The Sacred Band Of Thebes: An Army Of 300 Gay Lovers
Symposium scene, ca 480-490 BC, decorative fresco from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum, in what is now Italy. Source: (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Archaeological Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
In ancient Greece, much like modern-day San Francisco, homosexuality was an accepted part of life. Homosexual couples often exhibited such devotion to each other that Plato proposed the formation of an army unit composed entirely of gay couples. "Don't ask, don't tell" was definitely not a policy for this army. Here is the story of ancient Greece's Sacred Band of Thebes, an army of gay partners.
In Plato's Symposium, which was essentially a written hypothetical conversation between several characters that were penned around 370 BC, Phaedrus states that an army made up entirely of gay lovers would be a formidable one because each person would fight hard to ensure the safety of their lover. Plato wrote "No man is such a craven that love cannot inspire him with a courage that makes him equal to the bravest born."
The Sacred Band of Thebes
In fact, just a few years before he committed it to text, Plato's idea bore fruit and probably many fabulous parties. Around 378 BCE, an elite fighting division called the Sacred Band of Thebes was formed as a branch of the Theban army, consisting of 150 pairs of gay lovers. It was created by a general named Gorgidas, and one of the first tasks of the newly formed army was to march to the front lines during the famous standoff between Chabrias and the Agesilaus II.
The Army of Gay Lovers Saw Action
The formation of the Sacred Band of Thebes was not merely a publicity stunt. The army engaged in several battles and even played a decisive role in helping Thebes become an important city-state. The earliest known mention of a military engagement of the Sacred Band of Thebes was written in 324 BC by Dinarchus in his work Against Demosthenes. Dinarchus wrote that the Sacred Band of Thebes, led by two generals (and presumably lovers) named Pelopidas and Epaminondas, were victorious over the Spartans in the Battle of Leuctra of 371 BC.
Admission into the Gay Army
Admission into the Sacred Band of Thebes was not open to just anyone. Gorgidas personally selected the 300 members based on their athletic ability and military experience. Each couple fit the model of Greece homosexual relations at the time: an older, dominant gentleman and his younger, passive playmate. The couples chosen to join the division were, according to Polyaenus, "devoted to each other by mutual obligations of love." In fact, the use of the word "sacred" in the company's name is thought to derive from the sacred vow taken between the lover (the older, active lover) and his beloved (the younger, passive lover) before the Shrine of Iolaus in Thebes. (Iolaus was the nephew and beloved of Hercules.)
Trained in Dance and Wrestling
The Sacred Band of Thebes needed to stay in top form in case they were called on to battle an invading army, so when there wasn't an immediate war to fight, the soldiers spent their time in military training and physical exercise. According to surviving documents, the men practiced wrestling and held competitions. They also got down on the dance floor, as it was thought that engaging in the arts would make the soldiers more well-rounded people. It is also highly likely that they developed equestrian skills, as Gorgidas was a former cavalry officer. In all, the training that the Sacred Band of Thebes received was said to be comparable to the elite fighting forces of Sparta.
A Decisive Victory at the Battle of Tegyra
The Sacred Band of Thebes, under the command of Pelopidas, set out to seize the city of Orchomenus, an ally of Sparta's, because they heard that the Spartan troops had left the city unprotected. By the time they arrived at the gates of the city, however, Pelopidas found out that Sparta had sent reinforcements. He ordered his army of gay lovers to retreat back to Thebes, but they ended up caught between the garrison at Orchomenus and the returning Spartans. The Sacred Band of Thebes was vastly outnumbered. Pelopidas strategized on the spot and set a plan in motion to take out the Spartan commanders. Leaderless, the Spartan army faltered and fell to the Thebes.
The Defeat of the Lovers
In 338 BC, the Sacred Band of Thebes was dealt a fatal blow. It came during the Battle of Chaeronea, in which Thebes and Athens joined forces to fight against the forces of Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander. The Sacred Band of Thebes, despite their training, was no match for the mighty Macedonians. The Sacred Band was surrounded and given the opportunity to surrender, but just as Plato predicted, the lovers chose instead to fight to the end. All 300 soldiers of the Sacred Band of Thebes were slaughtered, but they had earned such a reputation that Philip II was reported to weep at the once-mighty army of male lovers reduced to a pile of massacred bodies.
The End of the Army of Homosexuals
After the Sacred Band of Thebes was wiped out at the Battle of Chaeronea, Thebes was defeated. The dominance of Thebes in ancient Greece was over. Never again did the Greeks form a battalion made up exclusively of gay soldiers and their lovers, but there's still hope for the Gaga Brigade.
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