Nestled among the ancient Buddhas and Roman busts in Sigmund Freud’s London study is a copy of Ingres’s Oedipus Solves the Riddle of the Sphinx. Brawny, big-eyed, naked Oedipus leans in to the winged creature and comes close to grazing her breasts with his pointing finger. ‘What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?’ she asks him. ‘Man,’ Oedipus replies. Only humans proceed from crawling in infancy to walking in adulthood and hobbling with canes in their dotage. Oedipus’s reward for solving the riddle of the Sphinx was to be named king of Thebes and to marry Jocasta, widow of the former monarch Laius, whom Oedipus had killed on his way to Thebes. It was only many years later, as plague ravaged the city, that Oedipus discovered that his parents were not who he thought they were and that he had unwittingly fulfilled a terrible prophecy.
Considering the fame of the myth – and of Freud’s Oedipus complex – it is astonishing that the ancient Greek city of Thebes is not better known. Commonly confused with its Egyptian namesake, a city in the region of modern Luxor on the Nile, Thebes has also suffered from being eclipsed by its ancient rivals, especially Athens and Sparta. Lying north of the isthmus of Corinth in the province of Boeotia on the fertile Teneric plain, ‘The Forgotten City’, as Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge calls it in his engaging new history, was nonetheless of enormous political and cultural importance.
In ancient mythology, it was the birthplace of Dionysus and Heracles, and was visited by Amphion and Zethus, twin sons of Zeus. The colossal walls with seven gates that surrounded the city were said to have been these boys’ handiwork. Historically, it was home to Pindar, a high-minded composer of