James Romm’s The Sacred Band (thank you, NetGalley, for the review copy) is an engaging blend of 4th century BC Greek military history and anecdotes about notable public figures. The content revolves around the rivalries among Athens, Sparta, and Thebes (which has tended to be overlooked in favor of its flashier siblings) as they jockey for power and supremacy, bringing readers up to 335 BC and the ascension of Alexander of Macedon.
Between tracking the dizzying volley of alliances, counter-alliances, intrigues, and battles, readers learn about such legends as:
- Phocaean Aspasia (not to be confused with Peracles’ Aspasia), lover of two Persian kings
- Thessalian strongman Jason of Pherae, who ransomed his mother’s favorite servants to swindle her of cash, staged fake sacrifices to the gods to collect the offerings, and accidentally (and helpfully) had a boil lanced in battle
- Alexander of Pherae, who deified the spear he used to kill his uncle, who had killed his father, crowning it with garlands and offering it sacrifices.
- Philoxenus, poet at the court of Syracusan tyrant Dionysius, who was sent to the quarries after judging the tyrant’s poetry harshly. Brought back to listen again, Philoxenus replied in despair, “Take me back to the quarries.”
- Aeneas of Stymphalos, likely the author of a text called How to Survive Under Siege, and his ingenious methods for sneaking messages past enemies.
- The summer 364 Olympic Games, when battle broke out between the Eleans and the Arcadians as festival onlookers cheered as they would for wrestling matches.
- Praxiteles’ famous sculpture of Aphrodite bathing—inspired by his lover and muse Phrynê’s au naturel dip in the sea during the Eleusinia festival—and what became of it.
Woven through the military history and anecdotes, Romm shares the little that is known from ancient sources about the Sacred Band, an elite warrior group of 150 pairs of lovers. Romm also discusses the largest mass grave from antiquity uncovered in 1880 at Charonea. Chief excavator Panagiotis Stamatakis apparently made detailed drawings of each skeleton and its injuries as well as of the layout of the grave, which had never been previously published. Photos of Stamatakis’ notes are included in the book, along with a digital illustrator’s reconstruction of the grave.
The book’s subtitle, “Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom,” may set unrealistic expectations for readers expecting an in-depth study of Thebes’ Sacred Band, and at times, Romm seems to stretch his evidence to justify the title. That aside, if you’re interested in learning more about Thebes, its role, and its contributions, this is an absorbing and accessible read.