Saturday, 17 April 2010

Sacred Band of Thebes

I think everyone has heard or watched "300" - a 2007 American fantasy action film based on the 1998 comic series of the same name by Frank Miller. It is a fictionalised retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. While playing Grepolis or other games based in ancient Greece I keep seeing the same cliche - "This is Sparta!" A spartan warrior grew in the western society to a symbol of the greatest, bravest and most heroic soldiers of all times. 

While most of it comes from USA and teenagers in general it keeps irritating me. While maybe Daredevil, Batman or Sin City are not treated as "documentary" productions, unfortunately many young people take 300 bit to serious and ignore history. Its so annoying when surfing the web for "Battle of Thermopylae" to see that 9/10 results have images from "300" and pumped spartan "supermen" in red capes...

Don't get me wrong, I even like the movie. Its a cool and creative fantasy story inspired by the historic event. The only problem I see is that for some reasons it "flattened" young peoples imagination, limiting their image of the ancient Greece only to that one picture. I know, its cool but come on, there are other great stories around to follow and be inspired by.

Other Greek "nations" produced  their own heroes as well - small and brave groups of soldiers managed to stop or even defeat overwhelming enemy armies many times in history. Spartans were great soldier, no doubts about that, but even during their times we could find many other who fought as good if not better. Let me go against the main stream and perhaps expand some of my readers horizons by telling the story of the Sacred Band of Thebes.

Lets start from few basic facts, which should motivate you to read the rest of this article:
  • The Sacred Band of Thebes were the elite forces of the Theban army in the 4th century BC.
  • Originally it was formed of 300 hand-picked men, all housed and trained at the city's expense in order to fight as hoplites.
  • They became, in effect, the "special forces" of Greek soldiery and the forty years of their known existence (378–338 BC) marked the pre-eminence of Thebes as a military and political power in late-classical Greece.
  • The Sacred Band under Pelopidas fought the Spartans at Tegyra in 375 BC, routing an army that was at least three times its size.
  • It was also responsible for the victory at Leuctra in 371 BC (against Spartans), called by Pausanias the most decisive battle ever fought by Greeks against Greeks.
  • Defeat of that formation came at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), the decisive contest in which Philip II of Macedon, with his son Alexander, extinguished Theban hegemony.
  • Plutarch says that Alexander was the "first to break the ranks of the Sacred Band of the Thebans", which have previously been seen as invincible (with help of the heavy cavalry and the novel long-speared Macedonian phalanx)
  • The Thebans of the Sacred Band held their ground, although surrounded and overwhelmed, refused to surrender and nearly all 300 fell where they stood beside their last commander, Theagenes.

Now, lets see what do we know about the famous battle of Thermopylae and then I will explain you the whole story about The Sacred Band of Thebes.

The Battle of Thermopylae

Was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place simultaneously with the naval battle at Artemisium, in August or September 480 BC, at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae ('The Hot Gates').

 The Persian invasion was a delayed response to the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece, which had been ended by the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Xerxes had amassed a huge army and navy, and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles had proposed that the allied Greeks block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae, and simultaneously block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium.

Phocian soldier
A Greek force of approximately 7,000 men (including the famous 300 Spartans, 500 warriors from Tegea, 500 from Mantinea, 120 from Arcadian Orchomenos, 1000 from the rest of Arcadia, 200 from Phlius, 80 from Mycenae, 700 Corinthians, 400 Thebans, 1000 Phocians and the Opuntian Locrians ) marched north to block the pass in the summer of 480 BC. The Persian army, alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered over one million but today considered to have been much smaller (various figures are given by scholars ranging between about 100,000 and 300,000), arrived at the pass in late August or early September. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for seven days in total (including three of battle), before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history's most famous last stands.

During two full days of battle, the small force led by King Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Aware that his force was being outflanked, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the rear with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, the vast majority of whom were killed.

Tactical considerations
From a strategic point of view, by defending Thermopylae, the Greeks were making the best possible use of their forces. As long as they could prevent further Persian advance into Greece, they had no requirement to seek a decisive battle, and could thus remain on the defensive. Moreover, by defending two constricted passages (Thermopylae and Artemisium), the Greeks' inferior numbers became less problematic. Conversely, for the Persians the problem of supplying such a large army meant that the Persians could not remain in the same place for too long. The Persians must therefore retreat or advance; and advancing required the pass of Thermopylae to be forced.

Tactically, the pass at Thermopylae was ideally suited to the Greek style of warfare. A hoplite phalanx would be able to block the narrow pass with ease, with no risk of being outflanked by cavalry (recent core samples indicate that the pass was only 100 meters wide and the waters came up to the gates). In the pass, the phalanx would have been very difficult to assault for the more lightly armed Persian infantry.

The major weak point for the Greeks was the mountain track which led across the highland parallel to Thermopylae, and which would allow their position to be outflanked. Although probably unsuitable for cavalry, this path could easily be traversed by the Persian infantry (many of whom were versed in mountain warfare). Leonidas was made aware of this path by local people from Trachis, and he positioned a detachment of Phocian troops there in order to block this route.

First days of the battle
On the fifth day after the Persian arrival at Thermopylae (which would become the first day of the battle), Xerxes finally resolved to attack the Greeks. First of all, he ordered five thousand archers to fire a barrage of arrows at the Greeks, but the bronze shields and helmets deflected the missiles, leaving no permanent damage.

The Persians soon found themselves launching a frontal assault, in waves of around 10,000 men, on the Greek position. The weaker shields and shorter spears and swords of the Persians prevented them from effectively engaging the Greek hoplites.Even if they did manage to come in contact with a Greek soldier, the Greek armor was far superior to the Persians and their weapons would likely fail. Herodotus says that the units for each city were kept together; units were rotated in and out of the battle to prevent fatigue, which implies the Greeks had more men than necessary to block the pass.

The Greeks killed so many Medes that Xerxes is said to have stood up three times off the seat from which he was watching the battle. According to Ctesias, the first wave was "cut to ribbons" with only two or three Spartans dead. One huge reason for this is the armor, or lack thereof, that the Persians wore. They were not used to fighting organized hoplite armies, but instead using mobility in a guerilla-esque manor, to fight. Because of this, they wore a very light, very thin layer of chain mail that was easily pierced by Greek spear heads. The majority of the Persian force was annihilated, and the few remaining survivors managed to fall back to the safety of the Persian camp.

According to Herodotus and Diodorus, the king, having taken the measure of the enemy, threw his best troops into a second assault the same day: they were called The Immortals, an elite corps of 10,000 men that used complete silence in an attempt to intimidate their enemy. However, the Immortals fared no better than the Medes had, failing to make headway against the Greeks. Once again, this can be largely attributed to their armor. They wore no heavy clothing and carried only wicker shields to protect them. A wicker shield was good only for slashes from a knife or deflection of long-range arrow shots. Once again, the Greek spear heads pierced them easily.

 On the second day, Xerxes again sent in the infantry to attack the pass, "supposing that their enemies, being so few, were now disabled by wounds and could no longer resist." However, the Persians fared no better on the second day than on the first. Late on the second day of battle, however, as the Persian king was pondering what to do next, he received a windfall; a Trachinian traitor named Ephialtes informed him of the mountain path around Thermopylae and offered to guide the Persian army. At daybreak on the third day, the Phocians guarding the path above Thermopylae became aware of the outflanking Persian column.

The last day
Learning from a runner that the Phocians had not held the path, Leonidas called a council of war at dawn. Some of the Greeks argued for withdrawal, but Leonidas resolved to stay at the pass with the Spartans. Many of the Greek contingents then either chose to withdraw (without orders), or were ordered to leave by Leonidas (Herodotus admits that there is some doubt about which actually happened). The contingent of 700 Thespians, led by their general Demophilus, refused to leave with the other Greeks but committed themselves to the fight. Also present were the 400 Thebans, and probably the helots that had accompanied the Spartans.

Leonidas' actions have been the subject of much discussion. The most likely theory is that Leonidas chose to form a rearguard so that the other Greek contingents could get away. If all the troops had retreated, the open ground beyond the pass would have allowed the Persian cavalry to run the Greeks down. If they had all remained at the pass, they would have been encircled and would eventually have all been killed. By covering the retreat, and continuing to block the pass, Leonidas could save more than 3,000 men, who would be able to fight at some later point.

Thespian Hoplite (700 of them
died with 300 Spartans and
some Thebans)
The Thebans have also been the subject of some discussion. The likelihood is that these were the Theban 'loyalists', who unlike the majority of the fellow citizens, objected to Persian domination. They thus probably came to Thermopylae of their own free will, and stayed at the end because they could not return to Thebes if the Persians conquered Boeotia.

It seems that the Thespians volunteered to remain as a simple act of self-sacrifice, all the more amazing since their contingent represented every single hoplite the city could muster. This seems to have been a particularly Thespian trait – on at least two other occasions in later history, a Thespian force would commit itself to a fight to the death.

At dawn Xerxes made libations, pausing to allow the Immortals sufficient time to descend the mountain, and then began his advance. A Persian force of ten thousand men, consisting of light infantry and cavalry, charged at the front of the Greek formation. The Greeks this time sallied forth from the wall to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass in an attempt to slaughter as many Persians as they could.

They fought with spears until every spear was shattered and then switched to xiphē (short swords). In this struggle, Herodotus states that two brothers of Xerxes fell: Abrocomes and Hyperanthes. Leonidas also died in the assault, shot down by Persian archers, and the two sides fought over his body, the Greeks taking possession. Then, the Thebans deserted their allies and surrendered; the Spartans and Thespians retreat to a small hill, where they are killed by Persian archers.

Immortals by King Louise Assurbanipal
Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead. The pass at Thermopylae was thus opened to the Persian army according to Herodotus, at the cost to the Persians of up to 20,000 fatalities. The Greek rearguard, meanwhile, was annihilated, with a probable loss of 2,000 men, including those killed on the first two days of battle.

Famous loss
The Greek position at Thermopylae, despite being massively out-numbered, was near-impregnable. If the position had been held for even slightly longer, the Persians might have had to retreat for lack of food and water.  Thus, despite the heavy losses, forcing the pass was a clear Persian victory, both tactically and strategically. The successful retreat of the bulk of the Greek troops, though morale-boosting, was in no sense a victory, though it did take some of the sheen off the Persian victory. The fame of Thermopylae is thus principally derived, not from its effect on the outcome of the war, but for the inspirational example it set.

After reading this article from Wikipedia, you should ask yourself why people keep mentioning Spartans? Why nobody mentions Thespians? There were actually more Thespians who left till the end than Spartans! Is it only because they were led by a Spartan king, Leonidas? Is it because of his bravado answers to Xerxes?

Herodotus writes that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to block out the sun", he retorted, unconcerned; "So much the better...then we shall fight our battle in the shade."

Herodotus also describes the reception of a Persian embassy by Leonidas. The ambassador told Leonidas that Xerxes would offer him the kingship of all Greece if he joined with Xerxes. Leonidas answered: "If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race." Then the ambassador asked him more forcefully to surrender their arms. To this Leonidas gave his famous answer: "Come and get them."

Criticism of Herodotus and his story
Other sources criticise Leonidas and Herdotus, who also estimated Persian army to ridiculous number of 2.6 lets defend a bit Thebans and show other possibilities.

"The fact that Leonidas asked for reinforcements when the Persian army was already at close quarters, does not say much for his military abilities. There may be much truth in the statement of the great German historian Julius Beloch (1864-1929) that the death of the three hundred was a mistake: their self-sacrifice did not serve any military purpose, except -of course- the removal of an incompetent commander. On the other hand, it may be that Leonidas' kamikaze had a religious motivation: if the oracle announced that the Spartans would loose their town or their king, it was reasonable to sacrifice a king to save the city[...]

Still according to Herodotus, the Thebans, whose support for the cause of Greece was halfhearted, deserted their allies and surrendered. Probably, this has been written with the benefit of hindsight: the Thebans later collaborated with the invader. It is more probable, however, that the Thebans at Thermopylae were fighting for Greece as well. Only when these soldiers, the most anti-Persian men of Thebes, had been taken captive, their town was prepared to collaborate. With some justification, Herodotus has been accused of "malice" by a later author[...]

A final remark must be made about the role of the Thebans. Herodotus' judgment about these soldiers is unfair. In every Greek city, there was a pro-Persian and a pro-Greek party. The Thebans who fought at Thermopylae probably belonged to the latter group, and cannot be blamed for the fact that Thebes surrendered to Xerxes after they had been captured. Already in Antiquity, people criticised Herodotus for this error; the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea even wrote an angry treatise on the subject, called Herodotus' malice".(source)

"It is possible that they also wanted to leave, but that they were trapped when the Immortals arrived. The historian Charles Hignett has famously called the reason why Leonidas stayed "an unsolved riddle", and there's little to add to that conclusion."

What that all means is that we shouldn't really make any definite opinions basing on Herodotus tales and keep some distance. Even today, the reputation of the Thebans remains stained. There are two ugly modern monuments at Thermopylae - one for the Spartans and one for the Thespians. The absence of a monument for the Thebans tells a lot about the popularity of Herodotus.

"A monument was erected on the spot where the Greeks made their final struggle. It was a lion, and we may compare with it the lion set up by the Thebans on the battlefield of Chasronea to commemorate the Sacred Band of Thebes who were all slain there 338 B.C."

Heavy Spartan Hoplite by King Louise Assurbanipal

The courage and honor that apparently Spartans showed are really admirable, however people should remember that this battle wasn't only Spartans last stand and the story can be bit different than some would like it to be. To bring some justice and broad your horizons ;) let me then tell you another story, about 300 Thebans who are famous for their unbreakable spirit, military skills and who would never be an inspiration for a Hollywood movie, even though visually, most of the cast from the "300" movie have much in common with them ;)

The Sacred Band of Thebes

The Sacred Band of Thebes was (according to some ancient sources) a troop of picked soldiers, consisting of 150 pederastic (age-structured) male couples which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BC. Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged relationship between an adult male and a younger male usually in his teens. If that sort of information is new to you then I'm surprised really. I suggest watching the movie "Alexander" (2004) with Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, but we will get to the Alexander at the end of this tale...

It is said to have been organised by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and to have played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra. It was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.

Source: Wikipedia
The Sacred Band of Thebes was made up of one hundred and fifty male couples, the rationale being that lovers could fight more fiercely and cohesively than strangers with no ardent bonds. In his Life of Pelopidas, Plutarch relates that the inspiration for the Band's formation came from Plato's Symposium:
"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 dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; 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?"

The Sacred Band originally was formed of 300 hand-picked men who were couples, each lover and beloved selected from the ranks of the existing Theban citizen-army. The pairs consisted of the older "heníochoi", or charioteers, and the younger "parabátai", or companions, all housed and trained at the city's expense in order to fight as hoplites. During their early engagements, they were dispersed by Gorgidas throughout the front ranks of the Theban army in an attempt to bolster morale.

James DeVoto in his article, The Theban Sacred Band,  says that the Sacred Band trained not only in wrestling and the martial arts but in dance and horsemanship. Pelopidas, the great Theban cavalry commander, can be assumed to have made sure that horsemanship was among their studies. The Band was quartered at the expense of the state and equipped by the state, trained in the gymnasia, and progressed from its initial mission of city guard, through tis time as the Sacred Squadron, to its eventual height of elite unit of 300 and personal guard to Theban generals.

Boeotian/Thebian Hoplite by King Louise Assurbanipal

The Generals of the Sacred Band
Five generals commanded the Sacred Band of Thebes from its inception to its destruction: Gorgidas, who formed them and spread them among the army; Pelopidas, who brought them together, melding them into a cohesive, elite strike force that served as his personal guard and died with them by his side at the Battle of Leuctra; Epaminondas, lifelong friend of Pelopidas, who took control of them after Pelopidas's death; Pammenes, Epaminondas's protégé, who took charge of them upon Epaminondas's death; and Theagenes, who fought and died with them at the Battle of Chaeronea. Plutarch speaks to this in his Life of Pelopidas (Dryden, trans.): 

"Gorgidas distributed this Sacred Band all through the front ranks of the infantry, and thus made their gallantry less conspicuous; not being united in one body, but mingled with so many others of inferior resolution, they had no fair opportunity of showing what they could do. But Pelopidas, having sufficiently tried their bravery at the Battle of Tegyra, where they had fought alone and around his own person, never afterward divided them, but, keeping them entire, and as one man, gave them the first duty in the greatest battles."

The Sacred Band and Pelopidas: Making Thebes Great
Once the Theban general Pelopidas recaptured the acropolis of Thebes in 379 BC, he assumed command of the Sacred Band, in which he fought alongside his good friend Epaminondas. It was Pelopidas who formed these couples into a distinct unit: he "never separated or scattered them, but would stand [them with himself in] the brunt of battle, using them as one body." They became, in effect, the "special forces" of Greek soldiery, and the forty years of their known existence (378–338 BC) marked the pre-eminence of Thebes as a military and political power in late-classical Greece. 

The Sacred Band under Pelopidas fought the Spartans at Tegyra in 375 BC, vanquishing an army that was at least three times its size. It was also responsible for the victory at Leuctra in 371 BC, called by Pausanias the most decisive battle ever fought by Greeks against Greeks. 

The Battle of Leuctra
The decisive issue during that battle was fight between the Theban and Spartan infantry. The normal practice of the Spartans (and, indeed, the Greeks generally) was to establish their heavily armed infantry in a solid mass, or phalanx, some eight to twelve men deep. This was considered to allow for the best balance between depth (the pushing power it provided) and width (i.e., area of coverage of the phalanx's front battle line). The infantry would advance together so that the attack flowed unbroken against their enemy. In order to combat the phalanx's infamous right-hand drift (see article phalanx for further information), Greek commanders traditionally placed their most experienced, highly regarded and, generally, deadliest troops on the right wing as this was the place of honour. By contrast, the shakiest and/or least influential troops were often placed on the left wing. In the Spartan battleplan therefore, the hippeis (an elite force numbering 300 men) and the king of Sparta would stand on the right wing of the phalanx.

In a major break with tradition, Epaminondas massed his cavalry and a fifty-deep column of Theban infantry on his left wing, and sent forward this body against the Spartan right. The Theban left hit the Spartan right with the Sacred Band of Thebes led by Pelopidas at its head. His shallower and weaker center and right wing columns were drawn up so that they were progressively further to the right and rear of the proceeding column. The footsoldiers engaged, and the Spartans' twelve-deep formation on their right wing could not sustain the heavy impact of their opponents' 50-deep column. The Spartan right was hurled back with a loss of about 1,000 men, of whom 400 were Spartan citizens, including the king Cleombrotus I.

Top: Traditional hoplite order of battle and advance.
Bottom: Epaminondas's strategy at Leuctra. The strong left wing advanced more than the weaker right wing. The red blocks show the placement of the elite troops within each phalanx (including The Sacred Band of Thebes

Leuctra freed Thebes from Spartan domination, preparing the way for the expansion of Theban power, and probably for Philip II's eventual victory, since Philip II was a guest-hostage of Pammenes in Thebes and spent time while there with Pelopidas, arguably learning from the great cavalry commander many of the skills and tactics that helped make Macedonia invincible.

Under its last commander, Theagenes, the Sacred Band of Thebes was massacred in a decisive contest with Phillip II's Macedonians at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC). DeVoto in The Theban Sacred Band posits that, with the Macedonian hoplites arrayed in front of Alexander's 2,000 heavy cavalry, the Macedonians allowed the Sacred Band to break its lines and then enveloped them with cavalry by the Cissiphus. This defeat crushed for all time the Theban hegemony. The Theban hoplite infantry could not withstand the long-speared Macedonian phalanx. Theban regular infantry and its Athenian and other allies, their lines broken, fled. James G. DeVoto says in The Theban Sacred Band that Alexander deployed his cavalry behind the Macedonian hoplites, apparently permitting "a Theban break-through in order to effect a cavalry assault while his hoplites regrouped."

The Thebans Sacred Band held its ground and nearly all 300 fell where they stood beside their general, Theagenes. Plutarch records that Philip II, on encountering the corpses "heaped one upon another", understanding who they were, exclaimed, "Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly.”

In the Roman period, the 'Lion of Chaeronea', an enigmatic monument on the site of the battle, was believed to mark the resting place of the Sacred Band. Modern excavations found the remains of 254 soldiers underneath the monument; it is therefore generally accepted that this was indeed the grave of the Sacred Band, since it is unlikely that literally every member was killed.

My conclusion
Now, I'm not trying here to promote homosexuality in army, pederasty or even ancient Thebans ;) but would like you to forget for a second about pictures that popular culture feeds you with and understand that our history is much more complex and ... colourful :) The story of 300 brave men who were the "elite forces" of the Theban army, always fighting in the first line, beating up Spartans on many occasions and finally heroically dying with their general in the battle must be inspiring. Homosexuality doesn't have to be the main theme here. I tried to show one of many inspiring alternatives to Spartan 300 cliche (who died along with 700 Thespians and some Thebans as well). Why nobody shouts or put on their avatars/alliance pages "This is Thebes!"? :)

On the side note as Wikipedia mentions: "its (The Sacred Band of Thebes) pederastic/homosexual nature was a "minority tradition" maintained by commentators of questionable authority. The band's organisation appears in this context to have been typical of the Greek military in general, where any sexual or amorous relationships between comrades were "sporadic" and co-incidental – they were not systematic.", so don't go to far and oversimplify things. Maybe stories about the Sacred Band were over exaggerated little but so the Thermopylae last stand. It doesn't mean we should not be inspired by both stories equally.

No matter how co-incidental that was I cant stop but wondering what happened to the modern society and our values? Two thousands years ago homosexuals were living according to the values shared among their people and it wasn't such a big deal to have different sexual orientation but it was to put shame on the society and family. many people today regard “honor” as an old-fashioned word, while we normally associate the term “shame” with the most private aspects of our lives. In both past
and present Mediterranean societies, however, honor and shame have played a dominant role in public life. Traitors and people with no honor were punished with ostracism and banned from their local societies. Nowadays our society is more concerned about homosexuality in army than about the weakening of moral values, which disappear when people just race after money... but maybe I digress to much.

At the end I would like to share with you fragments of a very interesting article about The Sacred Band of Thebes, their generals, famous Epaminondas and Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Source: historytoday
By Plato's day, the idea that love of other men made warriors brave in battle had become a popular cliche in Greek society. It is not surprising therefore, that Plato had Phaedrus, in the opening speech of the Symposium, praise love in this fashion:
For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover, than a beloved youth. For the principle which ought to be the guide of men who would live nobly – that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honour, nor wealth, nor any other motive is able to implant so well as love ... 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 ... 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? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him.
Uninformed modern readers, coming upon this rhapsody, are likely to discount Phaedrus' notion of an army of lovers as a flight of pure fancy. But the fact is that within a decade of Plato's penning of this speech (usually supposed to have been written about 385 BC) such a military force came into being.

The army that incarnated Phaedrus' heroic ideal was, of course, the so-called Sacred Band of Thebes. This force, created by the Theban general Gorgidas in about 378 BC, was made up, we are told, of 150 pairs of lovers who at first fought interspersed throughout other regiments. Later, under Gorgidas successor, Pelopidas, they fought as a separate contingent of shock troops. Their success was to make Thebes for forty years the most powerful state in Greece, and their fate was in the end the fate of Greece itself.

Theban tradition easily sanctioned such an institution. Thebes, the principal city of Boeotia, and Elis, the town near Olympia where athletes trained for the games, are repeatedly cited as the two states of the Greek mainland which most unqualifiedly encouraged homosexual relations. Xenophon in his Constitution of Sparta observed that such pairings were transitory at Elis but that at Thebes men and boys lived together in a kind of publicly recognised marriage. The cult of Heracles was especially strong in Boeotia. Not surprisingly, it was Heracles and his young lover and companion-in-arms Iolaus who became the patrons of male love at Thebes. Aristotle, in a lost work, described a sacred 'tomb of Iolaus' in Thebes where Boeotian lovers plighted mutual devotion. Plutarch thought the Sacred Band derived its name from this rite, which he notes was still a part of Theban life in his own day some four centuries later. (Two thousand years have changed the moral geography of Europe; male lovers seeking civic recognition of their relationships now find it not in sunny, conservative Greece, but in Norway and Denmark).

In 404 the Peloponnesian War had come to an end after twenty-seven wearisome years with the total defeat of Athens by Sparta. Unfortunately, the victors misused the power peace brought them. Sparta wielded its new hegemony harshly, imposing oligarchic rulers favourable to Spartan interests on states that had formerly had democratic regimes. Among these was Thebes where, in 382, a Spartan commander treacherously seized the citadel and installed new pro-Spartan leaders. Three years later democratic Theban exiles under Pelopidas returned and recaptured the fortress in a daring coup which drove out the Spartans. Conflict with the most formidable military regime in Greece now seemed inevitable. At this crucial juncture Gorgidas organised the Sacred Band, turning the fantasy of the Symposium into a military reality about seven years after its writing.

Among the various legends of the birth of pederasty (which usually ascribed its introduction either to gods like Zeus or to cultural heroes like Minos or Orpheus), one story traced its origin to the abduction of the boy Chrysippus by Oedipus' father, Laius, King of Thebes. Plutarch was clearly unhappy with this legend, since it made the Theban tradition begin with a brutal rape. He denies that this was the root of local custom. Instead he makes the institutionalisation of male love in Thebes a conscious decision on the part of its civic authorities. Finding Theban youth unruly and uncouth, Plutarch tells us, the city's rulers sought to 'relax and mollify their strong and impetuous natures in earliest boyhood'. To this harmonious end, they decided to train them in music and 'give love a conspicuous place in the life of the palaestra [the civic wrestling school], thus tempering the dispositions of the young men'.

Gorgidas, the first commander of the Band, must have been killed in some skirmish shortly after its inauguration, for the next year its leadership passed to Pelopidas, the young Theban who had led the exiles in their assault on the citadel. Now under siege by the Spartans, the Thebans at first hesitated to challenge their redoubtable enemies in a formal battle. But having come unexpectedly upon a Spartan force during a reconnoitering expedition at Tegyrae, Pelopidas daringly attacked. Though the Spartans outnumbered them two or three to one, his spirited leadership won the day.

This unexpected victory gave the Thebans new hope by suggesting that the Spartans were not, after all, invincible.

Plutarch called the undefeated Pelopidas 'valiant, laborious, passionate, and magnanimous'. But his fame was eventually eclipsed by another Theban, his friend Epaminondas. Epaminondas' life contrasted with Pelopidas' in several ways. Pelopidas, though he lived modestly, was wealthy; Epaminondas, despite his renown, remained poor till the day of his death. He declined to participate in the assassination of the Spartanising Thebans, but once the revolt began he joined Pelopidas in re-establishing democracy. Early in their careers he bravely risked his life to save his wounded friend. Though they competed for glory on the same narrow stage they were never rivals, an unusual circumstance among the jealous Greeks. Epaminondas now developed into an orator and statesman as well as a soldier. Indeed, it was he who, at a general peace conference in 571, challenged Sparta's overlordship of the Peloponnesus. In retaliation the Spartan king, Agesilaus, angrily excluded Thebes from the peace treaty. Thebes hastily prepared for full-scale war.

The battle that tried the issue between Sparta and Thebes was one of the most decisive in Greek history. Pausanias called it 'the most famous [victory] ever won by Greeks over Greeks'. It took place at Leuctra in 371. On the battlefield Epaminondas devised a new manoeuvre. He strengthened his left wing and, holding his right wing back, attacked the Spartans obliquely, throwing them into confusion. Then Pelopidas led the Sacred Band to the charge and smashed the squadron commanded by the Spartan co-king, Cleombrotus, who was killed on the field. Epaminondas' current lover, Asopichus, also won fame in the battle. He put up so formidable a fight that, as Plutarch relates, a soldier who later dared to engage him in single combat was on this account granted heroic honours by the Phocians.

Their defeat at Leuctra destroyed at a blow the military supremacy the Spartans had enjoyed for centuries in Greece. In the wake of his victory, Epaminondas invaded the Peloponnesus, freed the provinces of Messenia and Arcadia from the Spartan yoke, and carried the war into the suburbs of the city; this was the first siege the Spartans had suffered during the 600 years since they had occupied the Peloponnesus following the Dorian invasion. Thebes was now the leading power in Greece.

The victorious Epaminondas acted with a magnanimity that contrasted strikingly with Spartan tyranny. Though the hegemony of Greece now fell to Thebes, he declined to subject other cities to Theban domination and pillage as the Spartans and Athenians had done earlier when they yielded power. No doubt he had the intelligence to realise that the economic and military resources of Thebes would not have sustained this enterprise. As a result he won a unique fame as a liberator rather than a conqueror. Discussing the influence of culture and philosophy on such leaders as Pisistratus, Pericles, Timotheus and Agesilaus in his De Oratore, Cicero hailed Epaminondas as 'perhaps the most outstanding figure in Greek history'.

In the meantime the weakening of Sparta left the Peloponnesus in turmoil. Rival factions in Arcadia summoned Thebes and Sparta to their aid and Epaminondas once more found himself face to face with his old foes at Mantinea in 362. His brilliant strategy again routed the Spartans, but at a fatal cost. Diodorus tells a story of his death. Pierced by a spear, he was told he would die when the point was withdrawn from his chest. After conversing with his friends, he said 'It is time to die', and ordered them to withdraw the weapon. Another lover of Epaminondas, Caphisodorus, also died at Mantinea; the two dead heroes were buried together on the battlefield.

"While pressing forward with the troops at Mantinea, Epaminondas was hit in the chest by a spear. Cornelius Nepos suggests the Spartans were deliberately aiming at Epaminondas in the hope of killing him, and thereby demoralizing the Thebans. The spear broke, leaving the iron point in his body, and Epaminondas collapsed. The Thebans around him fought desperately to stop the Spartans taking possession of his body. When he was carried back to camp still living, he asked which side was victorious. When he was told that the Boeotians had won, he said "It is time to die."(source)

he Theban Sacred Band survived for exactly four decades and then met its nemesis in Philip of Macedon. There is kind of irony in this finale, for a crucially formative period of Philip's own youth had brought him into intimate contact with the Band. As a young prince, Philip had been sent to Thebes in 367 at the age of fifteen as a hostage by Pelopidas and remained there for three years. This was shortly before the battle of Mantinea at a time when Thebes was at the height of her prestige. Philip must have been stirred by the victories of Epaminondas and Pelopidas, and fascinated by their new fighting methods. He later revolutionised military tactics by adapting them to his own purposes. Dio Chrysostom even links him intimately to the Sacred Band by making him the beloved of Pelopidas. Perhaps he was, or perhaps this is a purely honorific assumption in accordance with the Hellenic motto, cherchez l'amant. At any rate, Plutarch says Philip lived not with Pelopidas but in the house of Pammenes, the general who was to assume leadership of the Theban army after the death of Epaminondas. Pammenes was an enthusiastic advocate of the Greek theory of military discipline that underlay the organisation of the Sacred Band.

On his return to Macedon, Philip put to use what he had learned at Thebes. When he came to the throne, he built up a strong professional army, and having secured his position in the north, managed by a series of adroit diplomatic manoeuvres to extend his power into southern Greece, with the intention of uniting the entire country under his command. Thebes and Athens belatedly formed an alliance to oppose him. The crucial battle took place in 358 at Plutarch's Chaeronea. The Sacred Band were once more the prime troops of the Greek army, still intact and undefeated, but this was their Gotterdammerung. True to their traditions, they stood their ground, and were killed to the last man, so that the bodies of the 300 lay strewn on the field. In the triumph of victory Philip came upon the remains of the regiment he had known in Thebes as an adolescent thirty years before. Plutarch describes his reaction:
And when, after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the 300 were lying, all where they had faced the long spears of his phalanx, with their armour, and mingled one with another, he was amazed, and on learning that this was the band of lovers and beloved, burst into tears and said: 'Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered aught disgraceful'.
The geographer Pausanias, touring Greece, visited the site 500 years later. In the empty fields overlooking the common grave of the Thebans, before a row of cypresses, he saw their memorial, a gigantic marble lion. It stands there still.During the nineteenth-century war of liberation, a Greek general broke up the lion's pedestal looking for treasure. He found none, but cemented into the ancient base were the spears and shields that belonged to the Sacred Band. On some of the shields can still be made out the names of the friends who fought together. Modern excavations of the battle graves have discovered the remains of 254 men, almost the whole complement of the Sacred Band, laid out in seven rows.

Philip had used Theban lessons to smash Thebes. He did not long outlive his victory. He had succeeded in his effort to unify Greece and stood poised to invade Persia. Then, two years later in 356 he was assassinated at his daughter's wedding under sensational circumstances. Homosexuality does not seem to have been as institutionalised in Macedon as it was in Thebes and Sparta. Nevertheless it played an important part in the lives of several of its monarchs, and, indeed, in Philip's assassination.

Accounts of the murder often speculate on the possible complicity of his wife, the fierce Olympias, and his half-estranged son, Alexander. The full story is less well known, but it is given in circumstantial detail by Diodorus Siculus and confirmed by Aristotle. The polygamous Philip, who 'waged war by marrying' had several wives and numerous mistresses, but he also had male favourites. One of these, Pausanias ('beloved by him for his beauty') had been succeeded in his affections by another younger man, who by chance bore the same name. The elder Pausanias denounced his rival as a whore who did not love the king.

Though Philip was often a rough and brutal man, one is nevertheless struck by the fact that he could have won such devotion. But the sacrifice had further fatal consequences. Appalled at this suicide, Attalus, who was one of Philip's chief generals, invited Pausanias (the elder) to a feast, made him drunk with wine, and had him raped by his muleteers. Pausanias demanded vengeance from Philip. The king was sympathetic but since Attalus was one of his most valued commanders and the uncle of Philip's newest wife, he did not punish him. Pausanias bided his time, then, when Philip was walking in his royal robes unguarded in his daughter's marriage procession, he stabbed him to death before the assembled guests. Pausanias was then killed by Philip's attendants as he fled the scene.

Love between men owed its high prestige primarily to one consideration – its perceived ability to inspire heroic self-sacrifice in men, especially in some military cause. In this respect it supported one of the society's pre-eminent male ideals – that of the courageous warrior, an ideal required by the fact that a city or state that failed to produce such men might face subjugation or even enslavement by its rivals.


  1. I wish a movie would be made to honor all who died a Thermopylae.

  2. I do believe the Thermopylae story to be biased to the Spartan side, and the ancient historians are not well known for being completely truthful. I would think it more that they look at those that did not surrender more brave as they fought to the end knowing that they would all die. But just as there was the hoplites, there was Helots of Sparta also there and most likely killed along with the others, and they too are forgotten.

    As to the "Superman" Spartan vs the Sacred Band, the only difference was that every Spartan citizen was a Soldier, trained from birth, while the Sacred band was only a small unit within Thebes. This does not mean that the Sacred band are lesser, as it has been pointed out that they where just as tough and capable as the Spartans. But Thebes had a small but very distinct advantage over Sparta, that of ingenuity. Sparta fought as it did from early hoplite tactics till the Romans conquests, they did not adapt to changing ideals and strategy being produced. This should no be a negative reflection on Thebes, but more that they out of all the other polis' defeated what was considered the finest army among all Greeks. This in turn changed Warfare again, with Phillip II if Macedon and his son Alexander taking then adapting and refining tactics.

    All in all i do agree with you that there are overlooked things in regards to history, and we will never really know the absolute truth about these events. We can only drawn conclusions based on the second hand knowledge of the ancient historians.