Gloria Brame, Ph.D.

The Other 300: gay military history

Filed By Gloria Brame, Ph.D. | September 12, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: gay history, gays in the military

If you ever run into anyone who gives you a mouthful of right-wing nonsense about how gays shouldn't serve in the military, or protests that gays have never been allowed to openly serve in the military, tell them about the OTHER 300. Not the soldiers at Thermopylae, celebrated in the movie "The 300," but another group equally deserving of attention. Known as "The Sacred Band of Thebes," these 300 gay men (150 couples) were recruited to form a elite band of soldiers, known for their bravery and devotion. It's a fascinating and often-overlooked morsel of history.

From Wiki:

Plutarch records that the Sacred Band was made up of male couples, the rationale being that lovers could fight more fiercely and cohesively than strangers with no ardent bonds. According to Plutarch's Life of Pelopidas, the inspiration for the Band's formation came from Plato's Symposium, wherein the character Phaedrus remarks,

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Read more about the Sacred Band of Thebes.


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You can hear Matt Alber's beautiful song about the Sacred Band on his website. Click on "Beotia" on the player to hear the entire song.

I often teach my martial arts students about the Sacred Band.

Thanks Gloria for this article on the Sacred Band of Thebes. This is a part of LGBT history that
so many individuals, including myself, were not aware of. Thanks again.

Re "300" -- it was back on TV the other day. What a piece of post-millennial heterosexist propaganda it is. It has the Spartans insulting their Athenian allies by calling them "boy lovers." The fact is -- Spartans were among the biggest devotees of same-sex love in the ancient world, and that went for women as well as men.

Check out my history piece on Kyniska, princess of Sparta, at
http://www.bilerico.com/2009/03/womens_history_month_filling_in_the_blan.php

I love the story of the 300. It's always fascinated me.

Actually, these men would not qualify as gay by any means.

Our perception of gay couples would be heavily ridiculed under their system. The setup was strictly enforced with an older, socially superior male taking the penetrative role, while the youth had to take the passive role. Youth who grew up still retaining a passive sexual position were derided, as was any couple of same-aged, same-status males.

Lucrece, your history may be totally accurate (or maybe it isn't, I don't know), but presuming that it is correct, I still cannot see how it follows that "these men would not qualify as gay by any means".

In the world of their day, sure, they weren't considered "gay" --- they were considered Greek soldiers and behaved as Greek soldiers behaved.

But in the modern world, the common criterion, I would say, is that any man who engages in anal intercourse with another male voluntarily, whether "top" or "bottom", is considered to be "gay" or queer or homosexual or whatever --- or maybe bi. And in the modern view, whether he prefers bottom position at this age or top position at that age hardly enters into the picture all that much.

That's not the issue. The issue is that the parallels do not match. What they took is socially inferior men, and exploited them into sexual mentorships that were based on power, but never longevity (in fact, most of these men by a certain age were expected to quit their same-sex relationships and find a woman to bear children with).

Not exactly an example you want young gay men to be proud of, just like you wouldn't grab Katy Perry as a role model for budding lesbians.

Different eras of history have their different ways of experiencing same-sex loves and attractions. Eras of the past also had their own unique politics around same-sex loves and attractions.

Why can't we just let history be itself? Why can't we recognize our ancestors for whatever they were and did, without trying to impose our own political definition of "LGBT" on them?

Besides, we can't generalize about those past relationships. If you're talking about Sparta, mentor and mentoree were more usually of the same social class, meaning the aristocracy. It would have been unthinkable for mentoring to cross the line into the helot and slave class. Ancient upper-class Greeks had sex with their slaves, yes, but it was seldom (except in rare cases of an exceptionally intelligent and talented slave who was possibly being groomed for emancipation) a mentoring relationship. And when the mentoree became an adult, he could become a mentor himself.

Outside of Sparta, the long-time lovers of Achilles and Alexander, for instance, were not "socially inferior men who were being exploited." And these were relationships that were highly visible, celebrated in the chronicles and arts and literature -- a role model, if you will.