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Sacred Band of Thebes
(circa 371 - 338 BC) Greece

Sacred band

Military unit

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The Sacred Band of Thebes, or Theban Band, was a battalion composed entirely of friends and lovers. This military unit, consisting of 150 male couples, was based on the belief that men fighting alongside their lovers would die rather than shame one another. The references to it in later Greek literature are very numerous, and there seems no reason to doubt the general truth of the traditions concerning its formation and its complete annihilation by Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Geat, at the battle of Chaeronea.

With the battle done, and Philip victorious, the Sacred Band were buried on the spot where they had fallen. A soldier himself, Philip, respected valiant opponents, and offered no objection to the Thebans raising a monument in honour of the Sacred Band close by the site of their common grave.

According to Aristotle lovers plighted their faith at Iolaus's (Hercules lover) tomb thus leading to the reference to the Sacred Band.

While some accounts of the Band's demise say the entire complement "fought and died where they stood", archaeological evidence supports the claim that some were taken alive. Excavations have revealed 254 bodies, arranged in "seven soldierly rows". To this day, the bodies remain in their grave.

Thebes was the last stronghold of Hellenic independence, and with the Theban Band Greek freedom perished. But the mere existence of this phalanx, and the fact of its renown, show to what an extent comradeship was recognized and prized as an institution among these peoples.

Lion of ChaironeiaTheban general and tacitian, Epaminondas, is generally credited with establishing the Sacred Band, although some sources claim it was his close friend, Pelopidas, who was responsible for recruiting them.

This corps d'elite first took to the battlefield against Sparta, which had dominated Greece since the fall of Athens in 404 BC. Deploying the Sacred Band on his front left wing, "Epaminondas made his left wing fifty deep and flung it forward in the attack." The "extra weight" of this wing and the "fanatical bravery of the Sacred Band" broke the Sparta right wing, which contained their best warriors. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, the Spartan king was killed and their right gave way.

Witnessing this, the rest of the Spartan forces, who had not yet been engaged, fell back, seeking the protection of their camp, and refusing to renew the battle. Thus, Sparta suffered their first recorded defeat in over 400 years.

The Lion of Chaironeia

The marble funerary monument which marked the communal grave of the Sacred Band of Thebans that was crushed (338 B.C.) in the battle with Philip of Macedonia. It was discovered in 1818 in pieces and was restored on a plinth 3 m. high.

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Some classical citations:

Gorgidas, according to some, first formed the Sacred Band of 300 chosen men, to whom as being a guard for the citadel the State allowed provision, and all things necessary for exercise; and hence they were called the city band, as citadels of old were usually called cities.

opliteOthers say that it was composed of young men attached to each other by personal affection, and a pleasant saying of Pammenes is current, that Homer's Nestor was not well skilled in ordering an army, when he advised the Greeks to rank tribe and tribe, and family and family, together, that so "tribe might tribe, and kinsmen kinsmen aid," but that he should have joined lovers and their beloved.

For men of the same tribe or family little value one another when dangers press; but a band cemented together 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.

Nor can that be wondered at since they have more regard for their absent lovers than for others present; as in the instance of the man who, when his enemy was going to kill him, earnestly requested him to run him through the breast, that his lover might not blush to see him wounded in the back.

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

It is stated that it was never beaten till the battle at Chaeronea; and when 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."

Band of ThebesIt was not the disaster of Laius, as the poets imagine, that first gave rise to this form of attachment among the Thebans, but their law-givers, designing to soften whilst they were young their natural fickleness, brought for example the pipe into great esteem, both in serious and sportive occasions, and gave great encouragement to these friendships in the Palaestra, to temper the manner and character of the youth.

With a view to this, they did well again to make Harmony, the daughter of Mars and Venus, their tutelar deity; since where force and courage is joined with gracefulness and winning behavior, a harmony ensues that combines all the elements of society in perfect consonance and order.

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 many others of inferior resolution, they had no fair opportunity of showing what they could do. But Pelopidas, having sufficiently tried their bravery at Tegyrae, where they had fought alone, and around his own person, never afterwards divided them, but keeping them entire, and as one man, gave them the first duty in the greatest battles.

For as horses run brisker in a chariot than single, not that their joint force divides the air with greater ease, but because being matched one against another circulation kindles and enflames their courage; thus, he thought, brave men, provoking one another to noble actions, would prove most serviceable and most resolute where all were united together.

Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas - transl. by Clough

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And the Lacedaemonians offer sacrifices to Love before they go to battle, thinking that safety and victory depend on the friendship of those who stand side by side in the battle array.... And the regiment among the Thebans, which is called the Sacred Band, is wholly composed of mutual lovers, indicating the majesty of the God, as these men prefer a glorious death to a shameful and discreditable life.

Athenaeus, bk. xiii., ch. 12

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The beloved, when he is found in any disgraceful situation, will be pained at being detected by his lover. 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 ... 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. ... Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Plato

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And among you Thebans, Pemptides, is it not usual for the lover to give his boylove a complete suit of armor when he is enrolled among the men ? And did not the erotic Pammenes change the disposition of the heavy-armed infantry, censuring Homer as knowing nothing about love, because he drew up the Achaeans in order of battle in tribes and clans, and did not put lover and love together, that so "spear should be next to spear and helmet to helmet", seeing that love is the only invincible general. For men in battle will leave in the lurch clansmen and friends, aye, and parents and sons, but what warrior ever broke through or charged through lover and love, seeing that when there is no necessity lovers frequently display their bravery and contempt of life.
Plutarch

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