How the Sacred Band, an Army of Gay Lovers, Defeated the Spartans
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Episode · 9 months ago

How the Sacred Band, an Army of Gay Lovers, Defeated the Spartans

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Today we talk to James Romm, a historian, and author of the book Sacred Band. James tells the story of the military corp, and how sexual politics influenced the different Greek city-states. There are multiple portrayals of homosexuality in Greece and Rome in modern media, and it has been painted to be a sort of “gay-topia”, but the truth is a bit more complicated. We talk to James about how the Greeks really felt about same-sex relationships, and how sexual relationships between soldiers really showed up as an advantage on the battlefield. 

Be sure to check out The Sacred Band by James Romm. Your host is Levi Chambers, co-founder of Gayety. Follow the show and keep up with the conversation @Pride. Want more great shows from Straw Hut Media? Check out or website at strawhutmedia.com. Your producers are Levi Chambers, Maggie Boles, Ryan Tillotson and Edited by Silvana Alcala Have an interesting LGBTQ+ story to share? We might feature U! Email us at lgbtq@strawhutmedia.com. *This podcast is not affiliated with Pride Media.

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Straw media. So thebes was not one of the principal powers of the Greek world. For most of its history it was always Athens and Sparta. Athens is part of where the superpowers and they fought each other in the famous Peloponnesian war, and thebes was just a sort of bystander. But in the fourth century BC, the period of time that my book deals with, the phoebans suddenly became a superpower in their own right and challenged both Athens and Sparta for the leadership of Greece. And what enable them to do that was the creation of a military core, of Group of three hundred elite warriors who fought in pairs with lovers, male lovers, station side by side so as to protect one another and to excel in one another's eyes. And that principle, the principle of erotic love as a as a motivating force spurring men towards courage, proved to be the winning formula that allowed Thebes to defeat Sparta and become really the principal power of the Greek world. There are multiple portrayals of homosexuality in Greece and Rome in modern media, and they painted it to be sort of a gay utopia, but the truth is a bit more complicated. Reported relationships at the time were rarely between two women and usually consisted of two males, though in their artwork for inten, you see the male body, nude male body portrayed everywhere, not because people were going naked, but because everyone wanted...

...to look at the male bodies. Today we portray female bodies very freely, with his little clothing as the medium will allow. In the ancient world, there was very little interest in the female body. It was all the male body. One of the most successful armies in ancient Greece encouraged intimate same sex relationships between soldiers and placed lovers side by side on the battlefield. But the story of the sacred band, a powerful theban army, is rarely spoken about, despite winning historic battles that shaped the fabric of history. Today, we talked to James Ron, a historian and author of the book the Sacred Band. James tells us the story of the Military Corps and how sexual politics influence the different Greek city states. He shares the Greeks feelings towards same sex relationships and how the erotic bond between soldiers worked in their favor on the battlefield. I'M LEA by chambers and this is pride. My name is James Rom I'm a professor of classics at Bard College in the Hudson Valley and I'm an author of several books of popular ancient history, I guess you could call it, of which the sacred band is the most recent. Under the umbrella of Class X, James Specializes in ancient Greek and Roman culture. I started off as a literature teacher and I was mostly interested in Greek tragedy and homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey and things of that kind, and offer came along to edit a book on Alexander the Great. Everybody can plug into history by way of Alexander the Great. Is simply one of the most amazing stories anywhere in the annals of history, and so it's throw working on that book that I...

...sort of change direction and became a historian. That was twenty years ago and he's never looked back. There's something about reading Alexander the Great Stories that just hooks you and doesn't like how I was mostly the travel and exploration element of it. His journey to distant parts of the world, places that he didn't even know where he was or how far he was from the edge of the world, encountering creatures in the jungles of India that he'd never imagined before. That that sort of thing. I've always been interested in travel and explort exploration that was the subject of my first book, actually called the edges of the Earth in ancient thought. So Alexander's going to the edges of the earth. That really captured my imagination. Some scholars have suggested that Alexander the Great's close friend, he Feastian, was also his lover. But in classic Greece sexuality was not seen as an identity. It was customary for men to have romantic relationships with other men so long as they still married a woman. So the term gay doesn't really apply in the Greek world, because the Greeks themselves never distinguished between homosexual and heterosexual inclinations. It was just sexual sexuality. It was assumed that men who had wives could also be attracted to boys and vice versa. Basically everyone was bisexual, they just didn't call it that. So our modern day terminology doesn't really apply. Well. When we talk about Alexander the Great, people often ask was he gay? Well, that wasn't a question that anyone at the time would have asked. It was assumed that if he saw a beautiful boy, he would feel passion and if he saw a beautiful...

...woman he would also feel passion. So, but I think what is Utopian about the Greek world is its acceptance of male arrows, male passion for other men, as just a natural condition. This male passion was the secret weapon the sacred band used to fight to end spartan domination. So this is starting around ATBC, the late classical period. I guess you could say the Peloponnesian war, the war between Athens and Sparta, had already been fought and concluded about twenty five years earlier. Athens had been defeated, but Sparta had also been weakened terribly. So both the super powers were kind of in a decline and Thebes stepped into the void, the leadership vacuum, with the creation of the sacred band. It was being led by singularly talented general commander, philosopher, man of many talents, named Pamman on us. He's not a name that many of your listeners will have heard, but he is a remarkable man. Many considered him the greatest man of Ancient Greece, in both his moral character and his talents for leadership, and it was thanks to him that thebes created the sacred band and became the power that it was. As you would expect, documentation of significant events like war looked a little different in three ATBC than it does today. So all of our knowledge of the sacred band mainly comes from to writers xenophon and Plato. We have xenophon, who was an Athenian, writing historical narrative and also essays, and we have Plato, who was contemporaneous with this period, and both of them talk about Thebes as being...

...unique in the way that it handled relationships between men in other city states, especially Athens. According to Plato, things were complicated. It was not always a easily accepted thing for men to become lovers, especially for older men and younger men, sometimes boys. In thebes there was a kind of supportive culture, even a legislative program that supported male unions. The relationship between an older male and a younger male was referred to as pederasty. It was a common institution used for education and social elevation. The older male would provide education and connections for the younger in exchange for companionship. The IT INS for intracrul intercourse, which the in which one partner ejaculates between the thighs of the other. That's from Athenian vase paintings. Athenians were actually quite explicit in their vase paintings, totally unabashed in both heterosexual and homosexual depictions, and a lot of the homosexual depictions show intracral intercourse. But Athens was largely the relationships in Athens were largely on the pederastic model. Today this would probably be called pedophilia. But this wasn't the dynamic of the hundred and fifty couples from the sacred band. They resembled something closer to a modern day saying sex couple. At thebes things were totally different because, as I say, these were same these were same age relationships, or close to the same age by being in the military together.

Is Clear that both members of a couple in the sacred band were of adults. Were adults and in fact they even had vows of fidelity that similar to marriage vows. In a sense, they were the first to invent gay marriage because they actually envisioned men spending their lives together. So this was a unique thing at Thebes, not found elsewhere in Greece, and seems to have been the principle that organized the sacred band, and the fact that they were able to swear fidelity to one another shows that there was a permanence, maybe even exclusiveness, to the relationships at Athens. The relationships between men were supplemental to marriage and childbearing. Most of the men who had younger lovers also had wives and children. It was not thought to be a contradiction. The sacred band was a tool created to take down Sparta, which had been in power for nearly forty years following their victory and the Peloponneseian war. The spartans, as you say, are object of fascination today, and that's really kind of too bad in my eyes, because the Spartan culture was not one which any of us would want to be part of. We would not want our society to look anything like Spartan as part it was a deeply authoritarian system in which the lives of the individual were totally subordinated to the state. Everything was in the service of the state. So most men would spend their entire lives in military service, from age seven to age sixty. Very little time was spent...

...in the home or pursuing, you know, private pleasures. Thebes was a free society, was totally different, and it harnessed its freedom, its love of liberty, as way to combat Sparta and kind of formed an anti Spartan coalition. States that didn't approve of the Spartan way of doing things, which was highly militaristic, highly oppressive. Rallied to Thebes in three hundred and seventy one BC. They took down Sparta during the battle of Luketra, which was a big deal when the sacred band had been on the scene for about eight years. It was their biggest test. It was the first time facing the entire Spartan Army in an open field battle, the battle where both sides were able to deploy and use their strategy to the fullest, and Thebes was victorious. It was the first time that spartans had been defeated in an open field battle in their entire history and it rocks the Greek world to the core. This was a takedown of the top dog, the city that had always been the superpower for its entire history. Even though this period of Theban dominance lasted only through the decade of the three six S, Sparta would never again rise to its former heights. From the beginning, the sacred band did not behave like every other military organization. They had a unique way of approaching battles, like dressing up as women to distract their enemies. Disguise in women's clothing was a kind of a covert operation by which the thebans took over their own city from Sparta. Sparta had imposed a kind of military dictatorship in Thebes and we're ruling by way of puppet rulers. For three years, the thebans managed to...

...sneak twelve operatives inside the city, have them dressed as women and assassinate the Spartan leadership by pretending that they were there for a sex romp and then suddenly drawing their daggers. So it was really, you know, what we would today term a secret operation. That was before the creation of the sacred band. Sacred Band never cross dressed. They took their strength from their cohesion, their ability to stay together in a tight unit, almost like a spearhead. They formed the spearhead of the Theban army and in the battle of Luctra, where they face the Spartans, they were just launched at an opportune moment directly at the Spartan leadership so as to hit them with maximum impact, and the Spartan King, who was leading the battle, was killed right off, right at the start of the engagement, and that turned the tide of the battle. This was a new phenomenon. No one had stood up to the SPARTANS in an open field battle. No one had faced them head on like that. Everyone was too scared. Their opponents would often turn and run as soon as the spartans started to advance on them, because everyone knew that they couldn't be beaten. So this was standing up to the big bully and showing that he wasn't so tough after all. The sacred band was composed of three hundred men of high military skill, each in an erotic relationship with another male in the group. James says the reason the group was able to defeat Sparta was because of these bonds. Members of the band, or any male couples, felt a passionate commitment to one another because of their erotic bond, and that...

...commitment made them willing to do the utmost on the battlefield, both to protect the other and especially to show the virtue of courage, because these relationships were based on kind of mutual idealism or mutual pursuit of ethical goals. The erotic bond was not just, you know, for intimacy, it was also a way of mutually pursuing moral virtue, and this is clear and Plato, because socrates has these relationships with his students, but non sexual according to him. So because they're mutually interested in achieving virtue, they try to excel on the battlefield when the other one is witnessing their courage. That's the ultimate kind of intimacy, is to be brave together. You know, in the film broke back mountain, you see the importance of hunting and fishing trips as a way of bonding between the two principle characters, and it's all tied up with their erotic life. That's very much what the battle was for the for the Greeks, it was the ultimate intimacy between two men to fight together. When we come back the fall of the sacred band, welcome back. Before the break, author and Professor Jane is Rom introduced us to the sacred band, a...

...theban army composed of a hundred and fifty male lovers. Together they ended Sparta's rain and went undefeated for four decades. So it's safe to say the sacred band was pretty Badass. But all good things must come to an end. In three hundred thirty eight BC, the sacred band was annihilated by Philip the second of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great in the battle of Kypurnia, in which thebes and Athens joined forces. This defeat extinguished Greek Liberty for two thousand years. They were buried in a mass grave. Two hundred and fifty four skeletons have been found in it, and perhaps there are others just outside it, so as to make up nearly three hundred. In the village of Kareneia in Greece, in northern Greece, it's unusual for Greek soldiers to be buried on the battlefield. It is said the sacred band was given the opportunity to surrender, but the lovers chose instead to fight to the end. Reportedly, they had earned such a reputation that Philip the second was said to have wept at the once mighty army of male lovers who had been reduced to a pile of massacred bodies, which could explain the peculiar burial site. So they were buried on the battlefield and buried together as a unit and even positioned in rows the way that you would stand in an infantry Phalans in battle. So it was if their countrymen, the fellow Thebans, wanted them to be in an eternal Phalans, fighting together for all the time. When the grave was rediscovered in one th eighteen, eighty, some skeletons were still in pairs with their arms linked together. It was then covered back up and it's today it's just a plot of grass, but you can see pictures of how it looked...

...after the battle in James's book. With the success of the sacred band and the acceptance of male romance in classical Greece, why didn't more military cores copy the structure in their battles? James says there's evidence that the thebans weren't the only ones with homosexual relationships in the military. So we do hear about one other city state, the city of Ellis on the Peloponnese, that also had what they called the three hundred. We don't know anything about them, but the number seems to be significant, and Ellis was often talked about, along with Thebes, as a place where men fought together side by side, where male lovers fought together side by side. So Ellis may have copied the three hundred, or maybe the aliens and the Thebans came up with it at the same time. The spartans also had a system of organized homosexual relationships in the military. Those who were receiving military training and Sparta or more or less assigned or they were selected by an older male as their younger erotic partner, and those relationships were thought to be fundamental to military training. But didn't station the two together in battle, because the SPARTANS preferred to keep age groups together. In battle, you fought with men of your own age and their male relationships were very unequal. They were always pederastic, so you would never be side by side with your lover. But what about the battle tactics that made the Theban Army so successful, the strategy of placing lovers side by side on the battlefield. Couldn't that work in modern warfare? I think it's. It partly...

...translates in today's military and partly doesn't, because we do have this thing we call unit cohesion, where the members of a squad or army cores are thought to fight for their fellow core members more so than for their country or their families or any of that stuff. Is it's really their buddies that matter most in battle. That is similar, but of course we don't tend to look at it as a sexual phenomena, at least the army doesn't. When they talk about UNICOHESION, they're they're generally leaving the sexual elements out of it. But I think what's different is that warfare is just so much more traumatic now, with the kind of weaponry that one has to face on the battlefield, the kind of landscapes in which one fights and the you know, Afghanistan, in Iraq, these hostile landscapes and people that with whom one can't communicate and enemies that are often unseen. The ancient battlefield was a very different place. It was a very formal more like a football game than modern battle, where both both sides take position, they fighted, it agreed time on an open plane and they use only acceptable strategies there's no like dirty tricks or ambushes. So there wasn't that kind of trauma which can bind men together, but in a very different way than the virtues of ancient warfare. Regardless, it would be challenging to incorporate these strategies into modern warfare when there is so little documentation...

...of the sacred band all together. They were a crucial part of classical Greek history, alongside Alexander the Great and the Peloponnesian War. So why does no one know about it? They have not gotten the attention they deserve. They're not very well documented in the ancient sources, and that has to do with Xenophon, the Chronicler of the age of the sacred band. Xenophon was a fierce supporter of Sparta, even though he was from Athens himself. He was ideologically Pro Spartan and he hated the thebans because they had taken down the spartans. And in his history called Hellenica, he does his best to obscure the accomplishments of the thebans and magnify those of the spartans. So he doesn't even mention the sacred band. He leaves them out of the story. He leaves several other major theban achievements out of the story so as to keep them out of the spotlight as much as possible. He's our only contemporaneous source for this period, so he's affected the way that the history of these times are handled. If he didn't mention it, then modern scholars tend not to talk about it either. Because of xenophen's disregard for this army, there is very little documentation about them today. I wish I had the name, even the names of two individual lovers from the sacred band. It's a big problem for my narrative and for the study of this period. We simply don't know any individuals. We know them as a unit, but not any individuals. Right now I'm working with a screenwriter who is trying to develop a series based on the...

...book and we will certainly have a couple individual characters at the center of the story who are members of the band. So we'll we'll have to fictionalize that part of it. While some stories of romantic relationships have survived, like Achilles and Patrick, less James says, there are still many stories being glossed over because of the level of homophobia still alive. Today. We have Batman and Robin in our own day, and anyone who thinks our society is the home of you know, homophobic or anti pederastic, all you have to do is look for Robin in today's Batman Movies. He just doesn't exist anymore because we wrote him out of the script. It was too suggestive of a pederastic couple. was there anything that you stumbled upon that really surprised you, because you have a good grasp of history and of this time period, so when you were doing the research, was there anything that made you stop and go like what? I guess I had never really grappled or tackled on to how brutal the spartans were and what a negative force they were in the Greek world. The king who led Sparta in the time of my story, a man named a guess Alaus, was really kind of a fascist and wanted to impose his will on all of Greece. He portrayed himself as Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan war, and which would mean that he had authority over everyone in Greece, and he masterminded the takeover of Thebes, which was like a like a Pearl Harbor kind of event. I mean it was a...

...totally unprovoked first strike right at the heart of a major Greek city, just taking it over by force and trying to rule it as a as a vassal state. So I was surprised because of course we all think of the Spartans as heroes. You know, if you've seen three hundred, they're the good guys, and in the Persian war they were sometimes the good guys, but a hundred and fifty years later they were very much the bad guys. James has worked to pull documents and imagery from ancient history to counteract xenofen's workings and restore the story of the sacred band in modern history teachings. In addition to his recent book, James is also adapting the story for the big screen. I think that would go a long way. HBO Has a historical Drama Series called Rome. It follows two Roman soldiers through war, political intrigue assassinations and introduces the audience to key historical figures like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which is one of my favorite drama series. Excellently well done and very true to the history of first century BC Rome and that probably did more to educate people about Roman history then all the Tacitus and Julius Caesar that you know, the publishers can can print. So yeah, we live in a screen age. I'd love to see the screen bring this story to a large republic. We know most of the intimate stories between soldiers of the sacred band will be fiction because no one truly knows what went on outside of the battlefield. But James says, this isn't out of the ordinary for a Modern Day television...

...show. I think the model of HBO's Rome is a great one. So what they did was to create two fictional characters at the center of the story, but everyone around them are historical. So it's about half and half the private lives of Titus Polo and Lucia's Varanus. That's about half the screen time. The rest are Julius Caesar, sister row and Cato and all the great names. So I think that's a good balance. I would love to see something like that in whatever we develop. I can't assume that this is ever going to get made because a lot of things get developed and not made, but I think if we had private lives of fictional characters surrounded by the historical drama of the fourth century BC. That would be ideal ahead of James Releasing a series to TV. You can learn more about the sacred band in his book available now. It's available on Amazon or from other online booksellers and they'll be coming out of paperback in June. And it's an audiobook, also very well read, I should say, by the actress who recorded it. Pride is a production of Straw hute media. If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple, podcast, spotify or wherever you listen to podcast. Then follow us on Instagram, facebook and twitter at pride and tune in weekly for new episodes. Be Sure to share this episode with your friends and subscribe for more stories from Amazing Queer people. If you'd like to connect with me, you can follow me everywhere. At Lea by chambers. Pride is produced by me Lea by chambers, Maggie Bulls, Bryan Tillotson,...

Caitlin mcdaniel and Brandon Marlowe, edited by Savana, I'll Calla, and Daniel Ferrara. Sound mixing by Silvana, I'll call on. It's like a mark of their advancement that they wanted to take their clothes off in public show they're there's drawing male bodies that kind of like. Yeah, put it on a vase, put it everywhere. Well, everyone wants to look at it. So it's such a different I guess you'd say it's a such a huge shift in culture. Heroic nudity is sometimes called it by art historians.

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