The Reformer of Sparta

(reigned 245 - 241 B.C.)


by Plutarch

The love of money had virtually destroyed the laws of Lycurgus in Sparta by the time Agis became king. This idealistic young man tried to restore the old way of life that had made Sparta great, but he was defeated by the power of greed.

The myth of Ixion 1 (who embraced a cloud, thinking it was a goddess, and fathered the centaurs) is supposed to teach us that unnatural passion will breed only monstrosities. Likewise, ambitious men, who embrace the image and not the reality of virtue, produce nothing but ugly deeds.

To become the people's leaders, they make themselves the slaves of public opinion. Steered by the applause of the multitude, they are really not leaders at all, no matter what title they claim. The wise and virtuous man has no need at all of glory, except inasmuch as it eases his way to action by greater trust. A young man, however, may be allowed to take a little pride in his good deeds because his virtues are like young plants, which need to be watered by praise so that they will root deeply. But when the passion for popularity goes too far, it is dangerous in all men, and in the government it is utterly destructive. Those with power and authority are carried away into a sort of insanity, and they begin to think that glory is the cause, and not the effect, of goodness. 2 Such men should tell the people, "I can't be both your leader and your slave," just as Phocion told Antipater, "I can't be both your flunky and your friend."

Leaders should learn from the snake in the fable: The tail complained to the head that, although the tail constituted a majority of the snake, the tail never got a turn to decide on its path. Taking the lead, the tail soon blundered into trouble, and the head suffered along with it -- justly punished for following, contrary to Nature, a guide without eyes or brains. Such has been the fate of many, who, submitting to be guided by the caprice of an uninformed and unreasoning multitude, could neither prevent, nor escape, the confusion and disaster that followed. So much for the glory that depends on the voice of large numbers.

* * *

Once the love of gold and silver had been allowed into Sparta, greed and groveling in getting it soon followed. So did luxury, effeminacy, and waste in its use. Then Sparta lost its former prestige and power, and continued weak until the reign of Agis [IV] and Leonidas, who both together were kings. 3

There had been some equality among the Spartans due to the laws of Lycurgus, particularly the requirement that land could only be passed to the oldest surviving son. Then one of the ephors, 4 who had a quarrel with his son, moved to change this law so as to allow a Spartan to give his land to anyone he pleased. The greed of the others led them to gratify this man's passion for revenge, and this wise law was repealed.

The rich, by mortgages and other means, unscrupulously gathered all land into their hands, excluding the rightful heirs. With most property in a few hands, most of the people became poor and miserable. Honorable pursuits and civic duties were neglected as everyone became preoccupied by getting ahead in business. The poor envied and hated the rich, lost interest in defending their country, and waited impatiently for any sort of change.

King Leonidas led the way in the change from the old Spartan way of life. He had lived a long time in Persia before inheriting his kingdom, and he had adopted the typical barbarian attitude of arrogant contempt.

Agis, on the contrary, was a true Spartan, better than not only Leonidas but all of the kings that had reigned since Agesilaus, his ancestor six generations past. Even though the women of his household had raised him in luxury, once Agis became a man he followed the old Spartan ways. He wore an old cloak, and he ate, exercised, and thought like the men of long before. Agis often used to say that he only wanted to be king so that he could restore the old laws and discipline that had made Sparta great.

Agis found that the young men were eager for reform, but most of the old men, who were addicted to their vices, were terrified even to hear the name of Lycurgus. Some of the old men joined Agis in his crusade for reform, including Lysander and Mandroclidas (two very powerful men) and Agesilaus, Agis' uncle.

Agis' mother, who was the richest person in Sparta, strongly advised Agis not to get into such a difficult and unprofitable enterprise. But Agis reminded her that not even her wealth could equal that of any eunuch that served a barbarian governor.

Agis pleaded with his mother not to let her money stand in the way of honor. If he could make the Spartans once again superior to their wealth and pleasure, he would be known forever as a great king. Agesilaus, who was her brother, also persuaded her to add her large political influence to the cause of reform, saying it might not be so difficult as she imagined, and would be of great benefit to the family.

There were many people who owed Agis' mother money. Agis' mother was so carried away by the inspiration of this noble project that she not only consented but actively helped. When Agis was discouraged, she kept him going, and she smoothed the way for him with the women of Sparta, who had control of most of its wealth and who had traditionally had great influence over their husbands. These women would probably be the biggest obstacle of all, since reform would take away the main support of their power.

The opposing faction, i.e. the rich, found a leader in the other king, Leonidas. Most of the people of Sparta clearly wanted the reforms advocated by Agis, so Leonidas did not dare to oppose Agis openly. Instead, Leonidas sabotaged reform secretly. He prejudiced the elders against Agis by the insinuation that Agis proposed to divide the property of the rich among the poor in order to furnish himself with a tyrant's bodyguard.

Lysander was elected ephor through the efforts of Agis' party, and through Lysander the reform program was proposed to the senate. These were the main provisions of his bill: (1) that everyone would be free of debt immediately; 5 (2) that all of the land would be divided into a certain number of lots, one territory to be divided among the full-blooded Spartans, and another territory among the country people who were fit for service as hoplites, and that any vacancies would be supplied out of those who were free and fit for military service; 6 and (3) that the army would be divided into fifteen companies, each of which would eat and exercise according to the ancient laws of Lycurgus.

Lysander, in his capacity as ephor, immediately convened the great assembly of the people. He, Mandroclidas, and Agesilaus made speeches exhorting the people not to let the old glory of Sparta remain abandoned to contempt so a few rich people could lord it over them. They reminded the people of the ancient oracles that had warned to beware the love of money, which would ruin Sparta. Also, there was a recent command from the famous oracle at Thalamae, 7 which told the Spartans to return to the old state of equality established by Lycurgus.

When they had finished their speeches, Agis stood up. He told the people that he would make the best contribution in his power to the new legislation: he would give up all of the land he had inherited, and he would contribute 600 talents to the treasury. Agis added that his mother, grandmother, and his other friends were ready to follow his example. After three hundred years, thought the people, finally we have a king that is worthy of Sparta.

Now the rich were more motivated than ever to thwart reform. They would have to contribute their property, but all of the glory would go to Agis. So Sparta split into two factions: the rich, led by old King Leonidas; and the rest, led by young King Agis.

King Leonidas stood up to speak. He asked Agis, in front of them all, whether he thought that Lycurgus was a wise man and a patriot, and when Agis answered yes, Leonidas asked him: "And when did Lycurgus ever cancel debts, or allow strangers to become citizens?"

Agis replied: "It is no wonder that Leonidas, who was brought up in Persia, and has children by a Persian wife, knows so little about Lycurgus and his laws. Lycurgus wiped out debts and usury by doing away with money itself. True, he did object to people with foreign customs coming into the city, but it is well-known that he himself kept foreigners, such as the poet Thales of Crete, in his own house because he saw that these foreigners were similar to him in their way of life. His objection to foreigners was only that they might, by their bad example, infect the city with the love of money and luxury."

The senate was persuaded, although by only one vote, not to give the people a chance to vote on the reforms.

Lysander was so angry at King Leonidas for killing the reform bill that he raised the matter of the Persian wife and her children. There was a specific law prohibiting anyone with the blood of Hercules [which included all of the Spartan kings] from bringing up the children of a foreign woman. There was also another law making it a capital crime for any Spartan to settle among foreigners.

While his lawyers managed this accusation, Lysander went with the other ephors to "observe the sign." This was a Spartan custom, done on a clear night once every nine years. The ephors would look up in the sky for meteors, and if they saw one, it was a sign from the gods that the king was guilty of some offense against the gods and must be immediately deposed. This time, a meteor was seen, at least by Lysander, and he told the people so.

Leonidas ran away to Tegea, and Cleombrotus became king in his place. Chilonis, who was Leonidas' daughter and also Cleombrotus' wife, chose to comfort her father in his exile rather than be queen of Sparta. When Lysander's term as ephor expired, the newly elected ephors (who were all of the party of the rich) called back Leonidas and dismissed the indictments against him. The ephors also sued Lysander and Mandroclidas for having proposed the reforms.

King Cleombrotus and King Agis were both in favor of the reforms. They went with their followers to the marketplace, pulled those ephors out of their seats, and installed new ones. The reason for this action, the two kings declared, was that the ephors were meant only as an umpire between the kings in case of a disagreement. Then the ephors could add the weight of their authority to the side they thought was right. But when both kings agreed, and the sovereign power was unified, the ephors were superfluous. If the ephors then opposed the kings, they should be replaced.

Then the kings began to arm a company of young men, and they released many out of prison. The party of the rich feared for their lives, but no one was hurt. On the contrary, when Agis found out that Agesilaus (who was one of the new ephors) had sent some men to kill Leonidas, he sent some of his own men to protect Leonidas.

Although all opposition to the reforms had now been crushed, Agesilaus' sordid weakness ruined everything. Agesilaus had a lot of land, but also a lot of debts. Therefore, he liked the idea of debt cancellation, but not land reform. He managed to persuade Agis that reform should proceed by gradual stages. Doing everything at once, said Agesilaus, would be too dangerous -- better to proceed cautiously, beginning with the cancellation of debts.

Everyone in Sparta was commanded to bring all of their evidence of indebtedness to the marketplace and put it on a heap. Once this was done, fire was brought. The creditors grieved, but the people cheered, and Agesilaus declared that his eyes had never seen so bright and pure a flame.

As time passed, the people began to wonder why the redivision of lands was taking so long. Agesilaus had all sorts of excuses about the difficulties of getting it done, and after a long delay, the kings ordered him to hurry up. Still Agesilaus dragged his feet, and found new pretexts for paralysis, until Agis was called away to fight a war.

When Agis returned, he found that the land reform still had not been done, and the people were on the verge of violent revolution. While Agis was away, Agesilaus had imposed new taxes. Because of all of the people who hated him now, Agesilaus went around with a guard of mercenaries. He declared that he would continue as ephor the following year, even after his term of office expired. The news of this made his enemies risk an attempt against Agesilaus, and they openly brought back Leonidas from exile and re-established him in his kingdom. The people welcomed back Leonidas because they were angry about what they considered fraud in the matter of land reform.

Agesilaus barely escaped with his life, thanks to the intervention of his son, Hippomedon, whose manly virtues were admired by everyone. Both kings fled to sanctuary: Cleombrotus to the temple of Neptune, 8 and Agis to the temple of Athena 9 of the Bronze House. Leonidas was more angry with his son-in-law, so he went after Cleombrotus first, and there saw Chilonis and her children standing by her husband.

"I am not wearing these sad clothes, father," she said, "because of the present misfortune of my husband. I put them on when I went with you to help you in exile. Now that you have returned to your country and have recovered your kingdom, do I still have to stay in grief and misery? How can I put on my royal ornaments, and rejoice with you, after you have killed the man you gave me to? Why should I live, and how can I possibly hold my head up among the women of Sparta, when it will be obvious to everyone that I cannot stimulate compassion in either my husband or my father? Either these tears of mine, and of my children, will appease your anger, or I will die right here and now. You yourself offer the best excuse for what my husband did -- you show the world that it is right to kill even a son-in-law, and a daughter, for the sake of royal power." After she said this, she rested her face on the head of her husband and looked with tearful eyes at Leonidas and his men.

Leonidas left to consult with his friends, and when he came back he said that Cleombrotus would be permitted to go into exile. As for Chilonis, the decision was that she should not forsake a father who had been so kind to her and her husband. But she got up immediately, took one of the children in her arms, gave the other to her husband, and followed Cleombrotus out of the temple. If Cleombrotus had not been blinded by ambition, he should have known that he was better off as an exile with such an excellent woman than as a king without her.

* * *

Now that Cleombrotus and Agesilaus were out of the way, Leonidas and the rich men considered how to proceed against Agis. At first, Leonidas tried deceit. He told Agis that he was welcome to come out and share the kingdom. Surely, said Leonidas, the people would pardon the errors of a young man, who had been deceived by the cunning of Agesilaus.

When that trick did not work, Leonidas resorted to the treachery of Agis' friends. Amphares and Damochares used to visit Agis often, and Agis was so confident of their loyalty that he sometimes left the temple under their guard to take a bath nearby while they kept a lookout. Amphares had borrowed a lot of silver and household furnishings from Agis' mother, and Amphares thought he might get to keep this borrowed treasure if she and her family were dead. Unknown to Agis, his false friend Amphares was one of Leonidas' loudest toadies against him.

One day, after Agis had left the sanctuary of the temple, Amphares and Damochares threw a cloak over his head and dragged him off to jail. To preserve some semblance of justice, there was a trial before the ephors and those senators who were of the party of the rich.

Agis smiled and said nothing. Then one of the ephors, as if to suggest a way to save himself, asked Agis whether he had been led into what he had done by the deception of Agesilaus and Lysander. Agis answered that he had not been forced or deceived by anyone to follow the example of Lycurgus, and to govern in accordance with his laws. The same ephor asked whether now he was sorry, and Agis answered that even if he suffered the most extreme penalty for it, he would never be sorry for doing what was just and glorious.

This tribunal sentenced Agis to death and ordered the jailers to carry him to the place where criminals were strangled. The executioners refused to touch Agis, and even the mercenaries would not do it. They believed that it was illegal and wicked to lay violent hands on a king. So Agis' false friend Damochares took him to the place of execution, screaming threats and abuse at the men who had not followed orders.

By this time, the news of Agis' impending execution had spread through the city, and a large crowd had gathered outside the jail, demanding that the king be released and tried before the people. Now Agis' enemies could delay no longer.

To one of the officers who stood by as he was executed, Agis said: "Waste no tears on me, my friend. I die innocent, by the wrongful act of evil men. I am much better off than they are." And without any sign of fear, he offered his neck. Never before had a Spartan king been executed. 10

Immediately after Agis' death, Amphares went outside and found Agis’ mother and grandmother in the crowd. Still feigning friendship, Amphares told them that he would arrange for them to talk to Agis, and would personally guarantee that Agis would not be harmed in any way. Once Amphares had the two women inside the prison, he locked the doors behind them and then strangled them.


1. The centaurs were mythical creatures that were half-man and half-horse. Their father was Ixion, a mortal who was invited to visit the home of the gods on Mount Olympus. There he lusted after Hera (Juno), the wife of Zeus (Jupiter) and queen of the gods. For his faux pas, Ixion was punished in the realm of Hades by being tied onto a big wheel, which crushed him as it turned around and around forever. Cf. "The Wheel of Fortune" card in the Tarot deck.

2. This is the common logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, i.e. reasoning that if the proposition "if p then q" is true, it necessarily follows that the statement "if q then p" is always true. The converse of a proposition is not necessarily true. For example, if it is true that a man has two legs and no feathers, it is not therefore necessarily true that a plucked chicken is a man.

Another common fallacy is denying the antecedent, i.e. saying that from the proposition "if p then q" the statement "if not p then not q" necessarily follows. The inverse of a proposition is not necessarily true. The only thing that necessarily follows from a proposition is its contrapositive ("if not q then not p"). Because nearly all lawyers and judges in the United States have no acquaintance with even elementary logic, which has been known to educated people since the time of Aristotle, such errors abound in American jurisprudence.

3. Sparta had two royal families and therefore usually had two concurrent kings. The royal lines of Sparta ended in 222 B.C.

4. The ephors were a committee of five, elected annually, who wielded the executive power of the government. Re-election as an ephor was prohibited.

5. Jehovah (the god of the Hebrews) commanded the Hebrews (Leviticus 25: 9-16) to wipe out all leases and mortgages in a jubilee every fifty years. He also forbade them to charge interest (Leviticus 25: 36). Still another commandment (Deuteronomy 15:1) was to release all debts every seven years. Otherwise, compounding interest pyramids the money supply to astronomical proportions. Those whom time works for, i.e. a few who are fortunate enough to be lenders, gradually wind up with all property while the rest of the people are reduced to poverty. No one knows how long the Jews respected these commandments, or whether there is any causative link between the abrogation of the jubilee and the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon.

6. Spartan citizenship was only granted to those who had mothers and fathers who were citizens, who completed the Spartan training program, and who were chosen to one of the mess companies, paid their taxes, and did their duties. They were called equals, or Spartiates. Those who failed the training had an inferior status. The perioeci were free men in conquered territory, who were not Spartans. They were above the helots in the Spartan social order, and they had some degree of autonomy. The helots were the indigenous people, whom the Spartans had conquered and enslaved to do their labor. Helots each got a certain number of lashes every year, to remind them that they were slaves, and they had to wear leather clothes and dog-skin hats.

7. The oracle at Thalamae was at the temple of the goddess Pasiphae. Plutarch tells us that some say Pasiphae was the mother of Ammon (the god Alexander claimed as his father), while others say that this is another name for Cassandra, the princess of Troy, whom King Agamemnon brought back to Greece with him. Cassandra was blessed by the gift of prophecy, but her curse was that no one would ever believe her warnings. Still another tale is that Pasiphae was Daphne, the first love of Apollo, who escaped his lust by turning into a laurel tree. Apollo then endowed this tree with the gift of prophecy.

8. Neptune is the Roman name for Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. He and Pluto (Hades) were the brothers of Jupiter (Zeus). When Jupiter deposed their father, Saturn (Cronos) and took over as king of the gods, these three divided up the world between them, with Jupiter getting the land and sky for his domain, Neptune the sea for his, and Pluto the underworld.

9. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, a warrior maiden without a mother, who sprang fully-armed from the head of Zeus (Jupiter). Her name in Roman mythology is Minerva. Athena was the patroness of Athens, but she was worshipped all over Greece and in Troy. Athena figures prominently in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

10. The state of Spartan society after the death of Agis is described as follows by Plutarch in his life of Cleomenes, which is not included in this collection:

"The citizens lay dissolved in idleness and pleasures. The king let everything take its own course, and was glad if no one disturbed him from enjoying his luxury. The public interest was neglected. Everyone was intent on private gain. It was dangerous even to mention the education and exercise of the youth, and to talk about the old Sparta was regarded as a sort of treason against the modern state."

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