When it comes to elite fighting forces from ancient history, the Spartans seem to have a monopoly in modern consciousness. This is in part due to the oft-biased focus of historians on the achievements of Sparta and, in more recent terms, big-budget Hollywood movies such as 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, which showcase the prowess of Spartan warriors.
Although their fearsome reputation is well established in the historical sources, they were by no means the only professional soldiers with a formidable reputation on the battlefield that arose from ancient Greece.
For approximately forty years during the 4th century BC, a military unit known as the Sacred Band of Thebes was undefeated on the field of combat. In fact, during this time they even defeated the Spartan army, crushing the image of Spartan invincibility and forever altering the balance of power.
The Sacred Band of Thebes was trained, housed, and paid for by the Greek city-state of Thebes. They were professional fighters, which was quite unusual in ancient Greece. Even more unusually, the Sacred Band was made up of 150 pairs of male lovers, the only known fighting unit comprised in such a way that ancient Greece ever produced.
Established around 379 BC, the elite fighting division was formed as a branch of the Theban army by a man named Gorgidas. The Thebans, with the help of the Athenians, had recently managed to expel a Spartan garrison occupying the Theban citadel of Cadmea. To prevent such an event from occurring again, they realised they needed to beef up their security, so to speak.
Gorgidas handpicked the 300 men, chosen for their physical attributes and military merit, as well as the fact they were all same-sex lovers. Although debated by historians, the idea of such a fighting force could have been inspired by the earlier writings of the Greek philosopher Plato in his Symposium. In this text, Plato argued that a division made up entirely of male lovers could conquer the world.
“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.”
Our modern world would define these 300 men as gay. However, ancient Greece was a different world to ours. Speaking on the SKY HISTORY podcast Not What You Thought You Knew, Stephanie Larson, Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Bucknell University stated: “Gay is not a word we can use of ancient people at all because they didn’t think of the world in these dichotomies (gay, not gay, straight, etc). The sexuality of ancient Greece was on a continuum.”
During their time in the Sacred Band of Thebes, the 300 men were intimately involved in a dedicated same-sex relationship, where an older man was paired with a younger, less experienced lover. The partnership was as much educational as it was sexual, with the elder man acting as a role model and protector for his younger partner. Such relations were common throughout ancient Greece and known as “pederasty”.
According to the Greek historian Plutarch, who provides us with most of the information we have about the Sacred Band, the men swore a sacred vow to one another at the shrine of a divine Theban hero called Iolaus. Iolaus also happened to be one of the lovers of the famous Greek hero Hercules.
With the Sacred Band now formed, the Thebans continued their revolt against the Spartans leading to the outbreak of war. First deployed onto the battlefield in 378 BC, it was during the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BC that they truly made their mark.
Now under the command of a man named Pelopidas, they looked to seize Orchomenus, a city allied to Sparta. Believing it to be undefended, Pelopidas marched the Sacred Band towards the city only to find out Spartan reinforcements were on their way. Unwilling to face the Spartans in open combat, Pelopidas ordered his troops to retreat.
During their return to Thebes, the Sacred Band accidentally encountered the Spartan reinforcements and according to Plutarch, one Theban soldier declared, “We are fallen into our enemy's hands”, to which Pelopidas replied, “And why not they into ours?”
As the battle commenced, the outnumbered Sacred Band targeted the Spartan leadership, successfully killing them in the opening clashes. Leaderless and encountering a force equal in discipline for the first time in their history, the Spartans began to falter. In the end, they would be completely routed with significant loss of life.
The Sacred Band had proven their worth and handed the Spartans their first defeat to a numerically inferior force.
With Thebes now on the rise it was only a matter of time before they came to blows with Sparta again. It would happen at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC when an outnumbered Theban force again came face-to-face with the Spartan army.
The Sacred Band played a pivotal role in the fight, thrusting the Theban army towards victory and in doing so ending Sparta's influence over the Greek peninsula. Thebes was now the most powerful city-state in Greece.
However, its time at the top would be short-lived as further fighting between the Greek states left Thebes weakened and vulnerable to outsider attacks. Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander (future Alexander the Great) had been making inroads into Greece via diplomacy and military action.
Athens and Thebes joined forces to prevent Philip from making any further progress and the two armies met at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. The Sacred Band was placed on the right-wing opposite the forces of those under the command of the young Alexander.
As the battle commenced, it didn't take long before it was clear the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Greek allies were on the back foot. Refusing to surrender, the Sacred Band of Thebes fought to the last man, all 300 of them falling on the battlefield that day.
Plutarch wrote that their heroism even brought Philip to tears as he stood over their lifeless bodies after the fight was over. The 150 pairs of male lovers were buried in a mass grave.
During the 19th century, excavations of the site of the Battle of Chaeronea uncovered the skeletal remains of 254 men laid out in seven rows. They are believed to be the bodies of the fallen Sacred Band.