Agesilaus: Sparta's greatest king or the man who presided over her fall from grace?

cachibatches

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,355
Greetings all,

Just finished Xenophon's essay on King Agesilaus, and it is quite a contrast to Plutarch's, and even to some extent Xenophon's more realistic portrayal in the Hellenica.

Both agree that the man was of exemplary courage, intelligence, and moral character. Both attest to the fact he was the the first who took the struggle with the Persians into Persian territory, and both describe his great success at almost being the avenger of the Greeks.

The differance is in his portrayal of his return to Greece and the struggle with the Thebians. Xenophon portrays it as a heroic example of his own temperance: he was willing to abandon his own glory for the sake of setting things right in his homeland after Leuctra.

Plutarch. however, paints it a darker shade. Though Cleombrotus presided over the defeat at Leuctra, Plutarch does assign some sort of responsibility to Agesilaus as the senior king, and goes on to describe how Agesilaus was the first king to corrupt Spartan morals by pardoning those who ran at the battle. And whether it was his direct fault or not, Agesilaus was the first king under which is could no longer be said that "Spartan women have never seen the fires of an enemy camp."

Both give the man a pass for his later years, in which he went about selling his skills to earn money for the Spartan state, although Plutarch does give it a more odius air. Tellingly, Plutarch contrasts Agesilaus with Pompey Magnus, as someone who would have been remebered as the greatest of his nation except that he had a great fall very late in his career.

So, what says Historum? Was he the first avenger of the Greeks and the man who saved Sparta, or the man who presided over its defeat and moral decline?
 
Last edited:
Nov 2011
1,120
The Bluff
Such a pity this seems to have been ignored. Not a lot of time at present but thought to give it a push along. It is a question which tends to place people into two camps: Agesilaos and the decline of Sparta; Agesilaos the great Spartan king and Greek hero. As always, he is neither and he is both.

What must always bee remembered is that much of the information we receive is from Xenophon, the exiled Athenian much enamoured the Spartan king. Xenophon was settled in retirement at Skyllous by the Spartans, an idyl rudely interrupted by the defeat at Leuktra and subsequent Theban incursions into the Peloponnese. Xenophon had very, very little time for the Thebans.

Agesilaos was pan-Helleic, a view shared by Xenophon who joined him in Asia post the anabasis of the 10,000. Agesilaos was an imperialist and made few bones about it. Under the "Peace of Antilkidas" (the King's Peace), Sparta, Persia's ally, became Persia's anointed "cop". As prostates, Sparta enforced the koine eirine and Agesilaos interpreted its clauses; specifically the autonomia under the peace. He used this a tool for the entrenching of Spartan power and for the dismantling of opposition. Thus he called for the "freeing" of the Boiotians from Thebes (the Boiotian League). The irony, if not lost on Agesilaos, certainly seems to be so for Xenophon.

Whatever else may be said of Agesilaos, he most assuredly drove the conflict between Sparta and Thebes. In the post Peloponnesian war period Thebes, along with Corinth, was the major "nose out joint" ally. Thebes also held central Greece under its League. Its defeat and removal from the board would leave Sparta a free hand north of the Isthmus and into central Greece. It's not hard to grasp Agesialos' thinking. In the end, when push came to shove, he excused himself from the campaign that would see Sparta defeated.

Agesilaos' reign saw Sparta rise and fall. If Thebes was the cause of that fall then Agesilaos has as much if not more to do with her involvement with Thebes as anyone. His pan-Hellenic pretensions were grandiose (his sacrifice al la Agamemnon before departing for war in Asia) but his actions did not back them up. He alternatley made peace with one or the other satrap while proclaiming he'd march all the way up country to Susa. Xenophon would have it that he was only stymied by Persia buying off the mainland Greeks to go to war. The Oxyrhynchus historian puts paid to that: those Greeks were already at war with Sparta when the finance was tendered. As well, the King had a fleet at sea which would destroy Sparta's naval dominance at Knidos.