The Thespians (dedicated to the memory of Paul Allen)
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.
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
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