The Sacred Band of Thebes
The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite infantry unit formed after the liberation of Thebes from Spartan occupation in 378BC. The Theban Commander Gorgidas installed the group initially as a special guard for the Theban citadel. The 300 men were chosen from the cream of the Theban fighting force to ensure the Thebans never lost their fortress again. However, the unit was also unique in another way.
Greek army units usually separated male lovers. However, Gogidas’s citadel guard was composed of 150 pairs of lovers. According to Plutarch, this was because “since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another.” (Life of Pelopidas). In other words, forming it from elite soldiers with a special attachment to each other created a more dedicated, coherent fighting force.
Initially, when the citadel guard was required to fight in open battle, they were dispersed throughout the rest of the infantry. This situation changed in 375 BC when the Sacred Band proved their worth as an elite unit of army assassins during the battle of Tegyra. Under the command of Pelopidas, they were sent out on recognizance with a few cavalries for backup. However, on the way, they encountered Spartan troops who greatly outnumbered them.
However, Pelopidas did not despair. He formed the Sacred Band into a single dense unit, the cavalry behind them and sent them to the Spartans- not to attack the whole force but to pick off the leaders and best fighters. This tactic sent the Spartans into disarray, and they dispersed. According to Plutarch, it was the first time the Spartans were defeated by an enemy force smaller than their own. It was also the occasion that saw the Sacred Band become Thebe’s assassins: a single shock unit sent out into battle to deliberately weaken the enemy by picking off key targets.
Using the Sacred Band and similar tactics, the Thebans were able to defeat the Spartans again in 371 BC at the battle of Leuctra. For the rest of the fourth century BC, the Greek states regarded Thebe’s assassins as undefeatable. However, in 338 BC the band was surrounded and overwhelmed by the forces of Philip II of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea. The entire unit was wiped out and buried under a gigantic statue of a lion. Excavations under the lion uncovered 254 skeletons laid out in 7 rows- confirmation that the sacred band was indeed buried with honors.