Tuesday, March 28

An Army of Lovers

How the ancient Greeks would cringe if they could hear the μαλακίες (nonsense) being spouted by the Greek armed forces, which recently issued a statement proclaiming gays unfit for military service. A presidential decree issued in 2002 excludes from military service all persons “suffering from psycho-sexual or sexual identity disorders,” a category that includes homosexuals. Tuesday’s statement came in response to a complaint filed against the Greek defense and transport ministries by EOK (Ελληνική Ομοφυλοφιλική Κοινότητα), Greece’s GLBT rights organization.

Such discrimination is appalling under any circumstances, but especially troubling in Greece, which is the last nation on earth that should have such a ban. It seems that Greece has truly rejected its classical past and the collective wisdom of the ancients, who understood that same-sex love and bravery in battle are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the ancient Greeks had seen how love between men and military prowess reinforced one another. Simply put, to the ancient Greeks an army of lovers made the best fighters.

Nothing illustrates this belief on the part of the ancients better than Plato’s Symposium:

“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 dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; 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? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.”


Similarly, Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas, describes “The Sacred Band of Thebes,” an elite Greek battalion consisting of 150 pairs of lovers under the command of the Theban general Gorgidas:

“[T]he 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. Nor can that be wondered at since they have more regard for their absent lovers than for others present; as in the instance of the man who, when his enemy was going to kill him, earnestly requested him to run him through the breast, that his lover might not blush to see him wounded in the back. It is a tradition likewise that Iolaus, who assisted Hercules in his labors and fought at his side, was beloved of him; and Aristotle observes that, even in his time, lovers plighted their faith at Iolaus’s tomb. It is likely, therefore, that this band was called sacred on this account; as Plato calls a lover a divine friend. It is stated that it was never beaten till the battle at Chaeronea: and when Philip, after the fight, took a view of the slain, and came to the place where the three hundred that fought his phalanx lay dead together, he wondered, and understanding that it was the band of lovers, he shed tears and said, ‘Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base.’”

The Sacred Band was defeated in 338 BCE by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great at the Battle of Chaeronea. When the rest of the Theban army retreated in the face of Philip’s superior forces, the Sacred Band held their ground and fought valiantly to the bitter end. Philip later dedicated a monument to the Sacred Band to honor their sacrifice and bravery in the face of death.

Sadly, today’s Greece and her army appear to have forgotten all about Plato’s words and the Sacred Band of Thebes. As a result, Greece’s policy barring gay men from serving in the military dishonors the memory of those who rank among her bravest and most noble forbears.

The image is of a Greek warrior arming (575 – 525 BCE, Black-Figure Hydria, Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Recommended Reading:
Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present, edited by R.R. Burg.

7 Comments:

Blogger Gay Erasmus said...

Interesting post.

(By the way, I understand that the remains of the Sacred Band of Thebes were found at the old site of Chaeronea in the early part of the 20th century.)

5:25 PM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

gay erasmus-
thanks for reading and commenting :)

i'd heard that, but i wasn't sure if it were true or not. that's pretty cool. the story i heard was that the excavations revealed rows of bodies with the lovers placed side by side.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

very interesting post but thats why i like your blog.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Judas said...

If you take your lover to war wouldn't that take the fun out of the rape and the pillage?

Judas Penrose
Poetry Politics and Piracy

9:40 AM  
Blogger Will said...

There's a lovely appreciation of the Band of Lovers also in John Boswell's "Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe." Boswell takes the tradition of lovers in the military right through to the late-roman/early-Byzantine paired military saints, many of whom can be documented to have been lovers.

It's incredibly sad that Greece has renounced its heritage in this regard. I understand that there are some pockets of acceptance and liberalism in the Orthodox Church but that it is officially homophobic. How ironic that it honors Saints Polyeuct and Niarchos whose love led them to stand with each other right through to execution. Now THERE'S a model for the loyal soldier.

10:25 AM  
Blogger JB said...

oh, the humanity.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Koan said...

This post is featured in the sixth edition of the Carnival of Bent Attractions - enjoy! :-) Koan

6:07 AM  

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