In This Chapter
Arrian discusses the scale of Thebes’ defeat
Arrian lists three reasons why the defeat of Thebes ‘shocked the rest of Greece’ as well as those involved:
- The size of the city
- The ‘sudden violence’ of the Macedonian attack
- The unexpectedness of the attack to both conquerors and defeated
Arrian compares the defeat of Thebes to a number of other military disasters, and explains why they were not as shocking:
- Athens’ defeat in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War (431-404). The massacre of thousands of men was a disaster for Athens but It Wasn’t As Bad As Thebes because it happened ‘far from home’ and involved mainly allied troops rather than citizen soldiers. The city of Athens itself was unaffected.
- Athens’ defeat at Aegosptami (405). Although this defeat led to the city’s ultimate defeat in the Peloponnesian War, IWABAT because only the Athenian fleet was destroyed. Yes, the city suffered damage in consequence but this was restricted to (a) ‘the demolition of the Long Walls’, (b) the surrender of the rest of the fleet and (c) the loss of their empire. Athens herself survived and quickly rebuilt.
- Sparta’s defeats at Leuctra (371) and Mantinea (362). Arrian describes these as shocking defeats for Sparta but only because they were unexpected, not on account of the numbers killed – therefore, IWABAT
- The Boeotian and Arcadian assault on Sparta under Epaminondas (370/69). As with (3), this was a shock because of its unexpectedness rather than on account of its its scale – therefore, IWABAT
- Sparta’s capture of Plataea (427). This, Arrian says, was ‘no great calamity’ because the city was not a big one and only a limited number of people were captured (the notes to my copy of Arrian say that 200 Plataeans were executed)
- Athens’ capture of Melos (416) and Scione (421). The capture of both these cities lead to a massacre of the defeated people. However, this WABAT because it was ‘more a source of shame to the perpetrators than any great surprise to the Greek world in general’.
In contrast, the following made Thebes’ defeat worse:
- The ‘impetuous irrationality of the revolt’
- The speed of the city’s defeat
- The general massacre that took place during the battle
- The ‘total enslavement’ of the populace
All this was so bad that Thebes’ defeat was put down to ‘divine anger’ – The city was paying the price for past betrayals; namely,
- of the Greeks during the Graeco-Persian War
- for its capture of Plataea ‘at a time of truce’
- … and enslavement of the Plataean people
- for the destruction of the battlefield where Persia had been defeated once and for all
- for voting to destroy Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War
Alexander did not decide Thebes’ ultimate fate himself. Instead, he left it to his allies. Naturally, having been the victims of Thebes in the past, they were not kind in their judgement. It was decided (a) to raze the city, (b) to parcel the land out among themselves, (c) to garrison the Cadmea (to prevent any attack on the new land owners?) (d) to put the population into slavery, and finally (e) to rebuild Orchomenus and Plataea, both of which had been destroyed by Thebes.
Alexander rubber stamped the allies decision, although he did exempt Pindar’s house from destruction and exempted priests and priestesses, ‘guest-friends’ of his father, and any Theban who had lobbied on behalf of Macedon in the city from being enslaved.
Why was the Macedonian attack unexpected? Well, remember that as Arrian has it, Alexander did not immediately attack the city upon his arrival. He wanted the Thebans to come to their senses. The attack only began after Perdiccas’ unauthorised assault on the palisades. This, of course, may be what happened in Ptolemy’s propaganda rather than in real life.
I said above that Alexander did not decide Thebes’ fate. It could not have suffered so grievously, however, without his approval, even if it was only implicitly given. Is he to be condemned for allowing Thebes to be destroyed? Well, even in antiquity, the destruction of Thebes was regarded as an atrocity.
The destruction of Thebes was no doubt intended to send a very harsh message to the rest of Greece – revolt at your peril – but in this it was not successful. Four years later, Sparta rose up against Macedon at the Battle of Megalopolis and in 322, following Alexander’s death the year before, Athens tried to win its freedom at the Battle of Crannon.