As part of our on-going Myths and Legends Week, we are sharing a guest blog from Emily Hauser about her book Ancient Love Stories, many of which readers will be familiar with and are rooted in myth and legend. Check out her blog below!
Love Stories from History that are Truer than Fiction
Ancient Love Stories is a collection of some of history’s greatest love stories. When we think of the great tales about love, we often turn to myth or legend: Romeo and Juliet, Helen of Troy and Paris, Rama and Sita. Yet the pages of history are crammed with stories about love that are, quite literally, true. And many of them are among the greatest love stories ever told.
Because they’re true, these stories have the power to turn upside down everything we thought we knew about love, as well as about ancient history. These are real passions, real sacrifices, splashed across the headlines of history – and sometimes, relegated to the margins. One of my jobs in writing this book – and it was one of the most exciting parts – was to delve into all kinds of different historical alleyways to uncover the less-well-known love stories, that we don’t talk about enough, that were sidelined or forgotten, but that nevertheless changed history. And these stories also give us a new way of looking back at the past, as well as the present: showcasing a real diversity of love stories, and lovers, that shows that all kinds of love in all different cultures can and should be celebrated.
My favourite example, by far, is the Sacred Band of Thebes. I’m a classicist, which means I write books about and teach the myths and literature of ancient Greece at the University of Exeter – and for decades I’ve been passionate about researching and learning all I can about the ancient world. Yet, until writing Ancient Love Stories, astonishingly, I’d never come across the story of the Sacred Band. This fearless crack team of 300 men (a bit like the 300 of Sparta) was formed in the early fourth century BCE by the up-and-coming Greek power of Thebes – and it was made up, extraordinarily, of 150 pairs of male lovers.
Love between men wasn’t at all unusual in the classical Greek world: there was a commonly-accepted system (known as “pederasty”) where older men would take younger male lovers, as a sort of introduction into society, a way of teaching young men about the ways of the world. What was unusual about the Sacred Band was the way, in Thebes, that men seemed to see this as a deeply personal and lifelong relationship – like marriage (in fact, one ancient historian uses a term similar to marriage to describe their bond). Some Theban lovers were even buried together.
The Sacred Band was unique in the way it took this fierce love and devotion between men and manipulated it into warcraft. (The great Greek philosopher Plato even comments on it, saying it’s the best way to get men into war: a man in love, he reasons, would do anything to save his lover.) For decades, over forty years, the Sacred Band was undefeated, the ultimate crack force founded on the passion of its warriors. But in 338 BCE, they were defeated at last, by the forces of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great. They were buried where they fell, on a plain not far from Thebes.
Yet there’s a twist to the end of this tale, which is what made it one of my favourites to write. I love when history and archaeology come together – when we can actually make some tangible connection back to the great stories of the past. And what’s particularly incredible about this story is that their grave was actually discovered – rows and rows of male skeletons lined up next to each other.
And some of them had been buried holding hands.
Ancient Love Stories by Emily Hauser and Sander Berg is published by Big Picture Press.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation.