The Misdirections Of The Spartan King Agesilaus II Against The Persian Satrap, Tissaphernes


Agesilaus II was the Eurypontid monarch of Sparta who ruled from 400-360/359 BCE. In the first few years of his reign, world events pushed him into a confrontation with Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap with whom the Greeks had a long history.

Tissaphernes entered the historical record around 415 BCE, when he dismantled a rebellion by a troublesome Persian satrap named Pissuthnes. After the rebellious satrap was executed, Tissaphernes was appointed the new governor of eastern Anatolia, overseeing the regions of Lydia and Caria.

In his role as satrap of those regions, Tissaphernes aligned with Sparta around 413 BCE to push Athenian influence out of Anatolia. Persia, of course, kept the lands that the Athenians relinquished. Yet, the campaigns still tremendously helped Spartan interests in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Even though his alliance with Sparta helped Tissaphernes reclaim almost all of the Greek settlements in Anatolia, the satrap was worried about the dangers that a victorious Sparta could pose to Persia. Therefore, he strove to be the least effective ally he could be, often withholding troops, ships and information from his Spartan allies. This policy eventually drew the ire of the Persian King of Kings, Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE), who decided to give his full support to Sparta around 407 BCE.

Darius II eventually removed Tissaphernes from office and instead put his son, Cyrus the Younger, in charge of governing Lydia. Tissaphernes began to rise back to power after the death of Darius II in 404 BCE. The throne passed to Artaxerxes, the brother of Cyrus the Younger, and the siblings did not get along. By 401 BCE, Cyrus the Younger rebelled. Cyrus was killed in the battle of Cunaxa (401 BCE), and in the aftermath of the battle, Tissaphernes was reinstated as the satrap of Lydia and Caria.

Many of the Greek settlements in Anatolia had joined the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, and they refused to rejoin the Persian Empire even after Cyrus’ death. This was the world that King Agesilaus II faced when he took the throne in 400 BCE.

Sparta sent multiple armies to aid the Greeks in Anatolia against the Persians. Two commanders, Thibron and Dercylidas, were fairly ineffective in their campaigns. Finally, King Agesilaus II decided to personally lead a larger force against Tissaphernes.

The Spartan king supposedly gathered his forces at Ephesus and attempted to resolve the situation with diplomacy. When negotiations failed, he readied his army to march. He announced openly that he planned to march against southern Anatolia, to raid the region of Caria. He even supposedly had supplies and markets set up southward along the planned route, so that his troops would be well provisioned as they moved. All this visual and verbal information eventually leaked back to Tissiphernes, who promptly moved his forces to defend the south.

Unfortunately for the Persian satrap, it had all been a trick. When Agesilaus II readied his men, he did not have them move south, but instead marched north and east, raiding into Lydia and Phrygia. As Tissaphernes had relocated his troops south, Agesilaus met very little resistance and his troops suffered few casualties.

In 395 BCE, Tissaphernes saw eerily similar signs coming from the Spartan army. He heard reports that King Agesilaus II was planning to move north against Lydia. Again, supply depots and markets were being preemptively organized by the Greeks; this time they were being placed along the roads leading toward the Lydian capital of Sardis. Remembering Agesilaus’ last raid, Tissaphernes positioned his troops in the opposite direction of the signs. Instead of defending Lydia, he moved his forces south to protect Caria.

Agesilaus II and the Spartan army, however, did exactly as they announced and marched toward the Lydian capital of Sardis. When Tissaphernes realized he had been tricked yet again, he frantically rushed his forces northward to intercept the Spartans. In his haste, the satrap failed to keep his forces together and he allegedly arrived on the fields of Sardis without any infantry. King Agesilaus II pounced on the tired and unbalanced army, inflicting an embarrassing defeat on Tissaphernes. The loss did not only harm Tissaphernes’ lands, but also irreparably tattered his own reputation. After the Battle of Sardis in 395 BCE, the Persian King of Kings, Artaxerxes, lost all confidence in Tissaphernes and had the unfortunate man executed within the year.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Attic Greek wine-mixing bowl, circa 450 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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