The Lame King of Sparta

(444 - 360 B.C.)


by Plutarch

Agesilaus inherited the Spartan throne after Sparta had defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. At that time, Sparta was the undisputed master of Greece and the Aegean. Because of his stubborn lust for conquest, Agesilaus violated the laws of Lycurgus against imperialistic ventures and fighting too much with the same enemy. By the time Agesilaus died, Sparta had lost most of its prestige and power.

Agesilaus was the second son of King Zeuxidamus of Sparta. Unlike his older brother, Agis [II], 1 who was heir to the throne, Agesilaus was not exempted from the tough training program for Spartan boys. This training earned Sparta the name "tamer of men" because it took boys and made them good citizens and soldiers, like horses that are broken while they are still colts.

Agesilaus was born with one leg shorter than the other, but he made up for this handicap by the rest of himself, and never allowed his handicap to be an excuse for preferential treatment. Joking about his handicap, instead of whining or sulking, won the sincere respect of the other boys.

His gentle and easy-going nature made Agesilaus fun to be around, and his adventurous and ambitious spirit made him a natural leader. No matter how difficult the task was, Agesilaus kept at it until he overcame all obstacles by his indefatigable persistence and energy. He obeyed orders enthusiastically, without compulsion. A small reprimand was for him more painful than any hard work or suffering.

* * *

While Agesilaus' older brother Agis was king [427 - 400 B.C.], Alcibiades 2 came to Sparta as a fugitive and traitor from Athens. While staying as the king's guest, Alcibiades made the queen pregnant, and Agis refused to acknowledge their son as his heir.

Years later, while Agis lay dying, this bastard son of Alcibiades begged Agis to acknowledge him as his own son. So persuasive were the boy's tears that finally Agis consented. Lysander [the general who had just led Sparta to final victory over Athens in the Peleponnesian War] declared that the boy could not be a king because he was illegitimate. Many of the other Spartan elders agreed, and they preferred the prospect of Agesilaus, who was next in succession, becoming king, because they had gone to school with Agesilaus and knew from their own experience how good he was.

However, there was a man named Diopithes in Sparta, who had a great knowledge of ancient oracles and all things pertaining to religion. He remembered an old prophecy to the effect that if the Spartans made a lame man king, they would suffer many unexpected troubles and storms of war. But Lysander, who wanted to see Agesilaus become king, said that the "limping sovereignty" referred to in the prophecy meant that the Spartans should not make a king out of a bastard. And despite the prophecy's seemingly clear reference to Agesilaus' lameness, Lysander's opinion prevailed.

* * *

Agesilaus, when he became king, followed the desires of the ephors and the Senate with alacrity, not grudgingly but gladly, and thus made friends of them too. Gradually, he got the power to do whatever he wanted. Before Agesilaus, there had been some friction between the ephors and the kings, with the result that the kings were weak. But by yielding willingly to the ephors' lawful authority, Agesilaus actually increased his own power. Whenever he was thinking about doing something, first he would ask the ephors' advice on the matter. Whenever the ephors wanted to talk to him, he went to them immediately. In every way possible, he showed respect for their authority, and he made it clear that his actions were to extend their power, not his own. On their part, they ruled him gently, like a tame horse, and out of their friendship for Agesilaus the ephors set a dangerous precedent for future kings.

The ephors, however, were not pleased to see all opposition to Agesilaus melt away in the warmth of his friendliness toward them and the people. Once they even fined him for becoming too popular. Lycurgus seems to have allowed for the maintenance of some ambition and opposition in his commonwealth, so that what was good might flourish and what was evil might be stamped out. Ignoring evil in the name of good relations should never be allowed.

Some philosophers are of the opinion that if all war were to vanish from the universe, nothing new would happen because everything would then be in agreement. There would be no improvement, only stagnation. So it is with states. Some envy and contention among the leading citizens is good, so long as ambition does not take conflict to the point of violence.

Agesilaus never hurt his enemies without just cause, and he never took any unjust advantages. Unfortunately, he had a weakness for his friends. If an enemy had done something good, Agesilaus would praise it; but if a friend did something evil, he would ignore it, or even abet the wrong, because Agesilaus was of the opinion that friendship is more important than justice. Therefore it was said that Agesilaus was more virtuous as an enemy than as a friend.

* * *

Shortly after Agesilaus became king, news came to Sparta that the King of Persia was preparing to destroy the Spartan fleet and thus become master of the sea. Also, there were revolutions in some of the Greek cities in Ionia where the Spartans had replaced Athenian governors with their own. 3

Lysander persuaded Agesilaus not to wait for trouble but to beat the Persians to the punch by invading their territory. Agesilaus obtained permission to go across the Aegean Sea into Ionia with a small army.

While this force was gathering at Aulis, the rendezvous point, Agesilaus had a dream. He saw a man walk toward him, saying: "King of Sparta, surely you know that before you there was another commander of all of the Greeks against the barbarians of Asia. That was Agamemnon. 4 Now, inasmuch as you have taken his place -- commanding the same men, leaving from the same place, in an expedition against the same enemy -- you should make the same sacrifice that he did before he embarked."

Agesilaus remembered that Agamemnon had offered his own daughter as a sacrifice to appease the goddess Diana, in the same town where he now was. However, he told his friends that he would give the goddess a sacrifice that would please Diana well enough, and he would not follow the cruel example of this ancient general. Agesilaus substituted a deer for his daughter. 5 And rather than allow the priests of the place to perform the sacrifice, he insisted that it be done by his own man.

This took place in Aulis, which was in Theban territory. The local authorities were very offended by this sacrilege, and they sent officers to stop the proceedings. However, they arrived too late -- the deer had already been slaughtered, and its meat was on the altar. The Theban priests threw the meat on the ground and spoiled Agesilaus' sacrifice.

When his force landed at Ephesus [396 B.C.], Agesilaus discovered that Lysander, who had come along as one of his thirty Spartan advisors, had great power there. In the opinion of the Asian Greeks, no one could reward his friends better than Lysander, or do more damage to his enemies. They looked at Agesilaus and saw a friendly little lame man, without the dignity of a commander, and then they compared him to Lysander, who was brusque and majestic. Agesilaus seemed to be no king at all, and the Asian Greeks paid no attention to him. Lysander, however, always had a crowd of petitioners at his door and behind him wherever he went. The other Spartans resented this show of respect to Lysander because it made them look like they were only Lysander's servants instead of the counselors of the king. And eventually Agesilaus himself became displeased, although he was not envious by nature.

Agesilaus was always willing to give other men whatever honors they deserved, but this pretension of Lysander was too much. If anything great were done in this war, the credit would go not to Agesilaus but to Lysander, who seemed to be in charge. Therefore, Agesilaus began to undermine Lysander's prestige. Whatever Lysander recommended in council, Agesilaus opposed, and he supported whatever Lysander opposed. It soon became apparent that Lysander's endorsement was the kiss of death for any proposal.

Lysander realized how things stood, and he advised his friends that for their own good they should not associate with him any more. Agesilaus was even more offended when he heard of this, which seemed to be an implied accusation of injustice. So he appointed Lysander to the newly-created office of Royal Meat Carver. Lysander could not put up with such an indignity, and he told Agesilaus: "My lord, you know how to oppress your friends."

"I know how to keep them under when they want to be greater than I am," replied Agesilaus.

"That is not true of me," said Lysander, "but if you feel that way, then please place me in some honorable office where I might serve you without offense."

Agesilaus sent him to the Hellespont, where Lysander nursed his wounded pride and plotted revolution, conspiring with some others back home in Sparta.

Immoderate ambition may actually be destructive to a state, and both Lysander and Agesilaus were guilty of it. Lysander was wrong to overshadow his king, and Agesilaus should have found some gentler way to correct this distinguished general. Both of them were blinded by the same passion for distinction. Lysander would not respect the authority of his superior, and Agesilaus would not treat his friend with tact.

* * *

Tisaphernes, the satrap 6 in Asia of the King of Persia, was at first afraid of Agesilaus. To stall him, Tisaphernes represented that the King of Persia would soon release from bondage all of the Greek cities in Ionia. But as soon as Tisaphernes had gathered a big enough force to be confident of victory, he put aside the mask of peace and went openly to war.

Agesilaus was glad that Tisaphernes had spurned peace. All of Greece was watching his confrontation with the barbarians, and Agesilaus considered that it would be disgraceful if Xenophon and his Ten Thousand 7 could fight from Babylon to the Black Sea [401 - 399 B.C.] yet he at the head of an army of Spartans could not accomplish at least as much. Now that Tisaphernes had shown his deceitful nature, Agesilaus paid him back in kind.

Preparations were made as if the Spartans intended to invade Caria, which was to the south, but Agesilaus struck north into Phrygia, where he took many cities and a lot of booty and slaves. Tisaphernes had been completely faked out. By this, Agesilaus showed everyone that breaking an oath, as Tisaphernes had done, offends the gods and brings bad luck, but deceiving an open enemy in war is not only honorable but profitable and pleasant.

The livers of sacrificial victims showed unlucky signs, so Agesilaus turned back to Ephesus to increase his force of horsemen. He drafted the rich men there, but permitted them to send a horse and rider in their place. The rich preferred spending their money to risking their lives, so very quickly Agesilaus gathered a good force of cavalry instead of some unwilling and weak foot-soldiers. Moreover, the rich men paid their substitutes and gave them the horses and equipment they needed.

While he was at Ephesus, Agesilaus auctioned the slaves he had taken in Phrygia. He sold them naked, and auctioned their clothes separately. The clothes brought a good price, but the bidders scorned the weak bodies of the slaves. Agesilaus was at the auction, and he told his soldiers: "Here, my friends, are the men you will fight, and there is what you will be fighting them for."

* * *

Campaigning season came again, and this time Agesilaus let it be known that his target would be Lydia, which was to the east. But this time Tisaphernes was not deceived by Agesilaus, but by himself. Tisaphernes was certain that this was another trick, and that Caria would be the real target. However, Agesilaus did exactly as he had told the world he would do. He invaded Lydia and headed toward the capital city of Sardis with no opposition from Tisaphernes.

Tisaphernes, once again caught in the wrong place, rushed his cavalry up into Lydia, where they began to attack the Greeks who were spread out looting the country. Agesilaus calculated that the Persian infantry could not be nearby, so now would be the best time for a battle. He charged the enemy cavalry with his own cavalry and peltasts, and followed with his hoplites. The barbarians ran away as soon as they were attacked. The Greeks chased them and took their camp after killing many of them.

This victory left the Greeks free to plunder the country, and it also gave them the satisfaction of seeing their old enemy Tisaphernes get fired by the King of Persia for incompetence. The new satrap, Tithraustes, sent Tisaphernes' head to Agesilaus as a peace offering, along with an offer to pay Agesilaus and his men to leave.

Agesilaus answered that the ephors of Sparta were the only ones who could make the decision to end the war, and as for the money, the Greeks considered it dishonorable to take gifts from their enemies. However, he said, since Tithraustes had done him the favor of sending the head of Tisaphernes, he would immediately leave Lydia and go into Phrygia if the Persians would cover his expenses. On his way to Phrygia, Agesilaus received the news that the Spartans had given him the unprecedented honor of being commander of both the army and the navy at the same time.

Agesilaus was by far the most famous Greek of his time, and he was more proud of his virtue than of the greatness of his authority. But Agesilaus allowed his weakness for favorites to lead him to appoint his brother-in-law to take charge of the navy. He passed over many older and more experienced men in order to please his wife, regardless of the safety of his country.

In most things Agesilaus was a just man, but he believed that justice was often only an excuse for people who did not want to help their friends. Nevertheless, sometimes Agesilaus had to put the common good ahead of the interest of his friends, as when once he had to leave a sick friend behind to be captured by the enemy. This friend cried and begged Agesilaus to take him along, and Agesilaus remarked: "How hard it is to love and still be wise."

* * *

All of Ionia talked about the honesty, courtesy and plain living of Agesilaus. Wherever he travelled, he would stay at a temple, making the gods witnesses of his most private actions -- which most men would not even show their friends. In all of his numerous army, it was hard to find a soldier whose blanket was in worse condition.

The Greeks in Ionia were delighted to see the great lords of the barbarians (who were proud and cruel and corrupted by luxury) groveling and trembling before a simple little lame man in a worn-out cape, and carefully listening to every Spartan sentence that came from his mouth. Many recalled the line of Timotheus: "As Mars has no mercy, so Greece scorns gold."

Many parts of Asia Minor were revolting from the Persians and joining Agesilaus, so he decided to strike directly at the heart of the Persian Empire. But just before he started out, he got a message that war had broken out with Thebes and Athens, and the Spartans had ordered him to come home.

As he was leaving [394 B.C.], Agesilaus remarked that ten thousand archers had driven him out of Asia. He said this because Persian coins were stamped with the figure of an archer, and ten thousand of these had bribed the politicians of the democracies in Thebes and Athens to start another war with Sparta. Agesilaus turned away from his conquest of the barbarians and went back to defend his home against his fellow Greeks.

This obedience was the most noble act of his life. The Greeks should have been ashamed to leave this conquest of Persia to Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, while they killed their own best men fighting among themselves.

* * *

After a long march home through Thrace, and several battles, Agesilaus arrived at Chaeronea. On that same day [August 14, 394 B.C.], there was an eclipse of the sun, and he received a message that the Spartan fleet, under the command of his brother-in-law, had been destroyed by the Persians. Agesilaus and his army were about to fight a major battle, and bad news on top of the bad omen of the eclipse might have discouraged his men, so he pretended that the news was good. He celebrated as if the Spartans had won a victory at sea, and immediately they marched to meet the Thebans.

The battle was hard-fought by both sides, but in the end it was the Spartans who stayed on the field, and it was the Thebans who had to ask permission to get their dead. In this battle, Agesilaus was wounded several times through his armor, but he would not leave the battlefield until he had personally seen the Spartan dead being carried away still wearing their armor. 8

Agesilaus had been away from home for two years, and on his return the Spartans were glad to see that he was exactly the same as when he had left. He and his wife, Cleora, still lived simply and without any ostentatious display of wealth.

But Sparta had changed. Lysander's conspiracy had infected the city with bitter feelings and treachery, and Lysander's death had prevented a lot of trouble. When Agesilaus discovered a speech written out for Lysander to have delivered once he had overthrown the government, he thought about reading this speech to the people, but a wise old senator said that it would be better not to dig up Lysander and his arguments. Better to bury the speech along with the bones. Agesilaus followed this sage counsel.

As for the conspirators, Agesilaus found some way of sending them away to jobs abroad where they would find plenty of temptations. When they revealed their weakness and were accused before the council, Agesilaus would speak on their behalf. In this way, Agesilaus made friends out of enemies.

* * *

Agesilaus took an army from Sparta to help the Achaeans against the Acarnanians. The Achaeans asked him to occupy the territory of the Acarnanians for the winter in order to prevent the Acarnanians from sowing their crops. Agesilaus answered: "If all of their fields are full of crops next year, they will be more afraid of war." And, as Agesilaus had predicted, as soon as the Spartans came back the next year the Acarnanians made peace with the Achaeans on liberal terms.

Now that Persia ruled the sea, the coast of Sparta was being raided. Persian money also helped the Athenians rebuild their walls. The Spartans therefore thought that it would be best to make peace with Persia, and Agesilaus' enemies were especially eager to deprive him of any chance of increasing his glory against the barbarians. A peace treaty was made, whereby Sparta abandoned the Greek cities in Ionia which Agesilaus had been trying to rescue from barbarian domination.

Agesilaus held a grudge against Thebes for spoiling his sacrifice and for interrupting his conquest of Persia. Despite the peace, the Spartan general Phoebidas seized the castle of Thebes by surprise and made himself master of the city [382 B.C.]. The Spartans were ashamed of this treachery, and Agesilaus' enemies asked Phoebidas indignantly by whose orders he had done such a thing. Agesilaus interrupted, and said that nothing mattered except whether it had been good for Sparta, and if so, then Phoebidas should have done it even without any orders at all. 9 He not only saved Phoebidas from death, but also got the Spartans to ratify Phoebidas' act and compound their shame by keeping the castle.

His personal animus against Thebes, and his immoderate ambition, caused Agesilaus to be a hypocrite with regard to justice. He used to say that of all the virtues, justice was the most important, and that if all men were just then no one would need to be brave. And when someone referred to the King of Persia as "the Great King," Agesilaus asked: "How is he greater than I am, unless he is more just?"

Another Spartan general, Sphodrias, seeing that Phoebidas (who happened to be his rival) was now a hero in Sparta for breaking the peace, devised a plan of his own that would eclipse the glory of Phoebidas: to take the port of Athens by surprise. But his plan failed [378 B.C.]. 10 The Athenians complained to Sparta about the failed invasion of Sphodrias. The Spartans had already heard about it and were ready to condemn Sphodrias for treason. But to please his son, who was a friend of the son of Sphodrias, Agesilaus interceded for Sphodrias and saved him from death. This earned Agesilaus the contempt of everyone, who once again saw Agesilaus put personal friendship ahead of justice and the good of his country.

* * *

Sparta's allies complained about having to follow the Spartans as Agesilaus carried on his personal vendetta against Thebes. The allies argued that inasmuch as they were greater in number than the Spartans, they should have more decision-making authority in the army. So one day Agesilaus commanded the whole army to sit down. Then he called for all of the potters to stand up. Next were the carpenters, then the masons, and so on through all of the trades and crafts. Most of the allies were by now on their feet, but all of the Spartans were still sitting down, because Spartan law prohibited such occupations. Agesilaus laughed and said: "You see, my friends, how many more soldiers we bring to the field than you do."

Epaminondas and other envoys from Thebes had come to Sparta, along with envoys from all of the rest of Greece, to try to end the wars. Sparta made peace with every city, except for Thebes because Agesilaus personally scratched the name of Thebes out of the peace treaty and declared war.

Disregarding all of the unlucky omens that appeared, Agesilaus insisted on punishing Thebes. Certainly the prospects of success looked good, because with all of the other cities of Greece pacified by the peace treaty, Thebes stood alone. But only twenty days after the peace was made, the Spartans lost their best soldiers in a disastrous defeat at Leuctra. 11

Sparta deserves no less credit for how it handled defeat than the Thebans deserve for winning such a glorious victory. Brave people can teach us even more by their conduct in adversity than in prosperity. The news of this unexpected disaster came as the Spartans were celebrating the festival of the gymnopaediae. The Ephors did not stop the festival, and they sent private messages to each family that had lost a son, of which there were very many. The next day, it was the families of the survivors who mourned and were ashamed. Those who had lost a son or husband were cheerful, and they congratulated each other in the marketplace.

The reason for the grief of the families of the survivors was that the laws of Sparta were very harsh to those who left their post in battle. These men, called "tremblers," had to wear funny clothes and shave one side of their face. Anyone who met them on the street could beat them up, and it was illegal for them to fight back. Now, as a result of the battle of Leuctra, there were many Spartans, good men, who would merit this punishment. But the Theban army was on its way to Sparta, and the city needed soldiers. So many had broken the law that it would have been impossible to enforce it, but the Spartans did not want to abrogate the law. Agesilaus found a way out of the dilemma. "Let the law sleep for today," he said, "but tomorrow it will be effective."

With an army of 70,000, Epaminondas invaded Sparta after his victory at Leuctra. Many allies had joined the Thebans to take their revenge against Sparta. It had been 600 years since the Dorians had established themselves in Sparta, and all during that time they never saw enemies in their country. But now there was a large army of looters, pillaging and burning with no one to stop them, right up to the city itself.

Agesilaus would not allow the Spartans to risk a battle against such a superior force, and he kept the people busy fortifying the city. Not only did he have to deal with the enemy, but there were many men in the city who accused him of cowardice and inept strategy, and women ran screaming through the streets.

His own conscience tortured him too. Agesilaus had become king when Sparta was at the height of its power, and now Sparta was lower than ever before. They could no longer boast that the women of Sparta had never seen the smoke of an enemy's fire, and that no enemy soldiers were buried in Sparta. But at least he did not allow the Thebans to provoke a battle and set up a victory monument in Spartan territory.

While the city was in tumult, about 200 of the malcontents in Sparta took this opportunity to launch their revolution. They occupied a strong point in the city and used it as their base of operations. The other Spartans wanted to attack them, even though the enemy was nearby, but Agesilaus told them to wait.

Agesilaus had no certain knowledge how far this conspiracy went, and he could not afford any incident that might lead to a showdown, especially not at that time. So he went to the revolutionaries and pretended that he had no idea what was going on. He told them that they had made a mistake, and that the place he had posted them was somewhere else. The revolutionaries were glad that their treason seemed to have gone undetected, and they went where Agesilaus told them to go. Once they had been dispersed from their fortress, Agesilaus got permission from the ephors to have the revolutionaries all killed secretly, since their number, their influential status, and the present danger made legal process impossible. Never before had any Spartan citizen been put to death without due process of law.

It is a mystery why the Thebans left and did not stay for a siege at Sparta. Some say that the winter forced them to go back; others say that the desertion of their allies was the cause. One historian is of the opinion that the Thebans left because they had been bribed by Agesilaus. But everyone agrees that Sparta was saved in this emergency because of the wisdom of Agesilaus, who stuck to a defensive strategy even though so many called him a coward and an imbecile.

Sparta never recovered its old glory. Lycurgus had formed a society designed for the peace, harmony, and virtue of its citizens. When the Spartans tried to conquer for empire -- contrary to the laws of Lycurgus -- they lost their legacy of virtue and power.

* * *

Agesilaus became very old and too weak for war, so he gave up all of his military duties to his son, Archidamus. The Spartans marched to battle against the Arcadians, and there they fought what became known as the Tearless Battle [368 B.C.]. No Spartans died there, and the victory was decisive. In their celebration of this victory, the Spartans revealed just how far they had fallen from their former greatness. In earlier times, victory was so routine that there were no celebrations in Sparta even for the greatest successes. But now the Spartans greeted the returning soldiers, cheering and crying tears of joy, and thanking the gods for wiping away their disgrace. Up until that time, the Spartan men had been too ashamed to face their women.

The Thebans came again, and this time almost caught the city by surprise. There was a fierce battle, which the Spartans won through their courage and desperation. Archidamus, the son of Agesilaus, did brave things that day. There was also another Spartan named Isadas, who heard the noise of battle and ran out naked to meet the enemy, a sword in one hand and a hunting spear in the other. He killed many enemies and did not get hurt at all. For his bravery, the Ephors awarded him a crown, but they also fined him for going to battle without his armor on.

Shortly afterwards, there was another battle at Mantinea [362 B.C.], where Epaminondas, the Theban general, died. Everyone was now ready for peace – all except Agesilaus, who insisted on going off to another war against the Messenians, hoping to get back a piece of the old Spartan empire. For this, Agesilaus was thought to be a greedy, cruel, and deceitful man, who ruined his own country and stirred up war and trouble just because of his personal ambition and personal spite.

* * *

But what brought Agesilaus the most shame of all was enlisting as a mercenary to fight for Tachos of Egypt. Agesilaus was over eighty years old, and his body was all mangled with wounds, but he refused to sit at home and wait for death. He accepted an offer to lead hired soldiers in the army of an Egyptian rebel named Tachos.

The great reputation of this famous Spartan king brought out a large crowd of important people to meet him when he landed in Egypt [360 B.C.]. But instead of a splendid warrior, they saw a little old man in worn-out clothes. They were even more amazed at how simple-minded this old man was -- when they gave him presents of all sorts of food, Agesilaus kept only the flour, the calves, and the geese. He gave the cakes, the candies, the perfumes, and all of the other rich things to the servants for their own use.

Tachos did not appoint Agesilaus commander-in-chief, but only general of the mercenaries. Agesilaus put up with the indignity and the foolishness of his employer until he got an opportunity to make his protest with effect.

His chance came when Nectanabis, the nephew of Tachos, revolted and took away a large part of the army. Tachos begged Agesilaus not to desert also. Agesilaus took this opportunity to tell Tachos what had been on his mind for a long time. Then Agesilaus took all of the mercenaries over to join Nectanabis, and Tachos fled for his life out of Egypt.

A new king came against Nectanabis with an army of 100,000 men. Nectanabis told Agesilaus not to worry about their numbers because these were men without any experience in war. Agesilaus answered: "I am not worried about how many they are, but how little experience they have. They might do anything, no matter what tricks I try. If they were more experienced, they would be more predictable, but these men are not afraid of danger and have no intelligence in their plans, so there is no way to deceive them."

The enemy king offered a bribe to Agesilaus. Even though Agesilaus refused to accept it, Nectanabis found out about the offer and Agesilaus became suspected. When Agesilaus recommended to fight as soon as possible, while the enemy soldiers were still unskilled and ignorant, Nectanabis took this as a reason to do the opposite, and he shut his army inside a large walled city. Agesilaus was ashamed to see that he was not trusted, but he could not go back to Sparta without having done something glorious, and he could not change sides a third time, so he followed Nectanabis behind the walls to endure the siege.

The enemy worked on a deep ditch and high wall all around the city. When this was nearly finished, Nectanabis proposed to fight his way out because he was afraid of being starved to death in a siege. Agesilaus opposed the plan, and that gave an occasion for his Egyptian rivals to call him an enemy of the king. Agesilaus patiently endured the abuse, because now the time had come for a plan he had carried in his mind for a long time.

One night, when the two ends of the ditch had almost closed in a full circle around the city, Agesilaus secretly got his mercenaries ready for battle. Then he went to Nectanabis and told him: "Young man, now is your chance. I kept this a secret until now because I didn't want to risk anyone telling my plan to the enemy, who has now, at his own cost and with the pains and labor of his own men, provided for our security. The part they have not finished is enough for us to get out, and what they have already built will prevent them from attacking us from behind or coming to help each other. So be a man, and follow the example we Greeks will give you."

Nectanabis marvelled at the wisdom of Agesilaus, and he immediately put himself in the middle of the mercenary troops. They charged out of the gate and cut through the enemy, who could not stand up to experienced Greeks in a face-to-face fight. Once Agesilaus and his mercenaries had broken through, they turned and rolled up the enemy flank all around the wall for a total victory.

Now that Nectanabis was securely established in his kingdom, he invited Agesilaus to spend the winter with him in Egypt. But Agesilaus wanted to go home, so Nectanabis dismissed him very honorably and with a large reward.

On the trip back to Sparta, Agesilaus died at the age of 84. He had been king for 41 years, and for 30 years he had the reputation of the greatest man in all of Greece. His men embalmed him in honey and took him back for an honorable burial in Sparta.


1. Sparta had two royal houses, the Agiad line and the Eurypontid line, both of which claimed descent from Hercules. Agis II was in the Eurypontid line, and Agesilaus was his half-brother. At any given time, Sparta had two kings. These were the descendants of two brothers who were co-founders of the city after the Dorian invasion.

2. Alcibiades then went to be a traitor to all of Greece at the court of the king of Persia. Pericles was the guardian of Alcibiades, and Socrates was a close friend. Alcibiades is also a character in the life of Nicias. Plutarch's life of Alcibiades has not been included in this collection.

3. During the Peloponnesian War, each city in the Greek world had suffered a civil war between its democrats and its aristocrats. The Athenians supported the democrats, and Sparta the aristocrats. Therefore, this war was not merely a conflict between two cities but between two fundamentally opposed political ideologies.

4. Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War (circa 1250 B.C.). Agammemnon's quarrel with Achilles over the girl Briseis is the triggering incident of the Iliad. Before Agamemnon set out from Aulis for Troy, the goddess Artemis (Diana) told him that he would have to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, if he wanted favorable winds. This sacrifice was in payment of an old debt to the goddess. After Agammemnon had finally won the Trojan War, he returned home and was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. Agammemnon's son Orestes avenged his father’s death. Aeschylus' classic plays Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides tell the story of Orestes.

5. When Agamenmon had been about to fulfill his vow by sacrificing his own daughter, Iphigenia, the goddess had taken her away and substituted a deer in her place. So Agesilaus conveniently surmised that a deer was what the goddess really wanted to begin with, since Diana was goddess of the hunt. Agamemnon had gotten into this predicament by killing a sacred stag, and in atonement he had promised Diana that he would give her the most precious thing that came to him in the next year. That happened to be Iphigenia. He put off the payment until she had grown to be a young woman. As he was setting off for Troy, Diana held back the fleet with unfavorable weather until Agammemnon had fulfilled his vow and paid his debt.

6. A satrap was a hereditary governor of conquered territory in the Persian empire, similar to a duke in the European feudal system.

7. The march of the Ten Thousand to the sea is one of the great stories in western literature. It is told by Xenophon in his Anabasis. One of the contenders for the throne of Persia had enlisted the aid of some Greek mercenaries, and in 401 B.C. these soldiers marched almost to Babylon. At the Battle of Cunaxa, they easily beat the barbarians opposed to them, but their employer died, and so the mercenaries had to cut their way through hostile territory back from Babylon to the Black Sea. On the way they had to fight many nations and suffer many hardships, but most of them got back to Greece. On their arrival home, they spread the word that the Persians would be very easy to conquer, and that vast wealth was there just waiting to be ripped from the feeble hands of the effeminate inhabitants.

8. The victorious warrior usually stopped to strip off the armor of his defeated enemy, so the fact that these Spartans still had their armor on meant that the Spartans had stood their ground. Fighting over the dead bodies of heroes for their armor is a major theme in Homer's classic epic, The Iliad.

9. For a full description of this incident and the disastrous consequences following from Sparta's injustice, see the Life of Pelopidas.

10. Sphodrias had been tricked into trying this, and the Athenians were forewarned. See the Life of Pelopidas.

11. The Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.) was a crushing defeat for Sparta, the worst ever in its history, and after Leuctra, Sparta never recovered its military power. See the Life of Pelopidas.

Agesilaus had a weakness not only for personal love but also personal hate. That was particularly true with respect to Thebes. In his persistent wars, he violated the law of Lycurgus that forbade the Spartans to make war for a long time with the same enemy. In so doing, he taught the Thebans to be better soldiers and eventually made them a match for the Spartans. When Agesilaus was later carried home wounded from a battle with the Thebans, a Spartan said to him: "The Thebans have repaid you well for making soldiers of men who before had neither the will nor the skill to fight."

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