Title: Thebes - The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Author: Paul Cartledge
This is a scholarly work about the ancient Thebes that was in Greece. Being scholarly, it is boring, which isn't really a problem because even though I've read similar works that were more engaging, it is the nature of such books to be boring because the things specialists are interested in, and excited by, might not necessarily make for good story telling. For example, the author goes on at length about a vase - The Pronomos Vase - saying it is such an important archaeological find, that a university press published an entire volume about it. I looked up a picture of the vase and, well, I'm reminded of Bilbo Baggins saying he felt stretched, like too little butter on a slice of bread. I imagine the articles in that volume would be long winded pieces using too many words (where a 5 word sentence might have sufficed) and causing mental exhaustion, like this author's annoying habit of using a difficult, little known English word and its simpler synonym in brackets beside it. Alternatively, I might need to be more educated or more specialized to appreciate such a work.
The book begins with a discussion of the sources of information about the place and their veracity; its historiography (quoting the usual suspects - Homer, Herodotus, Pindar, Sophocles, Thucydides) and the origin of the name Thebes. There's no certainty about how the name came about. However, it was an important city in those days. It's founder Cadmus supposedly introduced writing to Greece, thus the other name of the Greek letters is Cadmean script. The book doesn't say why it was eclipsed by Athens, Sparta and Corinth. It was the principal city of its region of Boetia and should have had a better legacy given its unique form of government. According to the book, it was a federation of towns. It was also supposedly the originator of pederasty, and identified with Herakles, Apollo, Dionysus and surprisingly, Athena. I thought Athens had an exclusive deal with her. For most of its history, it had a rivalry with Athens and so was allied with Sparta, however, it was the city that broke Sparta's power. They defeated Sparta in 371BC at the Battle of Leuctra. However it was destroyed at least twice, with the final time by Alexander the Great.
While I didn't enjoy this book, it was a worthy read. I learnt some stuff, most importantly, Epaminondas. I never knew he had such a high reputation that a later writer called him the worthiest man to ever come from Greece. I'd known about him, but thought people like Pericles, Lycurgus, Alcibiades and Leonidas were cooler.
When I finished the book, I felt rather ignorant, because it was full of stuff that I didn't know. I read one book that gave me the same feeling last year - German Genius by Peter Watson, which I enjoyed. I didn't enjoy this, even though it is a much smaller book. However, it is recommended, for the simple reason that there's much in it I didn't know. Also, it strengthened a thought I'd had for a while - Golden Ages sucked. One of my sisters is quite religious, talking rapturously about wanting to go back in time to live in Medina during the time of the prophet because she imagines it is some sort of golden age. I think living in the past, at almost any point would have sucked - bad food, no modern amenities, genocidal wars, vastly different culture, superstition etc. Even the high point of Greek civilization, the period covered in this book up to around 350BC, was really bloody and casually cruel. I doubt the victims would appreciate the civilizational advancements that we admire now.
There is a story that one time in the 1960s, during a meeting of recently decolonized countries, Lee Kuan Yew was talking with an African head of state about academic curricula. Mr. Yew was rather shocked that the other man was talking about introducing things like Greek and Latin, rather than practical stuff like shoemaking, textiles, metallurgy and so on. A friend, seeing me reading this book, scoffed at it; asking what was the point. My concluding reason is that I was enjoying it, which was not true. Regardless, the book is recommended.