Europe's History

The Sacred Band

Central Greece 371BCE
Thebes and Sparta marched to war. After years as a client Kingdom, fiebing’s have had enough of their tyrannical Spartan masters, They choose to fight for their independence but Sparta is a formidable opponent fielding unparalleled heavy infantry, Thebes has fought beside these troops and knows what they can do so the Thebans marched a battle with a secret weapon. 300 Elite warriors handpicked for their martial skill and valor a group that has trained day and night to face up against the Spartan phalanx; they are called the Sacred Band one of the greatest units ever to deploy in Greek warfare.

Politics in ancient Greece was a game of Thrones style series of alliances, betrayals, regime changes, and Wars. And, for a very long time the major players of the game were Athens, and Sparta but while those great nations duped it out, Thebes was waiting quietly in the wings for its own shot at glory.
During the Peloponnesian War, Sparta overpowered Athens and established itself as the dominant power in Greece, and seeing an opportunity Thebes decided to side with the Spartans, but as Sparta grew more powerful in the region, Thebes became increasingly nervous about their neighbor because they were supposed to be an ally, a junior partner but Sparta began acting as if Thebes were its vassal.

the final straw came when smartin forces mozi Don in and occupied a Theban Citadel, while all this was happening a citizen of Thebes named Pelopidas was coming into his own. Though, hailing from a wealthy family he was by all accounts obsessed with living no better than the poorest Theban citizen putting himself through grueling military exercises and using his vast fortune to benefit the poor and having sacrificed so much for his homeland he was not going to allow Sparta to take any more. So, he rallied all of his friends and allies and waited until the night of a party where all of these Spartans supporters in Thebes were most assuredly going to be getting wasted.

Sneaking inside, under the cover of darkness with some of them dressed up as women to help infiltrate the gathering they pulled out daggers and in a few blood soaked minutes assassinated every single adversary, with that done by morning the Theban people rallied around Pelopidas, and forced the Spartans occupying the Citadel to surrender in leaf. Thebes got its Citadel back, which was good but now they were at war with the greatest military power in all of Greece, which was bad. They needed good soldiers, and fast. To fill that need Pelopidas created one of the coolest armies you might never have heard of the sacred band.

In the first half of the 4th century no Greek power beside the Spartans had full time professional soldiers, armies when called were made up of citizen-soldiers, and then once wars were over the soldiers went back to their day jobs, and carried on life as private citizens. Also, because armor was prohibitively expensive for the average Greek, the gear used by these soldiers was passed down as family heirlooms from father, to son, uncle, to nephew.

Only, the Spartans lived, and trained as warriors years round. So, to prepare for war with Sparta around 378BCE Pelopidas recruited of the best most promising young Theban men, to form a professional unit they were selected on merit alone, without regard of wealth, social status, or rank, highly trained in the military arts they served Thebes as a standing army to protect against foreign invaders, and to be deployed as shock troops to bolster the non professional units in battle. And, like so many other good things, the warriors of the sacred band came in pairs, consisting of an older more experienced lover, and his favorite companion the beloved, and this pair of lovers would live Train, sleep, and fight together.

Being not exactly sure what motivated the founder of the sacred band to structure the army this way, but there are several theories; First, they may have been inspired by the folk hero Aeolus, a lover of Hercules who had a shrine dedicated to him in Thebes, male couples would regularly go there to worship, and make vows to one another and second erotic love had long been associated with greatness and military prowess in the classical world.
Several classical thinkers, even wrote about the advantages of going to war with a loved one.

in fact, intimate relationships between older, and younger were an integral part of Spartan military training, though unlike the sacred band these pairs did not fight in the same unit, describing the sacred band the historian Plutarch wrote: “a band which is united by the ties of love is truly in dissolvable and unbreakable since both lover and beloved are ashamed of being disgraced in the presence of each other and each stands his ground at a moment of danger to protect one another” Also, the philosopher Plato wrote: “no man is such a craven that love cannot inspire him with courage to make him equal to the bravest born”

and now, more than ever, Thebes was in need of that kind of courage because it was time to take the fight to Sparta with Pelopidas the sacred band deployed for its first battle as a solo unit, a Spartan garrison had recently left a nearby city, and Pelopidas does hope to reclaim that city, while it was empty of Spartan forces, but when the sacred band arrived ,they found the initial reports were false and that the Spartans had already reinforced the city, it was too risky to engage Pelopidas, and the sacred band retreated back to Thebes.

But, on their way back they ran into the returning Spartan forces near a shrine of Apollo, the Spartans outnumbered the Thebans at least two to one, and upon seeing the vast enemy army a Theban turned to Pelopidas in despair: “we have fallen into our enemy s hands” the man said, but Pelopidas was unfazed replying: “and why not they in two hours” then he ordered the cavalry to charge the Spartan backline, while he commanded the sacred band in front confident in their numbers the Spartans advanced only to be quickly scattered by the Theban forces.

Their commanders fell early in the battle, and lacking leadership the Spartan forces were routed the Thebans stripped the dead of their arms, built a trophy on the site of their victory and returned home. This was the only time in known history that the Spartans lost to a smaller force. Actually, the Spartans had never lost a battle against an equal force before, and the sacred bands stunning debut shook the Spartan image.

for years, and many battles, later Thebes had established itself as a democracy and freed the cities of central Greece from Spartan control. Pelopidas had been elected along with six other leaders all of whom working tirelessly to reestablish the government Sparta had disbanded. Then, eventually, weary from war Athens and most other Greek cities agreed to make peace, but the Spartans would not make it that easy, for when the time came to sign the treaty they refused to recognize the new government s authority over Peoria, the Thebans outraged returned to the battlefield to settle things once and for all.

Again, the Theban forces were outnumbered this time three to two, and despite their loss at the shrine of Apollo the Spartans were still the most renowned troops of their time, and from past battles the Theban commander knew two things to expect: that the Spartan cavalry were their weakest units, and that their best troops were always on the right flank. Now, the assumption was that the Thebans would do the same as was tradition, leaving the elite troops far apart hoping to whittle down each other s less well trained troops in the center, until the other army broke but the Thebans decided to shake things up a bit they placed their strongest forces on the left-wing, trusting that their own elite warriors could beat the best of Sparta and break the core of the enemy army, and to complete this task they yet again deployed the sacred band.

the lines joined, javelins flew spear heads scraped unpainted shield Thebes smashed the Spartan cavalry with their superior mounted troops and the sacred band led again by Pelopidas charged and wiped out the Spartans entire right flank. Although, they thought long and hard this innovation in fighting techniques caused the Spartans to face the greatest loss, they had ever known, and with this momentous defeat it was now finally Thebes turned to shine. However, Theban superiority would be short-lived.

Pelopidas died in battle, not long after defeating Sparta after which Theban power crumbled and Greece was once again divided, but the Sacred Band held out for a few more decades until Philip ii of Macedon Alexander the Great s father defeated them in 338BCE. But, rather than surrender, every last one of the sacred band fought to the death together, and as he watched Philip wept at the sight. as history lovers, the sacred band is important because it shakes up the image of ancient warfare presented by popular movies and television reminding us that classical Greece had different interpretations of masculine, and feminine and what relationships between men looked like. So, when you think 300 of the Spartans at Thermopylae remember also the 300 of the Sacred Band standing by each other even to death not just for duty but for love.