Agesilaus II (Greek: Αγησίλαος Agesilaos; c. 444 – c. 360 BC), was a Eurypontid king of the Ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, ruling from approximately 400 BC to 360 BC, during most of which time he was, in Plutarch’s words, “as good as thought commander and king of all Greece,” and was for the whole of it greatly identified with his country’s deeds and fortunes. Small in stature and lame from birth, Agesilaus became ruler somewhat unexpectedly in his mid-forties. His reign saw successful military incursions into various states in Asia Minor, as well as successes in the Corinthian War; although several diplomatic decisions resulted in Sparta becoming increasingly isolated prior to his death at the age of 84 in Cyrenaica.
He was greatly admired by his friend, the historian Xenophon, who wrote a minor work about him titled Agesilaus.
Agesilaus is first recorded as king during the suppression of the conspiracy of Cinadon, shortly after 398 BC. Then, in 396 BC, Agesilaus crossed into Asia with a force of 2,000 neodamodes (freed helots) and 6,000 allies (including 30 Spartiates) to liberate Greek cities from Persian dominion. On the eve of sailing from Aulis he attempted to offer a sacrifice, as Agamemnon had done before the Trojan expedition, but the Thebans intervened to prevent it, an insult for which he never forgave them. On his arrival at Ephesus a three months’ truce was concluded with Tissaphernes, the satrap of Lydia and Caria, but negotiations conducted during that time proved fruitless, and on its termination Agesilaus raided Phrygia, where he easily won immense booty from the satrap Pharnabazus; Tissaphernes could offer no assistance, as he had concentrated his troops in Caria. In these campaigns Agesilaus also benefited from the aid of the Ten Thousand (a mercenary army), who marched through miles of Persian territory to reach the Black Sea. After spending the winter organizing a cavalry force (hippeis), he made a successful incursion into Lydia in the spring of 395 BC. Tithraustes was sent to replace Tissaphernes, who paid with his life for his continued failure. An armistice was concluded between Tithraustes and Agesilaus, who left the southern satrapy and again invaded Phrygia, which he ravaged until the following spring. He then came to an agreement with Pharnabazus and once more turned southward.
During these campaigns, Lysander attempted to manipulate Agesilaus into ceding his authority. Agesilaus, the former passive lover of Lysander, would have nothing of this, and reminded Lysander (who was only a Spartan general) who was king. He had Lysander sent away to assist the naval campaigns in the Aegean. This dominating move by Agesilaus earned the respect of his men-at-arms and of Lysander himself, who remained emotionally close with Agesilaus.
In 394 BC, while encamped on the plain of Thebe, he was planning a campaign in the interior, or even an attack on Artaxerxes II himself, when he was recalled to Greece owing to the war between Sparta and the combined forces of Athens, Thebes, Corinth, Argos and several minor states. A rapid march through Thrace and Macedonia brought him to Thessaly, where he repulsed the Thessalian cavalry who tried to impede him. Reinforced by Phocian and Orchomenian troops and a Spartan army, he met the confederate forces at Coronea in Boeotia and in a hotly contested battle was technically victorious. However, the Spartan baggage train was ransacked and Agesilaus himself was injured during the fighting, resulting in a subsequent retreat by way of Delphi to the Peloponnese. Shortly before this battle the Spartan navy, of which he had received the supreme command, was totally defeated off Cnidus by a powerful Persian fleet under Conon and Pharnabazus.
During these conflicts in mainland Greece, Lysander perished while attacking the walls of Thebes. Pausanias, the second king of Sparta (see Spartan Constitution for more information on Sparta’s dual monarchy), was supposed to provide Lysander with reinforcements as they marched into Boeotia, yet failed to arrive in time to assist Lysander, likely because Pausanias disliked him for his brash and arrogant attitude towards the Spartan royalty and government. Pausanias failed to fight for the bodies of the dead, and because he retrieved the bodies under truce (a sign of defeat), he was disgraced and banished from Sparta.
In 393 BC, Agesilaus engaged in a ravaging invasion of Argolis. In 392 BC he took a prominent part in the Corinthian War, making several successful expeditions into Corinthian territory and capturing Lechaeum and Piraeus. The loss, however, of a battalion (mora), destroyed by Iphicrates, neutralized these successes, and Agesilaus returned to Sparta. In 389 BC he conducted a campaign in Acarnania, but two years later the Peace of Antalcidas, warmly supported by Agesilaus, put an end to hostilities. In this interval, Agesilaus declined command over Sparta’s aggression on Mantineia, and justified Phoebidas’ seizure of the Theban Cadmea so long as the outcome provided glory to Sparta.
When war broke out afresh with Thebes, Agesilaus twice invaded Boeotia (in 378 BC and 377 BC), although he spent the next five years largely out of action due to an unspecified but apparently grave illness. In the congress of 371 BC an altercation is recorded between him and the Theban general Epaminondas, and due to his influence, Thebes was peremptorily excluded from the peace, and orders given for Cleombrotus to march against Thebes in 371 BC. Cleombrotus was defeated at Leuctra and the Spartan supremacy overthrown.
In 370 BC Agesilaus was engaged in an embassy to Mantineia, and reassured the Spartans with an invasion of Arcadia. He preserved an un-walled Sparta against the revolts and conspiracies of helots, perioeci and even other Spartans; and against external enemies, with four different armies led by Epaminondas penetrating Laconia that same year. Again, in 362 BC, Epaminondas almost succeeded in seizing the city with a rapid and unexpected march. The Battle of Mantinea, in which Agesilaus took no part, was followed by a general peace: Sparta, however, stood aloof, hoping even yet to recover her supremacy. According to Xenophon, Agesilaus, in order to gain money for prosecuting the war, supported the satrap Ariobarzanes II in his revolt against Artaxerxes II in 364 BC (Revolt of the Satraps), and in 361 BC he went to Egypt at the head of a mercenary force to aid the king Nectanebo I and his regent Teos against Persia. He soon transferred his services to Teos’s cousin and rival Nectanebo II, who, in return for his help, gave him a sum of over 200 talents. On his way home Agesilaus died in Cyrenaica, around the age of 84, after a reign of some 41 years. His body was embalmed in wax, and buried at Sparta.
Agesilaus was of small stature and unimpressive appearance, and was lame from birth. These facts were used as an argument against his succession, an oracle having warned Sparta against a “lame reign.” Most ancient writers considered him a highly successful leader in guerrilla warfare, alert and quick, yet cautious—a man, moreover, whose personal bravery was rarely questioned in his own time. Of his courage, temperance, and hardiness, many instances are cited: and to these were added the less Spartan qualities of kindliness and tenderness as a father and a friend. As examples: there is the story of his riding across a stick (horse made of stick) with his children and upon being discovered by a friend desiring that he not mention till he himself were the father of children; and because of the affection of his son Archidamus’ for Cleonymus, he saved Sphodrias, Cleonymus’ father, from execution for his incursion into the Piraeus, and dishonorable retreat, in 378 BC. Modern writers tend to be slightly more critical of Agesilaus’ reputation and achievements, reckoning him an excellent soldier, but one who had a poor understanding of sea power and siegecraft.
As a statesman he won himself both enthusiastic adherents and bitter enemies. Agesilaus was most successful in the opening and closing periods of his reign: commencing but then surrendering a glorious career in Asia; and in extreme age, maintaining his prostrate country. Other writers acknowledge his extremely high popularity at home, but suggest his occasionally rigid and arguably irrational political loyalties and convictions contributed greatly to Spartan decline, notably his unremitting hatred of Thebes, which led to Sparta’s humiliation at the Battle of Leuctra and thus the end of Spartan hegemony.
Other historical accounts paint Agesilaus as a prototype for the ideal leader. His awareness, thoughtfulness, and wisdom were all traits to be emulated diplomatically, while his bravery and shrewdness in battle epitomized the heroic Greek commander. These historians point towards the unstable oligarchies established by Lysander in the former Athenian Empire and the failures of Spartan leaders (such as Pausanias and Kleombrotos) for the eventually suppression of Spartan power. The ancient historian Xenophon was a huge admirer and served under Agesilaus during the campaigns into Asia Minor.