The Unsung Story of a Band of Gay Warriors That Decimated The Fiercest Army The World Had Known
Updated: Jul 4
How the Sacred Band of Thebes changed history
Background: The Political Dichotomy That Tore Greece Asunder
For thirty brutal years (434–404 BC) the nations surrounding the Aegean Sea were embroiled in a bitter civil war. On one side sat Sparta, an unrelenting oligarchy whose power increased through its military intervention provided by the finest warriors the world had yet known, the Spartan Phalanx. Its influence created an “alliance” of city-states called the Peloponnesian League that effectively settled beneath the Spartan banner. However, the political ideology of Sparta and its growing influence did not sit well with others.
Athens, with its own alliance (loose use of the word) of city-states, called the Delian League, which marched under the banner of Athenian democracy and whose formation was to prepare for future invasions from the Persians, resisted the growing power of Sparta. The contrast between political ideologies (not too dissimilar to our own political spectrum) wove chaos between city-states and their inhabitants. Thucydides reflected on the atrocities committed by the inhabitants of the island of Corcyra, whose population fought against each other in the name of Oligarchy and Democracy:
The Corcyraeans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of the moneys owed to them. Death thus raged in every shape; and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it; while some were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there. (Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War).
The Peloponnesian War came to an end with a Spartan victory at the Battle of Aegospotami, which resulted in Sparta installing an oligarchical form of government later known as the thirty tyrants in Athens. Indeed, their name was no misnomer, and the Athenian people trampled underfoot too long by an overbearing tyranny revolted and overthrew the government, reinstating democracy once again.
The Revolt of Thebes and Rise of The Sacred Band of Thebes
As one war ended, another began, with the start of the Corinthian War that once again reacted to the expansion of Sparta’s dominance. Between the political ideologies sat Thebes — a powerful city-state that hung in the balance ready to tip to either the left or the right. Ultimately, Thebes swung to the Democratic side, causing Sparta to retaliate by dealing with the separatists and installing their own form of Government, and garrisoning it with a number of Spartan elites.
During the occupation, under the noses of the Spartans a coup was afoot, led by two military men Peopidas and Epaminondas. When all the pieces were gathered, the plan was put into action. The pro-Spartan Theban leader had his throat severed by Epaminondas and the revolt was underway with the Spartan garrison severely outnumbered. Chasing them beyond the city walls the Thebans had reclaimed their home. But both leaders knew it was but a matter of time before the full might of Sparta’s army were to come crashing down upon Thebes.
Both men, having lived under Spartan rule, studied the formation and training of the Spartan phalanx. Armed with this expertise they began training an army from scratch and seeded an idea that they would also match the infamous might of the Spartan 300 with 300 elite units of their own. But creating an exceptional fighting team goes beyond individual talent, it requires a collective effort, chemistry, where each individual is aligned with the movements and thoughts of others. Putting this in modern perspective if one were to look at how long it took, Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls Jordan-Pippin era, to coalesce and unify the many “I’s” in that team into a single “I”, you might appreciate the problem faced by the revolutionaries.
So, how to create such a fighting force, that not only is equipped with skill enough to match the 300 but to move as a unit as if having years of team experience behind them? The answer was to train 150 of the fiercest homosexual couples whom matched the Spartans willingness to die for one another.
Whilst the rest of the Theban army developed, the Sacred Band, although part-time warriors, trained, ate, and slept together, slowly refining their skills and becoming one the most unique fighting contenders the Spartans would ever face. Trained in spear, sword, and physical combat, learning the phalanx formation was crucial but this took diligence and time — time that Thebes didn’t have.
The Gathering Wave
As Summer approached, 6 months after the citizens of Thebes chased the Spartans from the city walls, a 20,000 strong Spartan army marched to war. Epaminondas knew the civilian army and his Sacred Band were not yet tempered into hardened iron and stalled for time. By employing a number of mind games that fooled the Spartan King, Agesilaus, into believing a trap had been laid due to the nonchalant behaviour of the Theban army in the face of destruction, the army withdrew and bought Thebes precious time. An opportunity presented itself to test the power of the Sacred Band when a Spartan garrison defending a nearby city let low their guard. Giving the order to attack the Sacred Band marched forward only to find a thousand Spartan troops emerging from the fore. Severely outnumbered, and with their route of escape cut off, they had no choice but to fight.
Shields and spears splintered against the thundering onslaught of Spartan but the might of the Sacred Band stood their ground. Finally, the Spartan leader was slain, and a small victory was claimed that proved to each warrior that they had the potential to stand up to the Spartan 300. Never before had a Spartan phalanx been overcome by a force smaller than its own!
A hole in the armor
The Spartan army was not what it once was since the days of the 300 at Thermopylae, forever immortalized by King Leonidas’ resistance against the Persians and their penultimate sacrifice. Social and political change meant that fewer warriors were able to become a “true” Spartiate, those who could dedicate their life to the pursuit of excellence in combat. Much of the core Spartan army was now made up of allies, whose allegiance and loyalty was earned through fear rather than adoration.
Epaminondas perceived this weakness. To exploit this vulnerability cutting the head off the snake would test the loyalty of these allies and so devised a formation that would pit the entire pressure of force against the Spartan 300. If they could but break this phalanx then the rest would follow suit. The Spartan phalanx also had a slight weakness due to the overlapping of shields which meant the end of the line was weaker than the other. This was the point at which he would drive Thebes forces through like an arrow.
Finally, the two armies met at the fields of Leuctra. The Spartan King, bold and confident in his elite troops sallied forth his army. And although the Sacred Band, backed by another 7,000 Theban troops, were drastically outnumbered they washed upon the Spartan elite fifty shields deep. The Sacred Band decimated the phalanx formation and the Spartan army was in disarray. The band hacked and pierced their way through the fog of men reaching the Spartan King himself. Pelopidas brought his life to a bloodied end, only the second Spartan King to die in battle besides Leonidas.
With the rest of the Spartan allies fleeing the field, and the Spartan 300 demolished, Sparta lost a crushing defeat. At the end of this battle, Sparta fell further in decline and the Sacred Band of Thebes reigned supreme for a time until the arrival of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, who bested the warriors through the use of new form phalanx wielding sarissas, 18ft long pikes projected at the front of their formation. King Philip, however, learnt much of what was to become this new creation from the Thebans themselves having been captured and is said to have learnt from Epaminondas himself.
The Little-Known Story
Being one of the most crushing defeats of an elite force it is a wonder the story is not more widely known. It would not be presumptuous to assume that the sexual preferences of these warriors had something to do with this story’s obfuscation. Much of history and its mentions of fluid sexuality were concealed due to the power of religious ideologies choosing narratives that supported their own idea of archetypal “man”. Even today, homophobia and harmful stereotypes remains rampant within “warrior” culture, deeming those who are gay either as a threat to “masculinity” and “strength”. However, stories like these must not be relegated to the background but championed in their own right as a testimony to the strength of friendship and love in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
For more stories like the one above that never cease to amaze, Ranulph Fiennes', The Elite, is a brilliant read into the history of our world and its warriors from East to West.