Agesilaus II, King of Sparta

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Agesilaus and Pharnabazus

Agesilaus was the younger son of Archidamus, one of the two kings of Sparta. His mother was called Eupolia. After Archidamus died Agesilaus’ older brother, Agis, succeeded him as one of the kings. Because Agesilaus was not expected to become king, he went through the same austere training as other Spartan boys.

Agis would normally have been succeeded by his son, Leotychidas. However, there was some doubt about whether Leotychidas was actually Agis’ son since Agis himself only acknowledged him on his deathbed (399 BC). According to gossip, the Athenian general Alcibiades, who had been in Sparta at the right time, was Leotychidas’ biological father. The controversy was complicated by an oracle that a lame kingship would be disastrous for Sparta – and Agesilaus was lame.

Agesilaus did have the support, however, of Lysander, the Spartan general who had defeated Athens (404), thus putting an end to a long drawn-out war and establishing Sparta as the undisputed leading city-state of Greece. Lysander argued that the lame kingship in the oracle referred to Leotychidas’ illegitimacy rather than Agesilaus’ lameness. This argument was accepted by the Spartans, and so Agesilaus became king.

Soon after his accession, Agesilaus was persuaded by Lysander to undertake an expedition to Asia (now Western Turkey), where the Persians were trying to re-assert their authority (396). The Spartan expedition set sail from Aulis – the same departure point as Agamemnon had used in his expedition against Troy. When Agesilaus wanted to perform a sacrifice to the gods before leaving, the Boeotians disrupted the ceremony, throwing the sacrificial victim’s thighs off the altar, on the grounds that only they were permitted to sacrifice there. Agesilaus never forgave the Thebans.

When Agesilaus reached Ephesus, he found that Lysander was highly regarded by some and greatly feared by others. Agesilaus himself, the king, was very casually treated in comparison despite his nominal superiority. He at once set about making his superior position a reality by turning down all requests and plans he knew Lysander had a hand in and favouring anyone who Lysander was against. Relations between the two deteriorated until Lysander’s death in Boeotia the next year.

Although Tissaphernes, the satrap of Persia, seemed to be willing to assist the Spartans, and promised to detach the Greek cities of Asia from the Persian empire, this was just a ruse while he built up his forces. Agesilaus replied with another ruse, pretending that he was going to attack Caria, until Tissaphernes gathered his troops there, at which point Agesilaus’ real target, Phrygia, became apparent.

Forced to withdraw from Phrygia with a great deal of booty because of his lack of cavalry, Agesilaus returned to Ephesus and set about forming a cavalry force during the winter, when campaigning usually stopped. The next year (395), he gave out that he was planning an attack on Lydia. Tissaphernes was afraid of another trap, and again collected his troops in Caria. Unfortunately, this time Agesilaus had been telling the truth. After marching from Caria, Tissaphernes was defeated by Agesilaus near Sardis, and then executed on the Persian king’s orders.

Agesilaus then received a commission from Sparta to take over command of the fleet as well. He appointed Pisander, his brother-in-law as admiral and planned to march against Pharnabazus, satrap of Phrygia. In an attempt to get rid of Agesilaus, Pharnabazus had been encouraging the Greek cities to launch an joint attack against Sparta. Lysander was unable to bring Pharnabazus to a pitched battle, and started moving inland against the Persian royal cities of Ecbatana and Susa. (394).

It was at this point that Agesilaus was recalled by Sparta to take command in the war Pharnabazus had successfully stirred up. On his overland march through Greece from the Hellespont, he received orders to invade Boeotia. At Coronea he met the combined Boeotian-Argive army. Agesilaus was wounded in the battle that ensued, but the Spartans won. The historian Xenophon, who was there fighting under Agesilaus, says that there was no other battle of his day like it (Agesilaus II.9). After the battle some of the Theban forces sought sanctuary in a nearby temple of Athena. Although urged to do so, Agesilaus refused to violate sanctuary by attacking them and granted them safe conduct to leave.

When Agesilaus arrived back in Sparta after the battle of Coronea (394), he gained in popularity by quickly settling back into the Spartan way of life rather than adopting any foreign mannerisms. He did persuade his sister Cynisca to enter a team for the chariot race in the Olympics, the first time a woman had done so – and she won. Agesilaus said that this proved that anyone could win in the Olympics if they had enough money.

He also set about increasing his power and influence in Sparta by appointing his opponents to positions they were unsuited to, and then coming to their defence when they were put on trial, thus winning them over to become his supporters. He also won over the other king of Sparta, Agesipolis, by helping him with his love life.

Agesilaus launched an expedition against Corinth, which was under Argive control (391). He arrived in Corinth at the time of the Isthmian games, which he allowed the Corinthians to celebrate under his protection. When he withdrew his forces, however, the Argives regained control of Corinth and repeated the games. Some of the athletes won again, but others won first time round but not in the repeat games.

While he was in Corinth Agesilaus received news of a major defeat of a Spartan division by Athenian forces under Iphicrates. Agesilaus collected the survivors and took them back with him to Sparta in a series of night marches (390).

The Spartan fleet under Pisander, Agesilaus’ brother-in-law, had been defeated by a combined Persian-Athenian fleet, and Pharnabazus continued to stir up trouble for the Spartans by helping the Athenians re-fortify their city. Since their coastal districts were vulnerable to naval raids, the Spartans decided to make peace with the Persian king and sent Antalcides, a political opponent of Agesilaus to make peace with Persia (386). Antalcides was very eager for a peace to be concluded because he felt that war benefited Agesilaus. Under the terms of the peace, the Greek cities in Asia were handed back to the Persians, and all Greek cities in Greece proper were declared independent of each other, a move that was directed against the Thebans who would lose their control over the other cities in Boeotia.

In 382, Phoebidas, a Spartan commander with troops on their way to Thrace, took advantage of an invitation from some Theban discontents to seize control of the Cadmeia, the Theban citadel. It was suspected that Phoebidas was acting under Agesilaus’ instructions. Certainly, Agesilaus fully supported Phoebidas after the fact. When the Thebans revolted against the Spartan-supported regime and drove out the Spartan garrison, Agesilaus declared war against Thebes (379).

Inspired by Phoebidas’ example, another Spartan called Sphodrias, one of Agesilaus’ political opponents, attempted a surprise night-time attack on the Piraeus in an attempt to cut off Athenian access to the sea, but dawn found him still en route for the Piraeus, and so, after raiding the countryside, he retreated back to Thespiae on the Boeotian-Athenian border. The Athenians sent a delegation to Sparta to protest, but when the delegation got there, they found that Sphodrias had already been indicted. However, Sphodrias’ son was Agesilaus’ son’s lover, and family feeling overruled political disagreement and international outrage, and Sphodrias was acquitted.

Agesilaus decided that Cleombrotus, now the other Spartan king, was not pursuing the war against Thebes vigorously enough and took to the field himself (378). The Thebans were learning from their frequent wars against Sparta, and so the war did not go as well as Agesilaus hoped. While on campaign, Agesilaus seems to have suffered from a blood clot in his leg, and lost a lot of blood when the doctors tried to relieve his symptoms by bleeding him (377). He was taken back to Sparta and was unable to undertake military expeditions for a long time.

While Agesilaus was out of action, Sparta suffered serious defeats from the Thebans. A peace conference was held at Sparta, with delegates from all over Greece (371). There was a major row between Agesilaus and the leader of the Theban delegation, Epaminondas, which resulted in Agesilaus dismissing the rest of the delegates and declaring war on Thebes again. Cleombrotus, who was in Phocis at the time, led his forces to attack Thebes. The Spartans suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of Leuctra, with the loss of a thousand men. Sparta’s time as a major military power was over, and Theban ascendancy began.

When the news of Leuctra reached Sparta (371), the relatives of the fallen were full of pride while the relatives of the survivors behaved as if they were in mourning. The survivors were in grave danger of being declared cowards and subject to various legal and social penalties. However, Agesilaus declared that the laws should be suspended for one day so that the survivors would not have to stand trial. Morale in Sparta was very low and many remembered the oracle about the lame king. However, Agesilaus was still popular and the Spartans continued to trust him as a leader in war and in international relations. To help restore confidence, Agesilaus led an expedition into Arcadia, where the Spartans captured a small town (370).

In the winter of 370-369, however, Epaminondas led an invasion of Spartan territory reaching the outskirts of Sparta itself. The Thebans were unable to dislodge Agesilaus from his defensive position in the centre of the city and proceeded to lay waste the countryside. Within Sparta itself there was an attempted coup, and the insurgents took control of a easily defensible spot called the Issorium. Agesilaus persuaded the majority of those involved to disband and take up positions elsewhere. Then he arrested the ringleaders and put them to death.

Eventually the Thebans left and went back to Boeotia (369), although it is not clear why. One explanation given is that the weather turned nasty. Plutarch quotes a writer called Theopompus, who said that Agesilaus bribed the Thebans into leaving (Agesilaus 32). However, the Spartans had lost control of the territory of Messene, which had financially underpinned their whole way of life. Agesilaus refused to accept this loss and so continued the war against Thebes.

The Spartans sent an army to the aid of Mantinea, which was rebelling against the Thebans (362). While the Spartans under Agesilaus were on their way to Mantinea, Epaminondas and the Thebans marched against Sparta. Agesilaus was warned of what was happening and hastily returned to Sparta, where he fought off the Thebans. Two days later the Spartans and Thebans fought again at Mantinea, and in this battle Epaminondas was killed. A peace conference was held, but Agesilaus and the Spartans still refused to recognise Messenian independence, and so the war continued.

Sparta was getting seriously short of funds, and so, even though he was now over 80, Agesilaus hired himself out as a military commander to Tachos of Egypt, who was rebelling against Artaxerxes of Persia (361). Agesilaus was expecting to be put in command of the whole army, but in fact he was only put in charge of the mercenaries. Tachos’ cousin, Nectanebis was planning a coup against Tachos. Both sides sent delegations to Sparta asking for help, but the Spartans left the question of which to support to discretion of Agesilaus as the man on the spot. He duly switched sides and joined Nectanebis. Tachos fled and took refuge with Artaxerxes.

However, Necatanebis’ hold over Egypt was not secure, and another claimant for the throne rose up in Mendes. The Mendesian made approaches to Agesilaus with the result that Nectanebis grew suspicious. Agesilaus stayed with Nectanebis and after being besieged by the enemy, he defeated them. Agesilaus decided that his work in Egypt was finished and wanted to return to Sparta. He died on the way home at the age of 83 (359), and his body was transported back to Sparta embalmed in wax. He was succeeded as king by his son, Archidamus.

When the news reached Sparta, the relatives of the fallen were full of pride while the relatives of the survivors behaved as if they were in mourning. The survivors were in grave danger of being declared cowards and subject to various legal and social penalties. However, Agesilaus declared that the laws should be suspended for one day so that the survivors would not have to stand trial. Morale in Sparta was very low and many remembered the oracle about the lame king. However, Agesilaus was still popular and the Spartans continued to trust him as a leader in war and in international relations. To help restore confidence, Agesilaus led an expedition into Arcadia, where the Spartans captured a small town (370).

In the winter of 370-369, however, Epaminondas led an invasion of Spartan territory reaching the outskirts of Sparta itself. The Thebans were unable to dislodge Agesilaus from his defensive position in the centre of the city and proceeded to lay waste the countryside. Within Sparta itself there was an attempted coup, and the insurgents took control of a easily defensible spot called the Issorium. Agesilaus persuaded the majority of those involved to disband and take up positions elsewhere. Then he arrested the ringleaders and put them to death.

Eventually the Thebans left and went back to Boeotia (369), although it is not clear why. One explanation given is that the weather turned nasty. Plutarch quotes a writer called Theopompus, who said that Agesilaus bribed the Thebans into leaving (Agesilaus 32). However, the Spartans had lost control of the territory of Messene, which had financially underpinned their whole way of life. Agesilaus refused to accept this loss and so continued the war against Thebes.

The Spartans sent an army to the aid of Mantinea, which was rebelling against the Thebans (362). While the Spartans under Agesilaus were on their way to Mantinea, Epaminondas and the Thebans marched against Sparta. Agesilaus was warned of what was happening and hastily returned to Sparta, where he fought off the Thebans. Two days later the Spartans and Thebans fought again at Mantinea, and in this battle Epaminondas was killed. A peace conference was held, but Agesilaus and the Spartans still refused to recognise Messenian independence, and so the war continued.

Sparta was getting seriously short of funds, and so, even though he was now over 80, Agesilaus hired himself out as a military commander to Tachos of Egypt, who was rebelling against Artaxerxes of Persia (361). Agesilaus was expecting to be put in command of the whole army, but in fact he was only put in charge of the mercenaries. Tachos’ cousin, Nectanebis was planning a coup against Tachos. Both sides sent delegations to Sparta asking for help, but the Spartans left the question of which to support to discretion of Agesilaus as the man on the spot. He duly switched sides and joined Nectanebis. Tachos fled and took refuge with Artaxerxes.

However, Necatanebis’ hold over Egypt was not secure, and another claimant for the throne rose up in Mendes. The Mendesian made approaches to Agesilaus with the result that Nectanebis grew suspicious. Agesilaus stayed with Nectanebis and after being besieged by the enemy, he defeated them. Agesilaus decided that his work in Egypt was finished and wanted to return to Sparta. He died on the way home at the age of 83 (359), and his body was transported back to Sparta embalmed in wax. He was succeeded as king by his son, Archidamus.

When the news reached Sparta, the relatives of the fallen were full of pride while the relatives of the survivors behaved as if they were in mourning. The survivors were in grave danger of being declared cowards and subject to various legal and social penalties. However, Agesilaus declared that the laws should be suspended for one day so that the survivors would not have to stand trial. Morale in Sparta was very low and many remembered the oracle about the lame king. However, Agesilaus was still popular and the Spartans continued to trust him as a leader in war and in international relations. To help restore confidence, Agesilaus led an expedition into Arcadia, where the Spartans captured a small town (370).

In the winter of 370-369, however, Epaminondas led an invasion of Spartan territory reaching the outskirts of Sparta itself. The Thebans were unable to dislodge Agesilaus from his defensive position in the centre of the city and proceeded to lay waste the countryside. Within Sparta itself there was an attempted coup, and the insurgents took control of a easily defensible spot called the Issorium. Agesilaus persuaded the majority of those involved to disband and take up positions elsewhere. Then he arrested the ringleaders and put them to death.

Eventually the Thebans left and went back to Boeotia (369), although it is not clear why. One explanation given is that the weather turned nasty. Plutarch quotes a writer called Theopompus, who said that Agesilaus bribed the Thebans into leaving (Agesilaus 32). However, the Spartans had lost control of the territory of Messene, which had financially underpinned their whole way of life. Agesilaus refused to accept this loss and so continued the war against Thebes.

The Spartans sent an army to the aid of Mantinea, which was rebelling against the Thebans (362). While the Spartans under Agesilaus were on their way to Mantinea, Epaminondas and the Thebans marched against Sparta. Agesilaus was warned of what was happening and hastily returned to Sparta, where he fought off the Thebans. Two days later the Spartans and Thebans fought again at Mantinea, and in this battle Epaminondas was killed. A peace conference was held, but Agesilaus and the Spartans still refused to recognise Messenian independence, and so the war continued.

Sparta was getting seriously short of funds, and so, even though he was now over 80, Agesilaus hired himself out as a military commander to Tachos of Egypt, who was rebelling against Artaxerxes of Persia (361). Agesilaus was expecting to be put in command of the whole army, but in fact he was only put in charge of the mercenaries. Tachos’ cousin, Nectanebis was planning a coup against Tachos. Both sides sent delegations to Sparta asking for help, but the Spartans left the question of which to support to discretion of Agesilaus as the man on the spot. He duly switched sides and joined Nectanebis. Tachos fled and took refuge with Artaxerxes.

However, Necatanebis’ hold over Egypt was not secure, and another claimant for the throne rose up in Mendes. The Mendesian made approaches to Agesilaus with the result that Nectanebis grew suspicious. Agesilaus stayed with Nectanebis and after being besieged by the enemy, he defeated them. Agesilaus decided that his work in Egypt was finished and wanted to return to Sparta. He died on the way home at the age of 83 (359), and his body was transported back to Sparta embalmed in wax. He was succeeded as king by his son, Archidamus.