Author: James Romm
Publication: June 21, 2022 by Scribner
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Ancient History, Military History
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From classicist James Romm comes a “striking…fascinating” (Booklist) deep dive into the last decades of ancient Greek freedom leading up to Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes—and the saga of the greatest military corps of the time, the Theban Sacred Band, a unit composed of 150 pairs of male lovers.
The story of the Sacred Band, an elite 300-man corps recruited from pairs of lovers, highlights a chaotic era of ancient Greek history, four decades marked by battles, ideological disputes, and the rise of vicious strongmen. At stake was freedom, democracy, and the fate of Thebes, at this time the leading power of the Greek world.
The tale begins in 379 BC, with a group of Theban patriots sneaking into occupied Thebes. Disguised in women’s clothing, they cut down the agents of Sparta, the state that had cowed much of Greece with its military might. To counter the Spartans, this group of patriots would form the Sacred Band, a corps whose history plays out against a backdrop of Theban democracy, of desperate power struggles between leading city-states, and the new prominence of eros, sexual love, in Greek public life.
After four decades without a defeat, the Sacred Band was annihilated by the forces of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander in the Battle of Chaeronea—extinguishing Greek liberty for two thousand years. Buried on the battlefield where they fell, they were rediscovered in 1880—some skeletons still in pairs, with arms linked together.
From violent combat in city streets to massive clashes on open ground, from ruthless tyrants to bold women who held their era in thrall, The Sacred Band recounts “in fluent, accessible prose” (The Wall Street Journal) the twists and turns of a crucial historical moment: the end of the treasured freedom of ancient Greece.
This was an interesting read but I must admit that I’m a little disappointed it wasn’t more about the Sacred Band itself or its members that were made out of pairs of lovers. It was more about the history about the time in which the Sacred Band excisted and the battles they fought in. I don’t think historians know a whole lot about the Sacred Band when it comes to the men who were in it, their relationships, how they got paired up, their actual training, their stories because there are probably not that many primary sources on it, which is really sad.
The book was mainly about Athens, Sparta and especially Thebes and their history, their rivalry and how they fought each other. When you read about ancient Greece’s history it’s mainly about Athens and Sparta. I don’t think I’ve read much about Thebes so what I did like about this book was that a lot was said about that city in particular.
There were a lot of fascinating chapters but I also must say that not every single chapter captured my attention as much as some others did. Obviously this is a book about heavy military history and sometimes reading about all the battles started to get a little monotone for me. In the end it wasn’t the book I expected to read but I did learn a new thing or two about this particular era in ancient Greek history.
Also, a random fact from the book but Oscar Wilde (and his book The Picture of Dorian Gray) got mentioned, which I definitely hadn’t expected to come across in this book but I certainly didn’t mind.
About the author:
James Romm is an author, reviewer, and the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College in Annandale, NY.
He specializes in ancient Greek and Roman culture and civilization. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, the Daily Beast, and other venues. He has held the Guggenheim Fellowship (1999-2000), the Birkelund Fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library (2010-11), and a Biography Fellowship at the Leon Levy Center of the City University of New York (2014-15).
He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, artist Tanya Marcuse, and their three children.