The antiquities of the once so famous Thebes are scarce and scattered throughout the modern city. In ancient times, Thebes played a major role especially in the Mycenaean period and in the classical and post-classical period as an ally/rival of Sparta and during the short-lived development of power under Epameinondas. Unfortunately, Alexander the Great found it necessary to level the city to the ground and sell the people into slavery. And although through the Macedonians soon rebuilt, the city would no longer be a shadow of its former self. In the time of Pausanias, only the Kadmeia was still inhabited and the suburb had been reduced to rubble. The modern visitor will only encounter few remains of the ancient city. The map (top right) therefore has the necessary question marks. Thebes plays a leading role in Greek mythology. For example, the city was founded by the heros Kadmos from Phenicia, who was looking for his sister Europe (kidnapped by Zeus). The demigods Amphion and Zethes have walled the lower town; the tragedies about Oedipous and Antigone, as well as the Seven against Thebes, take place here; Thebes was known as the city of Herakles; after all, Thebes is still known as the birthplace of the god Dionysos, etc.
The large archaeological museum is an absolute must for anyone interested in ancient times. It has a very wide collection of material from the city itself and the entire region of Boiotia.


Photos above: The Frankish tower of Thebes, the hill with the sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios and its sparse remains, under a huge Mykene chamber tomb and (from the air) remains of the Elektra gate (no. 1 on the map).

The oldest settlement lay on the later acropolis, the Kadmeia, or: the city of Kadmos. Since this hill is still the center of the modern city, only emergency-excavations have been carried out here, nevertheless they reveal a wealth of material, and make clear that Thebes was one of the two major urban centers in Mycenaean times. In Linear B texts from 1300-1200 BC. from the Kadmeia there are many names of villages and towns that we also know from Homer and Pausanias, and which would sometimes still be important in the classical period. These texts can now be seen in the museum, as well as (strongly fragmentary) fresco’s from the palace. An extraordinarily beautiful frieze shows us a series of (life-size) women who offer sacrifices, as scenes from foreigners who come to present their tribute often appear on contemporary fresco’s in Egypt. It is clear that the Theban rulers did not want to be inferior to the Egyptians.

Thebes in mythologie

Kadmos and the foundation of Thebes

Kadmos was the son of a king of Phoenicia who, on the orders of his father, had traveled with a large group of followers to Greece in search of his kidnapped sister Europe. After a long – but futile – quest, he consulted the oracle in Delphi, which advised him to give up the search and found a city. The place where he had to found that city would be shown to him by a wandering cow. Where this beast lay down, he had to found his city. Unfortunately for Kadmos, his newly founded city, Kadmeia, remained uninhabited. Therefore, Kadmos killed the snake/dragon that guarded the main source, and sowed its teeth in the ground. From this grew the heavily armed Spartoi (“the Sown”), the oldest inhabitants of Thebes and the ancestors of the later noble families of Thebes.

The city was completed by the Spartoi twins Amphion and Zethos, who built the walls of the Kadmeia and enlarged the city by also using the area at the foot of the acropolis. This enlarged settlement was named Thebes, after Zethos’ wife.


Dirce’s death

Dirce was the wife of King Lycus of Thebes, and the aunt of Antiope. When Zeus (disguised as satyr) impregnated Antiope, Antiope fled in embarrassment to the court of Epopeus in Sikyon. Lycus gathered his army and went up to Sikyon to get her back, taking her back to the city against her will. On the way, however, she gave birth to the twins Amphion and Zethos, which she left in a cave with a shepherd. Dirce hated Antiope, and ill-treated her from the moment the king gave her to Dirce. Eventually Antiope escaped her plague and fled to the cave of her two sons, who had grown into powerful young men. These refused to believe and acknowledge her as a mother until Dirce arrived at the cave and demanded the woman to kill her cruelly. The newly returned shepherd convinced the boys that Antiope was telling the truth, then grabbed the cruel Dirce and attached her to the horns of a ferocious bull. This animal dragged the unfortunate Dirce along and completely trampled her. The god Dionysus, who was worshiped by Dirce, created a well where Dirce died, while the highest magistrate of Thebes (the hipparch) took his oath at her grave. The main depictions of this myth are currently in Naples, where the local museum is home to both a splendid fresco from Pompei and a huge sculpture group created for the bathhouse of Caracalla in Rome after a Greek Hellenistic original from the second century BC.



Amphion and Niobe

Amphion and Zethos ruled Thebes for some time, according to Pausanias, while Amphion confirmed the lower town of Thebes by playing on his lyre. He did this so well that it attracted boulders  in the area and piled up by themselvesto a wall. In addition, Amphion was considered the husband of the unfortunate Niobe, who overcame the wrath of Apollo and Artemis by bragging about fourteen children to Leto’s twins. Convinced that she earned more veneration than Leto, she was guilty of hybris (pride), after which Apollo and Artemis, Leto’s twins, shot all her children (= died of the plague).

The myth discussed here was linked in Asia Minor to a particular rock, which should be the fossilized Niobe, and sometimes it is still even crying .


Amphion and Zethos, who chased Lycus and founded the lower town of Thebes, played only a temporary role in mythology. As a small child, Laios was smuggled out of the palace when Amphion and Zethos took power. After the pityful death of the children of Amphion and Niobe, Laios returned to Thebes and took power again. Unfortunately, Laios was not lucky either: when he had fathered a son with his wife Iokaste, the oracle told him that this boy would eventually kill him and marry his own mother. The tragic fate of Oedipous and his family resulted in stories elaborated in the Greek tragedy.


Left: Oedipous sticked his own eyes out after seeing how his own wife (and mother!) committed suicide when she realized she was married to her son, who was also the murderer of her first husband.