There is very little information about 7) Gorgidas of Thebes, but we know something of his military career and experience from the few scraps of information that survive from ancient times. He lived during a time of turmoil. The Second Peloponnesian War of 432-404 BC ended with the victory of Sparta over the other Greek city states. Thebes was the city state who was to successfully bring down the rule of Sparta.
In 373 BC a group of Thebans led by the general Pelopidas regained control of Thebes. This is the period in which the Sacred Band is said to have been formed. Let’s look at some references in ancient sources which might suggest an earlier formation.
It is Plutarch writing in his “Life of Pelopidas” (c.75 AD) who is generally regarded as the main source for the origin of the Sacred Band. He names Gorgidas as their founder, which Plutarch says was after Pelopidas regained Thebes. Sources written a lot nearer the actual event give the foundation of the Sacred Band to another general called Epaminondas. To me this suggests Plutarch may have been wrong. Perhaps he was flagging up Gorgidas’s role because he, like Plutarch himself, came from Chaeronea. The first source which names the Band comes in 324 BC in which Pelopidas and Epaminondas are named as leaders.
Further back in time there are references to a Theban troop of 300 soldiers, the number of men in the Sacred Band, as far back as 479 BC. There are theories among classical scholars that both Plato and Xenophon referred to the Sacred Band when they wrote about same-sex couples and an “army of lovers” fighting side by side in battle. The practice of choosing 300 soldiers was used often when forming armies and these references may or may not be of the Sacred Band of Thebes.
All of this seems to distance 7) Gorgidas of Thebes from the whole story but he was, nonetheless, a vital influence on the Sacred Band. When the Spartans took over Thebes in about 382 BC Gorgidas was a hipparch, the title of a cavalry officer. Under his command would have been around 500 horsemen.
The reclamation of Theban rule began in the winter of 379-378 BC. Pelopidas led a mission into the city and assassinated the puppet rulers. Gorgidas and Epaminondas entered Thebes later and the Spartan garrison surrendered. In his biography of Pelopidas Plutarch mentions Gorgidas as the leader of a troop of young men. Could they have been the Sacred Band?
Sparta retaliated by sending a huge army, 29,000 strong, to retake Thebes. They were halted by a joint Theban-Athenian force of only 18,700. Gorgidas was there in command of the Sacred Band of Thebes. Whether he himself was one of 150 same-sex partners in the Sacred Band is also not recorded, though we can be assured that as a Greek soldier he would have paired up sexually with an older soldier in the training gym, and later paired up with a new, younger trainee.
The Sacred Band was positioned in the front ranks of the Theban-Athenian force. They were what are called hoplites, spear-carrying troops who are our stereotypical image of an ancient Greek soldier. Even though hoplites were not generally members of the standing army it is clear from the records that the hoplites of the Sacred Band were highly trained soldiers.
|Hopites on the attack|
Rather than advance again the Spartans went home. They did, however, leave a small outpost. By the end of that summer raids from this outpost had become so destructive that the Thebans sent Gorgidas to remove them. Again they were outnumbered and Gorgidas ordered a retreat. When the Spartans followed them Gorgidas ordered his troops to turn and attack. The Spartans dispersed and fled.
The Spartans sent yet another army. Again, after a lot of skirmishes they were forced to retreat. Greece now thought that Sparta was not as invulnerable as it had led everyone to believe.
We hear nothing of Gorgidas after this. Perhaps he was killed in one of those last skirmishes. Greek generals don’t usually retire quietly into obscurity.
The Sacred Band continued to be a force to be reckoned with. Their first success was at the battle of Teygra in 375 BC where they were led by Pelopidas. Thebes supplanted Sparta as the dominant state in Greece after the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC at which the Sacred Band played a crucial part in the Theban victory.
By this time the Macedonian state was on the rise and the final battle the Sacred Band of Thebes took part in was at Chaeronea in 338 BC where they were defeated by Philip of Macedonia and his son 6) Alexander the Great. In August 2014 I wrote about this battle, so I’ll direct you there if you’d like to know more.
The Sacred Band are commemorated at Chaeronea with a statue of a Macedonian lion. The Band became the inspiration for a secret society of Victorian gay writers and reformers which was named after the battle site – the Order of Chaeronea. I celebrated the Chaeronean New Year last summer with this article.
One member of the Order of Chaeronea, a friend of its founder George Cecil Ives, was 8) Montague Summers (1880-1948).Next time: How to Kill a Vampire – we see how a clergyman has some horrific connections.