'An Army of Lovers:' the Sacred Band of Thebes

By Crompton, Louis | History Today, November 1994 | Go to article overview

'An Army of Lovers:' the Sacred Band of Thebes


Crompton, Louis, History Today


The question whether homosexuals make good soldiers has been a controversial issue in many Western countries in the twentieth century. Most NATO nations accept them in their military establishments: Britain, Turkey and Portugal do not. in the United States homosexuals' right to serve has sparked a heated debate on a national scale, recently resolved in favour of a controversial ''don't tell'' policy which allows gays and lesbians to enlist provided they do not divulge their sexual orientation. Given these often negative attitudes, it is intriguing to note that in ancient times, one Greek city state actually recruited a regiment of male lovers, the so-called Sacred Band of Thebes. Modern historians, mainly concerned with the achievements of Athens and Sparta, have paid little attention to their story, but it is a remarkable one, told in some detail by Plutarch.

In ancient Greece, Alcaeus, Anacreon and Pindar celebrated love between males in lyric poetry. Aeschylus, writing of the love of Achilles for Patroclus in his tragedy, The Myrmidons, dramatised its heroic possibilities. Philosophers hailed male love as a source of inspiration and followed Plato in decrying, or Zeno in approving, its physical expression. Cities with every kind of constitution took notice of its influence and directed it to their own political ends. Oligarchies, where an aristocracy or a wealthy few held sway, recognised its power to forge bonds between youths and older mentors within the ruling class. (This was the case in Sparta and in Theognis' Megara). Democracies like Athens, on the other hand, saw in male love a bulwark against oppression, and traced the re-establishment of popular freedom to a famous male couple, the tyrannicides, Aristogiton and Harmodius. But the major source of its prestige was the Greeks' conviction that such relationships could contribute effectively to military morale.

Homer's account in the Iliad of Achilles' devotion to Patroclus - especially his willingness to risk his life in avenging his dead comrade - exercised an enduring influence on Greek culture. This was a potent, if legendary, tradition of love that inspired valour in battle. But what of real history as opposed to epic poetry? The earliest documented instance of idealised homosexual love in a military context appears to be an episode recorded by Plutarch. The incident took place in the so-called Lelantine War between Chalcis and Eretria, two cities of Euboea, the island that hugs the eastern coast of Greece, paralleling the line of the Attic peninsula. Unfortunately we cannot date the Lelantine War with any exactitude - historians, guessing, place it about 700 BC. Plutarch, in his ''Dialogue on Love'', tells us that one side, the Chalcidians, won a victory because of the courage of a general named Cleomachus, who led their Thessalian allies:

His beloved was there and Cleomachus asked him if he was going to witness the battle. The youth said he was, embraced Cleomachus tenderly and put on his helmet for him. Filled with ardour, Cleomachus assembled the bravest of the Thessalians about himself, made a fine charge, and fell upon their enemy with such vigour that their cavalry was thrown into confusion and thoroughly routed. When subsequently their hoplites also fled, the Chalcidians had a decisive victory. It was, however, Cleomachus' bad fortune to be killed in the battle. The Calchidians point to his tomb in the market-place with the great pillar standing on it till this day [i.e. c.AD100].

Plutarch tells us that the Chalcidians, before this, had disapproved of pederasty but after this victory they enthusiastically embraced it.

By Plato's day, the idea that love of other men made warriors brave in battle had become a popular cliche in Greek society. It is not surprising, therefore, that Plato had Phaedrus, in the opening speech of the Symposium, praise love in this fashion:

For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover, than a beloved youth. …

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