The Sacred Band of Thebes: Elite Fighters… and Lovers!
The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite fighting unit consisting of 300 Theban soldiers who were not only warriors but coupled lovers as well. According to the scholar Plutarch, the creation of the unit took place sometime between 379 and 378 BC, the brainchild of Gorgidas, a military leader who believed that those who were lovers would fight more ferociously to keep each other alive than those who were not. It was General Pelopidas that then structured this elite unit of coupled lover soldiers into a formidable fighting force which went on to gain the respect of all of late-classical Greece. Their existence spanned forty years, from 378 to 338 BC, and their legacy lives on even today.
Long-Lasting Legacy of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The most famous battle fought by the Sacred Band of Thebes took place in 371 BC against the Spartans in the Battle of Leuctra, from which they emerged victorious, leaving the Spartan’s hold over the Greek Peninsula in shambles. Their final tragic demise occurred in 338 BC during the Battle of Chaeronea, during which they were defeated by the famous Philip II of Macedon in open combat. Even when given the option to surrender, the Sacred Band of Thebes refused and fought to the bitter end.
This single act resulted in the undying respect of both Philip II and his young son Alexander the Great as they stared at the corpses of the Theban dead piled on top of one another, having fought to protect their lovers and fellow soldier until they could no more. It was recorded by Plutarch himself that Philip II shed many tears of respect at the sight and on understanding that no man was to undermine the bonded comradery reflected by the Sacred Band of Thebes.
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The mass grave of the Sacred Band of Thebes was reconstructed in this illustration by Markley Boyer. (Markley Boyer / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Their act of valor echoed through the ages, so much so that in 300 BC the Greek city of Thebes built a stone lion on a pedestal in their honor to mark the mass burial site. This site still exists in the present day in the village of Chaeronea, Greece. But how is it that such a unit could exist in ancient times? On closer examination, the Sacred Band of Thebes reveals much more about ancient Greek warfare and culture.
Homosexuality in the Theban Culture of Ancient Greece
These days the concept of an elite fighting force consisting of gay couples is a controversial topic to discuss openly in a military context. Since 1993, the United States Armed Forces maintain a “don’t ask and don’t tell” policy regarding sexual identity and romantic relationships between their enlisted. In ancient Greece however, this concept was not a taboo. According to historical scholar Thomas K. Hubbard, since the fourth century B.C. and later, male same-gender relationships had been a recurring theme in Greek philosophical discourse.
This fact emphasized the popular sexual preference for pedagogical pederasty (love between an older man and a younger boy) embedded within ancient Greek scholarly culture. It was so inherent that in Plato’s Symposium (circa 385 to 370 B.C.) he wrote of a hypothetical discussion regarding the positive benefits of having a fighting unit entirely made up of gay lovers. Similar to General Gordidas, Plato believed that an army made up of gay lovers would be exceedingly effective, due to the belief that each member would not only fight to save their own skin, but to protect their lover as well.
Homosexuality was represented in ancient Greek pottery. This example depicts the story of Zeus and Ganymede. (Public domain)
The ancient Greeks did not culturally perceive this in the same way. Homosexuality in Greece greatly differed in how homosexual relationships were conducted. As mentioned by writer Goran Blazeski, the ancient Greeks did not distinguish sexual desire simply by the gender of couples but by the roles of dominance each member played in the relationship. It was accepted that sexual relationships would be between an older adult man and a younger adolescent (and sometimes pubescent) beardless boy.
This cultural acceptance of gay relationships was reflected in Plato’s Symposium, to which he stated in a dialogue regarding love and devotion that “any army made up of such lovers would conquer all of mankind.” It would seem that with the praise from such philosophers regarding this notion, it would only be natural that Thebes would put this theory into practice as they embarked on creating such an army of lovers.
Like the Sacred band of Thebes, the Spartan tradition of military training also condoned gay relationships as a war of promoting emotional bonding and good morale amongst the troops. However, their situation was different since many soldiers were not exclusive to a coupled lover within their company and were expected to be devoted to the state. Culturally, it would appear that Thebes attempted something novel by using a philosophical ideal as a method for perfecting the art of war. This implementation of coupled lovers within a regiment proved very successful when put into practice.
Creating the Concept of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The history of Thebes spanned as far back as Mycenaean times and emerged in the ancient region of Boeotia, becoming the leading power within the Boeotian Confederacy. The Sacred Band of Thebes is somewhat responsible for securing Thebes’ power and reputation in the region. Since its early beginnings, Thebes had also infamously maintained hostility against Athens and most famously sided with the Persian Invasion (480 to 479 BC) shortly after Thermopylae. Thebes remained a continuously adversarial city-state towards not only the Athenians but the Spartans as well.
As mentioned before, Thebes was much respected in the art of war. In furthering their military strength, the sacred Band of Thebes played a major role in solidifying the Theban reputation as a strong city-state. In an article by Patricia Claus, the original formation of the Sacred Band of Thebes took place shortly after the death of Spartan general Phoebidas at the hands of General Gorgidas, inevitably triggering the expulsion of the Spartan forces from the occupied Theban Citadel of Cadma in 378 BC.
Gorgidas not only felt that Thebes needed an elite fighting force, but that it needed to encompass warriors of great prowess, based on merit, and who were coupled with lovers of equal standing. Members of the band were supposedly determined by their merits and acts alone, void of the influence of status and class society. Plutarch mentioned that the term “sacred” referred to Theban military units who vowed their undying love for their lovers in front of the Theban Shrine of Iolaus, solidifying their devotion to not only each other but to the comrades they served within the sacred band.
The military experiment of creating an army of homosexual lovers resulted in the infamous Sacred Band of Thebes (sissoupitch / Adobe Stock)
The Military History of the Army of Lovers
The Sacred Band of Thebes was imagined first by Gorgidas and then refined into a formidable army by the generals Pelopidas and Epaminondas. One of the most famous battles that brought significant recognition to the sacred band of Thebes took place in 371 BC during the Battle of Leuctra. This conflict saw the Thebans facing off against the Spartans and their allies over the territory of Thisbae. It was in the thick of chaos as the advancement of the Spartan line ignited the flurry of retreats from Boeotian allies into the Theban columns, only strengthening the Theban numbers.
The traditional design of a Greek military column saw the best and most elite warriors were placed on the right wing. At the same time, the left wing was composed of officers, influential individuals, and weaker soldiers. The Sacred Band of Thebes, led by General Pelopidas, made up the right wing of the Theban columns. When the opportunity presented itself, the Theban cavalry wreaked havoc upon the Spartan lines, the sacred band seized control. It strategically attacked the Spartan right, resulting in the loss of one thousand Spartan men, including King Clembrotus I.
Although the novel strategies performed by the Thebans were crucial to their success over the Spartans, it was also their enduring training and discipline that was credited for their success. The selection process required individuals possess athletic ability and previous military experience. Not only were they supposed to be great specimens of the male physique, but they had to have lovers of equal physical beauty and prowess.
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Similar to many early professional soldiers, members of the Sacred Band of Thebes was required to training and exercise continually in preparation for any possible conflicts that could arise. The men trained in wrestling, swordsmanship, boxing, and early formations of the Phalanx. Like the Athens military, those who served in the Sacred Band of Thebes were also expected to participate in the arts, recite poetry, and understand philosophy.
This gymnasium-like training was believed to create a smarter and more intellectual form of a soldier that could prove significantly more adaptable to the unforgiving nature of Greek warfare. It was rumored that their training was designed to match the intellect of the Athenians and the brutality of the Spartans. The lessons learned by their strategic successes, training and sexual preference were studied by Philip II of Macedon, and he incorporated certain traits into the perfection of his own fighting force. It would also inevitably lead to Philip II’s victory over the Sacred band of Thebes in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
The Sacred Band of Thebes met its tragic end at the Battle of Chaeronea. (Public domain)
Tragic Demise at the Battle of Chaeronea
For Philip II, the Battle of Chaeronea was crucial for his dominance over all the central and southern Greece states. He faced the Greek alliance led by Thebes and Athens, two city-states that had always been enemies joined forces for their last stand against the Macedonian king. In this conflict, Philip II also placed his son Alexander in command of the left wing cavalry to give him experience in leadership.
Philip II could either win and have all of Greece or lose his dominance, his life, and his very own son and be another defeated warlord who perished when faced with the might of the Sacred Band of Thebes. Within the heat of the battle, Phillip II used a strategy similar to one used by the Thebans themselves against the Spartans, whereby he faked a retreat only to strengthen his own column and place the Athenian line opposite him.
Alexander led the charge and overwhelmed the Sacred Band, yet, even though their Athenian allies began to surrender, the Thebans fought on and refused to back down to either Alexander or his father Philip II. No matter how many arrows, charges, or spears engaged them, the Sacred Band endured until they were no more.
And as mentioned before, historic accounts by Plutarch, Polyaenus, and many others stated that Philip II observed a moment of silence and then wept in remembrance of the bravery demonstrated by his fallen adversaries. This defeat inspired great respect in Philip II, as well as evoking an immense impression on his son Alexander the Great, who would continue to become the most famous general of western history.
Fragments of a lion statue were discovered in 1818 by George Ledwell Taylor. This led to the discovery of a mass grave of members of the Sacred Band of Thebes killed in battle in 338 BC. (Public domain)
Archaeological Evidence of the Sacred Band of Thebes
With so many accounts of their great fighting prowess and their unique cultural traits, historians have wondered whether they were characters originating in fiction or if they actually existed in the real world. It wouldn’t be until the 19 th century that physical evidence of their existence would be found. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2021 article, he discussed an 1818 archaeological discovery by George Ledwell Taylor.
In Taylor’s casual exploration of the ancient ruins of Chaeronea, he found himself in the proximity of a stone sculpture mimicking a colossal head of a lion and standing six feet high. Taylor grew excited, for he had an inkling that this statue could be the famed Lion of Chaeronea, a statue that had been mentioned within several documents of antiquities. As stated by Mendelsohn, one such source was from the second century AD geographer Pausanias, who claimed that a giant stone figure was created in respect of a great fighting force that he called “The Spirit of Men.”
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The Mendelsohn article continues to discuss the further excavations that occurred in 1890, sixty years after Taylor’s discovery. The Lion of Chaeronea was not only a memorial marker for the Battle of Chaeronea which took place in 338 BC, but also a tombstone marking a mass grave. The excavations revealed over 254 skeletal remains placed in a rectangular column. The remains were arranged in seven rows.
In Mendelsohn’s writing, he mentions the illustration by Markley Boyer (above), based on 19 th century drawings of excavations, which reconstructed the position of each skeleton within the column of the mass grave. Mendelsohn stated that several dead, though maimed, were buried embraced with arms linked. This image portrayed their undying dedicated love. Although Plutarch’s account stated that none of the 300 Thebans survived that day, it appeared that forty-six, or possibly twenty-three couples survived and escaped to tell the tale of love and war.
In the years after the Battle of Chaeronea, Philip II of Macedon would reign supreme in Greece, after which Alexander the Great would continue to fulfill his own epic destiny. Although the Sacred Band of Thebes left a lasting impression on both rulers, there would never be another same-sex coupled battalion. Instead, soldiers would remain conscripted, professional, and unattached until they were married. Was this done as a sign of respect to the Sacred Band of Thebes, or was this done for other reasons? Alas, the answer may remain elusive for all eternity.
Top image: The Sacred Band of Thebes became legendary for its military prowess. Source: warpaintcobra / Adobe Stock
By B. B. Wagner
Blazeski, G. 19 March 2017. “The Sacred Band of Thebes: An elite unit of the Theban army consisting of 150 pairs of male lovers” in The Vintage News. Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/03/19/the-sacred-band-of-thebes-an-elite-unit-of-the-theban-army-consisting-of-150-pairs-of-male-lovers/
The Legacy Project. n.d. Sacred Band of Thebes – Nominee. Available at: https://legacyprojectchicago.org/person/sacred-band-thebes
Delong, B. 2010. “Philip of Macedon, the Ultimate Authority on Gays in the Military, Speaks!” in Grasping Reality by Brad Delong. Available at: https://www.bradford-delong.com/2010/02/philip-of-macedon-the-ultimate-authority-on-gays-in-the-military-speaks.html
Ancient History. 28 August 2019. “The Sacred Band of Thebes: An Army of 300 Gay Lovers” in History Daily. Available at: https://historydaily.org/the-sacred-band-of-thebes-an-army-of-300-gay-lovers
Hubbard, T. K. 2003. “Chapter 2 Greek Historical Texts” in Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. pp. 53 - 85. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Hubbard, T. K. 2003. “Chapter 5 Greek Philosophy” in Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. pp. 163 - 267. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Mendlesohn, D. 12 April 2021. “Ancient Greece’s Army of Lovers” in The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/19/ancient-greeces-army-of-lovers