Ancient pride: could queer love conquer the world?

Monday, 10 July 2023

Professor Ingleheart of Durham University’s Department of Classics and Ancient History suggests the importance of queer representation:

“Those who grow up as LGBTQ+ continue to be harmed by the notion that the very fact of their non-normative sexuality and/or gender is taboo, and by having their access restricted to materials that reflect their own lived experience or desires.”

Today, LGBTQ+ people are often subject to negative or derogatory stereotypes; viewed as lesser for subverting, or being perceived to subvert traditional gender ideals. The mental health consequences can be severe. Professor Ingleheart believes ancient Rome and Greece remain important to LGBTQ+ people because they provide a sense of queer ancestry. Ancient Greece is often characterised as the cradle of Western civilization: as the founding basis of many aspects of Western culture including philosophy, art, and political theory. To trace queer lineage back this far refutes attempts to present same-sex attraction or gender variance as a modern invention or trend.

Speaking on the importance of LGBTQ+ history, Professor Jennifer Ingleheart claims, “In modern societies which take a negative view of queerness and attempt to suppress it, the very idea that there have been other times and cultures in which queerness has been possible is hugely powerful.”

So – what did the ancient Greeks have to say about same-sex love?

In Symposium (c.385-370 BCE), Plato explores the nature and human significance of love through a cast of largely drunken Athenians exchanging speeches at a dinner party. Phaedrus is the first to give his speech. He speaks in praise of love: love can inspire courage and pride in good actions, and shame in disgraceful actions. We want to present our best selves to our lovers. And so, Phaedrus says, “The effect that Love has on lovers is exactly what Homer described, when he talked about a god ‘breathing might’ into some hero or other.”

His conclusion: the best armies are gay armies. An army of same-sex attracted lovers and their boyfriends would be made formidable by love. Driven by the courage their love inspires, the desire to protect and impress their boyfriends – and to avoid embarrassment – an army of lovers would fight more fiercely than any other. Phaedrus claims, “It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that a handful of such men, fighting side by side, could conquer the whole world.”

And Phaedrus’ idea did not remain hypothetical – within a few years of Symposium’s publication, just such an army came into existence.

The Sacred Band of Thebes (c. 378-338 BCE) was a battalion of 150 male couples – and in line with Phaedrus’ predictions, one of the most successful battalions of the ancient world. It went undefeated from its founding c. 378 BCE to its demise c. 338 BCE.

Fighting alongside Epaminondas who commanded the Theban army, the Sacred Band was integral in securing a victory at Leuctra in 371 BCE that destabilised centuries of Spartan military supremacy and led to Thebes overtaking as the leading power in Greece for a generation. Pausanias, a geographer from the 2nd century CE, described this battle as “the most famous [victory] ever won by Greeks over Greeks.”

The Sacred Band remained undefeated until 338 BCE, when it battled a force under the command of Philip of Macedon at Chaeronea. In keeping with their philosophy, the Sacred Band refused to back down in the face of defeat and were wiped out. Plutarch claims that when Philip surveyed the dead after the battle, he burst into tears on realising they were a band of lovers and exclaimed, “Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered aught disgraceful.”

While there is much we might consider questionable today regarding ancient Greek sexuality and gender norms, Plato’s writing is striking to compare to modern stereotypes around queer love. In a text written over two millennia ago, we see same-sex love associated with beauty, wisdom, nobility, strength, courage, and self-betterment.

EPIC is committed to breaking down harmful gender and sexual identity stereotypes. The EPIC International Youth Project includes a workshop dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ identities and dismantling stigma.

Author: Dorian Rose

Related articles