Skip to content

One For Thebes

  • by

A recent In Our Time episode, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Greek city-state of Thebes. There were a couple of points that really piqued my interest – Thebes position in the centre of Greece and its alliance with the Persians during part of the Greek-Persian Wars.

The idea of a powerful – but not the most powerful – city-state at the epicentre of an isolated socio-political region could make for some very interesting dynamics. One could well imagine such a place to be quite cosmopolitan, and Thebes reputation as the oldest of the Greek states puts it at the centre of that wheel geographically as well as culturally. Based on the general process of a city’s founding, one might presume that Thebes grew out of a trade nexus, a confluence of routes originating before the rise of the urbis. These trade routes might be supplanted, but at the iron age, without extensive river navigation, one would expect the land routes would continue to dominate and likely wouldn’t change unless there were rather massive geographical changes.

Such traffic would almost certainly enrich the city – and comments were made regarding Thebes’ wealth – and so one would have this central point, well-protected and militarily powerful with the wealth to be able to continue both, but not politically dominant.

Facing this, one has the naval leader of Athens and the army leader of Sparta. In the end, Thebes saw both of these wane and it finally gained ascendancy in time to be destroyed by Macedon. However, at the time of the Greek-Persian Wars, Thebes was a rival to Athens, and after Thermopylae – at which it fought – it sided with Persia.

So imagine your heroes as citizens or residents of this powerful city, in the middle of a massive war, siding with foreign invaders against domestic rivals and enemies. This Thebes – let’s make it a second-world or at least alt-history setting – faces conspiracies and threats from those outside its immediate orbit, and the heroes must protect the city all the while insuring that they don’t become pawns of the greater power with whom their state has sided. One can have the city ruled by a conservative, greedy oligarchy that might not always have the citizens best interests at heart, which can lead to many situation of the heroes thwarting their own leaders in order to protect the common people. Perhaps, in this setting, the Persians conquered Greece, leaving Thebes preeminent. Or perhaps the heroes can support the flourishing of democracy – whether limited or extreme – and find themselves finding the crowd might not have any wisdom.

The idea of Thebes seems very rich with inspiration to me. And just for fun, were I to run this, I’d do it overlaying the Choson aristocracy – one that downplayed the value of military prowess over diplomacy and knowledge – leaving the heroes with gradually decaying prestige, even as they may be the main reason for the state’s continued survival.

You can find that In Our Time episode here.

The title is a play on the play.