The Sacred Band of Thebes, Scourge of Sparta


In the aftermath of the First Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the dominant force in Classical Greece. The city of Thebes joined Sparta as allies, but, as it was smaller and militarily weaker, was over time relegated to a role more akin to that of a vassal state. This brought great discontentment to the Thebans, who intended to enter this alliance as equals to the Spartans. The last drop came when Sparta occupied one of their citadels. In response, a group of Thebans led by Pelopidas assassinated the Laconian sympathizers within their walls after the latter had a night of heavy drinking.

Pelopidas, the philanthropist

Pelopidas was a statesman and general of great wealth, from one of Thebes’ most important families. However, he spent his fortune not on himself, but on the poor and needy of his city. It was said that he was ashamed to spend more on himself than the poorest of Thebes could afford to, and lived a frugal and disciplined life.

Epaminondas defending Pelopidas, by Weston, W H; Plutarch; Rainey, W – Plutarch’s lives for boys and girls ,

After the stunt he pulled against the Spartans, he knew he had to prepare for war against the strongest military power in Greece. Let us now explore how battles looked like at the time.

War in Classical Greece

The main unit in use during the Classical Era in Greece was the hoplite. They were, for the time, heavily armoured, carrying a large round shield (the hoplon) and a spear. The hoplites would be organized into a phalanx, a rectangular unit forming a shield wall in the front with spears protruding from it.

sacred band thebes
Phalanx, by F. Mitchell, Department of History, United States Military Academy

These soldiers typically weren’t professionals, being composed by the everyday citizens of the city-states banding together to defend their interests. The most notable exception to this was Sparta, which had a slave-based economy. One of the main purposes of its full-time army was to control slave rebellions, as, according to Herodotus, slaves outnumbered the rest of the population by 7 to 1.

While full time soldiers did have an advantage, hoplite battles weren’t extremely reliant on having highly trained individuals. The leading theory presents that they consisted of both walls pushing against each other, with soldiers in the back pushing the ones in the front, all while wielding their spears against the enemy.

As deaths, injuries and desertions rose, one side would eventually give in and flee, with the winning side starting a light pursuit with no real intention of causing further damage. This meant that these battles had an extremely low casualty rate, which helped integrate them as a “side occupation” for the citizens of these city-states.

An interesting video on the topic can be found

The Sacred Band of Thebes

In order to stand a chance against the might of Sparta’s professional army, Pelopidas needed an elite unit. 300 soldiers, hand-picked by the Theban officer Gorgidas were to form the Sacred Band (Ἱερὸς Λόχος), to be led by Pelopidas himself and his close friend Epaminondas.

Something was unique about this unit, though: it was composed by 150 pairs of male lovers. While we don’t know exactly what inspired the creation of the Band, Plutarch points to the bond between Heracles (commonly known by his Roman name Hercules) and his lover Ioaulos as a possible source.

No man is such a craven that love cannot inspire him with a courage that makes him equal to the bravest born.

Plato, The Symposium

With its new weapon, Thebes went on to gain decisive victories time and time again, crushing Sparta even when vastly outnumbered, establishing itself as the dominant power in the region, spreading classical democracy and shattering the myth of Spartan invincibility.

For in all the great wars there had ever been against Greeks or barbarians, the Spartans were never before beaten by a smaller company than their own; nor, indeed, in a set battle, when their number was equal. Hence their courage was thought irresistible, and their high repute before the battle made a conquest already of enemies, who thought themselves no match for the men of Sparta even on equal terms. But this battle first taught the other Greeks, that not only Eurotas, or the country between Babyce and Cnacion, breeds men of courage and resolution; but that where the youth are ashamed of baseness, and ready to venture in a good cause, where they fly disgrace more than danger, there, wherever it be, are found the bravest and most formidable opponents.

Plutarch, Pelopidas 17

Even as the power of Thebes waned through the following decades, undefeated until they came to fight Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander (later the Great). Phillip, who spent part of his youth in Thebes, went on to implement Theban military innovations into his strategy. It is said that upon seeing the pile of corpses that was the band of lovers, wept and cried out:

“May utter destruction fall upon those who suppose these men did or suffered anything disgraceful!”

Phillip II of Macedon, according to Plutarch, Pelopidas 18

Legacy of Thebes

This is the story of the Sacred Band, a tale of free men fighting for independence and democracy, strengthened by their love, against an oppressor of legendary might, defeated only by what came to be the largest empire the world had seen.

And yet, so few know of it. We all know of the Spartan might and courage, often held as an ideal of masculinity. But they fought to preserve and expand a slave-based oligarchy. Why do we spread the tales of those trained from birth to give their lives for the power of their rulers? Do we value this more than who fighting for freedom and love? We worship those who love the glory of their nation above those who love their fellow citizens. The founding myths of our modern European identity are so often legends of nationalism when our history is full of those who fought for real liberation.

The stories we were told tell us what our society values, but the ones we choose to tell can carve our ideals into the world. And I for certain will spread the tale of the Thebans before that of the Spartans.

-------------------------------------------------------------- SHARING IS CARING! --------------------------------------------------------------


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