Monday, October 8, 2012

The Sacred Band

The Sacred Band

The Sacred Band of Thebes was a elite troop of selected soldiers, consisting of 150 lovers and beloveds, who formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BC.[1] They were formed by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra. The sacred Band of Thebes was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE.

From Plutarch's Life of Pelopidas, (Dryden, trans.):

"Gorgidas, according to some, first formed the Sacred Band of three hundred 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. Others 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 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's 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."

The Sacred Band and their Tutelary Deity: Rationale and Organization of the Homosexual Theban Sacred Band of 'divine friends.'

From Plutarch:

"It was not the disaster of Laius, as the poets imagine, that first gave rise to this form of [erotic] attachment amongst the Thebans, but their lawgivers, designing to soften whilst they were young their natural fierceness, 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 manners and characters of the youth. With a view to this they did well, again, to make Harmony, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, 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."


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[2], 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? [3] The Sacred Band originally was formed of couples selected from the existing Theban army, who were housed and trained at the city's expense and fought as hoplites.[4] During their early engagements, in an attempt to bolster general morale, they were used by their first general, Gorgidas throughout the Theban army.


James DeVoto in his article, The Theban Sacred Band, (6) 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.

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. For as horses ran brisker in a chariot than singly, not that their joint force divides the air with greater ease, but because being matched one against the other emulation kindles and inflames 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."

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."[5] They became, in effect, the "special forces" of Greek soldiery[6], 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[7] 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. 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 (8) 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."

Tribute and Mystery

Thebans erected a granite lion around 300 BCE at the Sacred Band's burial site. Restored in the 20th Century, it still stands today. Despite Plutarch's claims that all three hundred of the Band's warriors died that day, the mass grave turned up only 254 skeletons, arranged in seven rows, when excavated in 1890. The fate of the missing forty-six Theban Sacred Banders remains unknown, although some later writers have posited that they were taken prisoner by Philip II.


  1. Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18, trans. Dryden.
  2. Plato, "Symposium", trans. Jowett.
  3. Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18, trans. Dryden.
  4. Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18.
  5. Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18: "Up to the battle of Chaeronea it is said to have continued invincible".
  6. James G. DeVoto, "The Theban Sacred Band," in The Ancient World, Vol. XXIII, No.2 (1992)
  7. Official notice at Lion Monument at Chaeronea.
  8. James G DeVoto, "The Theban Sacred Band," The Ancient World, XXIII.2 (1992)
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silvereagle said...

History, even that which is in the form of the written word, that was somehow missed in all the classroom courses and discussions of my life....thanks once again, Joeblow!!!

Anonymous said...

Amazing! I'd heard of the homosexual soldiers, but never in detail.

Peace <3

Coop said...

I've heard of homosexuality in Sparta but this is new to me. Thanks Joe (-: