The Sacred Band of Thebes

While the Spartans are better known as the elite warriors of Ancient Greece, their domination of the battlefield was effectively ended after the city state’s defeat by Thebes during the Boeotian War. The elite of the Theban army were key to establishing Theban hegemony in central Greece, playing a pivotal role in the defeat of the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra. Known as the Sacred Band of Thebes, they were unique in history in that they were made up of 150 male couples. 

Much of the detail regarding the composition of the Sacred Band comes from the writings of the philosopher Plutarch. He recorded that the band comprised 300 hand-picked soldiers, selected purely for their skill and ability, rather than social standing. Each member took a lover from within the Band, with couples generally being formed of an older man, known as the erastes, and a younger man known as the eromenos. Plutarch also indicated that the name Sacred Band referenced the vows between couples, made at the shrine of Iolaus (an argonaut and the male lover of Heracles). 

An 1842 painting depicting the ancient city of Thebes. Image: Bavarian State Painting Collection

The Sacred Band were first formed to garrison the Cadmea, a fortification at the centre of the city of Thebes, following a revolt by the Thebans against the Spartans that had captured the city four years previously. The uprising eventually evolved into what became known as the Boeotian War, pitting the Spartan-led Peloponessian League against the Boeotian League, headed by Thebes and supported by Athens. During early conflicts the elite Sacred Band were spread across the front ranks of the Theban hoplites to strengthen the line, with lovers lining up next to one another. However, the Theban general Pelopidas eventually repurposed them as shock troops, tasked with breaking enemy resolve by closing with and killing their best soldiers and commanders.

The first battle that the Sacred Band fought as a single unit was the Battle of Tegyra in 375 BC. After rumours reached Thebes that the Spartan garrison at Orchomenus had fled, Pelopidas, the Sacred Band and a small number of cavalry were dispatched to capture the city. On their arrival, however, they found that the garrison in truth had been reinforced, with over 1,000 Spartan soldiers now present. Confident in their weight of numbers the Spartans advanced to meet the Theban army, while Pelopidas formed up the Sacred Band in a tight defensive formation. Both Spartan commanders were killed by members of the Band almost immediately after the two forces engaged, allowing the Thebans to rout the leaderless Spartans. 

Pelopidas commanding the Band at the Battle of Leuctra. Image: Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History

Spartan domination of the Greek peninsula, established after their victory in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, was eventually broken by the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra. Taking place in July 371 BC, a numerically superior Spartan army deployed in an attempt to roll up the Theban line along their left flank, a common Spartan tactic. Anticipating this, the Theban commander deployed Pelopidas and the Sacred Band on his left wing. Advancing in a staggered, diagonal line, the Thebans concentrated much of their hoplites on the left behind the Band, shattering the Spartan right before they could redeploy to counter the unconventional formation. Over 1,000 members of the Spartan army were killed, including their king. Following the battle Theban independence was confirmed, and their power continued to expand into what became known as the Theban hegemony.

This period of great power for Thebes eventually came to an end in 338 BC, when they were defeated by Phillip II of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea. Commanding over 30,000 soldiers from Macedon, Thessaly, Argos and Arcadia, Phillip defeated an army that included troops from Thebes, Athens, Corinth and six other city states. The traditional hoplites of the Theban army found themselves outmatched by the Macedonian phalanx and their longer spears, their army eventually breaking after their right flank collapsed. The commander of the Macedonian left that eventually broke through was the 18-year old son of Phillip II, who would later become known as Alexander the Great following his conquest of Persia.

A bust of the young Alexander the Great, who played a key role in the eventual destruction of the Band. Image: British Museum

While most of the Theban soldiers and their allies broke and fled, the Sacred Band refused to retreat, stubbornly holding their position. Plutarch recorded that all 300 members were eventually killed after a lengthy defensive battle. The unit was never reformed, and much of their accomplishments were largely overlooked by subsequent Athenian writers and historians. However, the name has been revived twice, once for a group of volunteer students that formed the first organised military unit during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, and again by a unit of Greek special forces that fought in the Middle East during the Second World War. 

1 Comment

  1. This is a very intriguing article about the Sacred Band of Thebes, which is new to me. I read Plutarch’s lives but must have skipped about this lost battalion. And Hercules had a male lover? I love this kind of behind the facade stories. Great!

    Liked by 1 person

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