During a turbulent war-torn four decades of Greek history, a legendary army of male lovers reigned supreme as the greatest military corps of their time. The Sacred Band of Thebes comprised 150 pairs of male lovers hand-picked for their fighting prowess.
On this day 210 years ago — June 3, 1812 — a holidaying Englishman tripped over a piece of protruding marble. Excavations uncovered the Lion of Chaeronea, a memorial erected to the Sacred Band of Thebes at the site of their first and final defeat.
The Sacred Band of Thebes
Numerous classical authors documented the history of the Sacred Band of Thebes, most notably Plutarch. The historian was born in the town of Chaeronea where the army of male lovers made their last stand against Phillip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great.
Most historians place the formation of the band at around 379 BCE. Around the same time, the Athenian philosopher Plato wrote of a similar idea in Symposium.
“And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved… 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?”
Plutarch wrote that the founder of the band chose 300 members based on ability and merit, disregarding their social class. The young men then paired off into couples for reasons later explained by Athenaeus of Naucratis.
“Lovers and their favourites, thus indicating the dignity of the god Eros in that they embrace a glorious death in preference to a dishonourable and reprehensible life.”
Historians estimate the age of new recruits as 20/21. They retired at 30.
In their first major battle, the band defeated the Spartan overlords of the Theban city-state. Over the following years, Greeks came to regard the never-defeated band as invincible. However, in 338 BCE at Chaeronea, the band suffered their first and final defeat. Their end came at the hands of the invading Phillip II of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great.
The main Theban army and allies forces fled the Macedonian attack. But the army of male lovers refused to surrender. The Sacred Band of Thebes fought on valiantly — a force of 300 against thousands.
They all died that day and the people of Chaeronea later buried them where they fell.
Ancient historians recorded that the Thebans later erected a gigantic statue of a lion to commemorate their local heroes. The same statue an Englishman tripped over in 1812.
The restored Lion of Chaeronea now stands guard over the burial site of the Sacred Band of Thebes. Excavations in the late nineteenth century uncovered the skeletons of 254 men, generally accepted to be the last members of the famous army of male lovers.
Their heroic last stand seems an ancient echo of William Arondeus’ famous last words before his execution during World War II.
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