Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Sacred Band of Thebes

It's probably a moot point now in the United States, given that Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been killed and buried. But A, there are still plenty of other countries out there and B, I came across it after the fight was already over anyway.

No matter. When the debate over ending it was taking place, a major argument against ending it was basically that gay soldiers would be too distracted by being around others of the same gender, despite the fact that, given that gay soldiers kept getting booted out for being found out, gay soldiers were already serving without any problems and the straight soldiers kept attesting to that.

But we could have gone back to Ancient Greece and found a fighting force built specifically around not just gay soldiers, but gay lovers. Now, if the distraction theory held, they'd have done terrible and this would be one of those adventures-in-stupidity stories I love telling.

Not so much. The force was called the Sacred Band of Thebes. Theban commander Gorgidas, in 378 BCE, compiled a group of 150 gay male couples, plucked from the regular Theban army. (No women, of course. This is still ancient Greece we're talking about.) The idea for an all-gay force germinated a few years earlier from a writing of Plato, called the Symposium (it's dated somewhere between 385 and 380 BCE), where a series of people speak, one at a time, on the topic of love.

The idea for the Sacred Band came from a speaker named Phaedrus, who took quite the opposite tack. Far from being a distraction, Phaedrus theorized, having your lover beside you would be an inspiration and incentive to fight even harder:

For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover, than a beloved youth. For the principle which ought to be the guide of men who would live nobly – that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honour, nor wealth, nor any other motive is able to implant so well as love ... And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city ... and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him.

Gorgidas decided to give it a shot. At first, couples in the Sacred Band were paired up, but still split amongst the balance of the army- this group would get a few couples, this other group would get a few couples as well, etc. When Gorgidas was succeeded by Pelopidas shortly thereafter, the couples were made into a single, separate band of troops, placed right at the front. The Sacred Band became shock troops, the very first soldiers the opponent would see. And Pelopidas stood right there amongst them.

And they saw plenty of the Sacred Band. The force lasted for 40 years. That may not sound like all that much in the grand scheme of things, when you're talking something that happened thousands of years ago in the first place, but think of it from your perspective. That's as long as The Price Is Right has been around. (At least, the Bob Barker/Drew Carey version. Don't write in and bring up the old Bill Cullen version that started in 1956.)

Were they any good? Well, the 40 years they were around coincided with Thebes' heyday. Among the first people to see them were the Spartans, which was another reason for the Sacred Band's creation: in 382 BCE, Sparta had taken over a Theban citadel and Thebes needed something to drive them back out.

At the city of Tegyrae, the Sacred Band ran into a group of Spartans while on a recon mission, with the Spartans outnumbering them at least by a 2:1 ratio, maybe even 3:1. It didn't matter. The Sacred Band smacked the Spartans silly.

...wait, what?

Nobody saw that result coming. Thebes didn't see it coming. Sparta certainly didn't. Both thought that even an evenly-matched fight was going to be a struggle, and with that kind of advantage, the Spartans should have beaten the Sacred Band into the ground. Given what actually happened, Thebes got a boost of confidence while Sparta was left to figure out what just happened. Both geared up for a long war, one that would end at Leuctra in 371 BCE with Thebes thoroughly breaking Sparta's back, a win that would permanently ruin Sparta's influence over Greece.

Typically what would have happened is that each side would have put their big guns on the right side of their formation- it was a tradition thing- with the more inferior soldiers being put further and further to the left of the formation. Both sides' elites would presumably exploit their respective mismatches and the battle would go from there. That's not what happened at Leuctra. What happened at Leuctra was that the Theban commander flipped the script: the Sacred Band was put on the left of the Theban formation with a thick stack of backup troops behind them, while his inferior troops were not only placed toward the right, but toward the rear as well, in something of a diagonal formation. The Spartan elites wouldn't get their traditional mismatch. It worked; the Spartan elites couldn't handle the Theban elites plus the deep bench behind them, and never really made an impact on the fight. Things fell apart from there; the rest of the Spartans, seeing what was happening to their best troops, lost their resolve.

Let's just reiterate here that the band of gay lovers was used as not only soldiers, but the Theban elites, and that they're the ones who ended up breaking the influence of Sparta. Not bad.

So what ultimately happened to them? Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great happened to them at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. That's what it took to beat them. Thebes- and most of the Rest of Greece as well- got steamrolled and added to Alexander's empire like everyone else. Interestingly, in the process of losing, while the other Thebans ran like hell, the Sacred Band, true to the original theory from the Symposium, stayed and fought to the last man. It may have been Alexander the Great bearing down on them, but that's still the person they love that he's bearing down on. Everybody died where they stood.

After the battle, Philip II took a survey of the field, and happened across the bodies of the Sacred Band. When he was told that that's who they were, he reportedly broke into tears and said, "Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly."

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