The Sacred Band: This elite force of the Theban army was made up of pairs of fighters devoted to each other

Ian Harvey
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Back in the fourth century, there was an elite group made up of 150 pairs of men. The 300 men were the handpicked elite fighting force known as the Sacred Band of Thebes.  They were thought to have been organized by Theban Commander Gorgidas in 378 BC.  The band was destroyed by Philip II of Macedon in 338 BC during the Battle of Chaeronea.

An early record about the military force from 324 BC mentions that in 371 BC they were being led by General Pelopidas at the Battle of Leuctra and were partly responsible for the defeat of the Spartans.  A victory monument was set up there that is still visible today.

The ruins of ancient Theban citadel of Cadmea Photo Credit

The men were handpicked for their merit and ability – social class was overlooked.    It is not totally clear whether or not the men were paired as lovers in the sense we mean today – the band has been described as being created with men who were devoted to each other by mutual obligations of love, which could imply they were family members or close friends and not lovers.  The band of men was stationed at Cadmea and was also known as the “City Band.”  Their military training may have included equestrian training, and housing was provided for them.   Also, their training included dance and wrestling.  If this force is comparable to a Spartan elite force which is better known, then their ages can be estimated at 20 or 21, and they possibly retired close to the age of 30.  Before they came under the command of Pelopidas the men were often scattered among the front of the phalanxes in the regular infantry.

The Sacred Band saw their first action as a complete unit during the standoff between Chabrias and the Spartan King Agesilaus II.  The King had ordered his troops forward, hoping to make the Theban and Athenian troops to break ranks and fight on the lower ground.  The experienced Chabrias gave the command for his troops to stand at ease and his counterpart Gorgidas with the Scared Band followed suit.   The King withdrew his troops back to Thespiae, where he eventually disbanded his army and returned to Peloponnesos.  After a few successful sorties against the Spartans, who continued to harass them, the Thebans grew in confidence.  Around the time of 377 to 375, Gorgidas vanishes from the records and the Sacred Band is now commanded by Pelopidas.

Map of ancient Greece showing the relative positions of the major regions of Boeotia (led by Thebes), Laconia (led by Sparta), and Attica (led by Athens) Photo Credit

With the leadership of Pelopidas the Sacred Band became a fighting force to be feared, and they recorded their first victory at the Battle of Tegyra.  They had been attempting to sneak in and capture the lightly-manned city of Orchomenus in between garrisons, but got caught at the shrine of Apollo.  They quickly cut down the Spartan leaders, and the Spartans faltered under the daring attack, not having experienced many losses before this one.

The Spartans were overwhelmed and lost many of their troops, and the survivors fled back where they had come from.  From this point on the Sacred Band was kept as a separate military unit.

Map of ancient Boeotia showing the location of the city of Orchomenus

The Battle of Leuctra was one of the most important Greek-against-Greek battles.  The Thebans’ victory meant that Thebes was now independent of Sparta.  The Sacred Band and their commander played a decisive part in the success of this battle by working as a separate entity and being able to respond quicker to events in the battle.  The Sacred Band at one point moved ahead of the Theban left wing to halt the Spartan maneuver of stretching out a wing of men before contracting it in an encircling movement.  The Spartans were held long enough for the Theban heavy infantry to move in and slaughter them.  The demoralized Spartans asked for a truce, which was given, and a shrine was created on the battlefield to show Theban victory.

A reconstruction of the Battle of Leuctra. 

Defeat for the Scared Band came at the hands of Phillip II of Macedon at the Battle of Chaeronea.  The more traditional infantry was no match for the long spears of the Macedonians.  The Theban army broke and ran, but the Sacred Band held their ground and would not surrender.  Plutarch’s records state that all 300 fell with their commander Theagenes.  Until this point in time, the Sacred Band was thought to be invincible.

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It is unknown where the Sacred Band had been laid to rest, but there have been many theories, including the site of the Lion of Chaeronea.  The Sacred Band has been written about by many classical authors, including Plutarch who has a very detailed account of the Sacred Band in his work called Life of Pelopidas.