By Evaggelos Vallianatos
Ancient Greeks were not united into a single country. Their key political formation was the polis, small community with its own laws, silver coins, government, army, farmland, and borders. Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and Thebes were the main states in mainland Greece.
These poleis (city-states) competed fiercely, so war was a perpetual threat. The Theban hero-god Herakles founded the Olympics to help the Greeks from all over the Greek world know each other better and, perhaps, tame the war spirit.
Fifth century BCE Enlightenment
We usually describe the fifth century BCE as the golden age of Hellas, giving credit to the Greeks for defeating the vast empire of Persia; their invention of democracy in Athen; pioneering natural philosophy, science, medicine, architecture, sculpture, and the masterpiece of the Parthenon.
Athenians built the Parthenon in honor of Athena, goddess of wisdom, the olive tree, and war. She was the daughter of Zeus, the father of the Olympian gods.
Athens was at the epicenter of Greek achievement. Athens, without Sparta, defeated the Persians when, in 490 BCE, invaded Greece. The polis of Athena built a first-rate trireme navy that helped it and Sparta and other Greek cities, working together, defeat the Persians when they invaded Greece for the second time in 480-479 BCE.
Were Thebans Boeotian swine?
Thebes was in Boeotia in Central Greece, which was on the path of the invading Persians. It was the only major polis that joined Persia in 480 BCE and fought against Hellas in 479 BCE. Athens and, especially Sparta, punished the Thebans who led their city in the betrayal of Hellas.
Thebes was not the only polis that sided with the Persian enemies. Yet Athens and Sparta took notice.
Thebes was the home of myths, gods, and suffering. Dionysos and Herakles, two Panhellenic heroes and gods were born in Thebes.
However, the gods were not kind to Thebes. Athenian tragic poets, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragic plays from the Theban traditions starting with the founding of the polis by Cadmus who sowed dragon teeth for men. His royal family went through civil war and mayhem, brother killing brother, the mother of King Pentheus decapitating her own son, heroic Antigone starved to death for honoring divine law over faulty human law, and King Oedipus killing his father, marrying his mother, and blinding himself.
Thebans were also lightly different than other Greeks. Their Greek was not as refined as that spoken by Athenians. They wore wooden shoes. Their home, Boeotia, took its name from being a fertile land for cattle. Other Greeks lampooned them, even calling them Boeotian swine.
Thebes disappeared in the fifth century, trying to undo its war crime of preferring the Persians over the Greeks.
The King’s Peace and war
The victory over the Persians sparked the golden age of Greece. Athens spread its influence all over the Greek world, but Sparta withdrew, while eyeing Athens as an enemy.
Sparta was the Greek superpower. It was a military state for centuries. Its heavily armed infantrymen in a phalanx were invincible. Most of the city-states of Peloponnesos were allied to Sparta.
Sparta could not stand the rising power of Athens. It launched a Cold War against Athens, which turned into a hot, destructive conflict. We call that Greek civil war the Peloponnesian War. The conflict engulfed Sparta and its allies against Athens and its allies.
What the Persians failed to do, weaken, impoverish, and almost destroy Greece, the Greeks brought it upon themselves.
The Peloponnesian war, 431-404 BCE, wrecked Hellas and, in time, opened the way to Roman conquest and occupation of the country.
Many Greeks lost their lives during the Peloponnesian War. The population of the country declined sharply. The war intensified tensions between rich and poor, between democrat and oligarch. Moreover, the destructive civil war heightened the strategic rivalry among cities so much that Persia felt safe bribing Greeks to kill each other.
The Persian king Artaxerxes, who ruled Persia for about forty years, was like American presidents after WWII: subverting, threatening, and dividing enemies and friends.
Artaxerxes used money, propping tyrants of his liking, and deciding the future of Greece. He also hired Greek mercenaries to fight his wars.
Hellas was unraveling. Even Artaxerxes felt unease by this disintegration that, with Sparta his enforcer, he sponsored the “King’s Peace.”
Spartan superpower in early fourth century BCE
The decline following the Peloponnesian War spurred the winner, Sparta, on an imperial adventure at home and abroad. Sparta invaded Persia and thought it could duplicate the Trojan War.
Sparta spread its oligarchic form of government far beyond Peloponnesos, even installing tyrants in defeated Athens.
The tyranny in Athens, however, did not last for long. Athenian democrats headed by Thrasybulus sought refuge in Thebes. At an opportune time, in 403 BCE, they returned to Athens, overthrowing the tyrants and defeating a Spartan force that came to help them.
Spartans tolerated the restoration of democracy in Athens. But they decided to punish Thebes. In 382 BCE, with the assistance of Theban traitors, a Spartan army secretly entered Thebes and occupied the acropolis or Cadmea, from Cadmus, the mythical founder of Thebes. This Spartan coup precipitated a series of dramatic changes in fourth century BCE Greece.
Thebes’ rise to power
Theban patriots, three hundred of them, including Epaminondas and Pelopidas, sought protection in Athens. The democratic government of Athens assisted the Theban commandos to take their polis back. The Thebans divided themselves into small groups and succeeded entering secretly in Thebes on a winter solstice night in late December 379 BCE. They overpowered the Spartan garrison at Cadmea, but allowed the Spartans to leave the city.
The new Theban leadership included Gorgidas, a cavalry officer, who invented the Sacred Band. He probably admired the heavily armed foot soldiers of Sparta, hoplites. He knew he had to have a similar weapon to fight them.
Gorgidas recruited three hundred men connected to each other by eros, male love. This innovation of converting eros to a weapon shaped the Sacred Band, a small group of foot soldiers that successfully fought and defeated the Spartan hoplites.
In my studying of Greek history, I heard of the Sacred Band, but without its association to male eros. I knew that Epaminondas and Pelopidas headed it, being Theban heroes and outstanding military commanders. However, they and Gorgidas were probably influenced by Plato who raised the power of eros in his Symposium.
Like Thebes itself, the Sacred Band has been surrounded by myth and little reliable information.
James Romm, professor of classics at Bard College, has diminished the uncertainty around the Sacred Band. His book, The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom (Scribner, 2021), sheds light on the origins and nature of this new weapon of war, male eros.
One of the leaders of the Sacred Band, Pammenes, quoted by Romm, explained the eros motivation of the Sacred Band soldiers this way:
“A squad held together by eros cannot be dispersed or fragmented, since lovers and their beloved feel shame if they disappoint one another; they stand firm against all danger on one another’s behalf.”
Romm has no doubt the Theban foot soldiers in the ranks of the Sacred Band were committed homosexuals. Thebes, more than other Greek cities, had embraced male eros as a legitimate desire that could be out in the open without legal, social, or political stigmas.
“This official support of male eros,” he says, “improved all of Theban society…. Only in Thebes… did men make vows to each other, live together as though wed, and seek to preserve their union even in death.”
The inventors of the Sacred Band recognized the military asset of the male eros, especially in the crucial moment after they liberated Thebes from Sparta.
Plutarch, a priest of Apollo from Boeotia wrote a life of Pelopidas, one of the leaders of the Sacred Band. In that biography, he speculates about the force behind the hieros lochos, Sacred Band.
Plutarch flourished during the Roman occupation of Greece, five centuries after the founding of the Sacred Band. He made insightful comparisons between horses and male lovers.
Two horses in a chariot, Plutarch says, run faster than one horse in a chariot because of the “rivalry” between the two horses. Such rivalry spurs thumos, the part of the soul triggering honor, glory and victory. The same thing happens to two hoplites in love in the field of battle. Rivalry wakes up thumos, with result the two hoplites fight with more bravery and fierceness in defending each other and winning victory.
Romm relies on Plutarch. He says the Sacred Band was a Theban answer to Spartan military danger. The three hundred hoplites gave flesh to the conviction that the power “of male eros” is “a long-lasting privileged bond.”
Read this controversial, timely, insightful and superbly written book about Theban and Greek history when Thebes was the Greek superpower. Thebes defeated Sparta at Leuktra in 371 BCE and put its slavery-dependent militarism out of business.