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Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Sacred Band of Thebes: Gay lovers as the military ideal

From this side of the Atlantic, the long delay in doing away with DADT in the US seems odd, at best. In the UK, gay men and lesbians not only serve freely and openly in the armed services and in the police, but can be seen every year participating in London Pride, marching in uniform through the streets of London - and in other gay pride marches up and down the country. Elsewhere in Europe, LGBT participation in the military is at least as relaxed. This easy acceptance of gay soldiers is not a new idea - quite the reverse. In earlier times, and in other cultures, it was often assumed that military life and it's all-male environment would attract a high proportion of men who loved men, and so it did. Going back to classical times, it was even believed by some that gay soldiers represented a military ideal.

In Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus proposed the creation of an army of lovers, because men behave at their best when in love, and that no army could be better than one composed of lovers:

“No man is such a craven that love cannot inspire him with a courage that makes him equal to the bravest born.”

In about 378 BCE, this literary speculation entered historical fact, putting the notion to practical testing, when Georgidas applied Phaedrus’ reasoning to the creation of the “Sacred Band of Thebes”, a company of 300 soldiers, comprising exclusively pairs of lovers. Was Phaedrus right? Was the Sacred band successful?

You betcha!.

For forty years, the company was celebrated throughout Greece for their courage and military success. When at last they were overcome, fighting to the last man against vastly superior numbers, their conqueror Philip of Macedon, said of them that no man, seeing their valour, could possibly think their love shameful. (Now, note,that this was Philip of Macedon, whose son Philip II was himself not averse to a little man on man action, and whose grandson was Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world ,as far as it was then known - and renowned for his love of Bagoas).

Looking back some centuries later, Plutarch was able to record that he most war-like societies were noted for male love, and listed some famous heroes who were also known for the men they loved: Meleager, Achilles, Aristomenes, Cimon, Epaminondas, and Ioläus (companion of Hercules, and at whose tomb same sex lovers were said to make their vows of commitment.)

In short, for the Greeks, ideals of male were so firmly rooted in their heroes, that it was seen as a sign of real manliness. After listing some of the most famous, from every category of leaders and thinkers, Crompton observes:

This is an astounding record, including most of the greatest names of ancient Greece, during the greatest period of Greek culture. For many biographers, for a man not to have had a male lover seems to have bespoken a lack of character or a deficiency of sensibility.

So, the verdict of the Greeks:

Straight men, with no male lovers – lacking in character;

Homophobia - origins in evil, despotism, and cowardice.


But take heart, Americans. Even if you (officially) have no gay soldiers, every time you sing the Star-Spangled Banner, you are indirectly singing in praise of homoerotic relationships. The tune is based on a an English drinking song, “To Anacreon in heaven.” Before his poetry was lost to posterity, Anacreon was the most celebrated Greek lyric poet of male love.


Boswell, John:  Same-Sex Unions in pre-modern Europe
Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality & Civilization
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