BMCR 2002.08.29

Presenza e Funzione della Città di Tebe nella Cultura Greca. Atti del Convegno Internazionale (Urbino 7-9 Iuglio 1997)

, , Presenza e funzione della città di Tebe nella cultura greca : atti del convegno internazionale, Urbino, 7-9 luglio 1997. Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica. Atti di convegni ; 7. Pisa, Roma: Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 2000. 378 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8881471981. EUR 46.00 (pb).

Bernardini’s edited volume contains seventeen articles relating to the Greek (not Roman) cultural, political, and literary history of Thebes. These represent the results of a conference held in Urbino in July 1997, under the auspices of Bruno Gentili’s Centro Internazionale di Studi sulla Cultura Greca Antica. The volume contains an interesting collection on a topic of unfailing fascination, though not one that could ever be described as suffering from neglect. A number of contributions in this book also feature in the well known “International Boeotian Antiquities” conference, which held its tenth meeting last year in, I believe, Montreal.

Bernardini’s volume is divided into seven sections: Mycenaean Thebes (2 papers), Myth and Ritual (3 papers), Epic and Archaic Lyric (3 papers), Theatre (4 papers), Hellenistic Poetry (1 paper), Iconography (1 paper), and History (3 papers). In the paragraphs to follow I will attempt to give some indication of the contents of the various papers within this diverse collection. Such paraphrase can, I realize, be tedious. But, as this book is not liable to make its way into a large number of libraries, let alone private ones, that may be useful.

Mycenaean Thebes has Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi (“Tebe, Demetra, ed Eleusi”) offer a reexamination of the Linear B tablets (250 in all) unearthed in the ancient palace of Cadmus by Vassilis Aravantinos (see the next article). They argue that these tablets indicate cult activity dedicated to Demeter, Zeus protector of crops, and to Kore. The cult, furthermore, seems to have attracted individuals (male and female) from Thebes, Boeotia, and Greece generally, while its ritual activities suggest parallels with Eleusis. Godart and Sacconi speculate that the roots of the Eleusinian cults can be traced back to Mycenaean Thebes. Vassilis L. Aravantinos (the current archaeological superintendent of Thebes), in his “Le scoperte archeologiche ed epigrafiche micenee a Tebe: un bilancio riassuntivo di un quinquennio (1993-97) di scavi”, broadens the archaeological context from which Godart’s and Sacconi’s evidence was drawn. Aravantinos looks at three categories of discovery from Thebes during the years 1993-1997 that relate to the period 1400-1200 BCE: (1) Linear B documents (see Godart and Sacconi), (2) a group of decorated ivories, (3) new work on the Mycenaean fortification wall in the Cadmeia.

André Hurst’s “Bâtir les murailles de Thèbes” is the first of the three articles on “Myth and Ritual”. He suggests that the establishment of Thebes’ walls represents or acts as an exemplar of the universal process of establishing walls and of marking out territory. Hurst surveys the evidence for this “universal” process in myth elsewhere. He suggests that Thebes’ seven gates have a parallel in the pestilential attack in Accadian literature of the seven infernal gods (compare Cingano’s article mentioned below for another treatment of this theme) and that this allows the walls to represent, metaphorically, a body. Hurst draws other conclusions. Wooden walls are in some way more primeval. Thebes began with these, according to Lycophron. According to Arrian the breaching of wooden walls presaged Thebes’ destruction. Alexander’s destruction of Thebes in some sense returns to the moment before Amphion and Zethus established the city proper with stone walls. Maria Rocchi, perhaps less portentously but in a more dense and sometimes a more obscure article (“Galinthias/ Gale e la nascità di Herakles a Tebe”), wonders why the weasel and the mythical figure Galinthias (transformed into a weasel, a gale, for hastening the birth of Heracles) was associated with Heracles’ birth and worshipped in related rites at Thebes. Albert Schachter, in his “The Daphnephoria of Thebes”, reconstructs the historical development of the Daphnephoria. He notes that it was a spring festival designed to assert territorial ownership. It seems to have faded in significance in the fourth century only to be revived under the Roman empire.

Ettore Cingano’s long and complex article (“Tradizioni su Tebe nell’epica e nella lirica greca arcaica”) considers the paucity of traces of the Theban mythological tradition in archaic Greek epic and lyric. (This is the first of the three papers in the section “Epic and Archaic Lyric”.) Cingano examines the evidence for such traces in the Iliadic catalogue, in the Cypria in designations such as Thebes “of the seven gates”, within the context of Burkert’s theory concerning the Oriental/Near Eastern origins of the story of the Seven against Thebes (see Hurst above), in Pindar, and in Corinna. Cingano stresses, unless I misunderstand him, that there is little convincing evidence for such a tradition.

Pietro Giannini, “Le antiche tradizioni tebane negli epinici di Pindaro”, looks, in paraphrastic fashion, at Pindar’s version of the mythical history of Thebes, particularly as it is made evident in Isthmian 7.3-15. He examines, amongst other things, traces in the epinicians of the legend of the nymph Thebe, of Cadmus and his family, of Heracles and Iolaus, of Oedipus and his family, of Melia and of the Aegidae. He notes that Theban Pindar seems deliberately to avoid mention of Oedipus and his immediate family. Roberta Sevieri, again in a rather paraphrastic fashion (“Cantare la città: tempo mitico e spazio urbano nell’ Istmica 7 di Pindaro per Strepsiade di Tebe”), also surveys the mythical background of Thebes, particularly as in the introduction to Isthmian 7, and how this is blended into the reality of the city to satisfy both the expectation of the city at large and the requests of the victor. Her particular concern is with Theban myth as a eulogistic component of Isthmian 7. Sevieri concludes, perhaps not unsurprisingly, that links between the mythological references in the poem’s introduction, the reality of the victor’s family, and the victor’s triumph suggest a dependence of the human on the divine as well as a continuity between the past and the present (for which the victory itself is a fulcrum). Sevieri also notes that the city itself becomes a protagonist in the poem and thus, I take it, provides another link between the mythical past and the victor, his family, and his victory.

Three of the four articles on “Theatre” hone in on Euripides, two on the Heracles, one on the Supplices. The fourth focuses on Sophocles. Two of the Euripidean pieces aim in part or in whole to modify Froma Zeitlin’s influential interpretation of Thebes as a kind of an anti-Athens.1

Paola Angeli Bernardini’s “La città di Tebe nell’ Eracle di Euripide” maintains that the portrait of Thebes in Euripides’ Heracles is more complex, varied, and rounded than is normally allowed. (The vision of Athens offered at the end of the play, through the person of Theseus, is usually said to reflect badly on Thebes.) There is a polyvalence about the way the city is presented in Euripides’ play (treacherous as well as faithful, rebellious as well as protective) that has its mirror in the characterization of Heracles in Euripides’ play. Heracles is Theban, pan-Hellenic, and an adopted Athenian, a favorite of the gods and an object of their hatred, a hero welcomed into his own birth city but thence eventually exiled. In a different, though conceptually comparable manner, Giovanni Cerri (“L’etica di Simonide nell’ Eracle di Euripide: l’opposizione mitica Atene-Tebe”) argues that Zeitlin’s interpretation of Thebes as a type of an anti-Athens, especially as it is applied to Euripides’ Heracles, is monochromatic. In myth Thebes had a richer cycle than did Athens and one inherently more dramatic than that of Athens — hence its prominence. Cerri argues that rather than being an anti-Athens, dramatic Thebes embodies problems of contemporary Athens. So, in the Heracles, the heroic-aristocratic inadequacies of Heracles are to be contrasted implicitly with the more democratic recommendations for and understanding of the agathos, as Simonides portrays him in the “Encomium to Scopas” fragment. Thus Euripides highlights a debate of profound relevance for Athens (rather than, necessarily, for Thebes).

The third of the Euripidean pieces is by Laura Pepe and is entitled “L’agone tra Teseo e l’araldo tebano nelle Supplici di Euripide: tirannide nel presente di Euripide”. Like Catenacci (mentioned next) Pepe looks to history for interpretative assistance. Pepe examines the contraposed and famous views of the Theban herald and Theseus in Euripides’ Supplices 381ff. and discusses the modes by which these opposed ideologies (an aristocratic, oligarchic one contrasted with the democratic Athenian one) may reflect contemporary history. Carmine Catenacci, concludes the “Theatre” section and reaffirms (in “Edipo in Sofocle e le Storie di Erodoto”) the often argued link between Sophocles and Herodotus, specifically between the representation of the Labdacids in Sophocles and the Cypselids in Herodotus. Parallels are then drawn between the story of Periander (and his mother) as told to us by Herodotus and that of Sophocles’ Oedipus (and his).

“Hellenistic Poetry” has but one exemplar, Claude Calame’s “Une légende thébaine vue d’Alexandrie: Tirésias et Athéna dans l’Hymne au bain de Pallas de Callimaque“. Calame points out that having Athena the agent responsible for Teiresias’ blindness presents an unusual mythological version. It is the one given to us by Callimachus, and its origin seems to be Pherecydes. This Boeotian legend of Teiresias “transforms an Argive ritual of a purely mimetic type into one that is reflective of the power of speech and poetic ability”. The poem’s version of this Boeotian legend becomes a kind of a poetic manifesto — emphasized in particular through the role in the poem of Mt. Helicon and the Muses.

“Iconography” too has a sole representative, Ingrid Krauskopf’s very informative and generously illustrated “I miti tebani nell’iconographia di altre regioni greche”. This article provides a fascinating overview of the representation of Theban myths in non-Theban art. Krauskopf notes that while Boeotian art itself offers few representations of specifically Theban myths, this is not the case in other regions. Down until the end of the fifth century, the representations of Theban myth are colored by anti-Theban sentiment (the “hybris” of a Niobe, the Seven, Acteon, or the “civic weakness” of the Thebans in the face of the Sphinx). Not unsurprisingly it is only in Argos that the anti-Theban coloring of myth is toned down. Krauskopf goes on to note that in subsequent centuries the representation of Thebes becomes far less political. The city of Thebes becomes then the locus for myth relating to civic catastrophe.

The final section of the book is devoted to historical studies and is entitled, simply, “History”. It begins with John Buckler’s “A survey of Theban and Athenian Relations between 403 and 371 BC,” which concludes vigorously that “the myopia of Athenian politicians can be blamed for the collapse of Atheno-Theban relations” (p.329). The second of the three articles is Hans Beck’s “Thebes, the Boeotian League, and the ‘Rise of Federalism’ in Fourth Century Greece,” in which the author attempts to ascertain what Thebes’ impact was on federalism during the fourth century. Thebes’ policy, he indicates, was not “ideological but was subject to power politics” and accordingly capitalized on the resentment against Sparta after Leuctra. Any federalism that it encouraged, therefore, seems to have been accidental. Finally there is Denis Knoepfler’s “La loi de Daitôndas, les femmes de Thèbes et le collège des boéotarques au IV e et au III e siècle avant J.-C.” Knoepfler seems to reach three broad conclusions. First, he accepts Daitondas as the author of the law in question and suggests that it was modeled on a comparable Solonic one (the law suppressed nocturnal ceremonies, presumably to control the venues possible for women’s misdemeanors). He also suggests that Daitondas was a Theban citizen and a Boiotarch. Second, he maintains that Theban women in 370 could attend festivals. Third, he argues that there were seven Boiotarchs in contemporary Thebes and that these match the seven districts of the Boeotian League.

This is an interesting collection. It is stimulating to see non-Athenian topics given such detailed and varied treatment. It is even more stimulating to see made prominent a tradition as perplexing, pathetic, yet central to the Greek experience and Nachleben as that of Thebes and Boeotia. Regions such as Lycia and Sicily, to note but two other currently popular ones, have come in for their share of attention. Few cities and regions, however, could be said to capture the modern imagination (and collusive empathy) as readily as do Thebes and Boeotia. Bernardini’s collection goes some distance towards illustrating why.


1. Froma Zeitlin, “Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama,” in Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in its Social Context, edd. J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin, Princeton 1990, 130-67 and “Staging Dionysus between Thebes and Athens,” in Masks of Dionysus, edd. T.H. Carpenter and C.A. Faraone, Ithaca, 1993, 147-82. (See also P. Vidal-Naquet, Mythe et tragédie deux, Paris, 1989, 175-211.)