When a civilization begins to decline, those witnessing the fall start to question what went wrong. Was it abandoning traditional government, apostatizing from the ancestral religion, or was it a general degradation of morality that brought about the end? And when once-great powers find themselves without strength, they look to the past in search of the specialness that they had lost by the time of their present.
King Agis IV of Sparta felt these emotions strongly. He took power in 244 or 243 BCE, allegedly at the young age of nineteen. Agis was a member of the Eurypontid line of Spartan kings, one of two co-ruling monarchies in Sparta. His co-king from the Agiad line was Leonidas II, who had been in power since 251 BCE. The two kings had vastly different visions for Sparta and their personalities were bound to clash. It was a classic sociopolitical conflict—the ongoing struggle between the revolutionary and the defender of the status quo.
By King Agis’ time, the status quo was not appealing. Sparta had long outlived its prime. The kingdom that Agis IV ruled in 244 BCE was a shadow of the great military state that had won glory in the Greco-Persian Wars (490s-449 BCE) and the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). The spotlight of the ancient Mediterranean world was now shining outside of mainland Greece, on powerful kingdoms formed from the fragmented empire of Alexander the Great, such as the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire, which controlled most of Alexander’s Persian lands. The 3rd century BCE also saw a military struggle that would outshine all the rest in that century of Mediterranean history—the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Yes, by that time, Sparta had been pushed out of the limelight and was seemingly just another one of the many feuding Greek states.
As might be imagined, King Agis IV was not happy about Sparta’s place in the world. When he searched for reasons as to why his kingdom’s prominence had taken such a downturn, the most glaring difference between Sparta’s storied past and his bland present centered on the teachings of a mysterious man called Lycurgus. Ancient Sparta saw Lycurgus as their philosophical founding father. The city of Sparta existed before him, but Lycurgus was the person attributed with turning Sparta into a luxury-opposed military state sometime between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE. In King Agis’ day, Sparta had given up many of Lycurgus’ teachings, including the opposition to wealth and luxury, as well as the boot-camp atmosphere that had produced some of the most elite warriors of antiquity.
King Agis IV thought that if he brought back the Lycurgian constitution, then Sparta would be reborn. Therefore, when Agis took power, he began proposing reforms in order to regain Sparta’s lost identity—he wanted to clear debts, reinstitute a communal mess hall system, and redistribute Spartan land. Agis supposedly led by example, personally handing over his own estates for redistribution and lending a great deal of money to the state treasury. The common masses flocked to the king’s cause and Agis also received the support of his wealthy mother, Agesistrata, and his grandmother, Archidamia. King Agis IV gained even more support when, in 243 or 242 BCE, his loyal friend, Lysander, was elected as one of the ephors that shared power with the two kings of Sparta.
Even with Agis’ family, friends and the masses joining the cause, Agis did not have the support of the people who played the most vital role in his plan—the wealthy landowners of Sparta. Although some notable Spartans were willing to sacrifice their land and wealth, most of the upper class in Sparta had no interest in giving up their possessions and power. These influential Spartiates organized into a powerful opposition movement headed by Agis’ co-ruler, King Leonidas II.
With the two Spartan kings at odds, the opposing factions battled it out with law and politics. King Agis’ side launched the first blows. The ephor, Lysander proved himself to be an innovative lawyer. He used an archaic law which, when triggered by a shooting star, allowed a king of Sparta to be tried for wrongdoing. With this interesting statute, Lysander brought charges against King Leonidas II, who fled to the safety of a temple. Agis’ faction found a new sympathetic co-king in a man named Cleombrotus II, who awkwardly was Leonidas’ son-in-law.
This was scandalous behavior, and when Lysander’s one-year term as ephor ended, the next set of ephors brought him to trial. Lysander, however, had powerful friends and both King Agis IV and Cleombrotus II came to his rescue. The Spartan kings removed the new ephors from power and elected sympathizers and allies into office. One of the men that Agis IV unfortunately brought to power was his uncle, Agesilaus. While not a zealot for Agis’ cause, Agesilaus was family and was more than willing to join his nephew’s administration. Sadly for King Agis IV, he would realize too late that Agesilaus was more loyal to himself than to his king.
Around 241 BCE, the Achaean League requested the aid of Sparta, and King Agis IV decided to personally lead a force of his revitalized army to their support. The commanding general of the Achaean League, Aratus of Sicyon, interestingly sent the Spartans home before Agis could test his troops in combat. Even if the short trip was uneventful for King Agis IV and his expeditionary force, his brief absence had a drastic effect on Sparta. Without the king’s oversight, Agis’ uncle, Agesilaus, showed himself to be extremely corrupt. Agesilaus’ corruption disgruntled King Agis’ supporters and reignited the opposition movement. Before the end of 241 BCE, the opposing faction invited the exiled king, Leonidas II, back to Sparta. In a reverse of fate, now it was time for Agis and Cleombrotus to flee to the sanctuary of sacred temples. Cleombrotus was deposed and Leonidas was reinstated as the king of the Agiad line. Leonidas II apparently wanted to execute his treacherous son-in-law, but his daughter (Cleombrotus’ wife) convinced him to reduce the sentence to exile.
King Agis IV was shown less mercy. Agis was arrested while he bathed outside of the temple. Leonidas II had him executed by strangulation, by means of either hands or noose. According to the historian Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), King Agis’ mother and grandmother were also allegedly executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Lycurgus of Sparta, painted by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.