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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 age-structured couples, which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BC.[1] It was organised by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra. It was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.

Contents

Composition

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[2], 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 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. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?
[3]

The Sacred Band originally was formed of picked men in couples, each lover and beloved selected from the ranks of the existing Theban citizen-army. The pairs consisted of the older "heniochoi", or charioteers, and the younger "paraibatai", or companions, who were all housed and trained at the city's expense and fought as hoplites.[4] During their early engagements, in an attempt to bolster general morale, they were dispersed by Gorgidas throughout the front ranks of the Theban army.

Ascent

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."[5] They became, in effect, the "special forces" of Greek soldiery[6], 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.

The Sacred Band under Pelopidas fought the Spartans[7] at Tegyra in 375 BC, vanquishing an army that was at least three times its size. 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.

Destruction

Defeat came at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), the decisive contest in which Philip II of Macedon, with his son Alexander, extinguished the Theban hegemony. Some later writers assert that Alexander became the first to break through the Band's line,[8] which had hitherto been thought invincible. 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. It held its ground and fell where it stood. 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.
[9]

Legacy

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 only 254 skeletons, arranged in seven rows.[10]

Notes

  1. ^ Ludwig, p. 60.
  2. ^ Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18: "It is probable, therefore, that the Sacred Band was so named, because Plato also speaks of a lover as a friend inspired from Heaven." Aubrey Stewart & George Long translation.
  3. ^ Plato, "Symposium", trans. Jowett.
  4. ^ Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18.
  5. ^ Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18.
  6. ^ Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18: "Up to the battle of Chæronea it is said to have continued invincible".
  7. ^ There are numerous similarities in military approach between the Spartans and the Sacred Band.
  8. ^ Indeed, he is believed also to have been the first in this battle to have charged at it, but no early account supports this.
  9. ^ Plutarch, "Pelopidas" 18, trans. Dryden.
  10. ^ Official notice at Lion Monument at Chaeronea.

References

  • Paul Walter Ludwig, Eros and Polis: Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory. Cambridge, 2002.

See also

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