Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.10.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.10.32

Daniel W. Berman, Myth, Literature, and the Creation of the Topography of Thebes.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. x, 190.  ISBN 9781107077362.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Angela Ganter, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (


The author’s program of “exploring representations of a topography that lies at this juncture of the real and imagined city” (p. 2), fits into established traditions in both philological quiry, as well as those concerned with mapping socially inflected geographical space, the so-called spatial turn. The theories of Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja, and Yi Fu Tuan that Berman presents in the introduction are, of course, only a few of the many that could be deployed here. From a European point of view, the debates about “Erinnerungskulturen”, i.e. the discussions on the formation of memory attached to specific monuments and places, also contribute to our understanding of how social self-consciousness may be formed in given societies.1 Nevertheless, Berman should not be criticised for not having written a historical study of these ideas, for he is not a historian but a philologist, presenting the sources he considers to be state-of-the-art according to his own formation as a scholar. Having worked on related subjects for years, he really knows the material he is writing about.2

Berman is aware of the fact that there “have been studies by classicists and archaeologists that have recognized the importance of the intersection of real and imagined space” (p. 2). And he discusses important studies on Thebes and Boiotia concerned with topography and space (pp. 8-11). Yet, his own attempt to describe the interrelations of social reality and physical space with a view to a single city is not entirely new.3 What is new, however, is the extensive discussion of the main available literary sources that tackle topographical aspects of Thebes both as a real city and/or, as a mythical town. Hence the philological turn: Berman describes the characteristics of every kind of text in question, as well as their interrelations.

After introducing the main theories and scholarly literature on which the book relies, the first part gives an overview of the main archaeological features of the city of Thebes: boundaries and names, natural landmarks, and man-made structures like walls, graves, and buildings (“Introduction: Constructing a city”, pp. 1-26). There follows a discussion of sources mentioning, or not mentioning, topographical aspects of Thebes, chronologically organised by types of texts. A first chapter is dedicated to Thebes in epic (“Epic Thebes”, pp. 27-48), a second to Thebes in lyric sources (“Lyric Thebes”, pp. 49-74), a third to Thebes in Attic drama (“Thebes on stage”, pp. 75-121), and a fourth to Thebes in the surviving poetry of the Hellenistic period (“Thebes of the library”, pp. 122-140). The fifth chapter (“The creation of Theban topography”, pp. 141-159) summarizes the previous ones and discusses the evidence in Pausanias. Appendices to “The plain(s) of Thebes” (pp. 160-161), “The walls and gates of Thebes” (pp. 162-175, including six maps), “Pindar’s house” (pp. 176-177), a bibliography (“References”, pp. 178-184), an “Index locorum” (pp. 185-187), and a “General index” (pp. 188-190) complete the monograph.

“Epic Thebes” (Chapter 1, pp. 27-48) refers to the city represented in Homer and Hesiod, the Thebaid and the Epigoni. A comparison between Iliadic Troy and epic Thebes (pp. 36-41) illustrates what Homeric Thebes essentially was: “the mythic archetype of Troy”, or “a model for Troy” (p. 41): “Aside from the idiosyncratic and singular detail of its seven gates (...), Thebes is, in essence, Troy: a rich, fortified city under attack by a powerful foreign army” (p. 45). This constructed, ascribed epic topography was then influential for the perception of Thebes during the centuries to come.

According to Berman, “Lyric Thebes” (Chapter 2, pp. 49-74) is still epic Thebes, but now inhabited by Pindar, or Corinna, and their contemporaries. The chapter begins with non-Boeotian lyric by Stesichoros and Bacchylides, which, in contrast to epic Thebes, focuses more on internal features like the palace of Cadmus, where the encounter of Dionysos and Semele took place. It then proceeds to Pindar and finally to Corinna, whom Berman dates to the fourth century B.C. The local colouring distinguishes their poetry from archaic lyric representations. By using the waterways Dirce and Ismenus metonymically for the city as a whole, by referring to the sanctuary of Apollon Ismenios as a place of myths and as the place where his songs were performed, by commemorating the deeds of Heracles and his sons, and by attaching them to the shrine of Heracles in the south of the Cadmeia, where sacrifices and games took place, Pindar “uses points on the Theban landscape, usually connected to monuments for heroes, to anchor his poetry in the here-and-now of its performance, and even alludes to a place of performance and connects it, through myths about it, to the internal contexts of his poetry” (p. 73).

“Thebes on stage” (pp. 75-121), by contrast, confronts the reader with a distinctly Athenian perspective on the city, an “anti-Athens” (drawing on the ideas of F. Zeitlin, p. 75). From its “Gates and walls” (pp. 77-91), “Springs, rivers, and the natural landscape” (pp. 91-98), from the “City of heroes and heroines” (pp. 98-105), the “City of gods” (pp. 105-113) to “The Theban chora in tragedy: a city and its hinterland” (pp. 113-120), with the rivers Dirce and Ismenus as metonyms for the urban center of Thebes, the river Asopus and mount Cithaeron as metonyms for the city’s territorial boundaries, dramatic Thebes “is constructed (...) by Athenians, inhabited by heroes, populated by the Athenian imagination” (p. 120), “a convenient place for an Athenian to imagine himself, but (...) not (...) an easy place to map” (p. 121).

The title of the fourth chapter, “Thebes of the library” (pp. 122-140), alludes to the observation that representations in texts of Alexandrian poets are mostly references to the city in earlier poetic representations. Accordingly, e.g., Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos is read with a view to the Homeric Hymn of Pythian Apollo (pp. 123-128), and the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes with a view to the Odyssey (pp. 130-136).

The last chapter (“The creation of Theban topography”, pp. 141-159) concentrates on the description by Pausanias, labelled “Thebes for the tourist” (p. 142). It is understood as a résumé of all the topographical characteristics present in earlier poetic representations of the city. Starting from “Natural and traditional topography” (pp. 144-149), Berman continues his discussions with the fortifications (pp. 149-152), and “Places of heroes and gods” (pp. 152-157). Finally, Berman stresses once more his central thesis: that Thebes was, despite its character as a “real” city, whose remnants are to be seen at least fragmentarily even nowadays, first and foremost a constructed place. To say it in his own words: “True continuity (...) comes most profoundly in the very presence of rich and varied narratives set in and around Thebes. The centrality of the city of Cadmus as a location of myth supersedes and overcomes the inconsistencies, destructions, and creations present in the representation of its topography” (p. 159).

Myths, literature, and poetry supersede the destructive force of wars and earthquakes: a wonderful conclusion for everyone believing in the force of story-telling. This straightforwardly source-based, sometimes repetitive, but admirably detailed philological study provides a trustworthy, useful tool for scholars working on Boeotian Thebes with a view to topographical aspects as represented in ancient texts.


1.   Influential books, to cite but a few, were: P. Nora (ed.), Les Lieux de Mémoire 1. La République, Paris 1984; J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München2 1997 (first published 1992).
2.   D. W. Berman, Myth and Culture in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (Filologia e Critica 95), Rome 2007. Articles: “'Seven-Gated' Thebes and Narrative Topography in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes”, QUCC 71 (2002) 73-100; “The Double Foundation of Boiotian Thebes”, TAPA 134 (2004) 1-22; “Dirce at Thebes”, Greece & Rome 54 (2007) 18-39; “Greek Thebes in the Early Mythographic Tradition”, in: S. M. Trzaskoma, R. Scott Smith (edd.), Writing Myth: Mythography in the Ancient World (Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion 4), Leuven; Paris; Walpole MA 2013, 37-54.
3.   The chapter “Mythos und Raum. Theben als Erinnerungslandschaft” (pp. 199-256), part of a recent monograph on Thebes and Boeotia (A. Kühr, Als Kadmos nach Boiotien kam. Polis und Ethnos im Spiegel thebanischer Gründungsmythen, Hermes Einzelschriften 98, Stuttgart 2006), apparently escaped the author’s attention.

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