When the Eurypontid Agesilaus II became king in 400 B.C.E., thanks to Lysander’s machinations, he could not have foreseen the complete ruin of Spartan power that would occur during his lifetime. In the space of some thirty years, his city went from being the undisputed power in the Aegean to lacking even the ability to control the most prized part of its own territory. Agesilaus’ role in the process has been debated since antiquity. The subject of a hagiographical biography by his friend and supporter Xenophon and a more nuanced one by the Boeotian Plutarch, Agesilaus has few advocates among historians today. But it is doubtful whether any single individual would have been able to keep Sparta in the position it held in 400, and certainly not one lacking all Lysander’s dark talents. Agesilaus was far from a second Lysander, though not since Cleomenes had a king been so in control of the domestic political scene as Agesilaus was throughout his reign. Agesilaus, however, lacked his Agiad predecessor’s ability to translate dominance at home into coherent foreign policy and flexibility in realizing its goals.
Agesilaus was about forty years old when he succeeded Agis (Xen. Hell. 5.4.13) and, because he was not the heir apparent, had gone through the state-run citizen training (Plut. Ages. 1.2–4). This experience was supposed to have given him a feeling for the common man, but it also might have fixed in him a rigid conception of what was proper for Sparta. He was also congenitally lame in one leg; the disability did not bar him from the training, in which he did rather well (Plut. Ages. 2.2–3). The first recorded event of Agesilaus’ reign was the discovery of Cinadon’s conspiracy, foreshadowed by an omen while the new king was sacrificing (Xen. Hell. 3.3.4). The ephors’ swift and ruthless suppression of it may have influenced his own actions when faced with other serious conspiracies in 369 (Plut. Ages. 32.6–11). But the most important event of his early reign was his crossing over to Asia Minor at the head of an army of 10,000, a surge of troops intended to bring Sparta’s war against the Persians to a successful conclusion.
Agesilaus’ two years in Asia Minor (396–394 B.C.E.) hinted at the shape of things to come. Efficiently showing Lysander who was now in charge, Agesilaus sidelined him. But, despite vague plans to march into the heart of the Persian Empire (Xen. Ages. 1.36; Hell. 4.1.41; Plut. Ages. 15.1), he made no lasting gains. Certainly, he defeated Persian forces several times, once penetrating as far east as Paphlagonia (Xen. Hell. 4.1.3). He achieved enough against Tissaphernes, Sparta’s old (and undependable) ally, for the Great King to have his underling executed and replaced (Xen. Hell. 3.4.25), but captured no significant enemy strongholds and adapted little to new methods of warfare, contenting himself with ravaging the countryside. Agesilaus’ traditional Spartan disdain for the sea moreover proved fatal, resulting in the defection of the strategic island of Rhodes in 396 to Conon at the head of a Phoenician fleet (Diod. Sic. 14.79.4–8), while his neglect of the threat the Thebans posed to his rear eventually resulted in his recall well before he had accomplished his mission. Relations between Thebes and Sparta had been steadily worsening for several years. The Thebans’ open support for Thrasybulus and his insurgents during the rule of the Thirty in Athens had not helped. In the Aulis incident, the Thebans showed their disdain for Agesilaus’ panhellenic pretensions, and their defeat of Lysander’s army by Haliartus in 395 brought their split with Sparta out into the open, gaining them eager allies. The situation in Greece was rapidly deteriorating.
Laden with booty, Agesilaus returned via the northern land route (Xen. Ages. 2.1; Hell. 4.3.1). At Amphipolis, he received good news of a Spartan victory at the Battle of the Nemea River (Xen. Hell. 3.1) and later battled his way through a now-hostile Thessaly, where he inflicted a defeat on its renowned cavalry (Xen. Ages. 2.2–4; Hell. 4.3–8), to the borders of Boeotia. Agesilaus’ next battle, at Coronea in August 394, was another welcome victory, especially since news of Conon’s destruction of the fleet off Cnidus arrived just before the battle (Xen. Hell. 4.3.10, 15–21). Leaving a huge tithe to Apollo at Delphi, Agesilaus, though wounded, crossed over the Corinthian Gulf with his haul from Asia Minor but left insufficient forces behind to re-establish Spartan control over central Greece. He spent the next years campaigning in the Corinthia. Spartan successes such as the capture of Lechaeum harbor, Piraeum on the Perachora peninsula, and the destruction of Corinth’s Long Walls (Xen. Hell. 4.4.7–13, 5.1–6) were tempered by the shredding of a regiment (mora) of Lacedaemonian hoplites by Athenian light-armed troops near Lechaeum in 390 (Xen. Hell. 4.5.11–17). The next year saw Agesilaus in western Greece, supporting the Achaean stronghold of Calydon against the local Acarnanians. The results were similar to those of his Asia Minor campaign, and his withdrawal after several months of fighting left the Achaeans dissatisfied. Still, the mere threat of his return in 388 was enough to induce the Acarnanians to join the Peloponnesian League (Xen. Hell. 4.6–7.1).
When the Corinthian War sputtered to an end in 387/6 on the heels of an Athenian defeat at the Hellespont (Xen. Hell. 5.1.25–9), the Spartans held the whip hand at the conference to ratify the peace deal dictated by the Persian King Artaxerxes. The King decided that all Greek cities in Asia Minor should belong to him and that all other cities, except only the Athenian possessions of Lemnos, Imbros, and Scyros, should be autonomous (Xen. Hell. 5.1.31). The King’s Peace, as it is called, suited the interests of Sparta and of Agesilaus, who perhaps saw an opportunity to recover Sparta’s old supremacy in the Peloponnese and to re-establish what he saw as its traditional hegemony in mainland Greece. With Persian support, Sparta now acted as the Peace’s self-appointed policeman, broadly interpreting the autonomy clause to justify intervention in any state on nearly any pretext. Agesilaus enforced the provisions of the Peace by using the threat of armed force to break up the Boeotian League (Xen. Hell. 5.1.33). This action was, on the surface, justifiable, but not the destruction of Mantinea in Arcadia, for which Agesilaus was morally, if not materially, responsible.
Relations between Sparta and Mantinea were rocky at the time: although a member of the Peloponnesian League, Mantinea was a democracy in 385 and was cozying up to Argos. Mantineans had been reluctant to send troops during the recent war (Xen. Hell. 5.1.1–2). Indicative of the tension was that Agesilaus preferred to bring his army home through Mantinean territory at night after the Lechaeum disaster rather than risk the locals’ ridicule by marching in daylight (Xen. Hell. 4.5.18). The new Peace now afforded Sparta the chance to settle this score, so envoys were sent to demand that the Mantineans pull down their walls. They refused; Sparta declared war (Xen. Hell. 5.2.3). Despite his personal involvement, Agesilaus begged off the command with the flimsy excuse that the Mantineans had provided signal service to his father Archidamus during the helot revolt of 465/4 B.C.E. Instead, his co-king Agesipolis did the unwelcome job well and with little loss of Spartan life. Realizing that he could not take the city by traditional methods like circumvallation and ravaging of the land, since the Mantineans possessed a large store of grain, he made the river Ophis flood so that the city’s mudbrick walls began to dissolve, which quickly motivated the Mantineans to surrender. The Spartans then wiped the city from the map, demolishing its walls and breaking it up into its constituent villages in a sort of reverse synoecism. Leading pro-Argive politicians were allowed to go into exile, the government was turned over to aristocratic landowners, and Sparta was rid of a nuisance (Xen. Hell. 5.2.4–7).
Watching Mantinea’s fate with interest was a group of exiles from Phlius, who now decided to use the Spartans’ policy of scrutinizing their allies’ past behavior to their advantage. In 384, they pleaded their case before the Spartans, who pressured the Phlians to restore them and their property (Xen. Hell. 5.2.8–10). After three years, however, settling the returned exiles’ property claims caused so much friction that they again approached the Spartans for help. This unauthorized request for foreign intervention prompted a large fine from the Phlians. Agesilaus had all the excuse he needed. The ephors duly mobilized the troops and, despite opposition at home to antagonizing groundlessly a city with several times the population of Sparta, Agesilaus invaded Phlian territory and settled down for a siege (Xen. Hell. 5.3.10–16). By strictly rationing their food supply, the Phleians held out for much longer than expected. In fact, with Agesilaus devising no creative solutions to resolve it, the siege dragged on for twenty months, until the Phlians sued for peace directly to the authorities at Sparta. Petulant at this disregard for his powers as a king in the field, Agesilaus used his domestic supporters to block any deal and ensured that all decisions about Phlius’ fate should be his alone. Armed with the ephors’ authorization, he imposed a settlement eerily reminiscent of Lysander’s for Athens – a commission of one hundred Spartan sympathizers empowered to draw up a new constitution and to execute anyone it wanted (Xen. Hell. 5.3.21–5).
Agesilaus’ disdain for legality and public opinion is still better illustrated in a episode that has remained notorious since the fourth century. Two Spartan armies had been sent out in 382 in response to a request by northern Greek cities for protection against the expansionist designs of the city of Olynthus on the Chalcidic peninsula. The smaller advance force arrived quickly and began operations in Thrace, but one Phoebidas, who commanded the main body of troops that set out later, had other ideas. He diverged from the route through Boeotia and encamped outside Thebes, which was split, as were many cities, into rival pro- and anti-Spartan factions. The dominant anti-Spartans had just passed a provocative law forbidding Thebans from fighting with the Spartans against Olynthus. Aided by a leading member of the pro- Spartan faction, Phoebidas seized the Cadmea, the city’s acropolis, when all the Theban women were congregated there to celebrate a religious festival. With their women held hostage, the Thebans surrendered, hundreds of anti-Spartans fled, and a Spartan garrison was imposed on the city (Xen. Hell. 5.2.25–31; Diod. Sic. 15.20.2). But when Leontiades, the Theban quisling who had betrayed his city to the Spartans, arrived in Lacedaemon to bring the good news, he was met with an unexpected storm of criticism from the ephors and most of the populace, who roundly condemned Phoebidas for his unauthorized action. The exception was, unsurprisingly, Agesilaus, who publicly articulated his policy: expediency was the only factor that counted in foreign relations (Xen. Hell. 5.2.32). The king’s words had an effect, for though they imposed a huge fine on Phoebidas (perhaps paid by Agesilaus himself), the Spartans did not withdraw the garrison (Xen. Hell. 5.2.35; Diod. Sic. 15.20.2). Greek public opinion was shocked (Diod. Sic. 15.20.2), while the reception of Leontiades shows how ambivalent many Spartans were becoming about Agesilaus’ aggressive “Sparta first” policy. Agesilaus had again allowed his simmering resentment of Thebes to shape his judgement. His hostility was so well known that it was thought, not without reason, that Phoebidas had acted under secret instructions from the king himself (Plut. Ages. 24.1; Diod. Sic. 15.20.2).
On the northern front, the massive defeat of a Spartan army in 381 under Teleutias, Agesilaus’ half-brother, had been followed by successful campaigns under Agesipolis and, after his death of fever, his successor Polybiades, who brought the Olynthians to heel in 379 and enrolled them as subordinate allies in the Peloponnesian League (Xen. Hell. 5.2.37–3.12, 18–20, 26–7). With the north pacified, trouble broke out in 378 in the most expected of places, Thebes. In a daring, well-planned plot, democratic conspirators assassinated the ruling three-man junta and, supported by Athenian troops, expelled the Spartan garrison. A bloodbath ensued as the Theban people vented their anger against their oppressors, killing any of the pro-Spartans they could find and murdering their children (Xen. Hell. 5.4.2–14). The ephors’ response upon learning the news was to call out the guard, though it was midwinter (Xen. Hell. 5.4.13–14). Agesilaus, whose ham-fisted approach to Thebes had been largely responsible for the dire situation, begged off on grounds of age: being over sixty, he was no longer eligible for conscription. Even Xenophon, normally careful to skate around overt criticism of his hero, found this specious, preferring instead to believe that Agesilaus did not want to be seen showing support for tyrants (Xen. Hell. 5.4.13). Instead, Cleombrotus, who had just succeeded his brother as Agiad king, dutifully led an army into Boeotia, his first field command. The campaign was perfunctory, to say the least, with little fighting and no attempt at all to capture Thebes. After about a fortnight outside Thebes, perhaps awaiting a diplomatic response, Cleombrotus withdrew his forces, leaving Sphodrias as harmost at Thespiae along with some of the allied troops. Because of the two kings’ starkly different approaches, Spartan war policy was in such disarray that ordinary soldiers were unsure whether or not they were actually at war with Thebes (Xen. Hell. 5.4.14–18).
The harvest of Agesilaus’ misbegotten Theban policy was beginning to ripen. The Thebans declared themselves a democracy, rapidly revived the Boeotian League along democratic lines, and prepared for the expected Spartan reaction (Diod. Sic. 15.28.1). They could expect no help from the Athenians, who were officially horrified at the revolution and so frightened of Sparta’s reaction that they punished the two generals involved (Xen. Hell. 5.4.19). However, Athenians continued exploratory negotiations with states around the Aegean to form a new system of maritime alliances (Diod. Sic. 15.28.2–4). A series of Spartan missteps – this time not the fault of Agesilaus alone – would soon provide the impetus for the foundation of the Second Athenian Naval Confederacy as a counterweight to Sparta’s hegemony in Greece.
Soon after Cleombrotus left him behind in Thespiae, Sphodrias launched a sneak attack on the Piraeus. Unable to get anywhere near his target overnight, he turned back after causing some damage in the Thriasian Plain (Xen. Hell. 5.4.20–1). His reasons for flagrantly violating the territory of a state with which Sparta was at peace were unclear – stories of bribery naturally abounded – but the effects of Sphodrias’ abortive raid were dramatic. Livid at his duplicity, the Athenians immediately arrested the Spartan ambassadors who happened to be in town and dispatched envoys to Lacedaemon to make their displeasure absolutely clear. For their part, the Spartans, aghast at Sphodrias’ actions, had already put him on trial in absentia and assured the angry Athenians that the death penalty was inevitable (Xen. Hell. 5.4.21–4). Agesilaus now showed that his consummate mastery of internal Spartan politics contrasted with an almost wilful ignorance of the consequences his decisions would have on the international scene.
Agesilaus’ unexpected decision to vote for Sphodrias’ acquittal on the grounds that Sparta could not afford to lose soldiers whose previous behavior had been so exemplary (Xen. Hell. 5.4.25–33) may have been acceptable at home but gave the Athenians justification for creating their own multilateral alliance to provide them with security against Spartan aggression. Domestically, Agesilaus had reasserted his dominance, deftly neutralizing what may have been an attempt to weaken his standing, but he had cynically revealed to all that Sparta’s immediate advantage was his sole guiding principle in interstate relations.
In the same year, 378, hostilities between Sparta and Thebes developed into a full-scale war. A major reform in how the Peloponnesian army was levied now meant that the burden of supplying manpower was more evenly distributed among ten geographical areas, with allies being permitted to hire mercenaries to fulfill their obligations (Xen. Hell. 5.2.20–1; Diod. Sic. 15.31.1–2). Thus, it was at the head of a large army conscripted under the new system that Agesilaus, despite his earlier protestations about his age, marched into Boeotia, the younger Cleombrotus having lost the authorities’ trust. Over several months of fighting, Agesilaus accomplished nothing of consequence, wasting most of his time in attempts to breach defensive works erected around the city. Unable to lure the Theban forces out into a pitched battle, he went home with his army at the end of the campaigning season (Xen. Hell. 5.4.38–41; Diod. Sic. 15.32–33.1). Agesilaus returned in 377 with similar results, although his ravaging did cause a food shortage at Thebes (Xen. Hell. 5.4.47–57). This was Agesilaus’ last active command for seven years. On the return journey he suffered an attack of acute thrombophlebitis at Megara; its treatment resulted in a significant loss of blood. Carried back to Sparta, he spent the next several months on his sickbed (Xen. Hell. 5.4.58).
With Agesilaus still incapacitated in spring 376, Cleombrotus led the invasion force. He only half-heartedly attempted to force passage into Theban territory, thus signaling a significant shift in policy. For the next two years, Boeotia would be left in peace (Xen. Hell. 5.4.59, 63) while Sparta dealt with the threat posed by the Athenians’ growing naval power, which that same year brought them victory over the
Peloponnesian fleet off Naxos, Athens’ first autnomous naval triumph since the Peloponnesian War (Diod. Sic. 15.35). The change in focus was partly due to severe disaffection among Sparta’s allies, who were tired of Agesilaus’ obsession with Thebes and inability to prosecute his campaigns successfully (Plut. Ages. 26.6). There were also signs that Agesilaus no longer wielded overwhelming influence over Spartan foreign policy. Some realism had entered into their calculations, best exemplified by Sparta’s refusal to send military aid to Pharsalus in Thessaly in 375 due to lack of manpower (Xen. Hell. 6.1.4–17). Gone were the days when Sparta could project its power anywhere in the Aegean.
Threats were multiplying on every side. Thebes was successfully consolidating its power over Boeotia and developing a formidable military machine (Xen. Hell. 5.4.46, 63, 6.1.1; Plut. Pel. 15). Against all odds, Athens was attracting new allies for its Naval Confederacy, including Thebes (IG II2 43). In Thessaly, a newcomer to Greek power politics, Jason of Pherae, had exploited Sparta’s incapacity to help Pharsalus to establish himself as the supreme leader (Xen. Hell. 6.1.18–19). In spring 375, the Thebans inflicted a morale-crushing defeat at Tegyra on a Spartan mora returning from Locris to its quarters in Orchomenus, killing two of their commanding officers (Diod. Sic. 15.37; Plut. Pel. 16–17). They also threatened Sparta’s old ally Phocis, prompting the Spartans to dispatch a force under Cleombrotus to protect it (Xen. Hell. 6.1). A short respite in the crisis was afforded by the King’s Peace, renewed at the demand of the Great King in 375, though in allowing the Athenians to retain their new Naval Confederacy, it simply recognized the facts on the ground (Diod. Sic. 15.38.1–3). Whether the Thebans were included in the Peace or not, they retained control over most of Boeotia.