Agesilaus II

Agesilaus II (444/443-359): king of Sparta (r.400-359).

Fifth-century hoplite
Fifth-century hoplite

Agesilaus was born in the Eurypontid family, one of the two royal dynasties of Sparta, in 444/443, as the second son of king Archidamus II (477-426). Agesilaus' elder half-brother was Agis II, whose reign started in 426 and lasted until 400.

Agis' normal successor would have been his son Leotychidas, but he was generally considered to be a child of Alcibiades, an Athenian adventurer who had stayed at Sparta as an exile. For some time, there was a lot of quarreling going on. Agesilaus objected to Leotychidas' reign, saying that he was a mere bastard; the prince replied by saying that there was an oracle that warned against a 'lame king' - and wasn't Agesilaus lame? The debate was concluded when Lysander, Sparta's best commander and a personal friend (and former lover) of Agesilaus, declared that the true meaning of the oracle had been that the 'lame king' was the king who was a bastard. So, in 400, Agesilaus was accepted as king by the Spartans.

Of course, the new king had to pay a prize. Lysander was the proponent of a militant and aggressive foreign policy, and from now on Agesilaus had to follow this policy too. In the year of his accession, he sent a general named Thibron to what is now Turkey in order to protect the Greek towns against oppression by the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. The expeditionary force consisted of some 5,000 members of the Spartan alliance, 300 Athenians, and the 6,000 surviving Greek mercenaries of the army that had been used by the Persian pretender Cyrus the Younger to attack his brother, king Artaxerxes II Mnemon. Extra power was added to Thibron's force by an alliance with Egypt, which had once been a Persian satrapy but had recently become independent under Amyrtaeus, a new pharaoh.

The size of the expeditionary force was considerable, but the army's movements were not well coordinated with that of the navy. Thibron and (after 399) his successor Dercyllidas wasted their time in Hellespontine Phrygia, fighting against the forces of satrap Pharnabazus. Finally, Dercyllidas' army moved to the south and invaded Caria, where it could have united with the Spartan navy and might have expelled the Persian navy from the Aegean, but now Pharnabazus and the satrap of Lydia, Tissaphernes, united their forces and lured the Spartans to the north. Shortly before the two armies joined battle, an armistice was concluded near Magnesia (397).

The two governments might have concluded a peace treaty on the terms agreed by Dercyllidas and Tissaphernes: Sparta would evacuate Asia, and Persia would recognize the independence of the Greek towns in Ionia. However, during the negotiations, the Persians continued to build a large navy in Phoenicia, and king Agesilaus concluded that the Persian peace offer was not seriously meant. (In fact, it is possible that the navy was to be directed against Egypt.) Now, Agesilaus decided to invade Asia personally. Lysander would be his assistant. They took 8,000 soldiers with him.

In the spring of 396, Agesilaus sacrificed at Aulis in Boeotia, praying for a safe crossing of the Aegean Sea. The site was well chosen: this was the place where, according to well-known legends, the Mycenaean king Agamemnon had once sacrificed before he went to Troy. Unfortunately, Agesilaus' sacrifice was soiled by the behavior of Boeotian cavalry men, and reinforcements that had been promised by Sparta's Greek allies did not turn up. The omens were bad.

Nevertheless, Agesilaus' campaign started successfully. He first sailed to Ephesus and concluded a truce with satrap Tissaphernes, which gave him a free hand to attack Pharnabazus. Lysander did the job. (Tissaphernes agreed to the truce because he expected reinforcements.)

The citadel of Sardes
The citadel of Sardes

In the winter of 396/395, Agesilaus recruited extra soldiers among the Ionian Greeks, and in the spring, he defeated Tissaphernes in the neighborhood of Sardes. The spoils were very large, and Tissaphernes was killed by one Tithraustes, who was sent as the new satrap of Caria and Ionia. He was a clever diplomat, who paid a large amount of money to Agesilaus, under the condition that he went back to the north and attacked Pharnabazus.

When Agesilaus was marching to the north again, he received new instructions from the Spartan government: he had to sail to and attack Caria -which was suffering from the change of satrap- and continue to the east, to Cilicia. This strategy made sense. It had been employed by the Athenians in the fifth century, and was a better way to expel the Persians from the Aegean region than fighting against the satraps of Hellespontine Phrygia and Caria/Ionia. Alexander the Great was to do the same thing in 333.

Unfortunately, Agesilaus was unable to do this. He raided the satrapy of Pharnabazus (as he had promised to Tithraustes) and acquired large spoils. But the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia did not come to terms, and therefore, the naval offensive had to be postponed. Agesilaus decided on a march to the interior of Asia along the Royal road. However, his progress was slow because he was unable to capture the towns - the Spartans were famous for their inability to conduct siege warfare. This gave the Persians opportunity to build up a new navy, and -even worse to the Spartan case- to find a capable admiral, the Athenian Conon.

In 395, Conon and the Persian navy captured Rhodes, which was to be their base for operations in the Aegean Sea. (A large grain fleet that Egypt had sent to Sparta was captured, because its admiral did not know of the capture of Rhodes.) Next year, Conon was ready to strike. But so was Agesilaus, who had by now reached Gordium. However, the summer of 395 had seen several risings against the Spartan hegemony in the mainland of Greece, especially in Boeotia. This forced the Spartan government to recall Agesilaus in the spring of 394.

We may speculate what would have happened if the Spartan hegemony in Greece had remained unchallenged. In that case, the situation would have been more or less identical to that of the year 333, when the Macedonian king Alexander the Great raided the interior of Asia and the Persian admiral Pharnabazus conducted operations in the Aegean Sea. The result was a Macedonian victory, and the same may have been true for Agesilaus. On the other hand, Alexander knew how to conduct a siege, something that the Spartan king did not.

However this may be, Agesilaus was forced to return to the Greek mainland -he carried 1,000 talents of loot with him- where he defeated the Boeotians on 14 August 394, near Coronea.

By now, the Corinthian War had started: Sparta had to fight against the Boeotians, Corinthians, Athenians, and the Persian navy. They had gathered at Corinth to invade the Peloponnese, but the Spartans had defeated the invaders in June or July. Agesilaus' victory at Coronea was a further Spartan success. Twenty-three years were to pass until a Greek army dared to oppose the Spartans.

In 392-390, Agesilaus was the most important Spartan general in an inconclusive war that concentrated on the region surrounding Corinth. In 389, he was fighting in Acarnania in the west, which he forced into surrender. However, the Spartans were unable to break their opponents' strength, and the enemy coalition was incapable of pushing back the Spartans. Both sides used mercenaries, which marked the beginning of a professionalisation of the conduct of war.

Meanwhile, Conon and the Persian navy were master of the Aegean Sea and ravaged the coasts of the Peloponnese. Persian gold sponsored Thebes and Corinth. The Spartans understood that Persia was their real enemy, and opened negotiations with Tiribazus, who had succeeded Tithraustes as satrap of Ionia and Caria. At a peace congress, the Spartan envoy Antalcidas suggested the cession of all Greek towns in Asia and requested the independence and autonomy of the Greek towns in Europe.

By now, Athens had become dangerous for the Persian king Artaxerxes: it had rebuilt parts of its empire and was threatening Cyprus. Besides, it had concluded an alliance with the Egyptian king Achoris. Therefore, the king agreed to Antalcidas' proposal. He was to side with Sparta for such time as Athens refused to sign a peace treaty. Antalcidas now seized the Athenian possessions near the Hellespont and a second Spartan fleet blockaded Athens. Ultimately, Athens gave in, and the King's Peace was concluded: all Greek towns were to be independent and autonomous, and the common peace was to be guaranteed by Sparta (387/386). In other words, the war-weary towns on the Greek mainland accepted Sparta as their leader, and the Greek towns in Asia were sacrificed to the great king.

For almost a decade, Greece remained more or less at peace. However, in the last week of 379, Thebes revolted and expelled its Spartan garrison. At Sparta, the conduct of the war was entrusted to Agesilaus. He took his task very seriously, improved the recruiting system of the Spartan army, and invaded Boeotia in the autumn of 378. However, he was unable to conduct a siege, the Thebans did not offer battle, and he was forced to return to Sparta, having looted the country. The same happened in 377. The garrisons that he left behind in Boeotia, were expelled one by one by the Thebans.

The Theban successes in Boeotia covered Athens, which reorganized its empire in the Second Athenian Confederacy. The Athenians were just as successful as the Thebans (377). When Athens had regained its former naval superiority, it concluded a peace treaty with Sparta, which grudgingly gave in to have its hands free in Boeotia (July 374).

In the summer of 371, the Spartan king Cleombrotus, Agesilaus' younger colleague, invaded Boeotia with a large army that was to settle all accounts. At Leuctra, it met the Theban army of Epaminondas, which was perhaps half the size of the Spartan army. However, the Thebans placed their troops at an angle with the Spartan troops, and were able to concentrate their forces on one section of the Spartan battle line. They broke through the Spartan lines, and their victory was complete. For the first time, the Spartans had been defeated by an army smaller than their own. Even worse, it had hardly any soldiers left, and the next decades it was to look for money to buy mercenaries

Immediately, the Spartan coalition began to disintegrate. The Spartans gave Agesilaus, now 73 or 74 years old, full powers to reform the constitution and strengthen the army, but he did not have the imagination to find new ways.

In the winter of 370/369, the Boeotians again did the impossible: they invaded the Peloponnese and attacked Sparta at home. The Spartan populace wanted to attack the army of Epaminondas, but Agesilaus convinced them that they were no match for the Thebans. However, he managed to defend Sparta itself - or so it seemed. Probably, Epaminondas knew that looting Sparta was unnecessary, because there was nothing to take away from this poor village. Meanwhile, Agesilaus renewed the peace treaty with Athens.

In 368, Sparta was really defeated - without a battle. This time, the Thebans managed to liberate the helots of Messenia, which had always been the work force of the Spartans. This meant the economic collapse of Sparta. Agesilaus sent envoys to Persia, but they did not obtain the money Sparta needed to buy mercenaries. On the contrary, the great king wanted the King's Peace to be renewed, with Thebes as supreme Greek power. To Athens and Sparta, this was unacceptable.

Agesilaus now started a career as a mercenary leader. In 367, he joined forces with Ariobarzanes, a satrap revolting against the great king. In this way, he hoped to earn the money Sparta needed. He was not unsuccessful, and when the Thebans again invaded the Peloponnese in 362, he managed to prevent the capture of Sparta. However, when the Spartans and Athenians attacked the Theban expeditionary force at Mantinea, they were defeated.

The result was a stalemate, because the Theban leader Epaminondas died in action. In the winter, a League of Greek City-States was formed, which swore to observe a general peace. Unfortunately, Sparta was unable to join. It could not accept the loss of Messenia and would try to force its inhabitants back into servitude.

However, it lacked the financial means to reorganize its army. Therefore, Agesilaus again became a mercenary leader, this time siding with the Egyptian king Teos, who was preparing an attack on the Persian territories in Syria. However, when his expeditionary force had reached Phoenicia, news arrived that Teos' brother Tjahapimu, the governor of Egypt, had revolted and had offered the throne to Nectanebo II (360). Almost immediately, Agesilaus sided with the new pharaoh.

One of the problems the new king had to cope with, was another would-be king at Mendes in the eastern Delta, but the mercenaries of Agesilaus made quick work of him. It was the last victory of the old man. Nectanebo no longer needed him, and sent him back with a bonus of 250 talents. When Agesilaus reached Cyrene, he fell ill and died. Nectanebo kindly ordered that the corpse would be royally embalmed before it would be sent to Sparta.

This was the end of Agesilaus. He had been a courageous and disciplined soldier, whose bad fortune it was that he had survived the era in which courage and discipline were the road to success. In the fourth century, generals had to be more creative, and this was precisely the quality he was lacking. Agesilaus also lacked the imagination to reform the Spartan constitution after the defeat at Leuctra. In spite of his personal courage, he was the wrong man to lead Sparta after 371.


This page was created in 1999; last modified on 1 August 2019.