'An Army of Lovers' - The Sacred Band of Thebes

Louis Crompton argues that male love and military prowess went hand in hand in classical Greece.

The question whether homosexuals make good soldiers has been a controversial issue in many Western countries in the twentieth century. Most NATO nations accept them in their military establishments: Britain, Turkey and Portugal do not. In the United States homosexuals' right to serve has sparked a heated debate on a national scale, recently resolved in favour of a controversial 'don't tell' policy which allows gays and lesbians to enlist provided they do not divulge their sexual orientation. Given these often negative attitudes, it is intriguing to note that in ancient times, one Greek city state actually recruited a regiment of male lovers, the so-called Sacred Band of Thebes. Modern historians, mainly concerned with the achievements of Athens and Sparta, have paid little attention to their story, but it is a remarkable one, told in some detail by Plutarch.

In ancient Greece, Alcaeus, Anacreon and Pindar celebrated love between males in lyric poetry. Aeschylus, writing of the love of Achilles for Patroclus in his tragedy, The Myrmidons, dramatised its heroic possibilities. Philosophers hailed male love as a source of inspiration and followed Plato in decrying, or Zeno in approving, its physical expression. Cities with every kind of constitution took notice if its influence and directed it to their own political ends. Oligarchies, where an aristocracy or a wealthy few held sway, recognised its power to forge bonds between youths and older mentors within the ruling class. (This was the case in Sparta and in Theognis' Megara). Democracies like Athens, on the other hand, saw in male love a bulwark against oppression, and traced the re-establishment of popular freedom to a famous male couple, the tyrannicides, Aristogiton and Harmodius. But the major source of its prestige was the Greeks' conviction that such relationships could contribute effectively to military morale.

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