The Lion of Chaeronea, monument to the Sacred Band of Thebes

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The Sacred Band of Thebes (ancient Greek: Ἱερὸς Λόχος τῶν Θηβῶν, Hieròs Lókhos tôn Thebôn) was a troop of picked soldiers, consisting of 150 male couples which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BC. Organised by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra. The Band of Thebes was defeated by Philip II of Macedon (his son, Alexander the Great, was also there) in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.  Plutarch records that the Sacred Band was made up of male couples, the rationale being that lovers could fight more fiercely and cohesively than strangers with no ardent bonds. According to Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas, the inspiration for the Band’s formation came from Plato’s Symposium, wherein the character Phaedrus remarks:

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, 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. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

The Sacred Band originally was formed of 300 hand-picked men who were couples, each lover and beloved selected from the ranks of the existing Theban citizen-army. The pairs consisted of the older ‘heníochoi’, or charioteers, and the younger ‘parabátai’, or companions, all housed and trained at the city’s expense in order to fight as hoplites. During their early engagements, they were dispersed by Gorgidas throughout the front ranks of the Theban army in an attempt to bolster morale.  After 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.’ They became, in effect, the ‘special forces’ of Greek soldiery, 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.

[wc_fa icon=”quote-left” margin_left=”” margin_right=””][/wc_fa]Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly[wc_fa icon=”quote-right” margin_left=”” margin_right=””][/wc_fa]

The Sacred Band under Pelopidas fought the Spartans at Tegyra in 375 BC, routing an army that was at least three times its size, though they retreated before the Spartans reformed. 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 established Theban independence from Spartan rule and laid the groundwork for the expansion of Theban power, but possibly also for Philip II’s eventual victory.  Defeat came at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), the decisive contest in which Philip II of Macedon, with his son Alexander, extinguished Theban hegemony. The traditional hoplite infantry was no match for the novel long-speared Macedonian phalanx: the Theban army and its allies broke and fled, but the Sacred Band, although surrounded and overwhelmed, refused to surrender. James G. DeVoto says in The Theban Sacred Band that Alexander had 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 of the Sacred Band held their ground and nearly all 300 fell where they stood beside their last commander, 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.’  In about 300 BC, the town of Thebes erected a giant stone lion on a pedestal at the burial site of the Sacred Band. This was restored in the 20th Century and still stands today. Although Plutarch claims that all three hundred of the Band’s warriors died that day, excavation of the burial site at the Lion Monument in 1890 turned up 254 skeletons, arranged in seven rows.


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