The job of the historian is ‘not letting past be forgotten, not letting heroic deeds go unsung’

Bard classics professor James Romm ’88, holding a Black sea bass.
Courtesy of James Romm ’88

Classics professor James Romm ’88 is hooked on the odyssey. Not the epic saga of Odysseus, but the monthly trek he makes from his home in Allendale, New York, to Long Island Sound where he fishes for bass, bluefish, and blackfish in his tan sea kayak. 

“My great passion is fishing, even though Homer’s heroes never do it,” says Romm, who teaches at Bard College. “Fishing is a long journey, especially if you’re kayaking, and it’s you against the beasts of the wild.”

Romm’s other recent odyssey has been a book, The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, due out in June. It tells the story of an unusual, elite military strike-force — the Sacred Band of Thebes, which comprised 150 pairs of male lovers. Formed in 378 B.C., it fought for the city-state of Thebes against the imperialistic Spartans and went undefeated in combat for 40 years. 

“Male eros was seen as a source of moral virtue and a spur to heroism and bravery in battle,” according to Romm, who writes that many of these warriors were suzugentes (yoked together) in lifelong marriage, a rarity elsewhere in ancient Greece. They fought as pairs because Thebans believed this would heighten their thumos, the victory- and honor-seeking part of the soul, just as chariots with two-horse teams sped faster than those with one. “Both men became braver and fiercer than either would have been on his own,” says Romm. 

After Alexander the Great’s forces massacred the Band, the warriors were buried together on the battlefield. Many were interred embracing, so they would be together for eternity. Their mass grave was discovered in the 1800s at a time in Victorian England when homosexuality was first being acknowledged, and their heroism inspired the first gay liberation movement, according to Romm.

As a historian, Romm believes little-told tales are the ones that most need retelling, like that of Thebes. He calls the city’s destruction — and Alexander’s murder and enslavement of its citizens — “the single greatest catastrophe the Greeks ever saw.” Thebes rivaled Athens and Sparta and handed the fierce Spartans their first-ever defeat in open-field fighting in 371 B.C. Thebes also built the storied city of Messene to protect Greek slaves freed from Sparta and kept under control the cruel tyrant of neighboring Pherae. “The Kim Jong Un of his day,” as Romm calls him, hunted his captives and forced them to don animal skins before loosing his hounds to tear them apart. 

Yet for all its accomplishments, Thebes remains largely unknown to the modern world. Why? 

“Xenophon, the historian who recorded events of the first half of the 4th century B.C., hated the Thebans. He literally omitted some of their greatest achievements from his history,” says Romm. “He tried to cancel the Thebans and largely succeeded, because we now no longer talk about them.”

Part of the historian’s job, Romm says, is “not letting past be forgotten, not letting heroic deeds go unsung.” He hopes readers will come to know the Thebans as the great power they were in the ancient world: “My book was partly to restore them to their former glory.”