The idea of having a relationship with someone of the same gender was almost nonexistent during ancient times. Some allowed same-sex union, like in Ancient Mesopotamia, some regions of China, and ancient Greece and Rome. Being openly homosexual (and all the other gender identities we have now) was not accepted until recent times.
The military was even more unaccepting. For instance, same-sex relationships were criminalized and could be a reason for being discharged. In the 1940s, it was even considered a mental illness, thus a reason to be not accepted in the army. In 1982, gay men and lesbians were explicitly banned from holding ranks. To think that these years were not too far away from now, you would be surprised to know that same-sex relationships in ancient Thebes were permitted and valued in the 4th century BC.
Forming The Sacred Band of Thebes
The Sacred Band of Thebes members were professional fighters trained, housed, and paid for by Thebes’ Greek city-state. They were considered professional fighters, which was not common in ancient Greece. Before they were formed, there was only the Theban army. However, after the Spartan garrison managed to occupy the Theban citadel of Cadmea and the Thebans had to ask for the Athenians’ help to expel them, they realized they had to form an elite fighting division to prevent the same thing from happening again. Led by Gorgidas, the Sacred Band was created as a branch of the Theban army.
Gordigas handpicked 300 men. He selected them not only because of their physical attributes and military merit but also because they were all same-sex lovers, thus forming 150 pairs. There were some debates among historians on whether the idea was inspired by the writing of the Greek philosopher Plato in his The Symposium. In his book, he said,
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 dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; 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.
The 300 men were involved and dedicated in their relationship, and the setting was that an older man was usually paired with someone younger and less experienced in combat. Such partnership was joined throughout ancient Greece, known as pederasty. However, in the case of The Sacred Band of Thebes, their pairings were more for educational purposes than sexual, as the older men acted as role models and protectors for their younger pair.
The arrangement proved to be effective for its purpose. The Sacred Band of Thebes was undefeated on the field of combat. Now with an elite army, the Thebans continued to revolt against the Spartans. This soon led to the outbreak of war. Their first deployment onto the battlefield was in 378 BC.
Their great battle, however, was in 375 BC during the Battle of Tegyra. Under the command of Pelopidas, the Sacred Band first marched to the Sparta-allied city of Orchomenus, thinking it would be undefended, only to find out that Spartan reinforcements were on their way. Pelopidas did not want to face the Spartans in open combat, so he immediately ordered the troops to retreat. On their way back to Thebes, though, they accidentally encountered the same Spartan reinforcements they were trying to avoid. One of the soldiers reportedly declared. “We are fallen into our enemy’s hands,” with which Pelopidas answered, “And why not they into ours?”
Just like an epic line before the climax of a film, the battle commenced between the Spartans and the outnumbered Sacred Bands. Their tactic was to target the Spartan leadership that they successfully killed. The remaining force was left leaderless. They soon began to falter until they backed down after suffering heavy losses.
Their Final Battle
The Sacred Band of Thebes’ rise was short-lived, as their forces were soon weakened after many attacks from the outsiders. Nevertheless, Thebes and Athens joined forces to prevent Philip II of Macedon from further conquering lands, and they fought at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
Their forces were outnumbered, but the Sacred Band of Thebes refused to back down until the last of them fell that day. The pairs were buried in a mass grave, and during the 19th century, 254 skeletal remains of men laid out in seven rows were excavated on the battle site. These remains were believed to be the bodies of the brave Sacred Band of Thebes.