Thebes (Egypt)

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Type of Government

The Greek city of Thebes was notable for its participation in the Boeotian League, a regional confederacy of sovereign city-states that developed a system of federal governance comprising an elective executive board of boeotarchs (ministers or generals) and a 660-member federal council. Later in its history, the league was reconstituted as a more democratic organ made up of an elective executive body and a deliberative assembly whose membership was open to all Boeotians.


Thebes was the major city of the region known as Boeotia, located northwest of Athens, and one of the major powers of ancient Greece. Originally a Mycenaean city (destroyed just before the Trojan War, in the thirteenth or twelfth century BC), Thebes was settled as early as 1000 BC by Boeotian settlers, who quickly established it as the area’s most important city.

In approximately 550 BC Thebes spearheaded the formation of the Boeotian League, a regional confederacy of sovereign city-states that also included the major towns of Orchomenus, Plataea, and Thespiae. The league’s history was checkered by conflict between Thebes and the other city-states of the region. Thebes had great political ambitions, hoping to establish itself as a Greek superpower, but was thwarted by the resistance of the smaller Boeotian cities and by the interference of the Athenians, who encouraged discord among the Boeotians. Ultimately, the Boeotian League was limited to a loose confederation rather than a true federal government.

Thebes’s history was also marked by an unfortunate habit of choosing the wrong side in battle. During the Persian Wars (492–449 BC), the Boeotians sided with Persia against Athens, a choice for which they were severely punished when the Athenians triumphed. Likewise, during the Peloponnesian Wars (460–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, Thebes initially sided with Sparta but later withdrew its support; after the Spartans crushed the Athenians in 404 BC, they set up a garrison in Thebes.

In 371 BC the Theban general Epaminondas (c. 410–362 BC) defeated the Spartan forces at the battle of Leuctra, effectively ending the Spartans’ supremacy in the region. Thebes enjoyed a short-lived period of dominance in the Greek world—known as the Theban hegemony—from 371 to 362 BC, during which time it was the chief military power in Greece.

Government Structure

The main political contribution of the Thebans was the development of a system of federal governance achieved by the Boeotian League. The league was organized into eleven districts, each representing one or more cities. Each district elected a boeotarch, who served on a board of officers assigned to carry out executive functions. Each district also sent sixty representatives to a federal council located at Thebes. This council of 660 was further divided into four panels that convened for one year. Only members of the landowning class were permitted to vote. Thebes accounted for four of the eleven districts during this time.

After 379 BC the Boeotian League was reconstituted in a more democratic form. The vote was extended to all Boeotians, regardless of property, who convened at an assembly in Thebes. The assembly decided matters of public policy. By this time, the league comprised only seven districts—three controlled by Thebes—each of which elected a representative to serve on an executive body accountable to the assembly.

Political Parties and Factions

Internally, the Theban city-state was controlled by a powerful landowning class. At some point, the qualifications of birth (based on nobility) gave way to wealth, particularly wealth derived from the breeding and selling of pigs, for which the region was known. The aristocracy was chiefly concerned with preserving the system of property rights and the transmission of property.

Major Events

Two significant events bookend the period of Theban hegemony (371–362 BC). In 371 BC the Boeotian army, led by Epaminondas and allied with the Athenians, defeated the Spartan forces that had invaded Thebes, leaving more than a thousand Spartans dead at Leuctra. The battle ended Sparta’s reign as a superpower and established Thebes as Greece’s chief military power.

Thebes’s short-lived supremacy ended less than a decade later when Epaminondas, having led successful campaigns in the Peloponnese between 370 and 362 BC, was killed in the battle of Mantinea against Athens, Sparta, and their allies.


Following its defeat at Mantinea in 362 BC, Thebes’s influence in the Greek world declined significantly. It again found itself on the losing side of an important battle in 338 BC, when Thebes and Athens confronted the Macedonian forces of Philip II (382–336 BC), losing at the Boeotian city of Chaeronea. When the Thebans revolted two years later upon Philip’s death, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) attacked and destroyed the city. Even though the city was later rebuilt, it never returned to its former glory.

Thebes is remembered for its rich mythological tradition. The city was home to the mythical king Oedipus, and it was the setting of many ancient Greek dramas, including Sophocles’s (c. 496–406 BC) Oedipus Rex and Antigone and Aeschylus’s (525–456 BC) Seven against Thebes .

Buck, Robert J. Boiotia and the Boiotian League, 432–371 BC . Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press, 1994.

Buckler, John. The Theban Hegemony, 371–362 BC . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Tritle, Lawrence A. The Greek World in the Fourth Century: From the Fall of the Athenian Empire to the Successors of Alexander . New York: Routledge, 1997.

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THEBES , ancient city in Upper *Egypt. A provincial backwater during the Old Kingdom, the small town of Wase rose to national prominence as the city of the 11th-Dynasty kings who founded the Middle Kingdom (c. 2134–1786 b.c.e.). The cult of the god Amun (biblical, *Amon) took root and flourished there after its introduction by succeeding kings of the 12th Dynasty, although they transferred their own residence to the north. At the outset of the 18th Dynasty (c. 1575) and, simultaneously, of the Egyptian Empire, the city became an international metropolis and Amun became the most important deity in the Egyptian pantheon. Amun granted victory to the pharaohs of the New Kingdom, and in gratitude they built splendid temples to him. When the Greeks first visited the city, its numerous temples and palaces so reminded them of their own storied "Thebes of the Hundred Gates" that they bestowed that name on the Egyptian city. To the Egyptians, however, from the New Kingdom on, Thebes was called either Wase, or more frequently simply "the City" (niwe) or "the City of Amun" (niwe Amun) whence the biblical No (Jer. 46:25 and Ezek. 30:14–16) and No-Amon (Nah. 3:8). The brutal sacking of this city by the Assyrians in 663 b.c.e. made such an impression that 50 years later, likening the forthcoming fate of Nineveh to it, the prophet Nahum (3:810) declared "Are you better than No-Amon that was situated among the rivers, that had the waters around her?… Cush and Egypt were her strength, and it was infinite;… Yet was she carried away."


A.H. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, 2 (1947), 24ff.; C.F. Nims, Thebes of the Pharaohs (1965).

[Alan Richard Schulman]

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Thebes1 the Greek name for an ancient city of Upper Egypt, whose ruins are situated on the Nile about 675 km (420 miles) south of Cairo. It was the capital of ancient Egypt under the 18th dynasty (c.1550–1290 bc) and is the site of the major temples of Luxor and Karnak. Its monuments (on both banks of the Nile) were the richest in the land, with the town on the east bank and the necropolis, with tombs of royalty and nobles, on the west bank. It was already a tourist attraction in the 2nd century ad.
Theban Legion a Roman legion recruited near Thebes in Egypt and composed solely of Christians; with their leader, the soldier saint St Maurice, they are said to have been massacred c.287 when during an expedition against the Gauls, the emperor Maximian commanded his army to sacrifice to the gods for success. When the Theban Legion refused to obey, they were first decimated, and then massacred.

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Thebes City-state of ancient Greece, the dominant power in Boeotia. It allied with Persia during the Persian Wars, and during the 5th century bc was continually in conflict with Athens. It reached the peak of its power under Epaminondas in the 4th century bc, defeating the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 bc, and invading the Peloponnese. In 336 bc, the city was largely destroyed after a rising against Alexander the Great.

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Thebes2 a city in Greece, in Boeotia, north-west of Athens, traditionally founded by Cadmus and the seat of the legendary king Oedipus, Thebes became a major military power in Greece following the defeat of the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra in 371 bc. It was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 bc.

The Greek poet Pindar (c.518–c.438 bc) was born in Thebes, and from this is known as the Theban bard and the Theban eagle.

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THEBES , city in E. central Greece. Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th-century traveler, found 2,000 Jews in Thebes. They worked in silk dyeing. The city was renowned throughout Greece for these artisans and for its weaving mills. Judah Al-Ḥarizi, who visited the city in 1218, mentions the poet, Michael b. Caleb, a native of Thebes. The community was led by five officials (ephori) and was famous for its scholars. Jewish tombstones of the 14th–16th centuries have been discovered there. In 1613 anti-Jewish agitation took place in the city. During the 17th century an agreement was reached not to wear silken clothes for seven years in order to prevent the jealousy of the gentiles. As a result of the Greek rebellions against the Turks during the 18th century, the Jewish community was destroyed.


Andréades, in: Economic History, Supplement, 3 (1934–37), 1–23.

[Simon Marcus]

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Thebes Greek name for the ancient capital of Upper Egypt, roughly corresponding to the present-day town of Luxor.

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ThebesBabs, dribs and drabs •Thebes •Gibbs, Hibs •vibes • Hobbs • Forbes • Stubbs •Jacobs • Proverbs

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