In the history of the lgbt community in war one of the most ancient and well-known of all regiments has been the Sacred Band of Thebes. Originating as far back as 378 BC this band of soldiers is famous as consisting of 150 male couples in what we would regard today as same-sex relationships. The Ancient Greek attitudes to and definitions of gay sex and love are different to ours so I prefer not to call them “lovers”, even though that is the word most often applied to them.
Last week marked the anniversary of the battle which saw the Sacred Band destroyed by the might of King Philip II of Macedonia and his son Prince Alexander (later called “the Great”) in 338 BC.
You may have seen recent movies and television series which are based in the ancient world (“Gladiator”, “Spartacus”, “300”, “Game of Thrones”, etc.) where computer effects insist on showing biologically impossible amounts of blood and guts flying everywhere. While this is pure artistic licence it still shows how brutal and violent ancient warfare could have been.
The Sacred Band of Thebes were considered an elite fighting force and were formed to defend the city of Thebes from their enemies the Spartans. The number of the soldiers in the Band, 300, was a common number in other Greek army units, which immediately places a new angle on the Spartans own “300” as featured in the film. Interestingly, when the Spartans entered the Ancient Olympics they were often ridiculed for their long, “girly” hair and open displays of affection. By the formation of the Sacred Band, however, the Spartans had turned into the hard-fighting, puritanical force that became a by-word for austerity.
Even though Ancient Greek soldiers were expected to form emotional and sexual bonds with a fellow combatant it seems that only Thebans chose these couples specifically for their Sacred Band. The reason for the Band being sacred may be to reflect the Greek ethos in the training camps and gymnasiums where daily prayers and offerings were made to the god of male love, Eros.
The first successful campaign of the Sacred Band was in 378 BC against a much larger invasion force from Sparta. As part of a Theban-Athenian allied army the Sacred Band helped to force the Spartans to withdraw.
The most decisive victory for the Thebans against Sparta was at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. Once again the Thebans were outnumbered but Spartan command was ineffective and they suffered a crushing defeat. This cemented Thebes’ place as a major independent Greek state and bolstered the Sacred Band as a crack troop of highly disciplined soldiers.
That reputation continued for over 30 years. During that time the state of Macedonia rose in prominence due to the military expertise of its king Philip II. After acceding to the throne in 359 BC Philip began the expansion of his kingdom. To his ultimate benefit he was dragged into what is known as the Third Sacred War by several states, including Thebes, who wanted protection and defence against the states of Phocis and Athens. Eventually, in the face of Philip’s growing power across the Greek peninsula, a peace treaty was negotiated.
Athens wasn’t really happy with the treaty but it kept Philip away, who turned his attention to Byzantium. The pro-war party in Athens succeeded in pushing through an alliance with Byzantium and this was the last straw for King Philip. Heading for Athens he found his route “blocked” by the Thebans whom he hoped would ally themselves with him. Instead they allied themselves with Athens and the stage was set for the Battle of Chaeronea.
Precise details of the Battle of Chaeronea on 2nd August 338 BC are scarce, but it is recorded that at the start of the battle Athenians and their allies were stretched 2½ miles with the Thebans with the Sacred Band on the right wing.
Both sides were equally matched. On the Macedonian side Philip commanded troops on his right wing and his son Alexander commanded troops on the left wing facing the Thebans. After some time of fighting Philip decided to pivot his line of troops clockwise into the Atheneans. At the same time Alexander pivoted his troops anti-clockwise, punching their way through the middle of the Greek line, thereby separating the Thebans from their allies. That was the decisive moment when the Macedonians took control of the battle.
The Theban army cut off by Alexander’s manoeuvre fled. The Sacred Band of Thebes, true to their reputation, stood their ground. Surrounded and outnumbered the 150 couples fought like demons, but Alexander’s soldiers cut them to pieces. Its easy to picture the massacre as it would be re-imagined in modern blood-splattered movies but as usual reality would not have been so graphic but nonetheless violent.
After the battle King Philip surveyed the slaughter. Coming upon the bodies of the Sacred Band he is said to have remarked “Perish any man who suspects that these men neither did nor suffered anything unseemly”, a comment which could also be pertinent in the modern world of homophobia as well as a tribute to the valour of the Sacred Band of over 2,000 ago.
The Ancient Greeks honoured their fallen heroes in battle. After the Battle of Chaeronea the bodies of the fallen were buried and a monument of a lion placed over them. Later excavations discovered 254 skeletons buried 7 rows. Historian believe, as I do, that these could quite possibly be the remains of the Sacred Band of Thebes. It also raises the possibility that 23 couples survived the battle.
In this year of remembrance when war memorials around the world become the focus of commemorations let us not forget the valour of times past.
|The Lion of Chaeronea, the statue placed at the burial site of the 254 bodies believed to be
the Sacred Band of Thebes. Photo Ó Ismene 2011.