The Victorious Gay Greek Army That Got Canceled by History
Why do we see so many soccer and rugby teams named after the Spartans and only one after the Thebans, when Thebes actually defeated Sparta in battle and ended its reign as the superpower of Greece? The explanation lies deep in the prejudices of ancient Greek historians and thinkers, as does the inspiration for this one exception: the Caledonian Thebans, Scottish ruggers who define themselves as gay, bisexual, or LGBTQ inclusive.
Let's start with the fact that Greek Thebes (not to be confused with the Egyptian city of the same name) had unusually gay-friendly laws and social customs. Plato, who examined male love relationships in his dialogue symposium, named Thebes and another city, Elis, as places where such bonds were natural and normal, whereas in his native Athens they were “more complicated”.
The Thebans attacked in 378 BC. BC back to this normative view of male love by training male couples to be infantry soldiers and fielding them together in battle. One hundred and fifty such couples formed a powerful regiment, the Holy Chapel, which led Thebes to victories over the dreaded Spartans. One of these victories in Leuctra in 371 BC. BC destroyed as much as a third of Sparta's military force and ended its long supremacy.
Plato seems to be alluding to the overwhelming success of the Holy Chapel in Symposium, a work written around the time of Leuctra, when he had one of his characters say that "an army of lovers and their loved ones fight side by side, if only few". , could defeat almost the whole world. ”A version of this quote is proudly displayed on the website of the Caledonian Thebans, who refer to the Sacred Band as an inspiration for their team.
But Plato does not call this army of lovers the Holy Chapel or ascribe their creation to Thebes. In fact, he denigrates Thebes in the symposium as a society of speechless deaf skulls. The Thebans only encourage men's associations, he lets his spokesman claim, because, unlike the elegant, eloquent Athenians, they are clumsy at finding words to seduce. This remark contributed to a widespread Greek bias against the Thebans, sometimes referred to as "pigs" or derided for their rustic accent.
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Plato's contemporary Xenophon shared this anti-Theban bias and also admired the Spartans as models of moral perfection. He had fought under a Spartan commander and had been given a country seat by Sparta, and in his many writings he did his best to glorify that city. That meant downsizing Thebes and putting his victories over Sparta in the worst possible light, or even pretending that they never happened.
Xenophon's Symposium, written in response to Plato's work, reveals the depth of these prejudices. Like Plato, Xenophon makes Socrates the central speaker of this dialogue (both men were pupils of Socrates as young people). At one point this fictional Socrates mocks the Theban custom of putting lovers side by side in battle. They only do this, claims "Socrates", as protection against desertion; every man keeps an eye on his partner to keep him from running away.
Xenophon's Socrates contrasts this system with that of the Spartans, whose soldiers fall in love but never have sexual contact (a claim that contradicts known facts). The Spartans, he says, did not need to bring couples together in battle, since everyone was brave alone and did not need a watchdog. The whole discussion, with its equation of male sexual love and cowardice, adds a layer of homophobia to the usual Greek insults against Theban thoughtlessness and bad language.
Modern readers can sometimes spot and correct these prejudices, but total omissions are more difficult to overcome because we depend on Xenophon for much of our record of Greek history. His Chronicle of Hellenica (published by Penguin under the title History of My Times) is our only surviving contemporary account of the decades of the rise of Thebes and the fall of Sparta from 379 to 362 BCE of events.
In what today we might ascribe to the abolition of culture, Xenophon silently passed over some of the Theban achievements of that era, including the victories of the Holy Chapel. He never gave the band their honorable name and simply referred to them as "the chosen ones of the Thebans". He lets their first victory over Sparta in 375 BC.
Sparta was in a sharp population decline at that time. It asserted its power over Greece by projecting an illusion of strength and replenishing its infantry ranks with unwilling conscript or second rate troops. Supporters like Xenophon helped him maintain this mirage by highlighting Spartan successes in their writings and minimizing or erasing setbacks.
The mirage continues to this day. Our popular versions of ancient Greek military life pay great tribute to Sparta but take no notice of Thebes. Zack Snyder's two 300-film films based on the battles of Thermopylae (as portrayed by comic artist Frank Miller) and Salamis in 480 BC. BC, made the line "This is Sparta!" a kind of macho collective cry and created the meme of a muscle-bound, largely naked male figure who wears the Spartan Λ (lambda, for "Lacedämon", Sparta's home region) on his shield as an emblem of bravery and strength.
It is hard to imagine that anyone would ever say "This is Thebes!" will scream. with similar enthusiasm. Xenophon largely wiped out the fame of this city and its Holy Chapel. The Theban "gay 300", as some cheekily called them, are little known today, although they too, like the Spartans in Thermopylae, were annihilated in a hopeless fight to make one man. Alexander the Great mowed them in 338 BC. In the battle of Chaeronea in northern Greece. As a tribute to their courage, they were buried where they fell; their mass grave was excavated in 1880.
All of this makes one grateful that the Caledonian Thebans, "Scotland's Leading Inclusive Rugby Team", are helping to keep the memory of the Sacred Band alive.
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