Last week Geoffrey Wheatcroft speculated whether a regiment of what he called Gay Gordons might not have something to be said for it, giving a whole new meaning to ‘once more into the breach, dear friends’. Ancient Greeks would probably have approved, but with some reservations.
Plato argued that Sparta and Crete were largely responsible for introducing a homosexual ethos into the military, a practice that came to be imitated elsewhere in the Greek world. In Sparta, for example, boys were removed from their parents at the age of seven to spend their time in common messes where they were trained up as soldiers. Every twelve-year old had to take a young adult warrior as a lover till he was eighteen, though the purpose was pedagogic as much as pederastic.
The most famous example of such institutionalised homosexuality is provided by the Theban ‘Sacred Band’ (c. 378 BC) an élite troop of 150 pairs of lovers. The historian Plutarch explains the rationale by arguing that a regiment bonded by sexual feelings was ‘indissoluble and unbreakable’ because they did not flinch in the face of danger out of their feelings for each other. He goes on to say that this band was never beaten until the battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), against Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great). Further, when Philip came across the place where they had ‘fallen in their armour, all mixed up together, facing the enemy head on, he wept and said “Perish all those who claim that these men did, or allowed to be done to them, anything shameful”.’ Two hundred and fifty four skeletons have been found in the vicinity, laid out in seven rows – the very men?
Yet there was a residual doubt. The military commander Xenophon tells us how he formed a regiment of the handsome because of the example of one Episthenes, who offered himself to die in place of a young boy who was about to be executed. But desire for wasteful self-sacrifice is not much use in a soldier. ‘Such lovers often seek danger beyond the call of duty’, comments Plutarch.
Such conduct is no part of a soldier’s code. One’s duty is to look after one’s mates, and one does not need to be gay to do that.