The Sacred Band of Thebes: The Other 300 Greeks

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Did you play sports? Do you think you shared a close bond with your teammates? You probably weren’t nearly as close as the elite soldiers (and same-sex lovers) of the Sacred Band of Thebes, a fighting force that consisted of 150 pairs of male partners. All of whom were selected specifically for their romantic interests in one another.

The earliest evidence we have of the Sacred Band dates back to 324 BC in a text by Athenian speech writer Dinarchus. He mentions their leader, general Pelopidas, and that they were responsible for defeating the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

However we received the best account of the Sacred Band from famous Greek biographer Plutarch. According to him, the 300 hand-picked men were chosen for fighting-ability alone, regardless of social class. The 150 pairs consisted of an older man called an erastês (“lover”) and a younger erômenos (“beloved”). We also learned that the Sacred Band was originally formed by a Theban man named Gorgidas.

Early formation

Stationed in Cadmea (the Theban citadel) the Sacred Band initially served to defend the Theban stronghold from foreign invaders. The soldiers themselves lived in housing provided at the expense of the locals and as a result were occasionally referred to as the “City Band”.

Recruits became full members at the ages of 20 to 21, receiving a full set of armor from their erastês (“lover”). Training consisted of wrestling, dancing, and possibly even cavalry maneuvers due to their leader Gorgidas’s prior experience as a cavalryman.

Gorgidas typically used the Sacred Band at the front ranks of a phalanx. When general Pelopidas took control of the Band, he reunited the soldiers as a single unit of shock troops. Their main purpose was to “cut the head off the snake” by killing the enemy’s best men and leaders.

Stand-off with the infamous Spartans

The Sacred Band’s first significant action was in 378 BC during a stand-off between the Athenian mercenary commander Chabrias and the Spartan King Agesilaus II.

Allied with the Athenians, the Sacred Band formed the front ranks of a defensive line protecting the city of Thebes. The Spartans began their advance at their king’s order, slowly approaching the Theban defenders. When the Spartans got within 200 meters Chabrias then gave his famous command to “stand at ease”, causing his mercenaries to all assume the resting posture. Upon hearing the command, the Sacred Band followed suit.

The Spartan king was so stunned by the audacity of the Thebans that he in turn commanded his men to do the same. Both forces stood agonizingly close to one another, shields and weapons down.

Unable to draw the defenders from their advantageous high ground, the Spartans withdrew.

The Battle of Tegyra

In 375 BC, control of the Sacred Band was transferred to Pelopidas and he reformed it into a single elite unit. The new leader heard reports that a nearby Spartan city (called Orchomenus) was left undefended and he set out to capture it before the city’s garrison returned.

As the troop of 300 men approached the city of Orchomenus, Pelopidas quickly realized that the Spartans had reinforced the city before he could arrive. Unable to engage the entrenched enemy, Pelopidas retreated towards Thebes.

On the way back home near the shrine of Apollo of Tegyra, however, he encountered Spartans returning from a neighboring city. Between 1,000-1,800 enemy soldiers surrounded the Sacred Band, outnumbering them by more than 2-to-1.

One of the Thebans remarked to his leader Pelopidas, “We are fallen into our enemy’s hands,” to which he replied, “And why not they into ours?” He ordered his cavalry to charge from the rear while he organized his Sacred Band into a densely packed unit.

As the Spartans confidently charged, the tightly formed Sacred Band punctured a hole through enemy lines and killed the Spartan leaders almost immediately.

Without leadership and facing an elite force, the Spartans were completely stunned and opened their ranks in order to allow the Thebans to escape.

Instead, Pelopidas pressed his advantage and ordered the Sacred Band to attack the Spartan formation’s exposed flank. The Thebans routed the enemy in one swift movement, killing scores of Spartans in the process.

When the battle ended, the Thebans stripped the dead and created a tropaion, a commemorative trophy left at the site of a great victory, before returning to the safety of Thebes.

After the incredible defeat of the Spartans, Pelopidas kept the Sacred Band as a permanent fixture for all subsequent battles.

Even though the battle was quite small, it was the first time that Spartans were defeated by a numerically inferior opponent and it helped dispel the myth of Spartan invincibility.

The Battle of Leuctra

Four years after the Battle of Tegyra and continued hostilities between the two sides, Sparta formally declared war on Thebes. After some maneuvering the armies of both factions eventually met at the small village of Leuctra in 371 BC.

Numbering at roughly 12,000 men, the Spartan forces were comprised of only 700 spartiates (Spartan citizens) while the rest were conscripts of neighboring cities that the Spartans conquered.

The Theban forces, made up of only about 8,500 men (including the Sacred Band), were once again outnumbered by Spartans. In anticipation of the typical Spartan strategy of flanking the enemy with its strong right wing, the Thebans mirrored the enemy formation.

The bulk of the Theban forces were placed in a phalanx on the left flank with the Sacred Band at the front. At 50 men deep, this left the rest of the Theban line spread extremely thin.

The battle began with cavalry charging both armies. Due to the superior training and equipment of the Theban cavalry the Spartan horsemen were quickly defeated and routed. The retreat of the cavalry disrupted Spartan lines, stirring up a massive dust cloud.

Obscured by dust, the large Theban left flank rapidly advanced, unexpectedly smashing into the Spartans. The Spartans reacted by spreading their right wing in an attempt to envelop the enemy.

The Sacred Band detached from the phalanx and quickly dispatched the flanking Spartans while the main Theban forces crushed the enemy lines.

The clash resulted in over 1,000 dead Spartans, including their king. The survivors retreated, requesting a truce from the Thebans which they mercifully agreed upon. According to Greek geographer Pausanias, this was the most decisive battle ever fought by Greeks against Greeks.

In defeating their enemy the Thebans established permanent independence from Spartan rule. This also allowed Thebes to grow in both power and size.

The Battle of Chaeronea

Despite the Sacred Band’s massive victories in the past, the traditional hoplite structure of the Band was sorely out-of-date by 338 BC at the Battle of Chaeronea.

An alliance of city states led by Athens and Thebes engaged an invading force of Macedonians who utilized a new long-speared phalanx. The old-school hoplites were no match for this new method of warfare and the Greeks were forced to flee… except for the Sacred Band of Thebes.

The Sacred Band, surrounded and overwhelmed, refused to surrender despite facing impossible odds. Macedonian forces eventually wore down the Sacred Band, killing all 300 members and their last commander, Theagenes.

Their defeat at the Battle of Chaeronea was a significant victory for Macedonia, as the Sacred Band of Thebes was widely regarded as being an invincible killing machine throughout all of Ancient Greece. If the highly regarded Sacred Band couldn’t defeat the Macedonian phalanx, who could? Greek military leaders quickly learned that their old style of warfare would not work going forward.

Legacy

While the Sacred Band of Thebes may not be the most infamous group of 300 Greeks (*cough* dang Spartans *cough*) they absolutely achieved similarly incredible military feats, staring into the face of death unflinchingly.

After the Battle of Chaeronea, the Thebans erected a Lion statue in memory of their dead. While the Sacred Band may have been vanquished thousands of years ago, their memory and monument still remain to this day.

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