|Marie A. Lawson
H331: Eros in Antiquity
5/14/03 (rev. 5/17/03)
A Mere Handful, They Would Overcome the World
Since the 1994 implementation of the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, more than 8,500 members of the United States armed forces have been discharged under its provisions, at a cost which in strictly financial terms alone has exceeded 230 million dollars. These expulsions have been and are continuing to be carried out on the sole ground that their sexual orientation renders gay and lesbian individuals unfit for military service. There is an element of appalling humor to this situation, for about 2,400 years ago, an exclusive band of frankly homosexual lovers comprised the noblest army the ancient world had ever seen. Their raison d’etre lay explicitly in the homoerotic bonds they shared, from which they derived the unprecedented unit cohesion and unyielding ferocity in battle that rendered their exploits a subject of undying legend, and which led them to their gallant end on the blood-drenched field of Chaeronea, in 338 B.C.E.
This battalion was known as the Sacred Band of Thebes; one hundred and fifty couples provided the full complement of three hundred men. It is Plutarch the Chaeronean who compiles for us the most extensive chronicle of their nature and exploits, a thread of narration which is echoed and supported by contemporary ancient sources and archeological excavation. Around the year 378 B.C., one Gorgidas, Plutarch tells us, first established the Sacred Band from three hundred carefully picked men, searching out one hundred and fifty couples from among his finest troopers. The inspiration for the formation of this battalion was the Platonic concept that no one would show more courage than a man in love, fighting under the eyes of his lover, as Plato says: “…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, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; 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.” (Plato, Symposium) This ideal is said by Plutarch to be the inspiration of Gorgidas, “Since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another.” (Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas). Initially, this battalion, though possessing the status of a unit and being indeed referred to as The Sacred Band, fought dispersed throughout the Theban regular army. The intention was for their example to be an inspiration for those around them, but according to Plutarch, this mingling “made their gallantry less conspicuous; not being united in one body, but mingled with many others of inferior resolution, they had no fair opportunity of showing what they could do.” (Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas)
In 404, the Peloponnesian War had concluded after twenty-seven years of struggle, with the total victory of Sparta over Athens and her allies. The triumphant Spartans ruled harshly over the defeated, imposing repressive puppet regimes over the states of the conquered. Among these was Thebes. Yet the Thebans did not endure their conquest and oppression quietly; small but tough bands of Theban troops stubbornly persisted for years in fighting a myriad guerrilla skirmishes with the troops of Sparta, hardening themselves into fierce and battle-trained warriors. In 379, a daring young Theban soldier named Pelopidas led the recapture of a Theban fortress from the control of Spartan rulers. After the death of Gorgidas, to him succeeded the command of the Sacred Band as an elite unit of the Theban army under Pelopidas’ friend and former lover, General Epaminondas.
Under the leadership of Pelopidas, the Sacred Band was at last united (at this point on a temporary basis) into a single contingent, as his tiny army faced the invincible Spartan hoplites in a pass near the village of Tegyra. Hearing that the pro-Spartan city of Orchomenus was currently vulnerable to attack, Pelopidas had swiftly marched his Sacred Band, with a few cavalry, to the attack. He found, however, unexpected Spartan reinforcements enroute, and was compelled to retreat, circling the foot of the mountains and driven at last into a run for the pass of Tegyra. Reaching Tegyra, they were intercepted by the Spartan army, said to range from a thousand to eighteen hundred men against the three hundred Thebans and their few cavalry auxiliaries. Spartan hoplites had never before been vanquished by an equal force of opponents, let alone one numbering fewer men than their own; they were at this time so feared that their very presence in the battle line was sufficient to send forces numbering greater than themselves fleeing from the combat. On the strength of this self-assurance, besides that of their greater numbers, the Spartans confidently marched down upon the band of Thebans. Their prey, however, responded by charging them with such fury that the Spartan captains were immediately killed, and those who had been around them suffered severe losses. Reeling from this blow, the Spartan army parted as though to permit a Theban escape; but Pelopidas instead turned upon the Spartan remnants, routing them utterly. Though pursuit of the fleeing Spartans was impossible for fear of hostile neighbors and approaching reinforcements, the Theban victory was so complete that they enjoyed the honor of despoiling the bodies of their slain foes and erecting a trophy to their triumph. Pelopidas, having seen sufficient proof of the courage and efficacy of the Sacred Band, from this moment on kept them always as a discrete unit unto themselves, and never again distributed them through the battle line, as had been the wont of Gorgidas.
The next and greatest exploit of the Sacred Band was the victory of Leuctra in 371 B.C. The most decisive battle ever fought by Greeks against Greeks, according to the military historian Pausanias, Leuctra settled for good the issue of Theban independence from Spartan rule. It also involved an innovation in battlefield tactics which had not before been seen. The Spartans, having broken a treaty to grant independence to several Boeotian cities which had thrown off their Spartan regimes, commanded an army under King Cleombrotus to move to put down the Theban resistance. But he was met at Leuctra by the forces of General Epaminondas, fielding 9000 men to face the 12,100 Spartans. The key, Epaminondas perceived, was to win on the right before losing on the left. One of the main problems of the hoplite phalanx had been to keep it going straight forward. It naturally tended to curl towards the right, as each hoplite trooper pressed towards the protection of the huge shield on his neighbor’s left arm. But here Epaminondas chose an oblique phalanx attack, with a strengthened left wing of hoplites ranged fifty men deep. He concentrated his scarce forces here in order to command local superiority of numbers against the center of gravity of the Spartan army. An initial attack of the Thebans’ superior cavalry scattered the Spartans’ in confusion, throwing them partially into their own front infantry ranks. Upon this, Epaminondas immediately smashed his engorged left wing into the Spartan lines. The Spartan right wing immediately broke open, permitting the Theban left wing to execute a flank attack. Peltasts and cavalry protected the right side of Epaminondas’ main phalanx, while the Sacred Band stood on the left, poised there to execute their vicious flank attack into the Spartan right on the heels of the initial Theban charge. Thus, the Spartan king’s effort to reinforce his right wing after the Thebans’ crushing impact was crucially thwarted by the ferocious charge of the Sacred Band at that point. Cleombrotus was killed in the first stage of the struggle; staggering under the shock of this loss and the demolition of the right flank, the entire Spartan phalanx retreated before the Spartan left and Theban right had even engaged in battle. Pursued by victorious Thebans, the Spartans broke and fled for their camp, having lost 500 men during the battle and another 500 during the retreat, to the Thebans’ total 300 dead. For a second time, Theban soldiers set up a battle trophy, while Spartans sued for truce. Sparta’s defeat at Leuctra destroyed in an instant the military and political supremacy it had enjoyed for centuries. Following his victory, Epaminondas invaded the Peloponnesus, liberated the Helots of Messenia and Arcadia from the hated Spartan rule, and pressed the war into Sparta itself, putting it to siege for the first time in six hundred years. Thebes was now the preeminent power in Greece.
It is bitterly ironic that the Sacred Band met its end by the hand of the king who learned his skill at warfare from the examples of Epaminondas and Pelopidas, and who was inspired by the training and tactics of the Theban phalanx. As a youth, Philip II of Macedon had been held as a peace-hostage in Thebes, sent there as a fifteen-year-old youth by Pelopidas in 367. Thus, he spent his formative years in a Thebes which stood at the height of its power. An admirer of Epaminondas, as well as the friend of Pelopidas and the ward of Epaminondas’ successor, General Pammenes (various historians actually link him erotically with the latter two), he was well exposed to Theban military innovations, which he later adapted to his own purposes. When Philip came to the throne after his return to Macedon, he built up a strong professional army, secured his power in the north, and began agile political maneuvers to extend his power into the south of Greece. Soon Philip threatened to bring all of Greece under his control, distracting Athens and Thebes with a façade of diplomatic lures. But when, unannounced, Philip occupied Elatea, a key point on the road to Thebes, a horrified Athens awoke to its danger. The fiery orator and politician, Demosthenes, whipped up a quick Athenian-Theban alliance, which flung up armies to block Philip’s advances. Yet despite his good start, Demosthenes blew it all with a harebrained plan for a conclusive land engagement with Philip rather than making use of the formidably powerful Athenian navy, which had already been proven effective against Macedon during operations in the Dardanelles and a siege of Byzantium. The Greeks positioned armies to block the mountain passes guarding the way further into their territory. But deception and a lightning attack in the night won Philip the citadel of Amphissa, and his forces began flooding through the pass it had guarded, to threaten the Greek rear. The Greek armies were pressed into an urgent retreat deeper into the country; at Chaeronea they reformed their lines and established a defensive stand.
The allied right flank was composed of the Theban army, at 12,000 strong, while the left was made up of the 10,000 Athenians. In the center stood a hodgepodge of allies and hired mercenaries. The Thebans were led by Theagenes, a respected though ungifted general, while the Athenians were under the command of three generals: the experienced but untalented Chares, the incompetent Stratocles, and the rash Lyiscles. Against them, the wily and hardened Philip commanded the Macedonian right flank, slightly outflanking the Athenian left. His left flank, which had heavy cavalry, was under the command of his son Alexander, a boy of 18, yet already a tried and brilliant commander of battle, supported by Philip’s best war leaders. The Macedonian center and left were echeloned back at an angle from the Greek line, a deployment eerily reminiscent of Leuctra, 33 years before. At the battle’s onset, Philip’s guards brigade engaged the Athenians, crashing into their phalanx and causing an inevitable drift to the left by the Athenian forces. At the same time, the Macedonians under Alexander who had been sloped away were advancing. Philip next drew his own forces back slightly; seeing the Macedonians give way lured Stratocles into sending the Athenians into a wild charge. The Macedonians retreated in good order, while the Athenians pursued further and further, their lines in the center stretching perilously thin. Between the Greek center and the Theban right, there soon opened a gap, and into this gap, at the head of Macedon’s cavalry, charged Alexander, driving a wedge into the heart of the Theban ranks – according to Plutarch, the Sacred Band itself – while a second brigade of cavalry executed a flanking attack. Meanwhile, Philip halted his retreat and launched a downhill countercharge which poured through the broken lines in Alexander’s wake and simultaneously engaged the Greek center, front, and flank. After a desperate struggle, the entire allied army broke and fled, leaving the Sacred Band behind, surrounded and alone. Their code did not permit them to fly ignominiously to safety, so the one hundred and fifty lovers held their ground like the legendary Spartans of Thermopylae, and like them, fought and died where they stood, falling one by one among piles of corpses. Only forty-six men were taken alive. Plutarch famously records the words of Philip, touring the field after the battle: upon coming to the strewn bodies of the finest soldiers of Greece, “lying all where they had faced the long spears of his phalanx, with their armour, and mingled one with another, he was amazed, and on learning that this was the band of lovers and beloved, shed tears and said, ‘Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered aught disgraceful!’” (Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas) Moved by the gallantry of their sacrifice, he permitted them to be buried with great honor, two hundred and fifty four bodies ranged in seven soldierly rows, and above them a great stone lion to keep eternal watch, facing out towards the enemies of Thebes.
The guard of the Lion of Chaeronea was not unbroken, though, for it was only in 1881 that the archaeologist’s spade revealed it to modern eyes, a physical proof of the ancients’ accounts. And, beneath the shards of the lion, there lay still the neatly arranged graves of the brave men whose violent death had earned its tribute. During the war of Greek liberation from Ottoman rule, a Greek general broke up the lion’s pedestal in search of treasure. None of gold or precious gems were there, but something even more invaluable was: the shields of the Sacred Band, each inscribed with the name of the bearer – all the names of the lovers who fought and fell side by side. Not only do these shields identify their owners as Theban soldiers, but from this derives conclusive archeological corroboration of the account of Plutarch. The latter informs us that Philip permitted the burial of the Sacred Band together, among their weapons (which were conspicuously not looted from them according to standard practice) and opposite the sarissae long-spears they had faced during the battle. “In the Macedonian grave tumulus at Chaeronea have been uncovered lance-heads too large for use on the hoplite spear, but entirely appropriate to the sarissa.” (Rahe, 84)
In the nineteenth century, the Sacred Band of Thebes and the Battle of Chaeronea became the inspiration and rallying cry of a secret, half-scientific, half-spiritual British society known as the Order of Chaeronea. It was founded in 1897 by George Cecil Ives (1867-1950 A.D.), a criminologist, poet, essayist, and ardent advocate of homosexual rights. Its secular goal was the achievement of civil rights for gay men and lesbians, while its spiritual goal was to form a global chain of lovers, building on the Sacred Band’s Platonic ideal. Ives drew upon Greek homosexual customs and the history of the Sacred Band, as well as upon texts by himself and his friends Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman, in the construction of rich and intricate quasi-Masonic initiation ceremonies and other rituals. The Order was primarily composed of men (including many prominent members such as Laurence Housman, the brother of poet A.E. Housman), but some women, such as writer Radclyffe Hall and her lover Una Lady Troubridge, are believed to have been members as well. While Ives appeared to have preferred pederastic love, he and the members of the Order honored same-age relationships of equals, which they linked to the warrior-comrades of the Sacred Band and antiquity as well as to medieval knight-pairs. Through his pursuit of the study of sex psychology, Ives also became a friend and frequent correspondent of such notables as Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld; the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology was founded in 1914 by Carpenter, Hirschfeld, Ives, Laurence Housman, and others. In 1902, the Order of Chaeronea carried out the reconstruction of the fragments of the Lion of Chaeronea, and erected it once more on the original site of its old vigil, where it keeps watch until this day.
The story of the Sacred Band currently enjoys nearly universal acceptance by modern archeologists and scholars of the accounts which are typical of Plutarch and which follow the train of events and details summarized earlier. It would be inaccurate, however, to present this general consensus as being wholly unanimous with regards to the precise nature of the Sacred Band of Thebes, or on the details of their adventures and demise. Despite this modern accord, the general harmony of ancient sources with regards to the overall historical framework and story of the Sacred Band, and the corroboration of archeological evidence mentioned above, there are certain weaknesses in the structure of evidence which have been remarked upon by a modern scholar. The only comprehensive discussion of which I am aware that challenges the Sacred Band’s status as a genuine historical entity, as opposed to a mere legend got up by philosophers and having merely a tenuous, at best, connection with documented events, is that of classicist David Leitao. He presses this counter-argument in his scholarly work entitled “The Legend of the Sacred Band”, appearing in The Sleep of Reason, an anthology of modern works on eroticism in antiquity. However, even while he attempts to build a case for the Sacred Band’s being a product of optimistic dreamers and manufactured accounts, it is not difficult to show that his own case rests equally upon presumption and biased accounts. Moreover, his contentions would remain highly inconclusive even if his supporting statements were capable of standing at face value. Thus, as the main representative of a revisionist interpretation of the tradition of the Sacred Band, it fails to withstand extended scrutiny, a fact which bodes well for the authenticity of this erotically bonded fighting unit.
Although a large part of Leitao’s Legend details ground for questioning the authenticity of the Sacred Band as historical fact, he prefaces this by stating that his primary intent is less to disprove its existence than to explore the social background which could have enabled even an unfounded myth about an erotic fighting band to gain such power and credence (Leitao, 143). Therefore, his focus rests not so much on unearthing hard evidence to contradict existing accounts of the Sacred Band but rather on exploring the framework of sexual ethics, philosophy, and legend which he believes provided fertile ground for the imagination of the ancients to produce legendary tales of a band of heroic lovers. The possibility of fabrication is thus conflated by Leitao with a convincing proof of the same, and presented as such. In this vein, he dwells greatly upon speculation as to the probable moral traditions which he believes originated certain ancient historians’ accounts, and regards the intermittent silence of more prosaic chroniclers as the kiss of death for the verity of the Sacred Band.
To that end, the opening portions of his discussion delineate legends of similarly erotically bonded fighters, such as Cleomachus the Thessalian and his lover, whose authenticity may be indeterminate or even improbable, but which bear little to no direct connection to the Sacred Band per se. In the framework, however, of setting a precedent of questionable legends of this nature, these would be highly relevant. He also devotes effort to detail the phenomena of commonplace, temporary, and highly public affairs between older men and their younger boy-loves (paidika) such as Xenophon records out of personal observation of Greek troops in his Hellenica, the experience of Plato and Alcibiades, and some of the pederastic customs of Thebes and Sparta. These relationships, though often highly respected and spoken of in glowing terms, enjoyed official sanction generally only within the limitations of a clearly pederastic context. As such, they are held up by Leitao in specific opposition to the very different phenomenon of sexual relationships between equals among the hoplite ranks, in order to indicate the comparatively quite radical nature of the Sacred Band (Leitao, 145). It must be maintained, however, that while these will lend some plausibility to the Sacred-Band-as-legend position, they by no means offer conclusive evidence that it was, conversely, a necessarily purely fictional entity. Indeed, the variety of sexual ethics seen makes a distinct case for a diversity of experience which could conceivably include on the fringes an institution of pairs of erotically bonded adult fighters. Particularly, one may turn to the striking nature of pederasty among the Spartans (manifestly both an explicitly martial and officially promoted phenomenon) that Leitao himself grudgingly acknowledges (Leitao, 153). As Xenophon records, it was standard for Spartan boys to be stationed beside their older lovers in battle, wherein the erotic relationship between the two was particularly clearly melded with the martial training of the Spartan youth. This, even more clearly than the Theban practice (also noted by Xenophon) of troopers’ keeping their boy-loves at least close by during battle, approached remarkably close to “an army of lovers”. Clearly, this was of a nature which lent itself handsomely (and perhaps all but inevitably) to the frequent continuance of erotic bonds among the adult Similars of a mess unit, even if such non-pederastic love would have lacked the explicit sanction of an official institution.
When he reaches the point of directly addresses the veracity of our ancient sources on the Sacred Band, Leitao commences by listing them, then swiftly ticks them off one by one with quick, often cursory, jabs at their credibility. The Hellenica of Callisthenes, nephew of Aristotle, is a contemporary account of the doings of the Sacred Band, Callisthenes (d. 327 B.C.) having been alive during the time of all their great battles. It is Callisthenes whose work is regarded as having provided the most comprehensive and sympathetic contemporary account of the Sacred Band and its doings; he is a primary source for later ancients, especially those disposed to regard it favorably. Ephorus (405-330 B.C.) is another contemporary, whose Historia, preserved through the works of Diodorus Siculus, also contains valuable and much-utilized references to the exploits of the Sacred Band. As Leitao says, Callisthenes is believed to inform the accounts of The Life of Pelopidas, by Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.), and either Ephorus, Callisthenes, or both are sources for Diodorus (c. 90-21 B.C.) and Cornelius Nepos (100-25 B.C.). Dinarchus (b. 361 B.C.) is yet a third contemporary source; however Leitao dismisses him as an independent agent with a briefly stated claim that it is possible his speech of 323 B.C., in which the Sacred Band receives mention, was simply influenced by the newly-published works of Callisthenes and Ephorus, though given a mere ten years after the Band’s demise. Leitao also makes an extraordinarily confident assertion that Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas is based, not on historical narratives, nor on the local sources among whom the writer grew up (having been born and raised in Chaeronea itself) but upon some unnamed earlier erotic work. However, the supporting evidence for this is quite difficult to follow or to accept as conclusive. Leitao explains that two of the anecdotes Plutarch relates regarding the Sacred Band in Life of Pelopidas also occur in his Amatorius (which Leitao later faults for its lack of information on the Sacred Band), and says that another of these anecdotes appears also in Aelian’s De Natura Animalium. He then adds that, as is readily apparent, Plutarch very likely derives from Plato his explanation of the origin of the term “Sacred” in description of the Band. On the basis of these three facts, he then concludes that Plutarch must clearly derive all pretended knowledge of the Sacred Band from, not local Boeotian historians, nor from the factual records of Callisthenes or Ephorus, but from a philosophically oriented system of thought and writing on Eros that dates back to Plato. Leitao makes no effort at all to question the credibility of Maximus of Tyre (2nd century A.D.), and leaves Hieronymus of Rhodes (290-230 B.C.) with nothing more than passing mention of another author’s expressed opinion that the latter operated off a previous erotic work. Athenaeus (b. 200 A.D.), who refers to the Sacred Band in the context of a serious discussion (The Deipnosophists, Book XIII) of the value of erotic bonds in the government and the military, is dismissed as wholly unreliable on the face of that context alone. The fact that Athanaeus’ surrounding statements (about, for example, the Lacedaemonian, i.e. Spartan, tradition of sacrificing to Eros before doing battle) are a matter of unquestionable historical record is apparently of no concern. The discussions of Dio Chrysostom (d. 112 A.D.) on the Sacred Band and the Theban general Epaminondas, in the context of civics, are similarly dismissed without trial. Finally, Polyaenus the Macedonian (2nd century A.D.) gives, despite his national origins, an impassioned description of the Sacred Band in the standard terms; however, Leitao points out that he fails to mention them specifically in his accounts of the battles of Leuctra and Chaeronea. (Leitao, 145-147) Polyaenus does not, however, appear to be presenting his reference to the Sacred Band in the context of a mere myth, when he discusses them in his book, a serious treatise on military stratagems; thus this partial omission (which if one is disposed to regard it as significant, may be perceived as a self-contradiction) does not seem necessarily conclusive one way or another. Further, it is also the case that Polyaenus discusses the compositions of armies and their cultural customs in sections apart from discussions of pure tactics during historical battles, which may well serve as another explanation for the apparent omission.
Leitao’s next interest is in attempting to demonstrate that even those contemporary texts which he is prepared to acknowledge as historiographical accounts rather than purely philosophical theses present “greatly exaggerated” accounts of the exploits of the Sacred Band. After having just essayed to cast doubt upon the reliability of Ephorus’s narratives, Leitao now leans upon them by preference, in order to cast doubt upon Callisthenes’ account of the Battle of Tegyra. Callisthenes, whose version has grown to be the popularly accepted relation of the events, describes a battle wherein the three hundred men of the Sacred Band, aided by a few cavalry and under the eagle-eyed leadership of Pelopidas, put to rout fourteen hundred Spartan troops. Ephorus tells a more restrained account of five hundred “specially picked” Theban troopers, who manage to overcome merely double that number of Spartans. The name of Pelopidas does not appear in this retelling, and the location of the battle is identified not by the name of the village of Tegyra, but by the large city of Orchomenus nearby, in which the defeated Spartan army had been based. (Leitao, 147) On the basis of these disparities, Leitao rules with no further ado in favor of the account of Ephorus as the report which “obviously” is to be quite trusted. But while Ephorus’ account may sound plausible as the more conservative of the two, the fact that he fails to hail the Sacred Band or its leader by name is by no means conclusive. This is particularly the case if one is to simultaneously accept the unreliability of Ephorus’ testimony, as Leitao had previously assayed to demonstrate. It may seem that Ephorus’ more cautious summary of the numerical odds sounds more credible. However, one must consider firstly: that the cavalry assistance which Callisthenes mentions but does not number provides a boost to the number of Thebans actually on the battlefield under his account; and secondly: that identifying the battle in connection with the home base of the Spartan army rather than by its actual location is consistent with an inclination to conservatively estimate the odds faced by the Theban forces. Given the above and the minor nature of the disparity, this dissimilitude in accounts fails to be anything more than a somewhat suggestive puzzle, and certainly not an adequate source of conclusive contrary evidence. But most damning of all to Leitao’s argument, the historian Polybius, whom he later recruits to attack the reputations of Ephorus and Callisthenes, tells a version of the battle wherein each of the two Spartan companies fielded nine hundred men. Yet at Tegyra, Leitao inconsistently prefers Ephorus’ account at face value, purely for the sake of its reference to five hundred men rather than seven hundred per company.
From here, Leitao proceeds to discuss his take on the various accounts of the Battle of Leuctra, commonly regarded as the greatest victory of the Sacred Band, and of Thebes, over the corrupt and repressive Spartan empire. It is probably because Leitao enters into this argument armed with the account of Xenophon that he exudes such confidence in his interpretation; yet it is precisely this stress which shall make his position particularly vulnerable. But, as he says, of the four major accounts of the battle, it is only Callisthenes’ enthusiastic and pro-Theban account which specifically names both Pelopidas and the Sacred Band as having been the keys to the entire affair. Ephorus is evidently maintaining the theme begun in his account of Tegyra, as he continues to stress instead the brilliance of Epaminondas’ tactics, describing them in details that dovetail neatly with the accounts of Callisthenes and of Xenophon. Ephorus mentions, too, “the best men of the whole army” who are specially picked to spearhead the Theban assault on the Spartan right flank. Leitao clutches at straws when he, again faced with a choice between Ephorus and Callisthenes, immediately chooses Ephorus as being “obviously” the more accurate account, apparently for the sole sake of the latter’s lack of mention of the Sacred Band. Pausanias’ account of the battle is a minor one, providing little in the way of detail, such that the omission of the name of the Sacred Band means little one way or the other. (Leitao, 148)
It is at this juncture that Leitao makes a further attempt to reject the narratives of both Ephorus and Callisthenes entirely, with a contemptuous remark that accounts by these contemporaries of the Sacred Band were widely ridiculed in antiquity for their lack of grasp of military affairs. Leitao makes this confident dismissal in spite of Callisthenes’ background as the official historian of Alexander the Great’s military campaigns, personally eyewitnessed and recorded in the now-lost Deeds of Alexander. He derives this ground for doubt primarily from the critiques by Polybius (military historian, 203-120 B.C.), whom he cites, and likely also from the incendiary words of Timaeus (historian and critic of other historians, 356-260 B.C.). But Polybius, in Chapter XII of his Histories (wherein he writes at great length as to the reliability of histories authored by different men), speaks with positively glowing admiration for Ephorus’ keen grasp of naval tactics even while he gently laughs at the latter’s errors in describing the tactics of the land battles at Leuctra and Mantinea (Polybius, Book XII, Chapter VI). Further, it is purely Ephorus’ failure to grasp the impact of the physical lay of the land upon the finer details of movement in a battle for which he comes under censure by Polybius, and not for gross error. Regarding Leuctra, Ephorus is even kindly excused for this, because as (Polybius says) the battle involved a special engagement of only part of an army, which did not make Ephorus’ lack of understanding a critical matter. Polybius (a vehement champion of systematic accuracy in historical accounts, who prided himself on sparing no effort to verify the reports of others) even notes Ephorus’ particular and praiseworthy appreciation for the greater value of eyewitness accounts and provable or observed fact, as opposed to careless and superficial research. Indeed, Callisthenes was known and well regarded for his having been an eyewitness of most of the matters he recorded, and using accordingly reliable sources for his contemporary accounts of other events. It is, on the other hand, for lack of dedicated and skeptical effort, eyewitness and local report, background knowledge, and personal observation for which Timaeus (the erstwhile harsh ancient critic of both Ephorus and Callisthenes) comes in for scathing criticism in this same work by Polybius. Polybius irately and contemptuously gives minute detail on the blatant and incredibly numerous errors which have been committed by Timaeus, who hypocritically delighted in harping upon the flaws he managed to detect in the accounts by others, including that of Ephorus. Yet it is the ridiculous histories of Timaeus, and not those of Ephorus, which receive the outraged scorn of Polybius, who also remarks that a man completely lacking in military experience (as Timaeus) cannot hope to ever make a decent historian in military matters. Ephorus, by contrast, escapes this rebuke and appears in a generally quite favorable light as an historian to be relied upon for all but the finest details. Callisthenes comes in for a nearly equally ambivalent rebuke; and likewise in his case as well, Polybius reacts with profound irritation to Timeus’ temerity in faulting the worth of Callisthenes’ accounts. As for the actual flaws of Callisthenes’ work, Polybius devotes the entirety of his fifth chapter of Book XII of Historia to detailing the exact nature of a representative sample of Callisthenes’ technical errors, in relating the account of the great battle of Alexander the Great against Darius at Cilicia, by the river Pinarus. But in this process he not only distinctly grants Callisthenes credit for being the chronicler of events which the latter personally eyewitnessed, but also makes it evident that the errors which he criticizes are exclusively a matter of the naïve lapses of a non-military man. It is in lack of understanding regarding precise details of the impact of physical terrain, complex martial maneuvers, and the specific orders of battle, rather than accuracy as to the larger scale train of events of battle or campaign, that Callisthenes is to be faulted. Thus, the critiques of Polybius, while entirely valid, constitute the conscious nitpicking of a consummate perfectionist in matters of precise military strategy and record, rather than a case to seriously impugn the reliability of Callisthenes as a general historian, rather than a specialized military expert. In fact, in the process of enumerating the obvious miscalculations of Callisthenes in computation of ranges between different elements of opposing armies (even to the space between man and man in a unit), or of the fine details of use made of the terrain of battle, Polybius shows his confidence in willingly relying upon the greater picture presented by Callisthenes’ record. (Polybius, Book XII, Chapter V) So much for Leitao’s attempt to discredit the two primary historians of the Sacred Band.
But finally bringing his attention to Xenophon’s account of the Battle of Leuctra, Leitao triumphantly remarks that, coming from the great military tactician and chronicler of the armies and battles of the Greek world, this silence with regards to the Sacred Band, Pelopidas, and even Epimanondas at Leuctra is telling indeed. As Leitao justly points out, Xenophon’s attention to detail, profound awareness of military and cultural customs, and matchless understanding of strategy and tactics make him a source deserving of truly unique respect. It is doubtless that, did the Sacred Band exist, Xenophon would have known of them, and the fact that he does not speak of them at Leuctra is indeed troubling. The sticking point, however, is from what perspective the great Xenophon is relating the tale. Xenophon’s historical accounts of military adventures are astounding in their confidence, breadth, and precision primarily when they are those in which he had a personal hand; for example, throughout Anabasis, wherein he relates the story of the Greek expedition to Persia, on which he became the youngest of the leaders of the Ten Thousand Greeks. In these, it must be distinctly noted that the truly in-depth account is generally confined to what he was able to directly observe, or else to hear of firsthand from immediate colleagues and comrades whom he trusted. It is for this reason that, although he gives great detail of the homoerotic practices which he observed among the troops with whom he fought (in the accounts contained in Anabasis, for example, Book VII, Chapter IV), he does not presume to speculate in much depth as to the finer points of customs of which he was not a witness. Hence, while he mentions his superficial knowledge of the Thebans’ unique practice of making battlemates out of their bedmates, he provides no surplus of information as to the finer details of the relationships or the existence of specifically erotic battle units – an omission which Leitao prefers to regard as proof of the lack of importance of such relationships, and proof positive of the fraudulence of the accounts of the Sacred Band. Similarly, in the bulk of Hellenica, as Xenophon tells the stories of adventures in which he did not partake, he is compelled to accept the accounts of his allies, all of whom were Spartans from the point when he turned in battle against his native Athens and was forced to remain in exile, an honored guest of the Spartan king Agesilaus. The difference in this work from those which tap into personal experience is quite perceptible.
One must also give serious consideration to these circumstances of his residence among the Spartans – Xenophon was: a lifelong and publicly vocal admirer of the Spartan way of life, who generally detested Athens; a former Athenian general who had turned upon his compatriots and fought them in battle for the sake of Sparta; a close personal friend and admiring biographer of King Agesilaus; a prosperous country nobleman who enjoyed an idyllic life settled upon a Spartan estate; and the father of two sons who were sent away to receive a Spartan upbringing as soon as they were of age. In the aftermath of bitter Spartan agony over their ignominious defeat at Leuctra, Xenophon was ejected from the estate where he had spent his happiest years; seething with grief for Sparta and Agesilaus, he elected not to return to Athens even though his exile was revoked at that time. Instead, he settled in Corinth, where the Thebans entered the Peloponnese, freed the Messenian helots from their Spartan masters, and nourished the flower of Arcadian independence from Spartan rule. Neither this nor the uncertainty and political turmoil involved was amusing to Xenophon, who sent his two sons to fight with the Athenian cavalry against the Thebans at Mantinea; one of them perished in the battle. Thus the aging Xenophon was compelled to endure not only injury to his beloved Sparta, and the political turmoil which he detested, but even the loss of a son, all at the hands of Thebes, which by this point was an enemy not only of Sparta but even of Athens. (Cawkwell, 12-15)
Returning with this background knowledge to Xenophon’s account of Leuctra, one finds many interesting things to remark upon. Glaringly obvious, of course, is the fact that the entire tale is unwaveringly told from a Spartan perspective, with deep human sympathy expressed exclusively for the Spartan players in the drama. In fact, while Cleombrotus, the Spartan war-king on the scene, comes in for the bulk of the attention and rather detailed digressions, there is not one Theban mentioned by name – whereas Xenophon devotes tremendous, sensitive attention to Cleombrotus’ conference with his friends, even to the quantity of wine drunk at a feast. It therefore can hardly be surprising -- or in the least significant -- that the Sacred Band, Pelopidas, and Epaminondas do not come in for enthusiastic headlines in Xenophon’s version of events. Other minor details worthy of note include the fact that Xenophon barely acknowledges the fact that the Battle of Leuctra resulted directly from the decision by the Ephors of Sparta to break their recent oaths of the Peace of Callias, which had just been negotiated between Thebes and Sparta. Uncertain and requesting orders, Cleombrotus was commanded by the Spartan government to march on Thebes and demand Thebes’ withdrawal from the Boeotian cities which Sparta had recently controlled. Xenophon obviously tries to slip lightly past the fact that these orders to Cleombrotus involved (as he does admit) oath-breaking (which in fact was an infamously common Spartan policy). Also, he attempts to make excuses for the Spartan failure in battle, with a lengthy and somewhat sullen prelude to his description of the battle, regarding how the Thebans enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in cavalry. This was an interesting stress to lay, when hoplites had until now invariably been the troopers whose press carried the day, and when it was predominantly the hoplite combat which ruled the day at Leuctra after the diversionary cavalry engagement. It even suggests that he may have found it simply too shameful or too politically dangerous to acknowledge the legendary Spartan hoplites fairly beaten. He also stresses the Spartan attack prior to the main battle which forced a withdrawing column of Theban allies back into the bulk of the Theban army, and takes great pain to detail how the Spartan lines were spread only twelve shields deep, while facing a deep echelon of Thebans massed fifty shields deep (part of the brilliant and innovative “oblique phalanx” formation for which Epaminondas is famous). It is intriguing that this comment not only corroborates Ephorus’ account of the order of battle (which Leitao has been struggling to cast doubts upon) but also constitutes evidence for the fact that Epaminondas was forced to chose this unique array in part because he did not possess sufficient forces to match those of the Spartans in similar formation – another relevant detail which Xenophon does not care to go into. Xenophon even makes a desperate try to play up the idea that the Spartans were initially victorious, on the grounds that this was why they were able to retain the body of their king from capture for so long as they did. He concludes with a detailed and viscerally felt description of the receipt of the news of this defeat back at home in Sparta. In contrast, the sole attention given to the Theban side in the battle consisted of the detail of the initial Theban cavalry attack which drove off that of the Spartans, and a cursory mention of the terrific effect of the smashing of the deep-echelon Theban infantry attack into the Spartan right flank, and the last struggle of the Spartan king and his contingent of guards. Indeed, more attention is devoted to the consternation and impotent fury of the defeated Spartan army after the conflict’s end than to any clear account of the battle itself – a history which if fleshed out would give much glory to Thebes and but little to Sparta. (Xenophon, Hellenica, Book VI, Chapter IV)
In counterpoint to Leitao’s defense of Xenophon’s reliability (by cursory reference to his own satisfaction with the 1988 work of Victor Hanson on Greek infantry tactics) is the introduction to the 1979 Penguin edition of Xenophon’s Hellenica, written by George Cawkwell. In this work, Cawkwell feels calls upon to specifically address the issue of Xenophon’s reliability with regard to the Spartan-Theban conflict, since Hellenica is the work of Xenophon which devotes considerable and problematic attention to the subject. Author of four major academic works on the subject, and widely acknowledged as the foremost expert on the life and times of Xenophon, Cawkwell frankly admits that, although Xenophon’s knowledge of Spartan and Athenian affairs is second to none and his defects as an historian are outweighed by his merits, the latter made virtually no effort to rein in an anti-Theban, pro-Spartan bias, and “his omissions [were] outstanding even within the range of his interests.” (Cawkwell, 16).
The arguments which Leitao brings to bear concerning the veracity of the accepted account of the Battle of Chaeronea are brief and likewise inconclusive. As before, while he does the service of bringing attention to perplexing enigmas regarding the patchwork of historical accounts, he raises strictly limited grounds for the possibility of the account of the Sacred Band being merely a legend, and by no means provides conclusive counterevidence for the reliability of the accepted composite account. He begins by remarking on the valid point that the presence of the Sacred Band at Chaeronea is specifically noted by Plutarch alone. He therefore commences by attempting to discredit the validity of Plutarch’s narrative.
The first effort he makes in this direction is to call attention to the fact that in his account of Chaeronea, as in his writings on the Sacred Band, Plutarch will commonly preface statements with the caveats “it is said that”, “some say”, “as they say”, or the like. (Leitao, 148) Leitao also returns to this point in the portion of his paper immediately following that on the Battle of Chaeronea, where he focuses on a specific criticism of Plutarch’s reliability as a source of any information on the history of the Sacred Band. Leitao characterizes the presence of these qualifiers as a halting and transparent attempt of Plutarch both to distance himself both from the erotic (as opposed to historic) tradition upon which Leitao asserts his legend of the Sacred Band is primarily based, or else from Plutarch’s supposed awareness of the possibility of a severe flaw in its factual basis as well. Listing several examples of such qualifiers appearing in Plutarch’s work in connection with the Sacred Band, together with a single instance of such in Plutarch’s retelling of the story of Hercules and Iolaus, Leitao attempts to set up an unsubstantiated parallel between the presentations of both. More importantly, however, he stresses the air of uncertainty which he believes they convey, adding also a reference to the occurrence of an extremely similar qualifier in the account of Dinarchus, who names as a source the “stories” told by his “elders” – “as they say.” (Leitao, 150) But Dinarchus’ caveat occurs in the form of a confident remark that the stories which he relates of the Sacred Band are ones which he has heard from his elders – himself being a childhood contemporary of the Sacred Band, and his elders having thus been all the more in a position to have heard the blow-by-blow accounts of their deeds. Likewise, Plutarch, born and bred in the region of Chaeronea, spent his entire youth hearing the folk tales and local histories of the inhabitants – themselves the descendants of the inhabitants who witnessed these events a mere half dozen or fewer generations before. It is little to be doubted that these oral histories would have included, among others, the accounts of the Sacred Band, and such is in fact further supported by the fact that Plutarch, like Dinarchus, acknowledges his receipt of such oral traditions by means of these “qualifiers” which Leitao presents as liabilities. It is truly remarkable that Leitao takes this path of decrying Plutarch’s references to local oral record and contemporary written histories derived in part from these, even while excoriating him for having drawn from (in his belief) an unreliable (because erotic) written tradition. It is evident that in the audacity of his desire to more than discredit the Sacred Band’s most important chronicler, Leitao is actually attempting to criticize Plutarch from two opposing and mutually exclusive angles.
In the central portion of his argument with regards to the Sacred Band’s role at Chaeronea, Leitao compares and contrasts the report of Plutarch with that of Diodorus. In this exercise, he plays up the fact that the latter does not mention the Sacred Band by name, despite the fact that the latter’s description of a band of 300 Theban “warriors and charioteers” is more than a little suggestive (charioteers being so associated with erotic and martial bonds that such the reference came to be practically an acknowledged euphemism for such an attachment). However the central fact which comes across turns out in the end to be the remarkable corroboration Diodorus provides for the work of Plutarch in every other respect of the battle, of which he provides a contemporary and extraordinarily detailed account. In both records, Philip of Macedon faces Athenians across from the right half of his lines, while his son Alexander is pitted against the Thebans on the left; details follow as described earlier. Plutarch and Diodorous also agree that Alexander is to be credited with the first move of the battle; Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, recording his role as the first to break the ranks of the Sacred Band, and Diodorus hailing him as the first the break the continuity of the enemy line. (Leitao, 148) This, however, Leitao prefers to interpret as proof that Plutarch (as, he believes, an ardent admirer simultaneously of both Alexander and Thebes) wished to produce an account that did honor to both sides, and chose his source accordingly. Yet, while Leitao casually refers again here to his belief in Plutarch’s interlocking system of biases, it is perhaps worthy of note that in addition to his biographies of the Theban heroes Pelopidas and Epaminondas, Plutarch authored equally positive accounts of the lives of their arch-enemies: Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta, and of Agesilaus, the last great Spartan king. But returning to Leitao’s arguments regarding Chaeronea, how his allegations regarding Plutarch’s source relate to his having established the corroboration of Diodorus is not clear, because Leitao then shifts direction slightly, alleging Plutarch lifts his account from that of Callisthenes. He does this by brushing aside Plutarch’s exposure to local sources on the battle, and, leaving unproven his own claim that these were of no importance, turns attention to the number of citations of Callisthenes which appear in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (3 instances) and Life of Pelopidas (1 occurrence). Based on the occurrence of these discrete and explicitly credited citations of Callisthenes in Plutarch’s work, Leitao makes the amazing leap of asserting that these, and Callisthenes’ similar sympathies for both Thebes and Alexander, constitute satisfactory proof that he – even when conspicuously uncited -- is the mysterious primary source for Plutarch for whom Leitao is seeking. (Leitao, 149) This is a remarkable feat of logic, particularly considering that, if Plutarch’s noteworthy attention to detail in citation is of any indication, had he gained such a large portion of his information from Callisthenes, he would clearly have taken pains to give adequate credit where due.
Leitao concludes with a reference to the monument generally believed to be that erected in honor of the fallen of the Sacred Band: the Lion of Chaeronea. He alleges the sole evidence for assuming this to be their burial marker (and the 254 skeletons beneath to be their bodies) to be the bare word of Plutarch. And not, he believes, a very convincing account of Plutarch even on the face of it, in light of the fact that the Lion itself does not receive mention in his telling. In Leitao’s opinion, Plutarch, as a native of the town of Chaeronea (who not only was raised in the vicinity but chose to spend the bulk of his life there rather than in a metropolis such as Rome), should have certainly had the opportunity of observing this monument to his fallen heroes, which raises question as to whom even Plutarch might have believed it to be for. Indeed, in his footnotes, Leitao goes even further, alluding with brooding suggestiveness to a modern scholar’s theory that this was no monument to the Theban war dead, but rather to the Macedonian! The fact that Leitao even brings this up might cause one to look askance at his position and the modern scholarly sources he prefers. For, as he himself admits, Pausanias (b. 150 A.D.), who visited the site and was informed by local tradition, speaks vehemently regarding the identity of these dead as Greeks rather than Macedonians. Pausanias is in accord with Plutarch, the overall bent of earlier ancients, and the extant archeological evidence in insisting that Philip was not in the habit of raising prodigious monuments to himself on the actual sites of his battles. What is more, Philip did in fact erect a great monument (a family memorial known as the Phillipeum) in commemoration of the Chaeronea victory – located at Olympia. The mercy of Philip in showing good faith towards gallant but defeated antagonists is a indeed a matter of solid historical record, and his permission of such a monument to have been erected in honor of such a fighting force is fully consistent with such an attitude. In addition we have the information contained in several speeches of highly involved contemporaries to support the identity of the Greek dead. The first of these is the funeral speech of Demosthenes (b. 382 B.C.), who, despite his infamously wretched cowardice during the Battle of Chaeronea, later stood on the tomb of the slain Thebans to deliver an oration in their honor (Demosthenes, Speech 51). Aeschines (b. 389 B.C.) afterwards delivered an infuriated speech which included expostulations upon the outrage of such a man being permitted to deliver a funeral oration of heroes (Aeschines, Speech 152). Both (amid countless references to the Battle of Chaeronea) contain pointed implications of a substantial funeral monument having been erected to the honored Greek dead of Chaeronea, at or on which the speech of Demosthenes was given. And to return to Leitao’s view that Plutarch would surely have been in a position to have seen and recorded the nature of the Lion Monument, one must consider that Plutarch was born in approximately the year 46 A.D., three hundred and eighty-four years after the monument had been erected. As we have noted, when it was first rediscovered in 1881, the Lion Monument was found broken into several pieces, reassembled in 1902 by the Order of Chaeronea to stand guard once more over the original spot. From this, it is eminently reasonable to conclude that it might very well have already been destroyed and covered over with earth during Plutarch’s lifetime. In the face of such a reasonable surmise, the absence of a mention of his having physically seen it himself bears absolutely no weight for the counter-argument Leitao attempts. And at last, we have the arrangement of the grave as described previously, wherein the Theban dead lie among the shields bearing their names, and opposite the tumulus of the Macedonian grave containing the sarissae of the enemy. In this we have the final, conclusive evidence to corroborate Plutarch’s story of the finest men of Thebes laid to rest, among their weapons and facing the Macedonian soldiers and weapons with whom they were henceforth to share the field of Chaeronea down through the centuries.
In this manner, it can be seen that the evidence and the arguments which Leitao offers as substantiation for his point of view rest on uncertain ground. In point of fact, in the later portion of his paper, he succeeds at his actual goal (the bulk of which this response has not been concerned with), by putting forth a convincing case for the potential of a mythical homoerotic force to have been “created”. However, the initial route which he has chosen, that of discrediting the authenticity of the Theban Sacred Band in order to build his arguments around its supposedly mythical nature, serves not only as a distracting side battle but also as one which he does not win. Although in many cases he bases his objections upon difficulties which one must fairly acknowledge to be present, these dilemmas do not, even once, prove after close scrutiny to be the stumbling blocks of damning revelation which he expects them to appear. With a keen eye to flaws in the argument, and the diligence to give a fair and patient eye to dissection of the framework upon which it stands, a conclusion becomes evident. This, then, is that while the Sacred Band of Thebes suffers from lamentable, and provocative, gaps in the historical records from which we may learn of it, the day is carried, not only by the potential of the social framework which Leitao himself establishes, but more particularly by the hard evidence from all sides. It resists his scrutiny with stubbornness equal to, and success greater than, the Sacred Band itself as it stood its ground, one autumn morning in 338 B.C.
Likewise, the argument against inclusion of openly gay and lesbian troops within the United States military gains its strength from certain valid points. However, under critical and evenhanded analysis, (particularly that with a fair eye towards history!), it fails and fails utterly. Not only is this for flaws in argument and logic, but also for cold fact itself. This, in important part, is the fact of the virtue and mettle which homosexual persons have proven in the past, which they show in their present struggle for equal rights and their fortitude under such repression as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and which they will show in a future when they may serve openly and proudly, their courage supported by the love that does indeed dare to speak its name.