Agesilaus II, king of Sparta, c.444-360 BC

Agesilaus II, king of Sparta (c.444-360 BC) was a successful general who was unable to prevent the slow decline of Sparta from its position of dominance at the end of the Great Peloponnesian War. He was a member of the Eurypontid house, one of the two royal families of Sparta, and was the son of King Archidamus II. He came to the throne in 399, after the death of King Agis II, with the support of Lysander, the dominant Spartan commander of the last years of the Great Peloponnesian War. He hadn’t been the obvious candidate for the throne, having been born with a club foot, but the Spartans decided that Agis's son was illegitimate, and Lysander supported Agesilaus's claim to the throne.

In 397 the Spartan system was threatened by a plot to kill the full Spartan citizens, who were massively outnumbered by the other elements in the Spartan population. Agesilaus suppressed this potential plot, killing most of the plotters.

By the time Agesilaus came to the throne Sparta was at war with her former ally Persia (Persian-Spartan War, 400-387). Sparta had offered limited support to the revolt of Cyrus the Younger, which had been defeated at Cunaxa in 401. In the aftermath of this revolt the Persians began to attack the Greek cities of Asia Minor, and they turned to Sparta for help. The Spartans decided to intervene and sent an army to Asia Minor. At first the fighting was on a fairly small scale, but when the Persians began to commit more troops the Spartans decided to send reinforcements. Agesilaus offered to lead an army of 30 Spartiates, two thousand freed helots and six thousand allies to Asia. As had happened earlier in the war, Corinth and Thebes refused to contribute troops, and this time Athens also refused to help. The Thebans further alienated Agesilaus by interrupting his attempt to sacrifice to Artemis at Aulis (copying Agamemnon before the attack on Troy).

Agesilaus arrived at Ephesus in 396. His first action was to negotiate a three month truce with the Persians, which he used to manoeuvre Lysander into leaving for a different theatre. After the truce expired, Agesilaus raided into Phrygia, after convincing the satrap Tissaphernes that he was actually heading for Caria. One of his officers during this campaign was the historian Xenophon, who had recently helped lead the '10,000' as they escaped from the heart of the Persian Empire after the battle of Cunaxa. Xenophon was very impressed with Agesilaus, and later made him the subject of several of his books.

Battles of the Corinthian War
Battles of the
Corinthian War

In 395 Agesilaus raided Lydia and defeated a Persian force outside Sardis. He then raided into Mysia, Phrygia and Paphlagonia, where he briefly won over local support before losing most of again. However the same year saw the outbreak of the Corinthian War (395-386), which saw Sparta face a powerful coalition of Greek states, including Thebes, Athens, Argos and Corinth.

In 394 Agesilaus planned another major expedition, possibly in the hope of advancing further east across Asia Minor, but he was then recalled to fight in Greece after the Spartan leader Lysander was killed at the battle of Nemea (395) during an invasion of Boeotia. Agesilaus was thus not involved in the major Spartan naval defeat at Cnidus (394), where a Persian fleet commanded by the Athenian admiral Conon destroyed Spartan naval power.

Agesilaus returned to Greece at the head of a fairly powerful but rather mixed army. He had no problem convincing the Greeks of Asia Minor to join his army, but the troops from mainland Greece (including a force of enfranchised helots) were less keen on fighting fellow Greeks. Agesilaus used the promise of prizes for the best contingent to get them to move. His army also included a contingent of survivors from the '10,000', commanded by Herippidas.

Agesilaus chose to return via the overland route. He had to fight his way through Thrace, where he learnt that the Spartans had won a significant victory at Nemea near Corinth, and again as he moved south through Thessaly. Here he used his own cavalry to inflict a defeat on the famous cavalry of Thessaly.

Back in Greece Agesilaus won a victory over the allies at Coronea in Boeotia in 394, defeating an army that was attempting to block his path, but the defeat at Cnidus meant that this victory had little impact. News of the defeat at Cnidus reached Agesilaus just before the battle of Coronea, but he lied to his men, telling them that the Spartans had won. Most of the anti-Spartan allied troops performed badly in this battle, although the Thebans broke their immediate opponents and reached the Spartan camp before they realised they were dangerously isolated. Agesilaus formed a new line to stop them reaching safety, and was wounded in the heavy fighting that followed. The Thebans eventually broke through the Spartan lines, but only after suffering significant casualties. However the allied army remained largely intact, and Agesilaus was forced to retreat west into Locris, where he disbanded his army, crossed the Gulf of Corinth and returned to Sparta.

In the spring of 391 Agesilaus led the first invasion of Argive territory, then quickly returned to Corinth where he recaptured the Long Walls that linked the city to the Corinthian Gulf. These had been taken by the Spartans as a result of civil strife within Corinth, but then retaken by a major allied army. After Agesilaus recaptured the walls and the port of Lechaeum they stayed in Spartan hands for the rest of the war.

In 390 Agesilaus invaded Corinthian territory, campaigning in the Piraeum peninsula, where the Corinthians had their main herds of cattle. His successes here encouraged the Boeotians to suggest peace talks, but before anything came of this a Spartan hoplite regiment suffered a major defeat outside Lechaeum, when they were caught by Iphicrates's light peltasts. Agesilaus was forced to temporarily abandon the expedition, and when he returned the idea of peace talks had disappeared.

In 389 Agesilaus was forced to campaign in Acarnania, to the north-west of the Gulf of Corinth. Sparta's Achaean allies had taken control of Calydon in the south-west of Aetolia, but this was now being threatened by the Acarnanians and their Boeotian and Athenian allies. Agesilaus was sent to support the Achaeans. He was able to raid the Acarnanian countryside, but failed to take any of their cities and almost suffered an embarrassing defeat when he attempted to chase them into the mountains. He left in the early autumn, before disrupting the planting season. His argument was that the Acarnanians were more likely to seek peace if they had a crop to protect, and when he announced his plan to return in 388 he was proved right as they sued for peace. 

In 387-6 the Persian-Spartan War and the Corinthian War were both ended by the King's Peace. A key clause of this treaty was the granting of autonomy to all Greek cities. Agesilaus used this to force Thebes to disband the Boeotian League, leaving Sparta as the dominant military power in Greece.

In 385 the Spartans turned against Mantinea, having decided that they had been disloyal during the Corinthian War. Agesipolis led the Spartan troops that ravaged Mantinean territory and besieged the city, and eventually defeated the defenders by diverting a stream so that it flooded the city. The Mantineans were forced to abandon the city and return to the original five villages it had been formed from.

In 381-380 the Spartans intervened at Phlius, north-west of Argos, supporting a group of exiled friends of Agesilaus. He took command of the siege, which lasted for a year and eight months. On this occasion he was rather more merciful- the city was left intact and a group of 50 of the exiles and 50 of the defenders were ordered to create a new constitution.

Battles of the Theban-Spartan War, 379-371
Battles of the
Theban-Spartan War,
379-371 BC

In 382 a passing Spartan army seized power in Thebes. This turned out to be a disastrous mistake. Sparta soon found herself facing an alliance of Thebes and Athens (Theban-Spartan War, 379-371). At first Sparta held the advantage, almost besieging Thebes in 378 and 377. Agesilaus wasn't involved in the earliest campaigns, but he took command of the army in 378. He advanced almost to Thebes, where he was faced by a major Boeotian and Athenian army, and eventually decided not to fight. He also led the campaign of 377, but later in the year a vein in his leg ruptured, leaving him bedridden for some time.

Eventually events turned against the Spartans and in 371 they entered into peace negotiations. Once again Agesilaus refused to allow Thebes to speak for the Boeotian League, and Epaminondas, the Theban leader, withdrew from the negotiations. Agesilaus's co-ruler, King Cleombrotus, led a Spartan army into Boeotian, but suffered a crushing defeat at Leuctra (371 BC).

This battle marked the end of the period of Spartan military supremacy. Thebes became the dominant Greek power for the next decade. Agesilaus was able to prevent the Thebans from directly threatening Sparta, and led the defence of the city when Epaminondas threatened it in 370, putting up enough of a defence to discourage a direct attack on the city and defeating two internal threats.

He saved the city for a second time in 362 when Epaminondas attacked for a second time. He wasn’t present at the battle of Mantinea (362), another Theban victory and Spartan defeat. However the most important outcome of this battle was the death of Epaminondas. With their great leader gone, the Theban hegemony collapsed. Spartan prestige had also been crushed, and the field was open for Philip II of Macedonia.

Agesilaus was also involved in the Satrap's Revolt of the 360s, a series of rebellions against the authority of Artaxerxes II of Persia. He helped lift the siege of Adramyttium, where the rebel satrap Ariobarzanes was being besieged by Autophradates.

Agesilaus himself was away from Sparta at this point, fighting on behalf of Pharaoh Teos (or Tachos), who was attempting to regain Egypt's long lost provinces. Agesilaus then fell out with Tachos after the Pharaoh insisted in taking personal commander of an army campaigning in Phoenicia, and supported his rival Nectanbo II (r.360-343), who came to the throne with Greek support. Agesilaus helped defeat an attempt to overthrow Nectanbo and then set out for home, but died in 360 before reaching Sparta.

The Spartan Supremacy 412-371 BC, Mike Roberts and Bob Bennett. . Looks at the short spell between the end of the Great Peloponnesian War and the battle of Leuctra where Sparta's political power matched her military reputation. The authors look at how Sparta proved to be politically unequal to her new position, and how this period of supremacy ended with Sparta's military reputation in tatters and her political power fatally wounded. [read full review]
cover cover cover
Sparta at War, Scott M. Rusch. A study of the rise, dominance and fall of Sparta, the most famous military power in the Classical Greek world. Sparta dominated land warfare for two centuries, before suffering a series of defeats that broke its power. The author examines the reasons for that success, and for Sparta's failure to bounce back from defeat. [read full review]
cover cover cover

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 December 2015), Agesilaus II, king of Sparta, c.444-360 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_agesilaus_III_sparta.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies