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The Thespians (dedicated to the memory of Paul Allen)


modern monument of the Thespians killed in Thermopylae

Pausanias and Strabo say that Thespiae got their name from the river god Thespios. Other legends claim that the city was founded by Thespia, daughter of the river god Asopos, or a descendant of Erechtheus named Thespios. The city was center to the cult of Aphrodite and Heros who was worshiped in the form of an uncut stone. The goddess was worshiped in her lunar form as “Black Aphrodite”.  The cult of Artemis as goddess of childbirth (Helitheya – Lochia) was also important. The city was ruled by seven magistrates (damouchoi) and elected two Beotarchs in the Beotian League.

Thespian coin. Source: SNGCop 401

During the Persian Wars the city chose to resist against the Persians. Initially the Thespians sent an army to aid their allies blocking the Tempi Pass. After the Greeks abandoned the position the Thespians sent 700 hoplites to Thermopylae led by Demophilos son of Diadromos. The Thespian hoplites gave a good account of themselves during the two day conflict. When the defensive position was finally bypassed the Thespians chose to stay with the Spartans.

Many scholars consider the sacrifice of the Thespians superior to that of the Spartans, because the Thespian laws were not so rigid, as to what was demanded from the city’s troops, as it was the case in Sparta. Some cynics though claim that the Thespians had nowhere to retreat as they were always suspected that the Thebans who harbored ill will against them they would aid the Persians to destroy their city. So they cast their lot with Leonidas in a separate attempt to stem the Persian tide. The 700 hoplites passed into immortality, pierced by the Persian arrows at the hillock of Colonos. Herodotus says the best Thespian fighter was Dithyrambos son of Harmatides.  After the battle of Thermopylae the Thespians ended as refugees to the south while the Persians ravaged their land. At the battle of Platea the city offered the services of 1800 fighters most of them lightly equipped because of their financial difficulty after the Persian looting. The cities name took its rightful place along the other cities names, carved on the “victory tripod” that was dedicated to Delphi.

After the Persian Wars the Thespians entered the Beotian League and found themselves opposing the Athenian during the Peloponnesian War. At the Battle of Delium they lost 57 % percent of their hoplite force thus terribly weakening themselves. In fear of the Thebans they steadily supported the Spartans but they suffered again heavy casualties from the Theban cavalry while supporting the Spartan harmost Foibidas who died in battle. This event coupled with their reluctance to fight in Leuctra, gave the Thebans excuse to drive them off their lands. The Thespians returned home later with the support of Philip II

Detail of the exhibit 1471 in Berlin Museum depicting the crescent symbol

The crescent, symbol of the lunar goddesses appears on Thespian coinage and was a most likely emblem for the Thespian hoplites. The exhibit 1471 of the Berlin Archaeological collection depicting the hoplite race gives us an indication of the colors. It shows a hoplite with a white crescent on a black background. Yet some examples in the Beasley archive depict red Crescent or a pair of crescents on the shields. Surviving inscriptions refering to “Heros Areios” and seal dated to 4th cent. B.C. depicts the god with a human face on a winged lion body probably related to his martial qualities. Despite modern iconography’s insistence there is no evidence on the existance of a black clad Thespian elite unit.


Herodotus “Histories” Loeb Classical Library 1920 

Xenophon “Hellenica” Loeb Classical Library 1920 

Pausanias “Description of Greece” Loeb Classical Library 1905


5 Σχόλια
  1. «Archaeological collection depicting the hoplite race gives us an indication of the colors»

    I know someone with that amount of knowledge would not fall into this trap,completely…But isn’t it a bit dangerous to wander off into the field of colors in search of a definite answer in 2 or 3 tone pottery paintings..After all most of them are clearly there just for a sake of contrast, no? What makes us think black is really black(no better example than skin tone in black figure), and red is really red, and white is really white.

    The colors are very inconsistent in Greek pottery, what is red in one, becomes black in another,even white…Just look at the animal coloring, parallel is nowhere to be drawn with real animals.
    It is inconsistent and unreliable to such extent any conclusion drawing is ill advised at best. And conclusions drawn in that way are at best just speculations. We can use pottery for some general conclusions, but drawing so detailed information is crossing the edge of evidence and wandering off into the cozy field of pure speculation and fabrication. Cozy yes, because we all want to find a definitive answer to unanswered questions…

    We have to accept, some answers from time long passed will always remain unanswered. Drawing wrong conclusions which will soon become facts, in lack of better examples, just does harm to those we try to honor.The Ancients.

    • Dear friend,
      As you quote I used the word «indication» not «certainty» or the phrase «these are the colors». Pottery painting is something of a guideline.
      Modern science has shown through phasmatoscopic anlysis that we can trace «missing colours» and reconstruct with a greater degree of accuracy.
      Plus we see from traces on left on pottery, that red and white on most art items have not survived through time. Yet red, white and black were colours associated with the religious life of the ancients. No one would dare easily modify them in a society where the gods were «involved closely» in the affairs of mankind. Religious colors are not modifief as we see fit. How easily perhaps someone could in Medieval times paint a cross pink with yellow spots? Even in our time it wouls provoke an outcry. Black and white were closely asociated with lunar deities but you are right that other colours can appear on a warriors shield. The Munich Museum has samples where hoplites carry red crescent.

      Best regards

  2. Reblogged this on Of Thespiae and commented:
    Found this great article just browsing around on-line for Thespian info. Also came across a new (to me) epithet and artistic representation of Eros.

    • Thank you for your comment.
      Almost all Ancient Greek gods ha a martial quality even those nor direclty associated with war like Athena ans Ares
      The heros with the lion’s body can be found in the Beasley archive.

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