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Sacred Band of Thebes: An All-Gay Army Battalion in Ancient Greece

Thebes Hegemony in Ancient Greece: 

Ancient Greece: the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (Greece’s 2 major fighting forces) waged from 431 to 405 BC.

map
Athens is next to Thebes in Blue. Source Click HERE 

 

You’ve probably heard of Sparta. Most Likely for their show of bravery and Valor during the Persian War at the battle of Thermopylae, which occurred in 480 BC (years before the Peloponnesian War).

Even before this historic battle, Sparta had a reputation for being an army that was invincible

Sparta is categorized as this all-out military state. They prided themselves on hardcore army strength and had one of the best land armies in Greece. They were seen as more of a conservative society focused on their military and fought with brute strength.

Athens is categorized as a strategic society that prided itself on being progressive with art and writing. They had more money and focused their military might on their Navy.

Sparta wanted to push back Athens’s expanse of Democracy in Greece to establish oligarchs throughout the region.

Oligarchs are governments where a small group of people are in control of the masses

A more modern example of the Peloponnesian war between two political ideologies would be the cold war, where Western Democracy (backed by the USA) had allies all around the globe fighting against Eastern Communism (Backed by the Soviet Union).

One can draw a lot of parallels between the Cold War and the Peloponnesian war.

Both Sparta and Athens got a lot of allies to back their respective causes. Almost every city state was involved in this epic war.

Among Sparta’s allies was Greek City State of Thebes

By: 405 BC, the Peloponnesian War ends

Sparta comes out on top and begins their hegemony (rule) as the head honcho in Ancient Greece

Sparta, known for their skull cracking military prowess, kept other Greek City States in line with fear

Some of the other City States, even ones that were allies with Sparta during the war, started to not like Sparta’s iron fist rule and were now rebelling

Among them was Thebes

Thebes had started to create an alliance in their region known as the Boeotian Confederacy. The Boeotians (lead by Thebes) were quickly becoming a 3rd major force to be reckoned with in the Greek Peninsula alongside Athens and Sparta. The Boeotians and Thebes are used interchangeably here.

boeotian league
Source Click HERE

Sparta was beginning to Worry about the Boeotians, especially because Athens seemed to be on Thebes/Boeotians side

But Thebes attacked Plataea, an Athens backed City, So Athens was like “You’re on your own Thebes, or Boeotians, or whatever you’re calling yourselves these days”

athens
Source Click HERE

And the Boeotians were like “fine, be that way, we don’t need you anymore, we’re becoming our own major power in the Region!”

War started to break out all over the place in Greece, Athens was at war with Sparta again, Sparta got in some altercations with Thebes, so Sparta called a Peace Conference to cool things down a bit.

At this conference was Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Macedonia, and Persian King Artaxerxes

Everyone ended up voting for Peace. It all looked good, but then the very next day, Theban Delegation Leader Epaminondas wanted to sign the Peace Treaty for all the Boeotian League.

Spartan King Agesilaus, refused because this would basically confirm that Thebes is the head of the entire Boeotian force (which it practically was) but Sparta wasn’t going to give a thumbs up to their biggest threat so far

Epaminondas came back at him by saying “well if all the city states in Boeotian territory should get to sign independently, then all the city states in your Peloponnesian territory should get to sign for themselves too. If Thebes can’t represent all of Boeotia, then Sparta can’t represent all of Peloponnesian!”

The dispute caused Spartan King Agesilaus to kick Epaminondas and all of Thebes from the peace conference. Epaminondas rushed home to Thebes to prepare for WAR!

After a few small altercations between Thebes (Boeotians) and Sparta, the Spartan King Cleombrotus marched a large-scale army to squash Thebes and their insolent Boeotian forces

As I said before, Sparta had the reputation for being the biggest and baddest army in Greece and had this reputation for a very long time, even before the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC

However, in 375 BC, before King Cleombrotus marched on Leuctra, the Spartan War Party had suffered their first loss to Theban General Pelopidas in the battle of Tegyra

Although it was a small battle, it placed a crack in Sparta’s reputation of invincibility… a crack that was about to exploited at the Battle of Leuctra

Battle of Leuctra 371 BC (just 10 miles outside of the City of Thebes) Theban Leaders were reluctant to confront Cleombrotus’ s Spartan forces on the battlefield.

Sparta had a lot of soldiers (10,000 infantry and 1,000 Calvary according to Plutarch) whereas Thebes only had about 6,000 infantry and 1,500 Calvary. So, Sparta’s numbers 11K and Thebes numbers 7.5K.

leuctra
Source Click HERE

Greek infantry in this battle were mainly Hoplites:

hoplite
Source Click HERE

It was Commander Epaminondas the general who was kicked out of the Spartan Peace Conference and Pelopidas (the first General to beat the Spartans at Tegyra) who swayed their fellow Theban leaders to be brave face Sparta on the battle field

Early July 6th, 371 BC, Thebes Marched on King Cleombrotus’ s Spartan camp near Leuctra

Confident in their numbers and military prowess, The Spartans formed a simple formation of an even-lined Phalanx of infantry… armed with large Shields, swords, and spears.

As customary, the right side of the Phalanx was comprised of the Spartans most battle-hardened elite soldiers known as Spartiate’s

The only move the Spartans used other than their even line of Warriors, was their inexperienced cavalry was placed out in front alone

The Spartans expected their enemies the Thebans to mirror their simple lined formation (with Thebe’s best warriors on their own right side) and hope for the best, but General Epaminondas had a plan

The Boeotian forces chose not to form a simple line, instead they put a huge force of their most seasoned warriors (including the Sacred Band of Thebes) lead by Pelopidas on their own left flank.

good form
Source Click HERE

So, Thebes had a huge force with about 50 ranks deep, on their left facing the Spartans top soldiers and Generals. This was to add pushing power against the Spartans. This was a Risky formation, because the rest of the Boeotian line was very thin, just a few ranks deep. The Thebes also put their Cavalry out front

formations
Source Click HERE

Now, before I get in to how the battle played out, a little side note: The Sacred Band of Thebes is important to touch on here: In 378 BC, Theban General Gorgidas created this branch of the Theban army. It was comprised of 300 of the Thebes best and brightest warriors. They were 150 pairs of gay lovers. The thought was that their love for each other would push them to fight with wild bravery.

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

A Quote from HistoryDaily.Org: “Admission into the Sacred Band of Thebes was not open to just anyone. Gorgidas personally selectedthe 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.)”

In times of Peace, the Sacred Band kept in shape by holding Wrestling tournaments, and dance competitions engaging in various arts to make them more rounded individuals

The Sacred Band was Led by Pelopidas and Epaminondas (some speculate these two were lovers themselves)

The Sacred Band were a crucial part in defeating Sparta at the Battle of Tegyra being led by Pelopidas.

Now back to these 300 gay warriors facing off against the most elite soldiers of the most fearsome military force in Ancient Greece, the Spartiates.

Before the infantry of the two sides went at it, Their Cavalry forces out front went into battle. The Boeotian Cavalry was larger in number and more experienced than Spartan cavalry. the Theban cavalry was victorious. The Spartan cavalry retreated to their infantry, causing temporary disarray.

Meanwhile, the Theban’s large left flank (lead by Pelopidas and the Sacred Band) were advancing toward the Spartan’s most elite soldiers.

cleom
Source Click HERE

Spartan King Cleombrotus now noticed the Theban’s odd formation and tried to shout orders to change formation, but it was too late. The Boeotian force’s huge left Flank had already started slamming in to Cleombrotus’ s elite right flank. The Spartan’s Kings orders could not be heard over the deafening sound of battle between two of the greatest fighting forces the Greek Peninsula had ever seen

Both the Spartans and the Theban Boeotian Forces were losing men, but the Boeotian forces had stacked their left flank so deep it was pushing through the Spartans with Ease

Pelopidas saw an opening where King Cleombrotus was vulnerable. He led the Sacred Band forward and was able to fatally wound the Spartan king. The Spartan soldiers were caught off guard and were bound by duty to retrieve their King’s body.

The Spartans were successful in reclaiming Cleombrotus’ s body, but in doing so caused even more chaos among their ranks. On top of this, Pelopidas and the Sacred Band had slain many of the Spartan’s most senior officers of their elite forces.

The loss of their King, senior officers, and the sight of their best warriors retreating with the King’s body cause the rest of the Spartan forces to retreat

General Epaminondas and Pelopidas had won the Battle of Leuctra

Over 1,000 Spartans died (400 were the elite Spartiates)

King Cleombrotus was the first Spartan King to die in Battle since King Leonidas who led the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. This was the said to be the Only time a Spartan Army lost to a numerically inferior force

The Spartan reputation of invincibility that was cracked at the small Battle of Tegyra, was now completely obliterated and with it, the Spartan hegemony that had been in place since the Peloponnesian war, was also destroyed. The Thebes were the new big kids on the Greek Block. However, GREAT things were brewing just North of Greece.

King Phillip II of Macedonia (who had been held hostage in Thebes in his younger years learning of Theban War practices and strategies) now had a HUGE army of Macedonians and was bent on subjugating all of Greece under his Macedonian Banner.

Since the Great Power Houses of Greece (Sparta, Athens, and Thebes) had been warring among themselves for so long, they were left weakened

In 338 BC, at the Battle of Chaeronea, King Phillip II (accompanied by his 18-year-old son Alexander [later to be known as Alexander the Great]) defeated the Thebes and their Sacred Band.

It is said that young Alexander the Great was the first to defeat the Sacred Band and he witnessed their members go into furies of rage once each of their lovers fell.

King Phillip would be assassinated 2 years later in 336 BC, but his son Alexander would go on to Conquer most of the known world leading troops all the way to India (but that is a different story)

The Mighty Macedonians conquered and subjugated all of Greece for nearly 200 years until the Romans came to power in 146 BC

King Phillip gave the Sacred Band a chance to surrender, but they fought until the last man. Sources say King Phillip II wept at the sight of their slain bodies, because he was so moved by their bravery. The Sacred Band, first warriors to defeat the Spartans of greater number of their own were wiped off the face of the earth. never again would Greece have a military branch quite like it.

 

Sources:

  1. The Battle fo Leuctra 371 BC
    1. by Baz Battles
    2. I got a lot of the still shots above from this source. Their video is amazing
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nw37TLTjg2A
  2. Battle of Leuctra
    1. by Mark Cartwright at Ancient History Encyclopedia
    2. https://www.ancient.eu/Battle_of_Leuctra/
  3. The Sacred Band of Thebes: and Army of 300 Gay Lovers
    1. by Karren Harris at HistoryDaily.org
    2. https://historydaily.org/the-sacred-band-of-thebes-an-army-of-300-gay-lovers

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