes played early on.
Archeological site in Thebes

The Mycenaean Palace, or Kadmeion, dates from the 13th century BC and is located almost centrally on the acropolis.

Around 1200 BC the Mediterranean was swallowed up in a relatively indecipherable fog… however, Thebes emerged again in the Archaic period with infrastructure and power. Soon, they forged an antagonistic relationship against Athens and Sparta, fighting almost constantly for regional dominance. It didn’t help Thebes’ image throughout Greece either that they sided with Persia and Xerxes in 480 BC during the Persian War.
After the Persian War, there was relative quiet, save for the rising tensions among the Greek powers themselves. Thebes needed to be punished for their alliance with the Persians, and so was stripped of the head seat at the Boeotian league.
Map of the Greco Persian wars

Historical Atlas of the Mediterranean/Persian Wars

However, not soon after, Sparta needed support against Athens in central Greece and enlisted Thebes to take up the position. By 431 BC, there was an all out war (the Archidamian War) between allies Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes against Athens which lasted until 421 BC. After the Archidamian War, there was the Decelean War (415 BC -404 BC) and the Corinthian War (395 BC – 387 BC, Thebes Corinth, Argos, and Athens against Sparta).
Turmoil abounded (with Thebes often highly involved) until the invasion of Philip of Macedonia. In 338 BC, Thebes joined Athens and Corinth, setting aside a rivalry going back hundreds of years in order to stand against the Macedonians. We all know the result; eventually Thebes was destroyed by Alexander the Great and the population was sold into slavery.
The subsequent years saw Roman visits and rebuilding, population depletion, and finally becoming a provincial town in the Roman Empire. The zenith of Thebes had come to an end long before, though its mythology still lives on.
Mythology in Thebes
7 Against Thebes

The Seven Against Thebes

Like most Greek cities, Thebes has a foundation myth that connects its people to the gods. In the case of Thebes, it was founded by Kadmos (or Cadmus), son of Egenor and brother of Europa. While specifics change depending on who is reporting the story, the basics remain that Kadmos was to sow the teeth of a giant serpent (that he had previously slain) into the ground. From this spot a group of warriors sprang from the earth, and they fought and battled to found the city of Kadmea.
Another prominent myth, that again has to do with a psuedo-foundation, is Seven Against Thebes. In this story, Oedipus’ two sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles, embroiled themselves in a war. After Eteokles exiled Polyneikes, he enlisted the help of the Achaeans to take back the city of Thebes. Seven warriors, including Polyneikes, started their assault on the city and began scaling the walls. Even though six out of the seven were killed, the attack was successful and Polyneikes (though dead) took back the city from his brother.
Famous People from Thebes
Bust of Pindar

Pindar, Roman copy of Greek 5th century BC bust (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)

Perhaps three of the most notorious people from Thebes are Epaminondas, Pelopidas, and Pindar.
Epaminondas (born around 418 BC and died 362 BC) was a military general and student of philosophy. He commanded the Theban forces at pivotal battles such as Leuctra, where the Thebans delivered such a decisive blow to the Spartans that a monument was erected, as well as the Battle of Mantinea where he died in battle.
At the same time as Epaminondas, Pelopidas campaigned in Central and Northern Greece, and died in the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 364 BC. He was successful in the battle though and overthrew the Thessalian troops of Alexander of Pherae.
However, the most recognizable celebrity to come from Thebes may certainly be Pindar, the poet of paeans, songs, and hymns. Though fragmentary, we do have 45 of his lyric odes, or epinicia, to honor notable people. Pindar authored a style that was mirrored by Latin poets, like Horace, and was popular material for Byzantine literature. In 1896, a “Pindaric Ode” was created for the Olympic Games in Athens, similarly copied as recently as 2012.
Contributions from Thebes
Among the literature, mythology, and fodder for excavation that Thebes has provided us, she also left behind a legacy of political contributions. In 378 BC, Thebes remodeled their constitution and established a democracy and the Boeotian federation. This new and somewhat radical type of “democratic Federalism” provided direct federal citizenship to those in her domain.
Another contribution Thebes provided is the so-called Theban “hegemony.” This was the period after the Theban victory at the battle of Leuctra, where for decades Thebes held powerful influence and loyalty in Greece, acquired not by military occupations but by lucrative alliances maintained throughout the region.
An, although mythic, Kadmus is credited with bringing the alphabet to Thebes from the east, a contribution that would have inhibited Theban growth in subsequent years.

The Helots: Slave Warriors of Ancient Sparta

by May 18, 2018

By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from many of its neighbors. The top of the social pyramid was occupied by the two kings, whose powers were checked by a ‘council of elders’. These elders were chosen from the next class, the Spartiates. Below this aristocratic class was a middle class which was called the Perioeci. The lowest class, which was also the largest, in Spartan society was held a group known as the Helots.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the Helots hailed from a city called Helos. This city is said to have been conquered by the Spartans, and its inhabitants became their first slaves. Subsequent peoples enslaved by the Spartans were also called Helots. The Greek historian, Thucydides, however, gives a different account of the origins of the Helots. According to this writer, the Helots were the descendants of the Messenians who were enslaved by the Spartans during the First Messenian War in the 8th century BC. Another account of the origins of the Helots can be found in Strabo’s Geography. According to this writer, the peoples who were subjected to Spartan rule were initially accorded equal rights. During the reign of Agis I, however, these rights were revoked, and the subjects forced to pay a tribute. All complied, except the people of Helus, who revolted. They were crushed in a war and reduced to slavery.

Map of Sparta

Whilst they are considered as slaves, it has been pointed out that they were somewhat different from other slaves in the neighboring Greek city-states. It is claimed that in Athens, for instance, slaves did not have families and communities of their own. The Helots, by contrast, had their own families and communities. Additionally, the Helots were not privately owned, but belonged to the state. According to Strabo, “the Lacedaemonians held the Helots as state-slave in a way, having assigned to them certain settlements to live in and special services to perform.”
As the male citizens of Sparta devoted their lives to athletic and military training, war, politics, and hunting, they could not afford to spend time on agricultural activities. The task of producing food was left to the Helots. Although the Helots were, generally speaking, peasants, they may be employed for other jobs, such as servants or grooms, as well. Additionally, the Helots could be conscripted into military duties at times of war. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus records that each of the 5000 Spartiate at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was protected by seven light-armed Helots. Thus, there was a total of 35,000 Helots at that battle.
Although the Helots were crucial for the functioning of Spartan society, the other classes had an uneasy relationship with them. Given that the Helots greatly outnumbered their Spartan masters, the possibility of them revolting against their repressive rulers was ever present. The first major Helot revolt took place around 665 BC, and is known as the Second Messenian War (The First Messenian War had ended around 40 years prior to this conflict). The Helots seized on the occasion of Sparta’s defeat by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae to launch a revolt. It took the Spartans nearly 20 years to put down the rebellion.
Painting of Leonidas

“Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques Louis David. All 300 Spartans along with the Helot slave warriors fought to their deaths. Persia won the battle, but lost the war.

Given the precarious state of things, the Spartans took precautions to prevent the Helots from revolting. During the Persian Wars, for instance, the Spartans were not too eager to send their hoplites abroad to fight for the freedom of Greece. This was due to the fear that the Helots would revolt when the Spartan army was fighting away from home. Despite these and other precautions, several revolts by the Helots took place over the centuries. When an earthquake struck the Eurotas Valley in 464 BC, the Helots seized this opportunity to revolt. This was the largest revolt recorded. The Helots fortified Mount Ithome, which was besieged by Sparta. The siege only ended five years later when both sides agreed to a truce. The surviving Helots were taken by Athens and settled on Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
Photo of the location of Ancient Sparta

The Site where Ancient Sparta used to Stand. Situated on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese, Greece. Photo by Ronny Siegel, 2013.

Spartan treatment of Helots improved overtime, perhaps as a means of appeasing them. For instance, Helots could hope to be emancipated, and it is known that groups of Helots were sometimes liberated. Nevertheless, the system collapsed in the 4 th century BC. In 371 BC, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The victorious Thebans then invaded the Peloponnese, and the Helots of Messenia were liberated. The last Helots (the Helots of Laconia) were emancipated at the end of the 3 rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.