The Sacred Band of Thebes
The Theban Sacred Band at a strength of 300 men, was composed from the most distinguished youths of the city especially those who had excelled in athletics and sports. They were always under arms and in constant training maintained at public expense. They were heavy close order infantry (hoplites) and their equipment was superior to that of the rest of the Theban army.
Although Plutarch considered the unit as the brainchild of Gorgidas, (1) the Thebans had a unit of 300 elite hoplites (logadae) from the time before the Peloponnesian War. The unit was wiped out in a night surprise assault with the aim to conquer Platea as is reported by Thucidides in the first book of his histories and probably was never reconstituted because of grief or embarrassment about the failure.
But in the forth century BC conditions were different and the military success at Tegyra (2) might have been the catalyst in the decision to reform the unit. Pelopidas was the only Theban who had the privilege and honor to be given the Sacred Band as his own personal bodyguards For 35 year the unit remained unbeatable in combat until the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. The unit was flanked and run down by Philip’s II Macedonian cavalry that wad led by this son Alexander the Great. In the place that the brave Thebans are buried stands a stone lion as a monument.
Plutarch claims that the unit was composed by 150 homosexual couples but if we take into account the fact that he lived several centuries later and expresses either his one opinion or the lax attitudes of his time we must treat his words with caution. We cannot exclude the possibility of certain unit members having their own tastes and lifestyles. The state “looked the other way” especially if we take into account that they were offspring of the Theban upper class and vital element to the city’s defense n\but there are no evidence personal tastes were core to the unit members bonding. Plutarch again speaks against himself by describing Philips comments about the Sacred Band after the battle of Chaeronea. (3)
The unit must have had its own emblem, in all probability the “gorgoneio” of Athena “Ogga” whose statue was standing outside the house of Cadmos. This symbol appears on Theban coins but is best depiction is probably kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
1 Plutarch Pelopidas 18.1-3 Loeb Classical Library 1920
2 Plutarch Pelopidas 16 Loeb Classical Library 1920
3 Plutarch Pelopidas 18.7 Loeb Classical Library 1920
4 Pausanias description of Greece 9.12.2 Loeb Classical Library 1920
Aeschylos Seven against Thebes 164 Loeb Classical Library 1920