The ancient Greeks talked of several cities called Thębai (a word of unknown meaning). The first was Thebes in Greece itself. Nowhere in that land of peninsulas and islands is far from the sea, but Thebes tried to be: it lay in a plain near a marshy lake in the region called Boeotia, in the middle of a block of land called Sterea Hellas, solid Greece. Fourteen or fifteen miles away on each side are coasts, but they are on long inlets from the open sea.
Yet Thebes had some sort of connection with the Middle East: perhaps it was a traders' colony or perhaps it was a relic of a pre-Greek Mediterranean population. For the legend said that when Princess Europa was carried off from Phoenicia (Lebanon) by Zeus in the form of a magical bull, her parents sent her brothers out to search the world and not return without her; and one of them, Cadmus, founded Thebes at the spot where he gave up the search. Cadmus is surely from qadm, which in Arabic and other Semitic languages means east.
Thebes was built on a tongue of ground between two streams, running down in the Boeotian plain to the north. At its southern end was the citadel called the Cadmeia.
In the prehistoric age, Thebes and Argos seem to have been two poles of power, judging by the legends that clustered around them. Tragic king Oedipus of Thebes left twin sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who agreed to reign for alternate years, but after the first year Eteocles refused to step down. Polyneices took refuge at the court of Argos, which raised an army for him. The besiegers were led by seven champions, and the seven gates of Thebes were defended by seven champions. The defenders won, but a generation later the sons of the seven attackers returned and destroyed Thebes. Its site became abaton, no go, accursed and empty, which was why it alone contributed no contingent to the armada sent by the whole of Greece against Troy. The stories of the two sieges of Thebes were told in the Seven Against Thebes and the Epigoni or After-Born, epics in the cycle called the Thebaid, which was perhaps even older than the cycle of epics about Troy.
In historical times Thebes was reinhabited and was again a power, taking turns with Athens and Sparta in dominating the whole mosaic of Greek city-states. Its army included an elite corps called the Sacred Band, consisting of pairs of lovers. With this and the tactical genius of Epameinondas it ended the invincibility of the militaristic Spartans. But tragedy, like a stain from the old legends, ran on down through the history of Thebes. When the little Greek states tried to defy Alexander of Macedon, the rising power to the north whose successes were due to tactics learned from Epameinondas he was magnanimous toward Athens and Sparta but made a cruel example of Thebes, razing it to the ground, dividing its territory between its neighbors, and selling into slavery such of its people as survived the slaughter. So Athens and Sparta were cowed, there was an end to the age of city-states (and of democracy, which some of them had invented), Greece became a mere part of the Macedonian empire, and Alexander went on to overthrow the world's previous empire, the Persian.