[This episode of The Cave was recorded on 4 August 2020.]
Cartledge, the former head of Greek History at the University of Cambridge has an impressive list of publications including the best-selling, The Spartans: An Epic History, Alexander the Great: and Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World among others. His latest Thebes: The Forgotten City is a journey of discovery, a detailed and entertaining look into an ancient and powerful civilisation that played a key role in the development of Ancient Greek drama, politics, and economy, yet has been overshadowed in history by the ceaseless antagonism between Athens, and Sparta, and the thalassocracy of the glamourous Corinth.
“Thebans were the only city in Ancient Greece that has a proud barbarian origin story. The stories that they spun around their founder and first citizens are half bestial, because they are born from Dragons.
Thebes have a kind of “odd back story, but by the late second millennium BCE they are no different from any of the other major centres of power in the ancient Greek world.”
According to the Cartledge, “Thebes has a controversial side and has a good side, but in terms of myth it was extremely fertile and some Theban myths… still have a terrific resonance right down to the 21st century.
“We’re still putting on plays which are actually Theban…in setting and storyline.”
Athenocenticism says Prof Cartledge has dominated since: “Theban are Boeotians, the dialect they spoke was Boeotian so, for those Athenians who were upper-class and snooty, the Thebans were Boeotian pigs because of the way they sounded.”
The professor rips into the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “He thinks is Pericles” and like Pericles he “got the plague wrong,” says Cartledge.
“Plagues afflicted the Roman Empire more, just like globalisation today means the whole world got GOVID19, I was asked did Pericles get the plague wrong in the way that Boris Johnson got the play wrong? Johnson of course thinks he’s the new Pericles.
“I said well the big difference is this that our science our technology we understand DNA there are also many things that we understand about medicine therefore that we can in principle do either by way of prevention, or by way of cure, but no ancient society, however wised up, that would have been capable of doing.”
We have ignored Thebes due to the Athenians who defined the Classical period. Cartledge lays the blame for the pro Athenian spin on the Plato, the Athenian who founded western philosophy; “The entirety of his way of looking at the world talking about the world goes back to Athens, well he called…Athens is the ‘town Hall of wisdom’ of the empire Greek world.”
For Cartledge, Athens produced the “high cultural sources” later sourced by the elites of the Renaissance “who decided that the ancients were very important”.
From the 19th Century “Athens has always been the model because we’re democratising and Athens was a democracy, course very different sort of democracy.”
The enthralling, deﬁnitive account of Ancient Thebes, by the acclaimed author of The Spartans, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece is published by Macmillan and available at all good bookstore sites.