Places of Myth

38 Thebes

Oedipus, bearded with a petasos hat and chlamys cape, sits on a rock. In front of him, on a column, sits the sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a crowned human.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, red-figure kylix, ca. 460 BCE (Museo Gregoriano Estrusco, Vatican City)



In mythology, Thebes was founded by the Phoenician prince . He arrived in Greece while searching for his sister, , who had been kidnapped by Zeus and taken to Crete. The royal family of Thebes was then descended from and Harmonia, the daughter of the deities Aphrodite and Ares. The family was famously plagued by curses, murders, and vendettas. The city was known for its fortified citadel, the Cadmea, and its walls with seven gates built with magic by the demigod .


The archaeological record shows that Thebes, situated in Boeotia in central Greece, has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BCE. The city rose to prominence during the and became a powerful palatial centre. The Cadmea hill, which hosted the main religious and political buildings, was walled and fortified during this period. Thebes was affected by the Bronze Age Collapse, but recovered and established itself as one of the most prominent city-states of Greece during the and periods. After being destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE, the city was rebuilt and repopulated. The continuous occupation of the site makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the size and extension of the ancient city. The majority of the visible remains date from the and periods; however, part of the palace is still visible in the city centre.


The House of Cadmus

Family tree descending from Ares and Aphrodite (the parents of Harmonia, and Agenor/Phoenix (the father of Cadmus), down to the children of Oedipus, Jocasta, and Creon.
Family tree of the house of Cadmus

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 3 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang)

Greek mythography, 2nd century BCE

[content warning for the following source: graphic descriptions of death, self harm and suicide]
After Europa was kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a bull and brought to Crete, as a princess of the Phoenician royalty, her brothers were commanded by their father (Agenor) to find her. One of whom is Cadmus, the founder of Thebes. The following is the account of the founding of Thebes and the fate of Cadmus’ line in Pseudo-Apollodorus.

[3.4.1] When died, buried her, and after being hospitably received by the Thracians he came to to inquire about . The god told him not to worry about , but to be guided by a cow, and to found a city wherever she should fall down for weariness. After receiving such an oracle he journeyed through Phocis; then falling in with a cow among the herds of Pelagon, he followed it behind. And after traversing Boeotia, it sank down where is now the city of Thebes. Wishing to sacrifice the cow to , he sent some of his companions to draw water from the spring of . But a dragon, which some said was the offspring of , guarded the spring and destroyed most of those that were sent. In his indignation killed the dragon, and by the advice of sowed its teeth. When they were sown there rose from the ground armed men whom they called . These slew each other, some in a chance brawl, and some in ignorance. But Pherecydes says that when saw armed men growing up out of the ground, he flung stones at them, and they, supposing that they were being pelted by each other, came to blows. However, five of them survived, Echion, Udaeus, Chthonius, Hyperenor, and Pelorus.

[3.4.2] But , to atone for the slaughter, served for an eternal year; and the year was then equivalent to eight years of our calendar.

After his servitude, procured for him the kingdom, and gave to him as wife, daughter of and . And all the gods left the sky, and feasting in the Cadmea celebrated the marriage with hymns. gave her a robe and the necklace wrought by , which some say was given to by , but Pherecydes[1] says that it was given by , who had received it from . And to were born daughters, , , , , and a son Polydorus. was married to , to , and to Echion.

[3.4.3] But loved and slept with her, unknown to . Now had agreed to do for her whatever she asked, and deceived by she asked him to come to her as he came when he was wooing . Unable to refuse, came to her bridal chamber in a chariot, with lightnings and thunderings, and launched a thunderbolt. But died of fright, and , snatching the sixth-month abortive child from the fire, sewed it into his thigh. Upon the death of , the other daughters of spread a report that had slept with a mortal man, and had falsely accused , and that therefore she had been blasted by thunder. But, at the proper time, undid the stitches and gave birth to , and entrusted him to . And he conveyed him to and , and persuaded them to raise him as a girl.[2] But indignantly drove them mad, and hunted his elder son Learchus as a deer and killed him, and threw into a boiling cauldron, then carrying it with the dead child she sprang into the deep. And she herself is called , and the boy is called , such being the names they get from sailors; for they assist storm-tossed mariners. And the Isthmian games were instituted by in honour of . But escaped the wrath of by turning into a goat kid, and took him and brought him to the who dwelt at in Asia, whom afterwards changed into stars and named them the .

[3.4.4] and had a son , who was raised by to be a hunter and then afterwards was devoured on by his own dogs. He perished in that way, according to Acusilaus,[3] because was angry at him for wooing ; but according to the more general opinion, it was because he saw bathing. And they say that the goddess at once transformed him into a deer, and drove mad the fifty dogs in his pack, which devoured him unknowingly. being gone, the dogs sought their master howling lamentably, and in the search they came to the cave of , who fashioned an image of , which soothed their grief.

[The names of ‘s dogs from the ((lacuna))[4] . . . So now surrounding his fair body, as if it were that of a beast, the strong dogs tore it. Near Arcena first ((lacuna)) . . . after her a mighty brood, Lynceus and Balius goodly-footed, and Amarynthus. — And these he listed continuously by name. And then perished at the instigation of . For the first that drank their master’s black blood were Spartus and Omargus and Bores, the swift on the track. These first fed on and lapped his blood. And after them others rushed on him eagerly ((lacuna)) . . . to be a remedy for grievous pains to men.]

[ . . . ]

[3.5.2] Having traversed Thrace and the whole of India and set up pillars there, arrived to Thebes, and forced the women to abandon their houses and rave in Bacchic frenzy on . But , whom bore to Echion, had succeeded in the kingdom, and he attempted to put a stop to these proceedings. And coming to to spy on the Bacchanals [ ], he was torn limb from limb by his mother in a fit of madness; for she thought he was a wild beast.[5] And having shown the Thebans that he was a god, came to Argos, and there again, because they did not honour him, he drove the women mad, and they on the mountains devoured the flesh of the infants whom they carried at their breasts.

[3.5.3] And wishing to be ferried across from Icaria to Naxos he hired a pirate ship of Tyrrhenians. But when they had put him on board, they sailed past Naxos and made for Asia, intending to sell him. Howbeit, he turned the mast and oars into snakes, and filled the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes. And the pirates went mad, and leaped into the sea, and were turned into dolphins.[6] Thus men perceived that he was a god and honoured him; and having brought up his mother from and named her , he ascended up with her to heaven.

[3.5.4] But and left Thebes and went to the Encheleans. As the Encheleans were being attacked by the Illyrians, the god [ ] declared by an oracle that they would get the better of the Illyrians if they had and as their leaders. They believed him, and made them their leaders against the Illyrians, and got the better of them. And reigned over the Illyrians, and a son Illyrius was born to him. But afterwards he was, along with , turned into a serpent and sent away by to the .

[3.5.5] Polydorus, having become king of Thebes, married Nycteis, daughter of , son of Chthonius, and had Labdacus, who perished after because he agreed with him. But Labdacus having left a year-old son, , the government was usurped by , brother of , so long as was a child. and had fled [from Euboea] because they had killed Phlegyas, son of and Dotis the Boeotian, and they took up their abode at Hyria, and having come to Thebes since then, they were made citizens through their friendship with . So after being chosen commander-in-chief by the Thebans, Lycus compassed the supreme power and reigned for twenty years, but was murdered by and for the following reason. was a daughter of , and had intercourse with her. When she was with child, and her father threatened her, she ran away to Epopeus at Sicyon and was married to him. In a state of hopelessness, killed himself, after charging with the task to punish Epopeus and . marched against Sicyon, subdued it, slew Epopeus, and led away captive. On the way she gave birth to two sons at Eleurethae in Boeotia. The infants were exposed,[7] but a cowherd found and reared them, and he called the one and the other . Now paid attention to cattle-breeding, but practiced music, for had given him a lyre. But and his wife imprisoned and treated her poorly. However, one day her bonds fell off themselves, and unknown to her keepers she came to her sons cottage, begging that they would take her in. They recognized their mother and slew , but they tied to a bull, and flung her dead body into the spring that is called after her. And having succeeded to the sovereignty they fortified the city, the stones moving with ‘s music; and they expelled . He resided in Peloponnese, being hospitably received by ; and while he taught Chrysippus, the son of , to drive a chariot, he conceived a passion for the lad and kidnapped him.

[3.5.6] married Thebe, after whom the city of Thebes is named; and Amphion married , daughter of , who bore seven sons, Sipylus, Eupinytus, Ismenus, Damasichthon, Agenor, Phaedimus, Tantalus, and the same number of daughters, Ethodaia (or, as some say, Neaera), Cleodoxa, Astyoche, Phthia, Pelopia, Astycratia, and Ogygia, But Hesiod says that they had ten sons and ten daughters; Herodorus that they had two male children and three female; and Homer that they had six sons and six daughters. Being blessed with children, said that she was more blessed with children than . Stung by the taunt, incited Artemis and against them, and shot down the females in the house, and killed all the males together as they were hunting on . Of the males alone was saved, and of the females Chloris the elder, whom married. But according to Telesilla there were saved Amyclas and Meliboea, and also was shot by them. But herself left Thebes and went to her father at Sipylus, and there, on praying to , she was transformed into a stone, and tears flow night and day from the stone.[8]

[3.5.7] After ‘s death, succeeded to the kingdom. And he married a daughter of Menoeceus; some say that she was , and some that she was Epicasta. The oracle had warned him not to have a son, for that son would kill his father; nevertheless, drunk with wine, he had intercourse with his wife. And when the infant was born he pierced the child’s ankles with brooches and gave it to a herdsman to expose. But the herdsman exposed it on ; and the cowherds of Polybus, king of Corinth, found the infant and brought it to his wife Periboea. She adopted him and raised him as her own, and after she had healed his ankles she called him , giving him that name on account of his swollen feet.[9]When the boy grew up and excelled among his peers in strength, they spitefully ridiculed him for being a substitute. He asked Periboea, but could learn nothing; so he went to and inquired about his true parents. The god told him not to go to his native land, because he would murder his father and lie with his mother. On hearing that, and believing himself to be the son of those who raised him, he left Corinth, and riding in a chariot through Phocis he met who was driving in a chariot in a certain narrow road.[10] And when Polyphontes, the herald of , ordered him to make way and killed one of his horses because he disobeyed and delayed them,   killed both Polyphontes and out of anger before arriving in Thebes.

[3.5.8] was buried by Damasistratus, king of Plataea, and , son of Menoeceus, succeeded to the kingdom. In his reign a heavy calamity befell Thebes. For sent the , whose mother was and her father ; and she had the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. And having learned a riddle from the , she sat on Mount Phicium, and posited it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this: — What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? Now the Thebans were in possession of an oracle which declared that they should be rid of the whenever they had solved her riddle; so they often met and discussed the answer, and when they could not find it the used to snatch away one of them as her meal. When many had perished, and last of all ‘s son Haemon, made proclamation that to him who should solve the riddle he would give both the kingdom and the wife of . On hearing that, found the solution, declaring that the riddle of the referred to man; for as a babe he is four-footed, going on four limbs, as an adult he is two-footed, and as an old man he gets besides a third support in a staff. So the threw herself from the citadel, and both succeeded to the kingdom and unwittingly married his mother, and begat sons by her, and , and daughters, Ismene and . But some say the children were borne to him by Eurygania, daughter of Hyperphas.

[3.5.9] When the secret afterwards came to light, hanged herself in a noose, and was driven from Thebes, after he had blinded himself and cursed his sons, who saw him cast out of the city without lifting a hand to help him. And having gone with to Colonus in Attica, the precinct of the , he sat down there as a suppliant, was kindly received by , and died not long afterwards.

[3.6.1] Now and made a contract with each other concerning the kingdom and resolved that each should rule alternately for a year at a time. Some say that was the first to rule, and that after a year he handed over the kingdom to ; but some say that was the first to rule, and would not hand over the kingdom. So, being banished from Thebes, came to Argos, taking with him the necklace and the robe [of Harmonia]. The king of Argos was , son of Talaus; and went up to his palace by night and engaged in a fight with , son of , who had fled from Calydon. At the sudden outcry appeared and parted them, and remembering the words of a certain seer who told him to yoke his daughters in marriage to a boar and a lion,[11] he accepted them both as bridegrooms, because they had on their shields, the one the forepart of a boar, and the other the forepart of a lion. And married Deipyle, and married Argia; and promised that he would restore them both to their native lands. And first he was eager to march against Thebes, and he mustered the chiefs.

[3.6.2] But , son of Oicles, being a seer and foreseeing that all who joined in the expedition except were destined to perish, refused to go and discouraged the rest. However, went to Iphis, son of Alector, and begged to know how could be compelled to go to the war. He answered that it could be done if got the necklace [of Harmonia]. Now had forbidden to accept gifts from ; but gave her the necklace and begged her to persuade to go to the war; for the decision lay with her, because once, when a difference arose between him and , he reconciled with him and sworn to let decide any future dispute he might have with . Accordingly, when war was to be made on Thebes, and the measure was advocated by and opposed by , accepted the necklace and persuaded him to march with . Thus forced to go to the war, laid his commands on his sons, that, when they were grown up, they should slay their mother and march against Thebes.

[3.6.3] Having mustered an army with seven leaders, hastened to wage war on Thebes. The leaders were these: , son of Talaus; , son of Oicles; , son of Hipponous; Hippomedon, son of Aristomachus, but some say of Talaus. These came from Argos; but , son of , came from Thebes; , son of , was an Aetolian; , son of , was an Arcadian. Some, however, do not agree and among them, but include Eteoclus, son of Iphis, and Mecisteus in the list of the seven.[12]

[3.6.4] Having come to Nemea, of which was king, they asked for water; and showed them the way to a spring, leaving behind an infant boy Opheltes, whom she nursed, a child of and . For the Lemnian women, afterwards learning that Thoas had been saved alive, put him to death and sold into slavery; wherefore she served in the house of as a purchased bondwoman. But while she showed the spring, the abandoned boy was killed by a serpent. When and his party appeared on the scene, they slew the serpent and buried the boy; but told them that the sign foreboded the future, and they called the boy Archemorus.[13] They celebrated the Nemean games in his honour; and won the horse race, Eteoclus the footrace, the boxing match, the leaping and discus match, Laodocus the javelin-throwing match, the wrestling match, and the archery match.

[3.6.5] When they came to , they sent to tell in advance that he must cede the kingdom to , as they had agreed among themselves. As paid no heed to the message, , by way of testing the Thebans, challenged them to single combat and was victorious in every encounter; and though the Thebans set fifty armed men to lie in wait for him as he went away, he slew them all but Maeon, and then came back to the camp.

[3.6.6] Having armed themselves, the approached the walls; and as there were seven gates, was stationed at the Homoloidian gate, at the Ogygian, at the Proetidian, Hippomedon at the Oncaidian, Polynices at the Hypsistan, Parthenopaeus at the Electran, and at the Crenidian. on his side armed the Thebans, and having appointed leaders to match those of the enemy in number, he put the battle in array, and resorted to divination to learn how they might overcome the foe.

[3.6.7] Now there was among the Thebans a soothsayer, , son of Everes and a , of the family of Udaeus, the Spartan [ one of the ] and he had lost the sight of his eyes. Different stories are told about his blindness and his power of soothsaying. For some say that he was blinded by the gods because he revealed their secrets to men. But Pherecydes says that he was blinded by Athena[14]; for was dear to ((lacuna)). . . and saw the goddess stark naked, and she covered his eyes with her hands, and so rendered him sightless. And when asked her to restore his sight, she could not do so, but by cleansing his ears she caused him to understand every note of birds; and she gave him a staff of cornel-wood, with which he walked like those who see. But Hesiod says that he saw snakes copulating on Cyllene, and that having wounded them he was turned from a man into a woman, but that on observing the same snakes copulating again, he became a man. Hence, when and disputed whether the pleasures of love are felt more by women or by men, they referred to him for a decision. He said that if the pleasures of love be reckoned at ten, men enjoy one and women nine. For this reason blinded him, but bestowed on him the art of soothsaying. The saying of to and , “Of ten parts a man enjoys one only; but a woman enjoys the full ten parts in her heart.” He also lived to a great age.

So when the Thebans sought counsel of him, he said that they should be victorious if Menoeceus, son of , would offer himself freely as a sacrifice to . On hearing that, Menoeceus, son of , slew himself before the gates. But a battle having taken place, the Cadmeans were chased in a crowd as far as the walls, and , seizing a ladder, was climbing up it to the walls, when smote him with a thunderbolt.

[3.6.8] At the sight of the smiting, the turned to flee. And as many fell, and , by the resolution of both armies, fought a single combat for the kingdom, and slew each other. In another fierce battle the sons of Astacus did brave deeds; for Ismarus slew Hippomedon, Leades slew Eteoclus, and Amphidicus slew . But Euripides says that was slain by , son of . And Melanippus, the remaining one of the sons of Astacus, wounded in the belly. As he lay half dead, brought a medicine which she had begged of , and by which she intended to make him immortal. But hated for thwarting him by persuading the to march to Thebes; so when he perceived the intention of the goddess he cut off the head of Melanippus and gave it to , who, wounded though he was, had killed him. And split open the head and gulped up the brains. But when saw that, in disgust she was enraged and withheld the intended benefit. fled beside the river Ismenus, and before could wound him in the back, cleft the earth by throwing a thunderbolt, and vanished with his chariot and his charioteer Baton, or, as some say, Elato; and made him immortal. alone was saved by his horse Arion. That horse begot by , when in the likeness of a she consorted with him.

[3.7.1] Having succeeded to the kingdom of Thebes, cast out the dead unburied, issued a proclamation that none should bury them, and set watchmen. But , one of the daughters of , stole the body of , and secretly buried it, and having been detected by himself, she was interred alive in the grave. fled to and took refuge at the altar of Mercy, and laying on it the suppliant’s bough[15] he prayed that they would bury the dead. And the Athenians marched with , captured Thebes, and gave the dead to their kinsfolk to bury. And when the pyre of was burning, his wife , the daughter of Iphis, threw herself on the pyre, and was burned with him.

[3.7.2] Ten years afterwards the sons of the fallen, called the , purposed to march against Thebes to avenge the death of their fathers; and when they consulted the oracle, the god [ ] predicted victory under the leadership of . So joined the expedition, though he did not want to lead the army until he had punished his mother; for had received the robe from Thersander, son of , and had persuaded her sons also to go to the war. Having chosen as their leader, they made war on Thebes. The men who took part in the expedition were these: and Amphilochus, sons of ; Aegialeus, son of ; , son of ; Promachus, son of ; Sthenelus, son of ; Thersander, son of ; and Euryalus, son of Mecisteus.

[3.7.3] They first laid waste the surrounding villages; then, when the Thebans advanced against them, led by Laodamas, son of , they fought bravely, and though Laodamas killed Aegialeus, he was himself killed by , and after his death the Thebans fled in a body within the walls. But as told them to send a herald to treat with the , and themselves to take to flight, they did send a herald to the enemy, and, mounting their children and women on the wagons, themselves fled from the city. When they had come by night to the spring called Tilphussa, drank of it and died. After travelling far the Thebans built the city of Hestiaea and took up their abode there.

[3.7.4] But the , on learning afterwards the flight of the Thebans, entered the city and collected the booty, and pulled down the walls. But they sent a portion of the booty to at and with it Manto, daughter of ; for they had vowed that, if they took Thebes, they would dedicate to him the fairest of the spoils.

[3.7.5] After the capture of Thebes, when learned that his mother had been bribed to his undoing along with his father’s, he was more angry than ever, and in accordance with an oracle given to him by he killed his mother. Some say that he killed her in conjunction with his brother Amphilochus, others that he did it alone. But was visited by the of his mother’s murder, and going mad he first sought help from his paternal grandfather, Oicles, in Arcadia, and then to Phegeus at Psophis.[16] And having been purified[17] by him he married Arsinoe, daughter of Phegeus, and gave her the necklace and the robe. But afterwards the ground became barren on his account, and the god told him in an oracle to depart to and to stand another trial on the river bank. At first he went to at Calydon and was hosted by him; then he went to the Thesprotians, but was driven away from the country; and finally he went to the springs of , and was purified by him, and received Callirrhoe, his daughter, to wife. Moreover he colonized the land which the had formed by its silt, and he took up his abode there. But afterwards Callirrhoe coveted the necklace and robe, and said she would not live with him if she did not get them. So away went to Psophis and told Phegeus how it had been predicted that he should be rid of his madness when he had brought the necklace and the robe to and dedicated them. Phegeus believed him and gave them to him. But a servant having let out that he was taking the things to Callirrhoe, Phegeus commanded his sons, and they lay in wait and killed him. When Arsinoe reproached them, the sons of Phegeus shoved her into a chest and carried her to Tegea and gave her as a slave to Agapenor, falsely accusing her of ‘s murder.

[3.7.6] Being informed of ‘s untimely end and courted by , Callirrhoe requested that the sons she had by might be full grown in order to avenge their father’s murder. And being suddenly full-grown, the sons went forth to right their father’s wrong. Now Pronous and Agenor, the sons of Phegeus, carrying the necklace and robe to to dedicate them, turned in at the house of Agapenor at the same time as Amphoterus and Acarnan, the sons of . The sons of killed their father’s murderers, and going to Psophis and entering the palace they slew both Phegeus and his wife. They were pursued as far as Tegea, but saved by the intervention of the Tegeans and some , and the Psophidians took to flight.

[3.7.7] Having told their mother these things, they went to and dedicated the necklace and robe according to the injunction of . Then they journeyed to Epirus, collected settlers, and colonized Acarnania.

But Euripides says that in the time of his madness had two children, Amphilochus and a daughter Tisiphone, by Manto, daughter of and that he brought the babes to Corinth and gave them to , king of Corinth, to bring up; and that on account of her extraordinary beauty Tisiphone was sold as a slave by ‘s spouse, who feared that might make her his wedded wife. But bought her and kept her as a handmaid, not knowing that she was his daughter, and coming to Corinth to get back his children he recovered his son also. And Amphilochus colonized Amphilochian Argos in obedience to oracles of .


Taken from:

The Theban Cycle

[content warning for the following source: self harm, suicide]

The Theban Cycle is a collection of lost four epic-style poetry within the Epic Cycle. It takes place before the Trojan War and it tells the mythological history of the founding family of the city of Thebes. The epics of the Theban Cycle are as follows: the Oedipodea, the Thebaid, the Epigoni, and the Alcmeonis. While these poems are lost, the content of the poems can be pieced together from fragments and mentions from other ancient authors.

For further discussion of the Epic Cycle, see chapter 29.

The Oedipodea tells the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Pausanias cites this poem to claim that Oedipus never has any children in his marriage with his mother, Jocasta (Description of Greece 9.5.10-11). Another source on the tragedy of Oedipus and his children survives in the trilogy of plays by the Athenian playwright, Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is determined to find who murdered the previous king, Laius, in order to end a plague upon the city. When it is revealed that it was himself who killed his father and thus he had married and had children with his own mother, Jocasta, his queen, Jocasta hangs herself and Oepidus blinds himself. Oedipus at Colonus details Oedipus’ exile to Colonus, near Athens, with his daughters, Ismene and Antigone. He curses his sons for not being able to protect him well from Creon, who plans to kill him. He receives citizenship and protection in Athens, where he ultimately dies.

You can read the entirety of Oedipus Rex here and Oedipus at Colonus in English here.

The Thebaid describes the succession wars between the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles after his death. The events are famously retold by Athenian playwright, Aeschylus, in his tragic play, Seven Against Thebes. This play concerns the siege against the city led by Polynices and his Argive allies captained by the eponymous Seven and Eteocles sending out Theban champions to duel against the Seven. Ultimately, the Thebans drove away their enemies but both brothers die fighting each other.

You can read the entirety of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes in English here.

Sophocles’ third Theban play, Antigone, details the events after the brothers die. It tells how their sister, Antigone, gives Polynices a proper burial against the now king Creon’s orders. The play ends in the death of Antigone, Haemon (Creon’s living son), and Eurydice (Creon’s wife).

You can read the entirety of Antigone in English here.

The Epigoni tells the tale of how the sons (the Epigoni) of the Seven caused the ultimate downfall of Thebes in a second war ten years after the first to take revenge for their fallen fathers. The Alcmeonis is the final of the Theban Cycle and is about Alcmaeon, one of the Epigoni, who kills his mother to avenge the death of his father. This story bears some similarities to the myth of Orestes and Clytemnestra (see chapter 11 and chapter 30).

The Thebes of Athenian playwrights often served as the flawed foil of Athens. The Thebans were enemies of Athens because they sided with the Persians during the Persian Wars, and the agenda of playwrights to win contests in the City Dionysia festival and gain popularity in Athens by villainizing Thebes should be kept in mind when reading these sources.

For further discussion of theatre culture in Athens, see chapter 43.

Art and Symbolism

[content warning for the following section: graphic depiction of death]
Cadmus, wearing a chlamys and with a petasos hat around his neck. He has one fist raised, and holds an amphora in the other. Athena stands behind Cadmus, and Ares stands on the far right. A young woman and a snake-like dragon sit in front of Cadmus.
Cadmus and the dragon, red-figure krater, ca. 450 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

There are four main episodes from the mythology of the Theban Cycle that are very often represented in Greek and Roman art: Cadmus slaying the dragon; Oedipus being interrogated by the Sphinx; the expedition of the seven Argive armies against Thebes; and the death of king Pentheus at the hands of the followers of Dionysus. Another scene, the death of Actaeon mauled by his own dogs, was already discussed in the chapter dedicated to Artemis.

For the first one, the scene usually shows Cadmus fighting a giant snake. As the scene takes place at the Ismenian Spring, the hero is often portrayed holding a water jug alongside his weapons. Athena is usually represented behind Cadmus, as she assisted him in this feat, while Ares, to whom the dragon was sacred, is standing behind the monster.


Cadmus, nude with a chlamys cape and a rounded helm. He has one fist raised, and an amphora lies on the ground by his other handA snake-like dragon is coiled by a tree in front of him. Three figures sit in the sky above Cadmus, and Athena stands behind him.
Cadmus and the dragon, red-figure krater, ca. 380 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Cadmus, nude with a chlamys cape and a rounded helm. He carries a jug in one hand, and has his other fist raised. In front of him, by a tower of rocks and a tree, is a snake-like dragon.
Cadmus and the dragon, red-figure krater, ca. 350 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)










Cadmus, wielding a sword and wearing a plumed helm, lunges at the dragon in an archaic running pose. The dragon, snake-like, has its tongue out. Another figure stands behind the dragon and holds it by the neck, and another stands behind Cadmus.
Cadmus and the dragon, black-figure amphora, ca. 560 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

The encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx was another very popular theme in ancient Greek art. The hero is usually represented wearing the cloak and hat of travelers (as he was indeed on the road) and holding a walking stick, while the monster, a winged lion with a human head, is perching either on a column or a rock.


Oedipus, with a chlamys cape and a petasos hat around his neck, stands holding a long sceptre. The sphinx, a winged lion with a humanoid head, sits on a rock in front of Oedipus.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, red-figure pelike, ca. 450 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)

The third myth is usually represented in two ways: either the leaders of the Argive expedition arming themselves, or episodes from the battle at the gates.


A melee of 6 warriors. Two wear plumed helms and carry round shields. Two wrestle on the ground. One wears a cape decorated with a Gorgoneion. The relief has many patches of restoration.
The Seven Against Thebes, terracotta relief, ca. 470 BCE (Villa Giulia, Rome)
Campaneus, a nude bearded man in a plumed helm and chlamys cape, climbs a ladder onto the walls of Thebes. He holds a shield and weapons. Two men stand on the ramparts above, with spears and shields.
Capaneus scales the walls of Thebes, red-figure amphora, ca. 340 BCE (Getty Villa, Los Angeles)

Two popular scenes from the second category are the fall of Capaneus from the walls, and the duel between Eteocles and Polynices. The siege of Thebes became very popular in Etruscan art, so that the expedition of the Seven was represented on at least two temple pediments from the 5th and 2nd century BCE, and the duel between Eteocles and Polynices was a common decorative motif funerary urns during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.


Left to right: Adraste fleeing on a chariot. Eteocles and Polynices dueling. Oedipus on his knees shaking his fist at the sky. Amphiaraos on a chariot falling into hell. Various other figures, including two women and many warriors, are around. Much of the pediment is fragmentary.
Duel of Eteocles and Polynices and the siege of Thebes, terracotta pediment from the temple of Talamone, 2nd century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Florence)


5 rectangular box-shaped funerary urns, each decorated on the side with near-identical reliefs of Eteocles and Polynices fighting. The lids of the earns are decorated with sculptures of the deceased reclining.
The duel of Eteocles and Polynices, Etruscan funerary urns, ca. 2nd century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Siena)

The last mythological episode from the Theban Cycle to be fairly common in art is the death of Pentheus. Greek and Roman artists usually represented the moment of or the moments immediately his ritual dismemberment (sparagmos) at the hands of the followers of Dionysus. The women are generally shown carrying away their macabre trophies, and Agave, Pentheus’ mother, is the one holding his head.


Two maenads stand on either side of Pentheus, each holding one of his arms, and one of them holding a leg, as they prepare to rip him apart.
Death of Pentheus, red-figure lekane lid, ca. 450 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)
Two maenads, women dressed in leopard skins, hold the torso of Pentheus. Another maenad holds one of his detached legs, and another stands by and watches. A satyr stands watches.
Death of Pentheus, red-figure kylix, ca. 480 BCE (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. Pherecydes was a mythology writer from the 6th century BCE. He is quoted by other famous authors such as Aristotle and Plutarch, but his works are lost.
  2. The practise of "raising a boy as a girl" may be in reference to a custom of dressing boys as girls in order to avert the evil eye. Other figures in Greek mythology, such as Achilles, were also raised in this way (adapted from commentary by J. G. Frazer taken from For further discussion of the birth and raising of Dionysus, see chapter 15.
  3. Acusilaus of Argos was a Greek mytholographer and logographer of the late 6th Century BCE. His work only survive in fragments or in summaries by later authors.
  4. Indicates a gap or missing section of the text.
  5. See chapter 15.
  6. See chapter 15.
  7. The process of "exposure" in ancient Greece was a fairly common method of getting rid of an undesired child (often a female child when a male child was wanted) by abandoning them out in nature.
  8. For Ovid's account of the myth of Niobe, see chapter 13.
  9. Oedipus roughly translates to "swollen foot".
  10. The “narrow road” is the famous Cleft Way (Pausanias. 10.5.3) now called the Crossroad of Megas (Stavrodromi tou Mega), where the road from Daulis and the road from Thebes and Lebadea meet and unite in the single road ascending through the long valley to Delphi.
  11. Adrastus received an oracle from Apollo telling him to "yoke his daughters to a boar and a lion." According to one interpretation the boar on the shield of Tydeus referred to the Calydonian boar, while the lion on the shield of Polynices referred to the lion-faced [pb_glossary id="4617"]Sphinx[/pb_glossary]. Others preferred to suppose that the two chieftains were clad in the skins of a boar and a lion respectively (adapted from commentary by J. G. Frazer, taken from
  12. The list of the Seven Against Thebes varies between sources, and many sources also list a number other than seven.
  13. "Archemorus" translates to “beginner of doom”; hence “ominous,” “foreboding.”
  14. See chapter 11.
  15. A "suppliant" (αἰδώς) in ancient Greece had a more formal definition, such that if someone performed the gestures of supplication towards someone, they would be honour-bound to respect the suppliant's need. The "suppliant's bow" refers to the branch of olive which a suppliant laid on the altar of a god as a token to show that they sought divine protection (adapted from commentary by J. G. Frazer, taken from
  16. Compare the myth of Orestes and the Furies in chapter 11 and chapter 30.
  17. "purification" here refers to the Greek concept of miasma, the idea that death defiles someone or makes them impure. For further explanation, see Mythology Unbound.


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