The most famous of the classical Greek units was the elite Sacred Band of Thebes. Theban general Gorgidas, in 378 BCE, formed the Band from exclusively 150 same-sex couples. These elite special forces of Ancient Greece were the finest warriors from the city-state who joined solely by invitation and paired according to a regimental tradition. The highly praised Band was one of the great ancient elite military units that the enemy deemed to have some of the most dangerous and lethal powers. They won many battles in defining conflicts until mighty Macedonia defeated the army in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE, thus wiping out the Sacred Band.
The Sacred Band came into existence when the very powerful city-state of Sparta attacked Central Greece. The inductees were hand-picked for their prowess, physiques, and fighting qualities to pursue a physical training regimen of wrestling, horsemanship, and dancing that resulted in a graceful, elite, and highly bonded unit.
The junior draftees got paired on a friendship basis, often turning romantic, alongside seasoned warriors with past battlefield experiences. According to an idealized concept of love in Ancient Greece, an esprit de corps, loving couples fighting together as a unit would be far better warriors on the battlefield than a unit of single heterosexuals. The theory held true, as these homosexual pairs were the state's best fighters and defended the state through victories against Sparta.
Upon physical bonding, the unit was now composed of loving couples. Essentially, the men cared deeply about each other's well-being and driven by love and attraction, they wanted to protect their object of affection by fighting harder together. According to the theory that love does not falter through the most trying of times, the men fought side-by-side "until death do us part," indeed, on the battlefield.
Plato wrote in his treatise Symposium about this special wartime relationship of homosexual lovers: "Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?" The theory pertained to the fact that, in the case of individual heterosexual spearmen, each would be selfish in a battle and protect only themselves if things became desperate. They would sacrifice the unit during life-or-death situations, including surrender and betrayal.
The first Thebes couples were dispersed throughout the army, but later it was decided to create a singular battlefield unit of lovers that would fight as one body. The famed Theban hoplites fought as a unit, with the Sacred Band members often deployed to the advance of the single men from other regiments, hyping up the overall morale with their prowess.
In battle, neither lover would bear the shame of seeing themselves faltering in their partner's eyes or abandoning the other through surrender or retreat. "Of love and war," indeed: Thebes male lovers, devoted to each other, consistently won battles, crushing Sparta's armies during their warring engagements through numerous mid-4th century BCE.
Behind The Ethos
This unique warrior ethos is a concept following a Greek cultural ideal that devotion would persist after the first bonding through ongoing guidance from the older male and aspiration by the younger. Both would learn, and the bond would tighten after each trying triumph, surviving through each bloody battle. Definitely one of the most unusual theories, it was not a novel idea in general Greek culture.
The theory that same-sex couples fight harder to protect their object of devotion in a battle proved itself in practice. The fighters were "faithful to their sworn bonds", not driven particularly by patriotism or loyalty to their state. Driven by and for their beloved, they fought side by side in their desire to live up to their names in each other's eyes and in their mutual protectiveness to survive together.
Upon successfully challenging and establishing the new hegemony of mighty Sparta, the Thebes were the living proof of the concept they, too, believed in. They won many battles in several important conflicts, like the 378 BCE Boeotian War against the invading Sparta. Three years later, at the Battle of Tegyra, they were part of an army that deflected an even larger Spartan force in a legendary battle.
The decisive Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, commanded by Pelopidas and the famous Theban commander Epaminondas, played out in favor of the Greeks but left three hundred Thebans dead. Won largely thanks to the deadliest force that this band presented on the battlefield, the fallen lovers and beloved were mingled one with another. According to Plutarch in Life of Polipades, "they have not done or suffered anything disgraceful."
During their time, the elite Thebes and its Sacred Band were the strongest force of the Greek army, but their triumphant fame was not long-lived, at least in historical terms. Thebes ceased to exist after a single battle with Macedonia in 338 BCE. Fighting a losing battle in the pivotal Chaeronea battle, the elite force was wiped out. For Macedonians, the triumph also led to Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, launching the era under Macedonia's dominance.
Behind the Scenes
This powerful idea, the "sacred" element of the unit, was like taking a religious oath of fidelity to his lover. The unfailing love, faithfulness, and support strengthened the bonds further and lent a religious aspect to the warrior's commitment. The theory clearly worked as a highly prized tool and a joyous part of war otherwise full of despair for the Thebans; they believed that the effect of love made them powerful forces.
"A band that is held together by the friendship between lovers is indissoluble and not to be broken, since the lovers are ashamed to play the coward before their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, and both stand firm in danger to protect each other." [Plutarch, Life of Polipades, 18]
It talks about men in love having "more regard for their lovers even when absent than for others who are present," meaning that a lover would rather end his own life if the other choice was for his beloved to watch him wounded in pain.
The Band of Thebes was made up of loving male couples with inflamed spirits for mutual rivalry and ambition. When each lover acted with the zeal for high achievement in their partner's eyes to be their bravest, most ardent, and most serviceable in a common cause, the unit, functioning as one body, was deadly. "They fought by themselves and about his own person" and "treating them as a unit, put them into the forefront of the greatest conflicts." [Plutarch, Life of Polipades, 19]
Plato extended the theory of this wartime relationship to say that in a state "made up only of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city," sans all the dishonor and only encouragement through faithful honor to grow stronger together. A lover would rather fail in front of humanity than in the eyes of his lover and "die a thousand deaths" to avoid the latter.
According to the theory and Plato, a gay fighter would not "desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger." Even a coward in love would aspire to become a hero through the courage that "love of his own nature infuses into the lover," as he quoted Homer. On the contrary, heterosexual fighters had selfish principles in war, life, and death matters.
The Band of Thebes were the elite special forces of Ancient Greece and went down as some of history's greatest elite army groups and fiercest warriors. They were invited and hand-picked to partake in arduous physical training specifically designed to create the elite and highly bonded unit that the Thebans were. The highly praised Band was one of the deadliest ancient elite military units with some of the most dangerous and lethal powers.
The Sacred Band fought admirably, won many battles, like the Boeotian War in the mid-4th century BC, and defeated them again in consecutive battles. Many of their brave deeds were documented in writing, famous works, and historical records. They dominated for less than half a century until mighty Macedonia defeated the army in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, which wiped out the Sacred Band.