Ancient History & Civilisation

Section III

Legendary Loves & Sometimes-Real Romances

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The Sacred Band:
They were called “an army of lovers”

Hardly anyone ever mentions Thebes, thirty-three miles northwest of Athens in the region of Boeotia, once a powerful urban center that dominated the rest of Greece. (If mentioned at all, it is invariably confused with the Egyptian Thebes, a city straddling the Nile River that was Egypt’s capital for centuries.)

Grecian Thebes was home to the Sacred Band, a powerhouse special military force comprised of 150 pairs of older male/younger male lovers. Today it’s often confused with the Three Hundred, the band of Spartan warriors who in 480 B.C. held off the gigantic Persian army of Xerxes at the pass of Thermopylae long enough to give Greek allies time to meet the foe at Marathon. Recently popularized in films and comics, the Three Hundred had many parallels with the Sacred Band, as you’ll see.

How and why did the Sacred Band come into being? According to Greek historian Plutarch (himself a native Boeotian), this elite force took its inspiration from a quote in The Symposium by Plato, written seven years before the group’s formation, which said in part, “If only there were a way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloveds, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor.”

Democratic Thebes was known for its serene acceptance of same-sex male relationships. There, lovers pledged their devotion at a tomb sacred to the cult of Hercules and his young lover Iolaus. After pledging, male couples often lived together in a marriage recognized by all citizens.

Soon after the year 404 B.C., all of Greece began to suffer under the harsh regime of the Spartans, newly victorious over the Athenians and its allies during the Peloponnesian War. In reaction, the Thebans handpicked three hundred men who were committed couples from the ranks of their existing citizen army. They trained together, coming up with inventive maneuvers—such as deeper phalanx formations and the use of shields as offensive weapons—which eventually became part of their “shock troops” strategy. By degrees, they made their city preeminent, recognized by other Greeks as a top military power.

In 375 B.C. they beat the Spartans by defeating an army three times their size. Four years later, under the leadership of generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas, they decisively kicked Spartan hiney again at Leuctra—called by many historians the most important battle ever waged, Greek against Greek.

The victories of the Sacred Band let the Thebans and other Greeks dare to hope that the Spartans were not, in fact, invincible. Thebes’ extraordinary general Epaminondas (a philosopher and orator when not on the battlefield) then carried the ball forward, freeing the large provinces of Arcadia and Messenia from Spartan rule, and laying successful siege to Sparta’s capital as well.

But a new power emerged that even the Sacred Band could not quell. As a teen, king-to-be Philip II of Macedon had spent three years (368 to 365 B.C.) as a hostage in then-triumphant Thebes, where he studied (and later copied) their fighting methods and strategies. Once he became king, Philip set off to conquer all of Greece, eventually confronting the Athenians and Thebans at Chaeronea in 358 B.C., with his eighteen-year-old son Alexander (later dubbed “the Great”) as second in command.

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King Philip, a busy bisexual, admired the Sacred Band of Thebes, whose all-gay warrior couples he nevertheless slew.

There he confronted the Sacred Band—which he attacked with his army of cavalry and troops using long spears, the Macedonian way of warfare. The members of the Sacred Band stood their ground, fighting fiercely, until all three hundred men perished.

Greek historian Plutarch wrote about the moment after the battle, when King Philip found their bodies and learned that this was the band of lovers and beloveds: “He burst into tears and said: ‘If anyone who thinks that these men did anything disgraceful, may they perish miserably.’”(Plutarch, who wrote these words four hundred years after Philip, also noted that public pledges by male lovers were still part of Theban daily life.)

On that battlesite, the common grave of the Sacred Band was topped with a memorial of a huge marble lion that stands there still, having been restored in 1902 by the Order of Chaeronea, a secret society of English homosexuals.

History often piles irony upon irony; such was the fate of King Philip II of Macedon. After destroying the Sacred Band, Phillip would meet his own death at the hands of a man called Pausanias the Elder. The assassin was one of Philip’s former male lovers.

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