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The Sacred Band of Thebes


Archaeological Survey of the Mass Burial at Chaeronea, 1880. Image courtesy of Markley Boyer / Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Directorate of the Management of the National Archive of Monuments, Department of the Historical Archive of Antiquities and Restorations via The New Yorker.

In 338 BCE, over thirty-five thousand men took to the fields of Chaeronea (1) and fought valiantly against King Philip II of Macedon, and his son, Alexander.


Of those thirty-five thousand men, in the middle of the battlefield with clashing shields and charging spears, was a small, specialist group of three-hundred warriors: the so-called Sacred Band of Thebes. (2) These men, along with countless others, joined the fight against the conquering Macedonians, in the pursuit of Greek freedom.


A band of three-hundred elite men was not an uncommon sight in ancient Greece. Almost one hundred years prior, in 480 BCE, during the infamous Battle of Thermopylae, the bravery of three-hundred Spartan warriors against the Persian king, Xerxes, was recorded for posterity. (3)


Much like the Spartan three hundred, Philip and Alexander ultimately annihilated the Theban band. (4) But it is not the similar fates of these respective groups of men that piques the curiosity of the modern reader. It is that the Sacred Band of Thebes was a force, as we are told, of one hundred and fifty pairs of male lovers. (5)


Epaminondas defending Pelopidas. c. 1900s. Theban general Epamindonas defending the captain of the Sacred Band, Pelopidas, against the advancing Spartans.

The city of Thebes, where this band had been founded in 378 BCE (6) was particularly unique in how it regarded eros, love, between men.


In Plato’s Symposium, the youthful Pausanias claims that amongst the Boeotians (principally the Thebans), “the rule has been laid down straightforwardly that it is right

to gratify (male) lovers, and no one, young or old, would say that it is wrong." (7)


Xenophon, a contemporary of Plato, also declares that “among the Boeotians, a man and a youth live together suzugentes" – 'yoked together', a word that elsewhere refers to a bond of lifelong marriage. (8)


Of course, it was not uncommon for male-male encounters to be pursued by ancient Greek soldiers, demonstrated through the institutionalised practices of homoeroticism in Spartan militia and the cities of Crete. (9) The very act of homoeroticism was thoroughly incorporated into the educational systems of the Greek world. It was a means to lead a boy into adulthood, and by the Classical period, it extended into higher culture: “from the military to athletic games, from philosophy to historiography.” (10) Thebes’ official support of male eros throughout its polis (city), would, then, actively improve all of Theban society. (11)


But why would Thebes want to specifically create an elite unit of bonded male lovers, if

homoeroticism was already part-and-parcel of ancient Greece’s cultural fabric?


According to Plato’s philosophical thought, lover-soldiers would inspire the courage and bravery needed on the battlefield. Plato tells us that:


The last person a lover could bear to be seen by, when leaving his place in the battleline or abandoning his weapons, is his boyfriend; instead, he’d prefer to die many times. As for abandoning his boyfriend or failing to help him in danger – no one is such a coward that he could not be inspired into courage by love and made the equal of someone who’s naturally very brave. The Symposium, 179a

Supposedly, if such a small band spurred on by love “fought side by side, they could defeat virtually the whole human race.” (12) The Sacred Band of Thebes, with eros as their willpower and their weapon, would theoretically be an armed force to be reckoned with.


And yet, the ancient texts that explicitly mention the Sacred Band of Thebes are surprisingly far and few between, each with varying degrees of historical value. Only eleven texts by nine different authors reflect on the Sacred Band of Thebes, and of those, six mention an erotic composition. (13) Even Plato’s mention of “a small band” may not necessarily indicate the love-warriors of Thebes.


So, that leads us to consider the question:


Did the Sacred Band of Thebes really exist, or was it simply a philosophical metaphor about the importance and power of male-male love?


Scholars such as David Leitao argue the latter; that the Sacred Band was simply a fanciful real-world analogy, used in literary texts to support the utopian ideal of a city or an army built from the ennobling bonds between two male lovers. (14)


Historian and author of The Sacred Band, James Romm, however, champions the debate that the Theban love warriors truly did exist, in all its eros, and all its glory.


The discovery in 1880 of almost 300 skeletons underneath the soil of Chaeronea, as Romm explains, is believed to be final resting place of the Sacred Band of Thebes after their tragic clash with the Macedonian army. (15) Plutarch in the first century CE emotionally speaks of this burial in Chaeronea:


“When, after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the three hundred 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.’” — Pelopidas, 18.5

Such was the powerful display of eros to Philip, so moving that it brought the great king to tears. Marking the burial site, a marble lion was erected in honour of the fallen, acting as a “symbol of their courage.” (16)


The Lion of Chaeronea, reconstructed in 1880. The low wall encloses the mass grave of the Sacred Band of Thebes.

To this day, beneath the proud lion, a fierce protector of heroes and warriors, are the skeletal remains of the supposed Sacred Band of Thebes. The bodies had been reburied as quickly as they had been found. Some of the brittle bones were not just lacerated and scarred, a grim reminder of the fury of war, but also with arms linked at the elbows, in a display of camaraderie and affection. (18)


Whether the burial site contains the remains of the Sacred Band of Thebes, if they even existed at all, is still a contentious point. But it is not the legitimacy of those three hundred men that should be recognised. At the very core of the Sacred Band, whether they were flesh and blood, or a philosophical dream, is eros. Love not just between two men, but love that can transcend peace and war, and life and death; love that inspires courage and bravery; love that can take over the world.


The Sacred Band of Thebes offers us a reminder that it is not just the violence of the past that will remain in the history books, but all its amorous passion, too.

 

Written by Tobias J. Fulton

Tobias J. Fulton is a tutor for the Department of History at La Trobe University, where they completed a Masters by Research in Classics. Their thesis explored the concepts of sexuality and identity in antiquity and its influence on modern audiences.

Footnotes

  1. Romm 2021, p. 239.

  2. Crompton 1994, p. 25.

  3. Herodotus, 7.224.1-2.

  4. Leitao 2002, p. 143.

  5. Crompton 1994, p. 25.

  6. Ibid., 25.

  7. Plato, 182b.

  8. Romm 2021, p. 12.

  9. Leitao 2002, p. 144.

  10. Percy 2005, p. 14.

  11. Romm 2021, p. 12.

  12. Plato, 179a.

  13. Leitao 2002, p. 145.

  14. Ibid., 162.

  15. Romm 2021, p. 3-4.

  16. Pausanias, 9.40.5.

  17. Romm 2021, p. 3.

  18. Romm, p. 3-4.

Bibliography

Primary

  1. Herodotus, The Histories, tr. A. de Selincourt (London: Penguin Books, 1996).

  2. Plutarch, Lives, tr. B. Perrin (London: Harvard University Press, 1917).

  3. Pausanias, Guide to Greece I: Central Greece, tr. P. Levi (London: Penguin Books, 1979).

  4. Plato, The Symposium, tr. C. Gill (London: Penguin Books, 1999).

Secondary

  1. Crompton, Louis, “‘An Army of Lovers’: The Sacred Band of Thebes’”, History Today, 44/11 (1994), pp. 23-29.

  2. Percy III, William Armstrong, “Reconsiderations About Greek Homosexualities”, Journal of Homosexuality, 49/3-4 (2005), pp. 13-61.

  3. Leitao, David, “The Legend of the Sacred Band” in Martha C. Nussbaum & Juha Sihvola (eds.), The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome (Chicago: Chicago Press, 2002).

  4. Romm, James, The Sacred Band (New York: Scribner, 2021).

In collaboration with the Hellenic Museum team, Tobias has been central to the creation of the upcoming, sold out Pride Month event Greek Love: Desire, Sexuality and Identity in the Classical World. This event has also been made possible with the support of our sponsors, Melbourne Gin Company.


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