The Sacred Band of Thebes — the history of an elite unit of the Theban army

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10 min readNov 27, 2023

The Sacred Band of Thebes was one of the most intriguing military formations in ancient Greece. It gained fame not only for its martial prowess but, above all, for the idea upon which it was built. It consisted of 150 pairs of young men.

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Ancient Athens was known for pederasty, almost considered a cornerstone of civic education. Thebes took it a step further and utilized the relationships between men to create an elite military unit. The Three Hundred Warriors from Thebes shook all of Greece. Thanks to them, the capital of Boeotia overshadowed Sparta and Athens. The success of the Sacred Band was attributed to its ideology, propaganda, leaders, and also the self-indulgence of their enemies — the Spartans.

Causes of the Formation of the Sacred Band of Thebes

It all began after the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) and the Corinthian War (395–387 BCE) when Sparta became the hegemon in Greece. However, Sparta did not feel secure, suspecting plots from other city-states. Therefore, Spartans, when the opportunity arose, forcibly took control of Thebes, which was striving for independence, in 382 BCE. They garrisoned the citadel overlooking the city.

“After the Peloponnesian War and the defeat of Athens, the Spartans considered the Thebans as their enemies, the only ones who could dare to rise against them,” explained the historian Cornelius Nepos more than two thousand years ago. “Recognizing this, they entrusted offices in the city to their supporters, and leaders of the opposing faction were either killed or exiled.”

At the turn of 379 and 378 BCE, a group of exiles secretly returned to the city and incited a rebellion with other Thebans. The Spartan garrison was driven out, and citizens who had been tainted by collaboration with the occupiers were purged. Other cities in Boeotia, the geographical region where Thebes was the largest city, usually allied with the Thebans, came to the aid of the rebels. The Athenians also provided support, always eager to strengthen their own position and weaken overly powerful rivals.

Who Created the Sacred Band of Thebes?