King Agesilaus II had an interesting and paradoxical reign in ancient Sparta. He succeeded to the throne after the death of his brother, King Agis II, in 400 BCE. Agis had a son, named Leotychidas, but he was excluded from the kingship after questions were raised about the legitimacy of his birth. The crown then passed to Leotychidas’ uncle, Agesilaus, who ruled from 400 BCE to around 360 or 359 BCE, a reign of about forty-one years in total. He was a king of tremendous military skill who took the throne at the height of Sparta’s power, yet despite his battlefield prowess, his reign ended with the Spartan empire in tatters.
In the final year of his rule, King Agesilaus was said to have been eighty-four years old. By then, the façade of an unbeatable Sparta had been shattered—Epaminondas, a brilliant military leader from Thebes, defeated the Spartan army in a pitched battle at Leuctra (371 BCE), and laid siege to the wall-less city of Sparta at least two times, in 370 BCE and 362 BCE. Although Sparta survived both sieges and even killed Epaminondas in 362 BCE, their reputation as a state of invincible warriors had been irreparably damaged and the Spartans were even pushed out of their long-held territory of Messenia by Thebes.
Toward the end of his life, elderly King Agesilaus was still trying to reassert Sparta as a major regional power. Despite being in his eighties, he was still very active in the military and international politics. In 360 BCE, King Agesilaus accepted a military contract from Tachos, a Pharaoh of the 30th dynasty of Egypt. The frail Agesilaus personally gathered a band of Greek mercenaries and sailed with them across the Mediterranean to help Tachos in a war against Persia. When he arrived in Egypt, the locals found it hard to reconcile the shrunken old man that they saw before them with the stories of the famous Spartan king who was a veteran of countless battles. The Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 46-119 CE), recreated the scene in his Parallel Lives:
“Agesilaus’ name and fame had aroused great interest and high expectations among Egyptians generally, and everyone thronged to catch a glimpse of him. When the sight proved to be nothing brilliant or elaborate, but a pathetic old man of slight build, wrapped in a coarse, shabby cloak, and lying on a patch of grass by the sea, they began to laugh and make fun of him, remarking that here was the perfect illustration of the saying about the mountain being in labour and then giving birth to a mouse” (Life of Agesilaus, chapter 36).
Tachos, too, was unimpressed by what he saw when he met with the Spartan king. The Pharaoh did not give the Spartan a significant position of command in his army, but only left him in charge of the mercenaries he had brought from Greece. In contrast to this, Tachos placed an Athenian named Chambrias in charge of the whole Egyptian fleet. Agesilaus absorbed the laughter and insults of the Egyptians and Tachos without flinching, but he did not forget their words and actions. Unfortunately for the Pharaoh, the Spartan king would soon prove that his military skills were very much still intact.
While Agesilaus II was serving in Egypt, Tachos’ cousin, Nectanebis (or Nectanebo II), launched a coup to usurp power in Egypt. After his cold welcome, Agesilaus had little sympathy for the reigning pharaoh, so he abandoned Tachos and sided with Nectanebis. Tachos eventually fled from Egypt, but before Nectanebis could seize control, an unnamed rival from Mendes raised his own force in an effort to take the Egyptian throne. Nectanebis allegedly had fewer troops than the new upstart, so he withdrew, in fear or by plan, to an unknown city with sturdy defenses. The rival to the throne quickly arrived and laid siege to the city, trapping Nectanebis and Agesilaus inside. The besiegers then began digging a deep trench in a circle around the city to further trap the defenders inside.
When the trench was nearly completed, Agesilaus revealed to Nectanebis that he had a plan. By this point, the trench had almost encircled the city, but there was still a small gap yet to be finished. Agesilaus explained that they could use the enemy’s trenches to their own advantage, using the gap as a bottleneck to swing the balance of power back into their favor. He convinced Nectanebis to move his troops to the gap in the trench once night fell and to attack the besieging forces stationed there. According to Plutarch, the numerically superior besiegers were blocked from doing any devastating flanking maneuvers by the trenches that they themselves had dug. Instead, the two opposing forces clashed, head to head, at the gap between the ends of the trenches. Nectanebis and Agesilaus’ Greek mercenaries quickly proved themselves as the better fighting force and caused their enemies to flee.
Under Agesilaus’ direction, the victorious troops left the gap and confronted the remaining besiegers. With a series of feints and repositioning, Agesilaus eventually cornered the enemy forces between two canals. There, the Spartan was able to fill the space between the channels with his Greek hoplite spearmen and slaughter the army of Nectanebis’ rival.
Not long after that battle, King Agesilaus II decided to return to Sparta. Nectanebis gave the Spartan 230 talents of silver in payment for his help in the war effort. The eighty-four-year-old Spartan King did not survive the journey home. He died in 360 or 359 BCE, while his ships were anchored in a region of Libya known as Menelaus’ Harbor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Tondo from an Attic red cup, possibly Briseis and Phoenix (Louvre caption) or Hecamede and Nestor, ca. 490 BC. From Vulci. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.