Title of Assessed Work: Why did Thebes come to political prominence in the fourth century?
‘’The victory of the Thebans was the most famous of all those won by Greeks over Greeks’’1 This essay will look at the rise of Thebes to political prominence in Greece in the fourth century BC in a an analytical rather than chronological fashion, by considering both the decline of the major city states around Thebes as well as Theban advantages. It will draw on the format used by John Buckler2 by dividing the reasons for Thebes’ short hegemony (371-362 BC) into external factors including the weakening of Athens after the Peloponnesian war and the growing irrelevance of Sparta as a result of population decline and the inconclusive Corinthian war. This will be followed by a discussion of the factors that gave Thebes an edge including the excellent leadership of both Epaminondas and Pelopidas, military advantages such as the wedge shaped phalanx, and naturally the victory at Leuctra. The twenty seven years of conflict in the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC) significantly weakened the city state of Athens. Simon Hornblower argues in The Greek World 479-323 BC that if population is taken as a measure of prosperity, then Athens was clearly in decline3 as the number of Hoplites alone fell from 25,0004 to 90005. Apart from this there was the obvious economic impact of the loss of the overseas empire and cleruchies for the poor6, as well as the escape of 20,000 slaves who were skilled in handicrafts, mining and agriculture.7 The Athenians were far less influential abroad after their naval fleet, which Hornblower calls ‘’the vehicle of proselytizing democracy’’ ceased to exist in 404 BC.8 Tribute from the empire also ceased, causing a loss of 900 talents9, and tax revenue fell by 60% from over 60 talents to just 24.10 From this we can surmise that Athens was a far less potent force than before the start of the conflict, both socially and economically. Spartan high handedness after the King’s Peace of 386 BC - a settlement which ended the Corinthian War of 395-387 BC - was a key reason behind the decline of Spartan hegemony and indeed Sparta as a city. The division of Mantinea into its constituent villages11 and the invasion of the Cadmea in Thebes as well as the placement of a Spartan garrison in the city12 provoked outrage across the Greek world, ruining the Spartan image. The liberation of Thebes in 379 BC13 set the stage for a series of events which greatly weakened Sparta, including the foundation of the Athenian sea league in 378 BC14 and prompting a war of attrition between Sparta and Athens that led both to exhaustion by 375 BC.15 Another factor behind Spartan decline is the fall in its population, beginning with the earthquake of 465 BC16. There were 8000 Spartan soldiers in the Persian Wars17 but no more than 1000 by 371 BC at Leuctra18. The decline in Spartan manpower reduced the potency of the state’s formidable reputation as an invincible military force. Thebes took advantage of the conflict between Sparta and Athens by utilising the two invasion free years, 376 and 375 BC, to march on many cities in Boeotia and restore Theban supremacy in the region, establishing a new and improved Boeotian league.19 The composition of representatives was weighted to give Thebes by far the largest say in the running of the federation. There were only seven rather than eleven beotarchs, although Thebes retained its four beotarchs, giving it a majority.20 In addition to this, ultimate decisions regarding policy did not rest with a representative council but rather a primary council of some sort.21 All citizens of the Boeotian League were allowed to attend the federal Assembly meetings, which were held in Thebes, ensuring that Thebans were in the majority when decisions regarding policy were being made.22 This laid down the political groundwork for the coming Theban hegemony. The growing military power of the Boeotians was shown to all...
Bibliography: 3. S. Hornblower, The Greek World 479-323 BC, ed. Fergus Millar, Methuen & Co. Ltd. (1983)
7. P. Cartledge, Ancient Greece, Oxford University Press (2009)
11. R. Sealey, A history of the Greek States 700-338 BC, University of California Press (1997)
13. K. Atkinson, Ancient Sparta: A Re-examination of the Evidence. Manchester University Press (1952)
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