History Monday: The Sacred Band of Thebes

Gays in the military is one of those hot-button divisive issues that’s making a lot of headlines these days.  Ryan posted a couple months ago the sad and disappointing story about a man who gave everything he had for his country and was kicked out of the Air Force for his sexuality alone.  

I commented about a footnote in history.  However, sometimes a footnote is all it takes to change history.  This one probably isn’t as such, but for today’s History Monday, you’ll be learning about (or more in-depth about) the Sacred Band of Thebes.  Put your helmets on, everyone!  These guys will certainly kick your ass!

In the 4th Century, b.c., Sparta had come out of the Corinthian War as the dominant Greek city-state.  Its power and influence was immense in these days.  However, it was continually pressured by the other Greek powers, as well as the ever-present Persians.  One such Greek power was new democracy of Thebes.  

Thebes had expelled the Spartan garrison and established itself as an autonomous city in the late 4th Century.  In order to maintain independence while faced with such vicious enemies surrounding it, it had to look for new and creative ways to achieve military successes.  Apparently inspired by Plato’s philosophical book, Symposium, which among other things, dealt with the nature and purpose of love, came the creation of the Sacred Band of Thebes.  Plato says:

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Now, the problem that faced the ancient Greeks was that women were not active participants in battle.  Thus the Thebans created an elite band of warriors who were all homosexual couples.  The ever helpful Plutarch helps us understand the rationale behind this force:

For men of the same tribe or family little value one another when dangers press; but a band cemented by friendship grounded upon love is never to be broken, and invincible; since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another.

From the position of the Thebans, who financed and trained the soldiers of this force with public funds, having an army that would fight with the ferocity of a man fighting to save his love (for he was) was the true measure of manliness, not his sexuality.  The first real test of their mettle came in the extremely important Battle of Leuctra.  The Theban army, backed up by allies, took on the mighty Spartans and their (apparently not so willing) allies.  The decisive move came when the Sacred Band rushed the Spartan flank and devastated them, turning the tide of the battle and dealing out the first defeat to a Spartan Army in history.  A Spartan army that outnumbered them three-to-one.  

The Sacred Band would once again aid in the defeat of the Spartans in the Battle of Mantinea in 362.  

The Sacred Band quickly became the most elite fighting force in the Peloponnesian  Peninsula.  Plutarch also fills in the facts as to why this band was called “sacred”:

It is a tradition likewise that Iolaus, who assisted Hercules in his labours and fought at his side, was beloved of him; and Aristotle observes that, even in his time, lovers plighted their faith at Iolaus’s tomb. It is likely, therefore, that this band was called sacred on this account; as Plato calls a lover a divine friend.

The dominance of the Band would be short lived, as Philip II of Macedon, and his (possibly gay?) son, Alexander (later the Great) rolled down from the north, conquering everyone in sight with their phalanxes.  The Band was handed its first and only defeat, obliterated by Alexander, refusing to surrender.  

Philip, after the fight, took a view of the slain, and came to the place where the three hundred that fought his phalanx lay dead together, he wondered, and understanding that it was the band of lovers, he shed tears and said, “Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base.”

Although some have said that the remainder of the Band became Philips personal bodyguard, it is hard to come by a good source to verify it.  What is more than clear, however, is that for a short time, the fiercest warriors of Sparta were cut down en masse by a bunch of queers.  The arguments we have today are ludicrous in light of the dominance of Greek military culture in the past, which is pretty bisexual by contemporary standards.  

The memory of the brave men who died by the sides of their lovers against the Macedonian machine is kept by The Lion of Caeronea, which is built upon the burial site of those slain by Alexander.  

The next time someone tells you that gays shouldn’t be in the military, remember the Sacred Band of Thebes.  

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10 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Well done

    What is more than clear, however, is that for a short time, the fiercest warriors of Sparta were cut down en masse by a bunch of queers.

    That's a keeper.

    It's usually spelled Chaeronea, by the way.

    Also by the way, Julius Caesar, not a bad general himself, was once noted as being "Every wife's husband and every husband's wife" for his apparently frequent switch-hitting.

    • Alexander the Great

      Need we say more?

      My starting generals lineup has Alex and JC in the top 5.

      sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
      • I'm with you

        My fantasy generals of antiquity lineup:

        Hannibal Alexander the Great Julius Caesar Scipio Africanus Pyrrhus

        with Syphax riding the pine...

        • No Gaius Marius?

          • Let the debate begin!

            Marius was at least lucky (strategic errors on the part of his enemies) as he was good-

            • True enough, but...

              ... his reforms to the Legion probably did more to save Rome than any General's actions before him, no?  

              I'd put them almost as important as Alexander's innovations regarding cavalry (which were only innovations relative to his local area).

              Also, it must be remembered that Marius operated under a handicap - the idiot consuls that wiped out whole legions before it was his problem to fix.  If he doesn't stop 800,000 (working from memory here) hungry Germans at the gates to Italy, the peninsula is lost.

              • I suppose, but...

                I can't get past the civil war thing.  I suppose you could raise the same argument with Julius, but he at least won his conflict definitively.

                Besides, who would you bump?  As I see it, Hannibal's untouchable, and he cited Pyrrhus as the greatest 1 or 2.  And Scipio defeated Hannibal, so...

                • I actually look...

                  ... at the arc from Marius to Augustus, as the Roman state adjusting itself into a more manageable government.  Simply put, as the State grew, it was a natural process of political evolution that the government centralized authority.  The growing pains were harsh, though, especially for Rome which had a greatly (relative to others) distributed authority system.  If it wasn't Marius it would have been someone else.  

                  I'm not 100% sure who I'd bump,... probably Julius Caesar.  The thing to remember here is that Marius wasn't just a great general, he revolutionized the way Rome's army worked.  In this way he is up there with Yamamoto in terms of impact.  You could make a very decent argument that without Marius' innovations, there's no way Rome can hold onto the territories it would later occupy.

      • Not strictly a General.,

        , and certainly not antiquity, but I've always admired Isoroku Yamamoto, taking the power projection of aviation and applying it brilliantly to the navy.

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