The Sacred Band – Thebes’ Honor and America’s Shame

It was a hot August day in 338 B.C.E. and Philip of Macedon’s army was marching down the road from Phocis to Boeotia to take on the allied army – the combined forces of Athens and Thebes along with contingents from contingents from Achaea, Corinth, Chalcis, Epidaurus, Megara and Troezen  – at Chaeronea.  The allies fielded a force of about 35,000 infantry – old fashioned Greek hoplites – and about 2,000 cavalry. Phillip’s new model army was roughly the same size, but his infantry formed a phalanx, a deep, solid formation with long pikes, something new to warfare.

Waiting with the allied army that day were the 300 Thebans of the city’s Sacred Band, , led by their command Theagenes, part of the 12,000 man contingent from that city. This unit was the elite of the Theban army and in the forty years of its existence (378–338 BC) had led Thebes to a pre-eminent place among Greek states, including the defeat of the feared Spartans at Tegyra in 375 B.C.E. Until the battle of Chaeronea in 338, they had never tasted defeat.

They were the baddest dudes on the block.

At Chaeronea they met the army of Philip of Macedon, two seemingly invincible forces facing each other for the first time for the future of Greece.

Against Phillip and his son Alexander, who would one day be called “The Great”, these men fought to the death, holding their place on the right flank, refusing to surrender when the rest of the allied army had fled.

It was a hard-fought battle. It was brutal and bloody, the result of attrition, as the Macedonian phalanx ground down the valiant Thebans, the young Alexander and his companions in the thick of the fighting.

When the battle was over, Plutarch tells us that King Phillip looked upon the men of the Sacred Band, their corpses “heaped one upon another” – their dead gay male corpses – 150 paired couples, and knowing who they were said,

“Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly.”

These men, who gave more for their country than most of our “brave” Republicans would ever think to give, would get no such praise for their sacrifice today. Indeed, if they made their sexual preferences known, they would never have been allowed to don the arms of their homeland and fight in its defense.

A generation later, about 300 BCE, the people of Thebes put up a monument to the fallen brave of the Scared Band, a giant stone lion on a pedestal where all 300 were said to be buried. Plutarch was close when he said they all had died. An excavation in 1890 found 254 bodies buried in seven rows. This is the only monument I know of to gay soldiers in all of history, brave men who refused to surrender their honor even in the face of certain death.

We should think about these men today, who died defending their freedom, as we think about the rights of our own gay community, denied this same place of honor by an unconstitutional law put in place out of hate and prejudice. With the current laws in place, America will never know its own Sacred Band, nor has it any right to.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

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