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Son of Archidamus, one of the two Kings of Sparta, Agesilaus (born of Eupolia, daughter of Melesippidas in 444 BC) was the younger brother of Agis the Elder (born of Lampido) and as such was not destined for succession, especially as his leg was deformed, one being visibly shorter than the other. Spartan education was brutal, designed to instil fear and reverence in its citizens. As he was the younger brother and not heir apparent, he was educated thusly (and acknowledged by the general Lysander for his studiousness) which in turn better-prepared him to rule when it fell to him to do so, as he had been gifted with both a feeling for Sparta’s martial discipline (allegedly finding more distress in insults or disgrace than in labour and obedience) and a naturally gentle temperament.

Agesilaus came to the throne upon a scandal in which his brother refused to accept his supposed son (Leotychides) as he was actually the progeny of the Athenian Alcibiades, who was soon forced to flee; it is known that Agis’ wife, Timaea, often quietly stated that the child’s rightful name was Alcibiades. At any rate Lysander, having returned from the conquest of Athens (and being, therefore, a powerful man), endorsed Agesilaus for the role of King over Leotychides, who despite acknowledgement by Agis on his deathbed did not have the honour bestowed upon him. Agesilaus is credited as being as able a soldier as Lysander and more politically astute, which in conjunction with his good temperament secured the support of the masses. Agesilaus never allowed the production of representative statues or paintings, even after his death. During military campaigns he slept in the same conditions as the common soldiery and observed the standards of austerity prized by Sparta. Even after all his travels and exposure to other ways of thought, it never occurred to him to contravene the principles he’d been raised on.

It was, however, unusual for a man (even - or perhaps especially - of royal blood) with a deformity to survive in Spartan society, where it was routine to leave new-born children with flawed physical characteristics to die (from exposure the elements or wolves) on the sides of Mount Taygetus for it was believed that of allowed to live they would in turn sire ‘deficient’ children and cause the decline of the Spartan state. The Spartans were stern believers in the practice of eugenics and so it was natural that Agesilaus promotion was challenged; Diopathes, a man thoroughly familiar with the statements of the oracles, referred to a passage which seemed to allude to a threat to the monarchy. Lysander challenged this by stating that the danger lay in accepting Leotychides’ bastardy (evoking stories of divine witness to the act).

Upon ascension (and the acquisition of his brother’s estate), he generously gave half the property to his kindred by his mother’s side (who, despite being upstanding citizens, lived in poverty). He courted the Ephors (an annually-elected panel of citizens with broader powers than the King, designed to restrain his power as dictated in the Life of Lycurgus) with gifts (an ox and a gown upon election to the panel), courtesy (in shows of deference and the observance of polite gestures) and friendship - in so doing, he advanced his own power. Agesilaus valued friendship above all else, even endorsing the actions of his friends when they contravened the tenets of the state. Conflict arose between himself and the Ephors (who levelled a fine upon him) when it was claimed that he was attempting to hold the citizenry as his own property, whereas they ought to be the common property of the state. Translated from political fencing, it essentially meant that Agesilaus had become too popular and threatened the Ephors’ power, although little conflict came of this.

Shortly after Agesilaus rose to power, word came that the Great King Xerxes of Persia (the most powerful ruler of the day by far) was making preparations to bereave Sparta of its new-found naval supremacy. Incensed, Agesilaus decided to take the battle to his enemy and, having secured authority over the thirty Spartan advisors, two thousand helots and six thousand allied soldiers he requested, the army (under Lysander, so chosen for both ability and his friendship to Agesilaus) began to converge at Geraestus, the rendezvous.

At this time he travelled with some friends to Aulis, where he claimed to have seen in a dream a man who proclaimed him to be Agamemnon’s successor (in leading a united Greek force) and told him to make the same sacrifice his predecessor did. Agesilaus desired to, but was forbidden by the Thebans in accordance with the city-state’s laws and so he abruptly sailed for Asia Minor with a distinct feeling of foreboding at the ill omen. He had designs on emulating his friend Xenophon’s successes against Persia and, being a man heavily imbued with Greek piety, saw this as a heavy blow before conflict had even begun.

When Agesilaus arrived in Ephesus, he discovered that Lysander had been revelling in luxury - a direct contravention of austere Spartan values first and an affront to the other Spartan commanders second, each of whom felt that they were being treated as Lysander’s servants, rather than Agesilaus’ advisors. Angry and (despite his nature) envious of Lysander’s prestige, he henceforth refuted all of Lysander’s suggestions in favour of others, favoured other captains who actively spoke against him and eventually appointed Lysander his meat-carver, an indignity which Lysander confronted Agesilaus about, stating that he only desired an office in which he could be of service without incurring Agesilaus displeasure. It is recorded that Lysander actually had designs on wresting Sparta from its noble families and making it wholly elective, although he was eventually to die in the Boeotian War.

Agesilaus began to make dealings with the Persian, Tisaphernes, about liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor, but upon discovering that his associate had raised an army of his own with hostile intentions, set about defeating him, marching south to Caria in order to deceive his enemy, then falling upon the Persian satrapy of Phrygia and carrying away many slaves and great wealth. This increased regard for him as a general and legitimised the practice of using strategic misdirection in the Greek mindset. He retired to Ephesus to raise more cavalry forces, obliging each wealthy man (who was not obliged to serve) to provide one armed and mounted horseman, thereby quickly raising a corps of experienced and numerous mounted soldiers, which he is noted for using to a far greater extent than had Xenophon.

Having announced (and been disbelieved by Tisaphernes) that he would invade Lydia, Agesilaus turned upon the Persian army (which had busied itself with capturing straggling looters) and overcame it, setting it to rout. Successful, the Greeks further pillaged the countryside. The Great King sent Tithraustes, who executed Tisaphernes and attempted to negotiate for the return of Agesilaus’ forces to Greece in exchange for vast sums of wealth. Agesilaus responded by saying that a ceasefire was the prerogative of the Lacaedemonian people and that there was no honour in the acceptance of an enemy bribe, although he was willing to make concessions to Tithraustes in light of the retribution dispensed upon Tisaphernes and retired to Phrygia. During his journey, he received acknowledgement that he had been appointed both as admiral and the foremost general, an honour never to be repeated in Spartan history. Invested with these powers, he delegated command of the navy to Pisander, relatively inexperienced but a relative and friend by marriage.

Agesilaus marched further into Persia, drawing the vassal King of Paphlagonia into a league and then (with one thousand horse and two thousand foot soldiers) set upon him, looting and plundering. Pharnabazus, the Persian governor of the province, refused to meet Agesilaus in battle, instead calling him to discussion of peace, which was secured by Apollophanes of Cyzicus (a mutual host). Agesilaus concluded that as Greece was an enemy of Persia, it was vindicated as behaving as an enemy. Pharnabazus responded in saying that he was obliged to continue service to his King so long as that King remained true to him. The two shook hands and departed.

Many regions now defected from Persia either in anticipation of new opportunities or fear of the martial Greeks. Agesilaus was poised to invade the heart of Persia and threaten the Great King, all the while seated upon his throne in Susa. He began formulating strategies, but was interrupted when Epicydidas summoned him home for the protection of Sparta. Xerxes had bribed the states of Athens and Thebes to rise in opposition (Agesilaus’ statement that a thousand Persian archers prevented his conquest being a reference to the insignia stamped upon the coins used to effect the bribe). Exhibiting enormous obedience he returned, fighting occasionally, threatening more frequently but mostly passing through Greek lands uninhibited.

The Ephor Diphridas met him en route to Sparta and conveyed the order to make immediate advances toward Beoetian territory. Again, despite his misgivings over the conditions and strength with which he invaded Thebes (including a portentous solar eclipse), he obeyed, sending for two Corinthian divisions to supplement his force. The battle against the Thebans and their allies was fierce and Agesilaus was wounded several times despite the heroic efforts of his bodyguard. The battle ended in a dubious stalemate, the Thebans marching to Helicon. Agesilaus had his soldiers issue another challenge to confrontation, but the Thebans merely asked for leave to retrieve their dead. Agesilaus granted it and conflict with the Thebans ceased for the time being, although he maintained a great aversion to it, even during his campaigns in Greece.

When Persia began to extend direct activity into Greece under Pharnabazus (the deployment of its navy being considered the foremost act of aggression), Sparta attempted to secure a peace treaty. The treaty, secured by Antalcidus, effectively betrayed the Asiatic Greek cities, in whose name the previous campaign had been in benefit of, leading many to claim that Sparta was subjecting itself as a vassal to Persia. When the Persian monarch wrote in offer of ‘private’ as well as ‘public’ friendship, Agesilaus responded by saying that while the latter lasted, the former was unnecessary, although he broke the terms of the peace treaty when he sent a force of 800 Spartan soldiers to occupy the Cadmea, the fortress in the heart of Thebes. Later conflict with Thebes brought Agesilaus close to disgrace, as it was broadly known that his actions were based on personal hatred, rather than sound political strategy. Agesilaus suffered from swelling and inflammation of his leg and was unable to take the field for a long time, during which Thebes consolidated its power and dealt several minor losses to Sparta. Conflict came to a head at the Battle of Leuctra, wherein the Thebans overcame a larger Spartan force (led by the other Spartan King, Cleombrotus, who was slain) and so ruined Spartan hegemony in Greece forever.

Under Epaminondas, the Thebans marched into Laconia and enforced the liberation of the Messenian helot slaves upon whom (and upon whose fertile territory) the Spartan economy and military machine depended. Agesilaus resigned from all state military applications and, much to the horror of his countrymen, became (at the age of 80) a mercenary general in the service of Tachos of Egypt, refusing to sit idly by, despite his worsening condition. Agesilaus eventually died in 359 BC at the age of 84, having been King for 41 years. He was embalmed in honey and returned for burial in Sparta.


Agesilaus, Plutarch (translated by John Dryden)
Agesilaus, Xenophon (translated by H.G. Dakyns)
The World of Ancient Times, Carl Roebuck
Warfare in the Classical World, John Warry


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