Leuctra 371 BC is a detailed new study that explores the battle of Leuctra and the tactics that ultimately led to the complete defeat of Sparta, and freed Greece from domination by Sparta in a single afternoon. On the blog today, author Murray Dahm looks at the Theban Sacred Band, who led the Theban Phalanx to victory.


Leuctra 371 BC


At the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, it was the Theban Sacred Band, the Heiros Lochos, who led the Theban Phalanx to a remarkable victory over the Spartans, the most respected hoplites in ancient Greece. The road to that victory had been a long one, but one in which elite units of Theban hoplites played a vital part.

The city of Thebes had a long history of having an elite unit of 300 hoplites. At the battle of Plataea in 479 BC, Herodotus talks (9.67) of an elite unit of 300 Thebans, the ‘first and best’ (protoi kai aristoi), who were fighting on the Persian side. The ‘first and best’ title suggests that they usually fought in the front ranks of a larger Theban or Boeotian army. This unit of 300 was slain to a man by the Athenians (the origins of a long-lasting enmity between Athens and Thebes), but their brief mention in the context of 479 BC nonetheless raises the existence of an elite unit of 300 hoplites at Thebes. The Theban poet Pindar’s Isthmian 4 (lines 24–26) records that four of Melissus of Thebes’ brothers were claimed by ‘the rude hail-storm of war’ on a single day before the previous winter. This probably refers to the battle of Plataea and the best fit for the four brothers falling in such a manner is as members of the ‘first and best’ Theban 300 at that battle. The unit had probably been in existence for some time. John Ma (‘Chaironeia 338: Topographies of Commemoration,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 128 (2008), pp. 72–91) thinks this unit was probably reconstituted after the battle of Plataea in 479 BC and that it was destroyed again at the battle of Oinophyta when Athens conquered Boeotia in 457 BC.

Ma associates Pindar’s ‘unspeakable sorrow’ in Isthmian 7 (line 37) with the battle of Oinophyta and there may be something in the identification. Isthmian 7 is dedicated to Strepsiades, who had been a victor in the pankration at the Isthmian games. Strepsiades was a wrestler just as members of the later Theban elite unit, the Sacred Band, seem to have been. Of the 254 skeletons buried at Chaeronea in seven rows, at least 33 were buried with their strigils. Other commentators suggest different dates for the poem, from 506 BC to the battle of Tanagra in 457 BC (only a few months before Oinophyta), but Ma’s association with the later battle makes sense. The great loss expressed by Pindar suits a Theban defeat, and so Oinophyta seems the best candidate. It was at Oinophyta that Thebes came under Athenian dominance for a period of 11 years. Isthmian 7 (lines 34–6) records an older Strepsiades, the son of Diodotus, who ‘breathed out your blossoming youth in the front ranks (promachon), where the best men (aristoi) sustained the strife of war at the limit of their hopes.’ These aristoi may be the same as the aristoi named in Herodotus 9.67. This seems to suggest Strepsiades the elder was the member of an elite unit of 300 who fought in the front ranks of the Theban army, just as the Theban elite at Plataea had, and as other, later, Theban and Boetoian elite 300s would.

The elite Theban unit of 300 may have been reconstituted again after Boeotia threw off the yoke of Athenian control in 446 BC. The opening of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC in Diodorus (12.41.4) consists of a force of 300 chosen (epliketous) Boeotian soldiers dispatched to Plataea to seize the city and commanded by two Boeotarchs: Pythangelus and Diemporus. This would seem to be an elite group (especially commanded by two Boeotarchs who theoretically should have commanded 1,000 men each) and it was probably connected with other elite Theban or Boeotian 300s. The 300 were initially successful and took the city, causing confusion. We are told that the Plataeans rallied en masse to oppose the Boeotian 300 who had seized their city once they realized how few men they were. The Boeotians had the upper hand at first because of their valour (Diodorus 12.41.5–6), but were eventually driven from the city. We next hear of an elite Theban (or, technically, Boeotian) unit at the battle of Delium in 424 BC where Diodorus tells us that the Boeotians had an elite unit (epilektoi) of 300 ‘charioteers and footmen’ (eniochoi kai parabatai) (Diodorus 12.70.1). This force made up the front line of the Boeotian forces. The depth of the Theban formation at Delium was said to be 25 shields (Thucydides 4.93.4) and, with a frontage of 300 men, this would give total force of 7,500 men. The total number of Boeotians present at the battle according to Thucydides was 7,000 (4.93.3) and so the detail of the elite unit of 300 providing a front rank is not so far-fetched as it might seem. I do not entertain the idea (as some have) that these 300 charioteers referred to actual (highly anachronistic) chariots at the battle (see M. Toher, ‘Diodorus on Delion and Euripides’ Supplices’, Classical Quarterly 51 (2001), pp. 178–182).

The evidence from the intervening period between Plataea and Delium hangs on Pindar, but it seems plausible to argue that between 479 BC and 431 or 424 BC, Thebes or the Boeotian cities more widely had a unit which was comprised of 300 of their best men and that these, perhaps with the title of ‘first and best’, fought in the front ranks, which they then did explicitly in Diodorus as the ‘charioteers and footmen’ (these two titles may have been synonymous of the same group). This is surely a better argument than Gomme’s, who rejected the existence of the unit at Delium outright (A.W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Volume 3, Books IV–V.24 (Oxford, 1956), p. 568; followed by W.K. Pritchett, The Greek State at War, Volume II (California University Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1992), p. 222) who agreed that Gomme ‘was almost surely correct’).

There is another important aspect to the Theban/Boeotian unit of 300 at Delium, and that is the fact that ‘charioteers and footmen’ implies a pairing of two warriors (as might ‘first and best’). This pairing may have had precedents stretching back to Homer with the charioteer (hippeis) and the warrior (paraibatai) or the warrior and his groom (therapon). We do not know if earlier Theban and Boeotian 300s were paired, but it is certainly possible. The consideration of pairing becomes vital for the next, and most famous, Theban 300: the Heiros Lochos or Sacred Band.

The Theban Sacred Band had a prestigious existence from their formation around 378 BC until they were wiped out to a man at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC fighting the young Alexander (not yet the Great – Plutarch Pelopidas 18.5). According to our sources (Plutarch Pelopidas 18–19, 23; Polyaenus Strategemata 2.4.1), the Sacred Band was founded by a Theban leader, Gorgidas. There are other origin stories crediting Epaminondas with their formation, but these seem unlikely (Dio Chrysostom Discourse 22 On Peace and War 3; Hieronymus of Rhodes in Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 13.602a). Epaminondas was essential to the triumph of Thebes, the architect of the military reforms through which she achieved her victories, but the sources that credit him with the formation of the Sacred Band also seem to want to credit everything to him. The Heiros Lochos was equipped, trained (askesis) and maintained (diaita) by the city and based in the Cadmeia, Thebes’ citadel. They were vital in Thebes’ rise to military dominance, playing significant roles in her defeats of Spartan forces at the battles of Tegyra in 375 BC, Leuctra in 371 BC, and Mantinea in 362 BC.

The origins of this unit are complicated, but there had been elite units of 300 hoplites in Thebes’ history stretching back as far as the battle of Plataea at least. The Sacred Band may, therefore, have been a reconstituting of the earlier 300s, a reassertion of Thebes’ autonomy in throwing off the yoke of the Spartan dominance she had had to endure since 382 BC. This may have paralleled the reinstituting of her 300 after throwing off Athenian dominance in 446 BC.

Another aspect of the Sacred Band was that it was made up of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers, built on the tradition of an older lover (erastes) and a younger beloved (eromenos). This tradition has been challenged in modern scholarship (see David Leitao, ‘The Legend of the Sacred Band’ in Nussbaum M.C. and Shivola, J. (eds.), The Sleep of Reason. Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome (Chicago and London, 2002), pp. 143–69). However, it should be pointed out that several of the Chaeronea skeletons were found lying hand in hand or arm in arm with their neighbour, which does suggest an intimate connection. Regardless, the Heiros Lochos achieved remarkable battlefield successes. Evidence from Plato’s Symposium (178E–179A) suggests that the successes of this unit were noted (even at Athens). Plato suggested that a small unit of lovers could be victorious all over the world. Although some argue that the Symposium was composed between 385 and 378 BC, that is before the existence of the Sacred Band as such, if the paring of warriors (which evidence suggests), and of lovers and beloveds, predates the formation of the Sacred Band, then Plato’s reference could be to a tradition which had already existed in Theban military elites for some time. Dio Chrysostom (Discourse 49 5) names the two most prominent Theban commanders, Epaminondas as Pelopidas, as lovers – Pelopidas was the younger and so the beloved. Chrysostom is the only source to do this. The source for this idea may come from accounts of the battle of Mantinea in 385 BC where Epaminondas and Pelopidas fought side by side and where Epaminondas defended the body of the wounded Pelopidas (Plutarch Pelopidas 4.4–5). If this is the case, then before the formation of the Sacred Band in c.378 BC, we may have an instance of lover and beloved fighting together. This may have implications for earlier Theban formations. Another possibility is that Plato’s Symposium was written slightly later, after the first monumental success of the Sacred Band at the battle of Tegyra in 375 BC.

The origins and make-up of the Sacred Band seem to have been challenged in the ancient world as well; Xenophon does not mention them at all, not even in his account of Leuctra (Hellenica 6.4.4–15) or Mantinea (Hellenica 7.5.9–27), and he does not mention the Spartan defeat at Tegyra at all. In other accounts the Sacred Band are integral to Theban victories (Tegyra: Plutarch Pelopidas 16.2, 17.3–6, Diodorus 15.37.1–2; Leuctra: Diodorus 15.55–56; Plutarch Pelopidas 23). Xenophon has deliberately omitted the Theban Sacred Band from his version of history. There may be an oblique reference to them in his own Symposium (8.34) when he states that the Thebans and Eleans ‘slept with their favourites’ and lovers were stationed beside one another in the battle line. Xenophon’s Socrates regards this as a ‘reprehensible’ practice which may be a deliberate disagreement with Plato’s Symposium.

The Theban Sacred Band played a vital role in the victory at Leuctra although their precise role is different in different sources. Following on from the earlier Theban 300s, however, who seem to have fought in the front ranks, we might infer that there was precisely where the Sacred Band fought at Leuctra too.


Leuctra 371 BC publishes 24 June. Preorder your copy from the website today!

Post Comments

PAUL W posted on 13 Jun 2021 21:38:30
Very interesting article, looking forward to this title.

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