(p. C12) Mr. Cartledge, a professor emeritus at Cambridge and author of popular history books such as “The Spartans,” “Thermopylae,” “Alexander the Great” and “Democracy: A Life,” has picked an opportune time to look afresh at Thebes and Boeotia. The modern city of Thebes, an uninspiring market town, would not normally attract tourists, but is home to a glittering new museum, among the most up-to-date in Greece, featuring exhibits of archaeological finds (many unique in type) and historical objects from prehistory to the present. (One exhibit is titled, provocatively, “The Intellectual Radiance of Boeotia.”) There is a book forthcoming, from scholar James Romm, about Thebes’s “Sacred Band,” its elite unit of soldiers, made up of pairs of devoted homosexual lovers. Thebes is in the spotlight.
. . .
The biography of the Theban leader Epaminondas (418 B.C.-362 B.C.) written by Plutarch is, unfortunately, lost. Even so, his reputation shines. Admired by figures from Cicero and Montaigne to Sir Walter Raleigh (who called him “the worthiest man that ever was bred by the nation of Greece”), Epaminondas seems to have had a philosophical bent as well as a brilliant military mind.
. . .
Perhaps his greatest act, . . ., even if it might have been intended more to inconvenience the Spartans than as a benevolent deed, was freeing the helots of Messenia, a people that had been enslaved by the Spartans for 300 years. He helped found a new capital city for the Arcadian federation (Megalopolis), and also for the ex-helots (Messene). Maybe Epaminondas was not only the Nelson of his age, but the Lincoln as well. He died in battle and was buried alongside his male beloved, Caphisodorus, with an epitaph that listed his children (daughters, being female) as the cities Messene and Megalopolis; it ended “Greece is free.”
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—the “united states” of Boeotia, for instance, shared a currency. 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.
For the full review, see:
A.E. Stallings. “Greece’s Mythic Heartland.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 12, 2020): C12.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sep. 11, 2020, and has the title “‘Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece’ Review: Mythic Roots.”)
The book under review is:
Cartledge, Paul. Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece. New York: Abrams Press, 2020.