The Sacred Band of Thebes (Ancient Greek: Ἱερὸς Λόχος, Hieròs Lókhos) was a troop of picked soldiers, consisting of 150 pairs of male lovers which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BC. It is said to have been organised by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and to have played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra. It was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
The earliest surviving record of the Sacred Band (Ἱερὸς Λόχος, Hieròs Lókhos) by name was in 324 BC; in the oration Against Demosthenes by the Athenian logographer Dinarchus. He mentions the Sacred Band as being led by the general Pelopidas and, alongside Epaminondas who commanded the army of Thebes (Boeotia), were responsible for the defeat of the Spartans at the decisive Battle of Leuctra (371 BC).
Plutarch (46–120 AD), a native of the village of Chaeronea, is the source of the most substantial surviving account of the Sacred Band. He records that the Sacred Band was originally formed by the boeotarch Gorgidas, shortly after the expulsion of the Spartan garrison occupying the Theban citadel of Cadmea. The 2nd century AD Macedonian author Polyaenus in his Stratagems in War also records Gorgidas as the founder of the Sacred Band. However, Dio Chrysostom (c. 40–120 AD), Hieronymus of Rhodes (c. 290–230 BC), and Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. 200 AD) credit Epaminondas instead.
The exact date of the Sacred Band's creation and whether it was created before or after the Symposium of Plato (c. 424–347 BC) and the similarly titled Symposium by his rival Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC), has also long been debated. The generally accepted date of the Sacred Band's creation is between 379 to 378 BC. Prior to this, there were references to elite Theban forces also numbering 300. Herodotus (c.484–425 BC) and Thucydides (c. 460–395 BC) both record an elite force of 300 Thebans allied with the Persians who were annihilated by Athenians in the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). Herodotus describes them as the "best and bravest" (πρῶτοι καὶ ἄριστοι) among Thebans. Diodorus also records 300 picked men (ἄνδρες ἐπίλεκτοι) present in the Battle of Delium (424 BC), composed of heníochoi (ἡνίοχοι, "charioteers") and parabátai (παραβάται, "those who walk beside"). Though none of these mention the Sacred Band by name, these may have referred to the Sacred Band or at least its precursors. The historian John Kinloch Anderson believes that the Sacred Band was indeed present in Delium, and that Gorgidas did not found it, but merely reformed it.
In the old debate surrounding Xenophon's and Plato's works, the Sacred Band has figured prominently as a possible way of dating which of the two wrote their version of Symposium first. Xenophon's Socrates in his Symposium disapprovingly mentions the practice of placing lovers beside each other in battle in the city-states of Thebes and Elis, arguing that while the practice was acceptable to them, it was shameful for Athenians (both Plato and Xenophon were Athenians). According to the British classical scholar Sir Kenneth Dover, this was a clear allusion to the Sacred Band, reflecting Xenophon's contemporary awareness of the Theban practice, albeit anachronistic as the dramatic date of the work itself is c. 421 BC. However, it is the speech of the character Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium referring to an "army of lovers" that is most famously connected with the Sacred Band. Dover argues Plato wrote his Symposium first since Plato's Phaedrus uses language that implies that the organization does not yet exist. He acknowledges, however, that Plato may have simply put the hypothesis in the mouth of Phaedrus according to the supposed earlier dramatic date of the work (c. 401 BC). It only shows that Plato was more mindful of his chronology in his Symposium than Xenophon, and proves that he was actually quite aware of the Sacred Band in his time.