These ancient Greek warriors would have laughed at 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Now that “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is a thing of the past, the U.S. military accepts that homosexuality doesn’t affect combat readiness or battlefield performance. In fact the RAND Corporation studied this in 1993 and found no impact on allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

But there was a time when military leaders actually thought the opposite – that purposely forming a unit of gay couples would enhance their combat effectiveness. For 40 years, it seemed the theory was right on.

The Sacred Band of Thebes was a hand-picked unit of 300 Greek soldiers that were chosen for their abilities and merit, not on their social class. They were also 150 couples, male lovers devoted to the Greek god Eros, and – according to the Macedonian author Polyaenus’ book “Stratagems,” they were “devoted to each other by mutual obligations of love.” They trained constantly in all areas of classical combat, including horsemanship and unarmed combat.

What this translated to on the battlefield was that this hand-picked group of foot soldiers did a lot of ass kicking.

After the 2006 movie “300,” many tended to think of the Spartans as the most elite warriors of the Bronze Age. The Greek historian Plutarch actually records the first instance of the Sacred Band in combat in a fight against Spartan leaders Gorgoleon and Theopompus at the Battle of Tegyra. The Spartans outnumbered the Thebans 2-to-1 and advanced on the Theban force. The Sacred Band immediately killed the Spartan leaders then cut through the Spartans like a warm knife through butter. The rest of the Theban force flanked the Spartan army as it fell apart.

sacred band

It was the first time in history where a Spartan force was defeated by a numerically inferior enemy.

This led to a sharp rise in Thebes’ power and a general peace treaty between major city-states. Of course, that doesn’t mean the fighting ended there. Four years later, Sparta and Thebes were again at war. By this time, the mission of the Sacred Band in combat was to form at the head of the army to fight and kill the best warriors and leaders of the enemy force, just like they did at Tegyra. At the Battle of Leuctra, 12,000 Spartans were pitted against 8,500 Thebans. As the Spartans tried to end the battle by flanking the Thebans, the Sacred Band smashed into the entire Spartan right wing and held them in place until the rest of the Theban army could move in. The Spartan army was decimated, their king killed, and the city-state severely weakened.

Thebes maintained its independence for 40 years because of the Sacred Band’s combat skill. They didn’t lose a single battle in that time. It would all come crashing down when Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander invaded Greece in 338 BC. The Macedonians brought a new battlefield innovation, the long-speared phalanx. Greek Hoplites were no match for the phalanx and when Philip met the Thebans at the Battle of Caeronea, the Greeks quickly broke and fled – except for the Sacred Band.

sacred band

A 19th-century illustration, “Thebans and Macedonians in Battle.”

The Band was long-thought to be invincible, but they died where they stood, to the last man. Their last commander fell with them. Plutarch, in his work “Lives,” wrote that Philip II wept when came upon the bodies of the Sacred Band of Thebes when he realized who they were.

Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly – Philip II of Macedon

 

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