From classicist James Romm comes a “striking…fascinating” (Booklist) deep dive into the last decades of ancient Greek freedom leading up to Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes—and the saga of the greatest military corps of the time, the Theban Sacred Band, a unit composed of 150 pairs of male lovers.
The story of the Sacred Band, an elite 300-man corps recruited from pairs of lovers, highlights a chaotic era of ancient Greek history, four decades marked by battles, ideological disputes, and the rise of vicious strongmen. At stake was freedom, democracy, and the fate of Thebes, at this time the leading power of the Greek world.
The tale begins in 379 BC, with a group of Theban patriots sneaking into occupied Thebes. Disguised in women’s clothing, they cut down the agents of Sparta, the state that had cowed much of Greece with its military might. To counter the Spartans, this group of patriots would form the Sacred Band, a corps whose history plays out against a backdrop of Theban democracy, of desperate power struggles between leading city-states, and the new prominence of eros, sexual love, in Greek public life.
After four decades without a defeat, the Sacred Band was annihilated by the forces of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander in the Battle of Chaeronea—extinguishing Greek liberty for two thousand years. Buried on the battlefield where they fell, they were rediscovered in 1880—some skeletons still in pairs, with arms linked together.
From violent combat in city streets to massive clashes on open ground, from ruthless tyrants to bold women who held their era in thrall, The Sacred Band recounts “in fluent, accessible prose” (The Wall Street Journal) the twists and turns of a crucial historical moment: the end of the treasured freedom of ancient Greece.
Bard College classics professor Romm (Dying Every Day) delivers a brisk account of the city-state of Thebes focused on the Sacred Band, an elite fighting force made up of 150 "male couples, stationed in pairs such that each man fought beside his beloved." Often overshadowed in historical accounts by its rivals, Sparta and Athens, Thebes was unique in ancient Greece for its acceptance of homosexuality (men were allowed to exchange vows and live together as couples). Founded to protect Thebes after a coup attempt (likely orchestrated by Spartan leader Agesilaus), was defeated, the Sacred Band helped serve Sparta its first battlefield loss in centuries at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, rattling Greece's power structures. Thebes then set up a series of walled cities and federations, creating a network of allies that extended Theban power in the region and isolated enemies. But those alliances shifted in the decades that followed, setting the stage for Alexander the Great's annihilation of the Sacred Band in 338 BCE. Though short on specifics about the Sacred Band itself, Romm lucidly describes the era's complex power struggles and explains how the pro-Sparta bias of Xenophon, who wrote the only surviving contemporaneous account of "the era of Theban greatness," has colored modern perceptions of Thebes. This is an eye-opening and immersive portrait of a little-known aspect of ancient history.