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Table of Contents > 2.14 Plutarch, Pelopidas

2.14: Plutarch, Pelopidas 18-19

This passage discusses the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite military unit organized in 378 BCE.

[18.1] The Sacred Band, they say, was first organized by Gorgidas out of 300 picked men, who were trained and fed at the cityís expense. They camped out on the Theban citadel, the Cadmeia, and for this reason they were called the "City Band," for in those days the term "city" was generally applied to the citadel. [18.2] Some people say that this band was composed of lovers and beloveds, and tradition records a witty remark of Pammenes to this effect. He said that Homerís Nestor was not a shrewd tactician when he ordered that the Greeks be drawn up according to tribe and clan, "so that clan might aid clan, and tribe tribe,"31 [18.3] and that what he should have done was station lover beside beloved. For when the going gets tough, tribesmen donít give much thought for their fellow tribesmen, nor clansmen for their fellow clansmen. But a battalion joined together by erotic love cannot be destroyed or broken: its members stand firm beside one another in times of danger, lovers and beloveds alike motivated by a sense of shame in the presence of the other. [18.4] And this is not surprising, when you consider that they even feel more shame before loved ones who are absent than before others who are present. A good example is the man who pleaded with an enemy soldier who was about to slaughter him as he lay on the ground to plunge the sword through his chest "in order that my beloved not see my dead body pierced through the back and be ashamed." [18.5] It is said also that it was as Heraclesí beloved that Iolaus joined in the heroís labors and stood by his side in battle.32 And Aristotle says that in his own day beloveds and lovers still swore pledges of loyalty at the tomb of Iolaus which is located within his cult precinct at Thebes. [18.6] It is therefore natural that Thebesí band was called "sacred," just as Plato too referred to the lover as a "divinely-inspired friend."

[18.7] It is said that the band remained undefeated until the Battle of Chaeronea,33 and that when Philip, surveying the casualties after the battle, stood at that place where the 300 chanced to lie dead, men who had faced the Macedonian long spears and were now a jumble of bodies and armor, he was struck with admiration. And when he learned that this was the band of lovers and beloveds, he wept and exclaimed, "May utter destruction fall upon those who suppose these men did or suffered anything disgraceful!"

[19.1] The Thebansí practice of intimacy with lovers, to speak more generally, did not have its origin, as the poets say, in the passion of Laius.34 Rather the practice grew out of deliberate policies which the lawgivers adopted in order to temper and soften the Thebansí fiery and violent nature right from childhood. One thing they did was to introduce a major role for the flute in every aspect of work and play, and indeed they elevated the instrument to a degree of honor and preeminence. The other was to cultivate a conspicuous reverence for love in the wrestling establishments, and thereby moderate the impetuous character of the young men. [19.2] This is also the reason for their wise decision to introduce the goddess Harmony into the city.35 The goddess is said to be the child of Ares and Aphrodite, and their theory was that where combativeness and belligerence (i.e., Ares) consort and mingle with persuasion and charm (i.e., Aphrodite), all elements of society can be brought into the most harmonious and most orderly whole.

[19.3] Gorgidas brought this Sacred Band out into the front ranks and distributed its members over the entire length of the hoplite phalanx.36 But in doing so he inadvertently obscured the excellent qualities of the men, and failed to take advantage of their potential for collective action, because they were mixed in with a large number of inferior troops and thus their potential effectiveness was diluted. [19.4] But Pelopidas, after they fought conspicuously at Tegyra37 and their excellence shone forth, ceased to divide and disperse them, and instead, during the greatest battles, employed them as an organic unit, a division which would enter battle before the rest of the army. [19.5] Horses run faster when they are harnessed to a chariot than when ridden individually, and it is not because they displace more air as a group as they rush forth, but because their spirit is fired by their competition with one another and by their love of victory. So too Pelopidas thought that brave men are most useful and eager for collective action when they instill in one another a sense of rivalry to perform noble deeds.
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