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Lovers and Soldiers

The Sacred Band of Thebes

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In Plato’s philosophical dialog the Symposium, a group of Athenian aristocrats sits around at a banquet discussing a topic that was as important to the Greeks as it is to us: love. Each guest gives a speech in praise of the god Eros and provides his own understanding of love. One of the guests, Phaedrus, waxes lyrical about the loyalty that the lover has to his beloved. He cites, as evidence, the mythological hero Achilles, who sacrificed himself for his beloved Patroclus in the Trojan War. He speculates on the bravery that such soldiers might exhibit on the battlefield:

If by some contrivance a city, or an army, of lovers and their young loves could come into being . . . then, fighting alongside one another, such men, though few in number, could defeat practically all humankind. For a man in love would rather have anyone other than his lover see him leave his place in the line or toss away his weapons, and often would rather die on behalf of the one he loves.

Plato wrote the Symposium probably around 380 BCE. At that time, many Greek states were subjected to the hegemony of the Spartans, who were enjoying a period of dominance after defeating the Athenians in 404 in the devastating Peloponnesian War. But one of these states, Thebes, stood up to the military might of Sparta. In doing so, the Thebans realized Phaedrus’s vision: They created an elite corps of three hundred soldiers, known as the Sacred Band of Thebes, comprising 150 pairs of male lovers who fought side-by-side in the name of freedom.

Given the uncertainty of the exact date of writing, Plato might have been referring explicitly to the Sacred Band, which was formed in 379 BCE. A Spartan force had been occupying the citadel of Thebes, crushing opposition and exiling dissidents. One Theban exile, Pelopidas, formed a coup and liberated the city from the Spartans, installing a democracy there. The Thebans knew they needed to defend themselves against inevitable Spartan retaliation.

Thus, the Sacred Band of Thebes was founded to protect the Boeotian League, the federation of cities that Thebes led. The band was the first professional standing army funded by the state in Greek history; most armies in Greece consisted of citizen-soldiers who enlisted only part-time. And it was founded on the principle that men so intimately devoted to one another would fight as a cohesive unit. The Thebans considered the emotional bond between the men to be “sacred,” in reference to the sacred vows that male Theban lovers would make to each other at the shrine of Iolaus, the mythological lover of the hero Hercules. These emotional bonds turned the band into a force to be reckoned with. The band would eventually defeat the Spartan-led coalition, ushering in a decade of Theban hegemony. It would go on to fight for the freedom of all Greece against the threat of Philip II of Macedon.

This fascinating period of Greek history is the subject of classicist James Romm’s new book The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, funded by an NEH Public Scholars grant. Romm has written and edited a number of books on Greek history, from Herodotus to Alexander the Great. He also has translated works of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. Now he turns to fourth-century Greek history, a turbulent period of shifting power dynamics that marked the transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic era.

An elite corps of male lovers was unique in Greek history, but homosexual relationships were commonplace. In many cities, it was a rite of passage for elite males in their late teens to enter into a pederastic relationship with an older man. This relationship was probably sexual, but it was also pedagogical. The older man took on the dominant role of the erastes, or “the lover,” and the youth the subordinate role of the eromenos, or “the beloved.” Besides physical intimacy, the man would mentor the youth in philosophy, politics, and poetry. The Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation in our terms (e.g., as straight or gay): Later in life, men would be expected to marry women and to raise families. In Athens and Sparta, homosexuality was practiced to various degrees, and its status was somewhat “complicated,” according to Plato’s Pausanias. In Thebes, on the other hand, it was actively encouraged, and even legally incentivized. While poets and philosophers had surmised about the martial power of Eros, the Thebans were the first to leverage that power in practice.

For the next decade after the coup, the Sacred Band fought the Spartans head-on, campaigning to drive their garrisons from the Boeotian cities. After many skirmishes, the Theban war effort culminated in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE. When peace talks failed, the Theban army faced the Spartan army, which had a numerical advantage. The Sacred Band played a pivotal role in the Theban victory. The general Epaminondas made the unconventional decision to put his strongest units, specifically, the Sacred Band, led by Pelopidas, on the left flank, to confront Sparta’s strongest units directly, the Spartiates. Because of its small size and tight cohesion, the band charged like a projectile into the Spartiates, wounding their general. Seeing this, the Spartan army began a haphazard retreat. This devastating defeat marked the first time in three centuries that a Spartan army had been routed. At that spot, the Thebans set up tropaion, a monument marking the rout (hence the English word “trophy”), which still stands to this day.

The victory at Leuctra changed the geopolitical landscape of Greece forever. It became clear to all Greeks: The Spartans were not as strong as they appeared, and could be beaten. The dominoes began to fall. Neighboring states, now emboldened, began to revolt from the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. The Maniteans built walls around their city in defiance of the Spartans, and Epaminondas helped fortify two cities near Sparta to serve as powerful bulwarks against it. Thebes, for its part, had always been considered a second-rate power in Greece. But now it was the leading power, playing an active role in much of Greek affairs. Even though this period of Theban dominance lasted only through the decade of the 360s, Sparta would never again rise to its former heights.

The Sacred Band continued to fight valiantly, even as the Thebans eventually lost their grip on the Greeks. Pelopidas was killed fighting for the freedom of the Thessalians from the cruel tyrant Alexander of Pherae. Epaminondas was killed fighting an alliance that now consisted of Sparta, Athens, and other states; he was buried on the battlefield next to his eromenos. With Thebes lacking strong leadership, and both alliances weakened, there was room for an external force to step in: Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Philip was gaining power and influence throughout the Greek world. He had learned from Theban military tactics, himself a former lover of one of the band’s founders, while living in Thebes in his youth. But now he threatened the freedom of all the Greek states. At this crucial moment, the Thebans were given a stark choice: Side with Philip and receive protection and a share in the plunder or join the last effort of resistance led by Athenians. After prolonged debate in their assembly, the Thebans turned down the obvious choice of siding with Philip and instead joined forces with their historical enemies, a strategic decision that still baffles historians today. Joining with Athenians was clearly not in the Thebans’ self-interest. Perhaps they had a clear conviction that the freedom and independence of the Greeks was worth preserving.

The final battle at Chaeronea in 338 BCE pitted Philip’s army of more than thirty thousand men against a combined force of Greek states—Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and many others—amounting to 35,000 men. The Greeks put up a fight, but ultimately succumbed to Philip’s superior tactical intuition. The Sacred Band of Thebes was destroyed by a contingent of elite Macedonian troops led by the young Alexander, at the time serving under his father. Forty years since its founding, having led Thebes to many victories, having tipped the balance of power in Greece, the band was no more. All three hundred of its members were slaughtered. Philip had gained control over all of Greece, but the last fight of the Sacred Band would not be forgotten.

In the nineteenth century, the mass grave of the Sacred Band was discovered at Chaeronea. The trauma of their skeletons indicated brutal deaths. Some had been penetrated deeply by Macedonian spears, with the blades still lodged in them. One had been hit over the head with a shield. Others had fractured craniums and broken jaws. Clearly Alexander had aimed for full annihilation. But most notable about the skeletons was their arrangement. They were in rows of seven or eight, mimicking the formation of a phalanx. And some of the pairs of corpses had arms linked together at the elbow. The soldiers had died as they had lived: as devoted lovers, loyal to the end.