Epaminondas lived before the Christian era, outside the Jewish tradition, and has no claim whatsoever to be treated as a “saints in any literal sense. However, taking the term much more loosely, including those we might consider as role models, he clearly fits the bill. If that doesn’t suit you, think of him as included in the “others” of my title.
Together with his lover Pelopidas, Epaminondas was one of the celebrated “Sacred Band of Thebes”, a military company of 150 pairs of lovers. That’s right, an army band where it was compulsory to be gay – and partnered. We usually think of the Spartans as the most military of the Greek cities, and with good reason. While Athens (and some other cities following them) valued democracy, philosophy and intellectual life generally, young Spartans were educated for one thing only – war. After Sparta had convincingly beaten Athens and her allies in the Peloponnesian War, the victors extinguished democracy in the vanquished cities, and placed their allies in command as local despots.
In the case of Thebes, they met strong resistance from the defenders of democracy, in the form of the band of male lovers. Founded initially by Georgidas, on the principle that men never fight more bravely than when fighting to protect and support their loved ones alongside them, the founding proposition was soon confirmed. In their first engagement with the Spartan enemy, victors in the recent Peloponnesian war, the new company of Theban lovers overcame a Spartan army of two to three times their number, and were able to reinstate democracy in their city.
Epaminondaswas initially somewhat hidden in the shadow of his friend Pelopidas, who succeeded Georgidas as leader just a year after the band was founded. Together, they won many famous victories. Later, overshadowing his friend, he found the more enduring fame, and for many notable qualities beyond his illustrious military career.
After assisting in the re-establishment of democracy in Thebes, he developed a career as an orator and statesman as well as a soldier. Although he was instrumental in defeating Sparta in establishing Thebes as the dominant geek power, he refused to use this power to to subject other cities to Theban domination and pillage, so that he was known as a military liberator, not a conqueror. Many scholars have described him as Greece’s greatest warrior-statesman. Diodorus Siculus wrote that he excelled all the others in valour and military shrewdness – but also in “eloquence of speech, elevation of mind, contempt of lucre, and fairness…”.
The Romans also admired him, although less enthusiastic about his cultural achievements. Cornelius Nepos included him in his Book o Great Commanders, but found it necessary to excuse his reputation as a musician and dancer on the grounds that the Greeks had a fondness for these pursuits. He “praises without reservation Epaminondas’ intellectual and athletic prowess, and finds he meets roman standards of temperance, prudence and seriousness….. and was such a lover of truth that he never lied, even in jest.” .
He died in 362, in a battle which once again defeated the Spartans, but also ended Epaminondas’ own life.
This could be my kind of guy – accomplished, virtuous, a democrat and liberator – and good-looking. Except that he lived about two millennia too soon, he could easily be seen as a great Renaissance man. My only objection? Surely he’s just too good to be true. Yet this is the picture that comes down to us from the ancients.
And to think that men of this calibre are not permitted to serve openly in the US army.
(Source: The material above condenses a passage from “Homosexuality & Civilization” by Louis Crompton, which makes an excellent and stimulating introduction to the history of homosexuality.)
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