City of ancient Greece, in Boeotia, north of Mount Cithaeron (now Kithairon), northwest of Athens. Its acropolis was called Cadmeia, after Cadmus the legendary leader of the Phoenicians who founded Thebes. It was one of the most celebrated Greek cities in myth and legend. Stories include those of the twin brothers Amphion and Zethus, who ruled Thebes and built its walls; King Oedipus and the rivalry of his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, which culminated in the expedition of the Seven Against Thebes and the capture and destruction of the city by the Epigoni; the return of the god Dionysus and the introduction of his worship at Thebes; and the birth and exploits of the famous hero Hercules.
Historically Thebes was the most important city in Boeotia and from c. 519 BC onwards was a great rival of Athens. In 479 BC, during the Persian invasion of Greece by Xerxes I, the Thebans sided with the invaders and fought against the confederated Greeks at Plataea. When the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BC, Thebes fought in alliance with Sparta and at the close of the war was eager for the destruction of Athens; it soon, however, began to dread the growing power of its ally and in the Corinthian War (395-386) BC it was allied with Athens, Corinth, and Argos against Sparta. A bitter antagonism arose between Thebes and Sparta, and a struggle ensued that resulted in a brief period of Theban supremacy in Greece, won by the victory of Epaminondas at Leuctra in 371 BC, and brought to an end by his death at Mantinea in 362 BC.
The eloquence of the Athenian orator Demosthenes persuaded the Thebans to unite with the Athenians in opposition to the encroachments of King Philip II of Macedon, but their combined forces were to no avail, and in 338 BC, at the Battle of Chaeronea, the power of Greece was crushed. After the death of Philip, the Thebans made a fierce but unsuccessful attempt to regain their freedom. Their city was destroyed in 335 BC by Philip's son and successor, Alexander the Great, who sold the surviving population into slavery. Alexander is said to have spared only the temples and the house of the poet Pindar. Although the city was rebuilt in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon and prospered for a time, it had dwindled to a wretched village by the 1st century BC. The site of the acropolis is occupied by the modern town of Thebai.