The sacred battalion of Thebes

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Tito Villa, 1936.
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By WALNICE NOGUEIRA GALVÃO*

Archaeological evidence of the story was considered fantasy until the XNUMXth century.

In the year 338 BC, the final battle of the war was fought, which opposed the Thebans and Athenians, after all defeated, to the hosts of Philip II of Macedon, assisted by his son Alexander, who would later receive the nickname of “The Great”. The terrain of the confrontation was the plain of Chaeronea, close to the city of the same name, in Central Greece, and also close to Thebes. It was not a minor episode. In the opinion of many scholars, the prelio and defeat mark the end of the classical age.

The events were known in the past, but the person who dealt with them in greater detail was Pausanias, a Greek traveler and geographer who lived in the second century of our era and wrote a Description of Greece in several volumes, some of which have come down to us.

It is he who tells a beautiful story, which became known as the story of the Sacred Battalion of Thebes – a designation already given in antiquity. He says that this elite group faced Macedonian forces far superior in numbers, did not budge and were decimated to the last man. His contingent was 300 warriors. Additional detail, they were all pairs of lovers, in the good tradition of Sparta, trusting that a man would not make a bad impression in the presence of his beloved. It is said that the battalion may have been formed by Spartans, originally from that city-state. A colossal marble lion would have been erected at the site, perpetuating the memory of these brave men and paying homage to their indomitable spirit, which they symbolize.

This account has always been considered fantastic. Nor for being commented with approval in The banquet, of Plato, was considered less illusory. also the Iliad and Odyssey, until Schliemann's nineteenth-century excavations unearthed Troy and Mycenae, they passed for works of pure fiction.

About two thousand years later, a group of young English architects with a classical education rode across the plain of Chaeronea, reading Pausanias and reliving the feasts of the Sacred Battalion. The horse of one of them trips over a stone that, on second examination, looks more like a fragment of sculpture. They went to excavate it and found the celebratory lion. It was in pieces, but it was reconstituted and there it is, which can be visited today, in the same place.

Another sixty years passed, and archaeological surveys carried out at the foot of the lion came across a mass grave, from which 254 skeletons were exhumed symmetrically arranged in 7 rows, lying on their backs with all decorum, many of them holding hands or arms linked. Drawings made at the time, including the marks of mortal wounds, were later reproduced and documented books written about the warlike episode. the latest is The sacred band, by James Romm, specialist in antiquity studies, edited by Scribner. The current illustrations in the volume take advantage of and resume those that came down to us from that time.

Who brings a recent news, accompanied by the moving sketch of the seven rows of bodies, is the magazine The New Yorker in the April 19, 2021 issue.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of reading and rereading (Senac/Gold over blue).

 

 

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