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three pairs of lovers with space



Pelopidas (died 364 BC) was a Theban general who, together with his friend Epameinondas, and using the recently formed pederastic Sacred Band, was responsible for the brief period in which Thebes was the greatest power in Greece. The Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch wrote this life of him at the beginning of the second century AD, as one of his Parallel Lives. Here follow all the passages in it relating to pederasty.

The translation is by Bernadotte Perrin in the Loeb Classical Library volume LXXXVII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1917). Latinised names have been replaced by romanisations of the Greek.



Plutarch has just described the victory of a Theban army led by Pelopidas over a much larger Spartan force at Tegyra in 375 BC.  As implied in the text below, the Sacred Band was instrumental in this, so Plutarch uses the occasion to give what is much the fullest surviving description of it:

The sacred band, we are told, was first formed by Gorgidas, of three hundred chosen men, to whom the city furnished exercise and maintenance, and who encamped in the Kadmeia; for which reason, too, they were called the city band; for citadels in those days were properly called cities. But some say that this band was composed of lovers and beloved.

And a pleasantry of Pammenes is cited, in which he said that Homer's Nestor was no tactician when he urged the Greeks to form in companies by clans and tribes, "That clan might give assistance unto clan, and tribes unto tribes," since he should have stationed lover by beloved. For tribesmen and clansmen make little account of tribesmen and clansmen in times of danger; whereas, a band that is held together by the friendship between lovers is indissoluble and not to be broken, since the lovers are ashamed to play the coward before their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, and both stand firm in danger to protect each other.

Nor is this a wonder, since men have more regard for their lovers even when absent than for others who are present, as was true of him who, when his enemy was about to slay him where he lay, earnestly besought him to run his sword through his breast, "in order," as he said, "that my beloved may not have to blush at sight of my body with a wound in the back."

It is related, too that Iolaos, who shared the labours of Herakles and fought by his side, was beloved of him.[1] And Aristotle says that even down to his day the tomb of Iolaos was a place where lovers and beloved plighted mutual faith. It was natural, then, that the band should also be called sacred, because even Plato calls the lover a friend "inspired of God."

It is said, moreover, that the band was never beaten, until the battle of Chaironeia;[2] and when, after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the three hundred were lying, all where they had faced the long spears of his phalanx, with their armour, and mingled one with another, he was amazed, and on learning that this was the band of lovers and beloved, burst into tears and said: "Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered aught disgraceful."

Speaking generally, however, it was not the passion of Laios that, as the poets say, first made this form of love customary among the Thebans;[3] but their law-givers, wishing to relax and mollify their strong and impetuous natures in earliest boyhood, gave the flute great prominence both in their work and in their play, bringing this instrument into pre-eminence and honour, and reared them to give love a conspicuous place in the life of the palaistra, thus tempering the dispositions of the young men.

And with this in view, they did well to give the goddess who was said to have been born of Ares and Aphrodite[4] a home in their city; for they felt that, where the force and courage of the warrior are most closely associated and united with the age which possesses grace and persuasiveness, there all the activities of civil life are brought by Harmony into the most perfect consonance and order.

Gorgidas, then, by distributing this sacred band among the front ranks of the whole phalanx of men-at‑arms, made the high excellence of the men inconspicuous, and did not direct their strength upon a common object, since it was dissipated and blended with that of a large body of inferior troops; but Pelopidas, after their valour had shone out at Tegyra, where they fought by themselves and about his own person, never afterwards divided or scattered them,  but, treating them as a unit, put them into the forefront of the greatest conflicts.

For just as horses run faster when yoked to a chariot than when men ride them singly, not because they cleave the air with more impetus owing to their united weight, but because their mutual rivalry and ambition inflame their spirits; so he thought that brave men were most ardent and serviceable in a common cause when they inspired one another with a zeal for high achievement.

by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, 18th century

[XVIII 1] Τὸν δ᾿ ἱερὸν λόχον, ὥς φασι, συνετάξατο Γοργίδας πρῶτος ἐξ ἀνδρῶν ἐπιλέκτων τριακοσίων, οἷς ἡ πόλις ἄσκησιν καὶ δίαιταν ἐν τῇ Καδμείᾳ στρατοπεδευομένοις παρεῖχε, καὶ διὰ τοῦθ᾿ ὁ ἐκ πόλεως λόχος ἐκαλοῦντο· τὰς γὰρ ἀκροπόλεις ἐπιεικῶς οἱ τότε πόλεις ὠνόμαζον. ἔνιοι δέ φασιν ἐξ ἐραστῶν καὶ ἐρωμένων γενέσθαι τὸ σύστημα τοῦτο.

[2] καὶ Παμμένους ἀπομνημονεύεταί τι μετὰ παιδιᾶς εἰρημένον· οὐ γὰρ ἔφη τακτικὸν εἶναι τὸν Ὁμήρου Νέστορα κελεύοντα κατὰ φῦλα καὶ φρήτρας συλλοχίζεσθαι τοὺς Ἕλληνας, Ὡς φρήτρη φρήτρηφιν ἀρήγῃ, φῦλα δὲ φύλοις, δέον ἐραστὴν παρ᾿ ἐρώμενον τάττειν. φυλέτας μὲν γὰρ φυλετῶν καὶ φράτορας φρατόρων οὐ πολὺν λόγον ἔχειν ἐν τοῖς δεινοῖς, τὸ δ᾿ ἐξ ἐρωτικῆς φιλίας συνηρμοσμένον στῖφος ἀδιάλυτον εἶναι καὶ ἄρρηκτον, ὅταν οἱ μὲν ἀγαπῶντες τοὺς ἐρωμένους, οἱ δὲ αἰσχυνόμενοι τοὺς ἐρῶντας ἐμμένωσι τοῖς δεινοῖς ὑπὲρ ἀλλήλων.

[3] καὶ τοῦτο θαυμαστὸν οὐκ ἔστιν, εἴγε δὴ καὶ μὴ παρόντας αἰδοῦνται μᾶλλον ἑτέρων παρόντων, ὡς ἐκεῖνος ὁ τοῦ πολεμίου κείμενον αὐτὸν ἐπισφάττειν μέλλοντος δεόμενος καὶ ἀντιβολῶν διὰ τοῦ στέρνου διεῖναι τὸ ξίφος, “Ὅπως,” ἔφη, “μή με νεκρὸν ὁ ἐρώμενος ὁρῶν κατὰ νώτου τετρωμένον αἰσχυνθῇ.”

[4] λέγεται δὲ καὶ τὸν Ἰόλεων τοῦ Ἡρακλέους ἐρώμενον ὄντα κοινωνεῖν τῶν ἄθλων καὶ παρασπίζειν. Ἀριστοτέλης δὲ καὶ καθ᾿ αὑτὸν ἔτι φησὶν ἐπὶ τοῦ τάφου τοῦ Ἰόλεω τὰς καταπιστώσεις ποιεῖσθαι τοὺς ἐρωμένους καὶ τοὺς ἐραστάς. εἰκὸς οὖν καὶ τὸν λόχον ἱερὸν προσαγορεύεσθαι, καθότι καὶ Πλάτων ἔνθεον φίλον τὸν ἐραστὴν προσεῖπε.

[5] λέγεται δὲ διαμεῖναι μέχρι τῆς ἐν Χαιρωνείᾳ μάχης ἀήττητον· ὡς δὲ μετὰ τὴν μάχην ἐφορῶν τοὺς νεκροὺς ὁ Φίλιππος ἔστη κατὰ τοῦτο τὸ χωρίον ἐν ᾧ συνετύγχανε κεῖσθαι τοὺς τριακοσίους, ἐναντίους ἀπηντηκότας ταῖς σαρίσαις ἅπαντας ἐν τοῖς ὅπλοις καὶ μετ᾿ ἀλλήλων ἀναμεμιγμένους, θαυμάσαντα καὶ πυθόμενον ὡς ὁ τῶν ἐραστῶν καὶ τῶν ἐρωμένων οὗτος εἴη λόχος, δακρῦσαι καὶ εἰπεῖν· “Ἀπόλοιντο κακῶς οἱ τούτους τι ποιεῖν ἢ πάσχειν αἰσχρὸν ὑπονοοῦντες.”

The battle of Chaironeia, 338 BC

[XIX 1] Ὅλως δὲ τῆς περὶ τοὺς ἐραστὰς συνηθείας οὐχ, ὥσπερ οἱ ποιηταὶ λέγουσι, Θηβαίοις τὸ Λαΐου πάθος ἀρχὴν παρέσχεν, ἀλλ᾿ οἱ νομοθέται τὸ φύσει θυμοειδὲς αὐτῶν καὶ ἄκρατον ἀνιέναι καὶ ἀνυγραίνειν εὐθὺς ἐκ παίδων βουλόμενοι, πολὺν μὲν ἀνεμίξαντο καὶ σπουδῇ καὶ παιδιᾷ πάσῃ τὸν αὐλόν, εἰς τιμὴν καὶ προεδρίαν ἄγοντες, λαμπρὸν δὲ τὸν ἔρωτα ταῖς παλαίστραις ἐνεθρέψαντο, συγκεραννύντες τὰ ἤθη τῶν νέων.

[2] ὀρθῶς δὲ πρὸς τοῦτο καὶ τὴν ἐξ Ἄρεως καὶ Ἀφροδίτης γεγονέναι λεγομένην θεὸν τῇ πόλει συνῳκείωσαν, ὡς, ὅπου τὸ μαχητικὸν καὶ πολεμικὸν μάλιστα τῷ μετέχοντι πειθοῦς καὶ χαρίτων ὁμιλεῖ καὶ σύνεστιν, εἰς τὴν ἐμμελεστάτην καὶ κοσμιωτάτην πολιτείαν δι᾿ ἁρμονίας καθισταμένων ἁπάντων.

[3] Τὸν οὖν ἱερὸν λόχον τοῦτον ὁ μὲν Γοργίδας διαιρῶν εἰς τὰ πρῶτα ζυγὰ καὶ παρ᾿ ὅλην τὴν φάλαγγα τῶν ὁπλιτῶν προβαλλόμενος ἐπίδηλον οὐκ ἐποίει τὴν ἀρετὴν τῶν ἀνδρῶν, οὐδ᾿ ἐχρῆτο τῇ δυνάμει πρὸς κοινὸν ἔργον, ἅτε δὴ διαλελυμένῃ καὶ πρὸς πολὺ μεμιγμένῃ τὸ φαυλότερον, ὁ δὲ Πελοπίδας, ὡς ἐξέλαμψεν αὐτῶν ἡ ἀρετὴ περὶ Τεγύρας, ὥσπερ σώματι χρώμενος ὅλῳ προεκινδύνευε τοῖς μεγίστοις ἀγῶσιν.

[4] ὥσπερ γὰρ οἱ ἵπποι θᾶσσον ὑπὸ τοῖς ἅρμασιν ἢ καθ᾿ αὑτοὺς ἐλαυνόμενοι θέουσιν, οὐχ ὅτι μᾶλλον ἐμπίπτοντες ἐκβιάζονται τὸν ἀέρα τῷ πλήθει ῥηγνύμενον, ἀλλ᾿ ὅτι συνεκκαίει τὸν θυμὸν ἡ μετ᾿ ἀλλήλων ἅμιλλα καὶ τὸ φιλόνεικον, οὕτως ᾤετο τοὺς ἀγαθοὺς ζῆλον ἀλλήλοις καλῶν ἔργων ἐνιέντας ὠφελιμωτάτους εἰς κοινὸν ἔργον εἶναι καὶ προθυμοτάτους.

The Lion of Chaironeia built to commemorate the 300 of the Sacred Band fallen at Chaironeia, as photographed in 1914



In 368 BC Pelopidas was treacherously captured and imprisoned by Alexander, tyrant of Pherai in Thessaly, whose wife Thebe visited him in prison and was shocked into tears by the state she found him in.

And when she said, "I pity thy wife," he replied, "And I thee, in that thou wearest no chains, and yet endurest Alexander."

This speech deeply moved the woman, for she was oppressed by the savage insolence of the tyrant, who, in addition to his other debaucheries, had made her youngest brother his paramour. Therefore her continued visits to Pelopidas, in which she spoke freely of her sufferings, gradually filled her with wrath and fierce hatred towards Alexander.

[4] εἰπούσης δὲ ἐκείνης, “Ἐλεῶ σου τὴν γυναῖκα,” “Καὶ γὰρ ἐγώ σε,” εἶπεν, “ὅτι ἄδετος οὖσα ὑπομένεις Ἀλέξανδρον.”

[5] οὗτος ἔθιγέ πως ὁ λόγος τῆς γυναικός· ἐβαρύνετο γὰρ τὴν ὠμότητα καὶ τὴν ὕβριν τοῦ τυράννου, μετὰ τῆς ἄλλης ἀσελγείας καὶ τὸν νεώτατον αὐτῆς τῶν ἀδελφῶν παιδικὰ πεποιημένου.

The death of Pelopidas by Andrey Ivanov, 1805-6

[1] Given the importance of Iolaos in the imagination of the Sacred Band as symbolic of the beloved in the couples of which they were composed, it should be noted that, unusually for a Greek boy in a love affair, his age has been preserved. Plutarch, in his Dialogue on Love (IX) quotes a Boiotian saying of Iolaos at a time when he was already well established as Herakles’s beloved, that “he was no more than sixteen.”

[2] The battle in 338 BC in which Philip defeated the Thebans and Athenians and thereby established Macedonian hegemony in Greece.

[3] Laios, a mythical 13th century BC King of Thebes, fell in love with a boy called Chrysippos, son of the King of Pisa, while teaching him to drive a chariot, and carried him off to Thebes (Apollodoros, Library III 5 5 x and Athenaios, The Learned Banqueters 602).

[4] Harmonia (Harmony) was the daughter of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the wife of Kadmos, who founded Thebes. The aforementioned King Laios was their great-grandson.




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