This image, produced anonymously around 1914 for Hutchinson’s History of the Nations, illustrates the final chapter in the life of King Agesilaus II of Sparta (400 BCE-360/359 BCE). This king came to power at the height of Sparta’s golden age, and Agesilaus, himself, was a talented military leader who showed promise of being able to bring the Spartan military to even greater heights. Yet, such hopes would not be fulfilled. He had the misfortune of living at the same time as Epaminondas of Thebes, a brilliant general who defeated the Spartan army in a pitched battle at Leuctra (371 BCE) and laid siege to Sparta at least two times, in 370 BCE and 362 BCE. King Agesilaus II and the Spartans were eventually spared from this Theban scourge when Epaminondas received a mortal wound at the Second Battle of Mantinea in 362 BCE, but by then the damage was already done. After Epaminondas’ campaigns, Sparta’s carefully-crafted reputation of having a near-invincible army was shattered. Agesilaus, by that point an old man, did not sulk after his setbacks, but instead organized troops for one last military endeavor during his reign. As is hinted at by the image above, he brought his force to Egypt, where the old king and his downtrodden Spartans were reportedly not given a respectful welcome. The ancient biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), described how the elderly king’s awkward entry into Egypt might have played out:
“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).
Agesilaus II reportedly arrived in Egypt around 360 BCE, when Tachos (or Zedhor) was in power. Although the Spartan king and his troops were ridiculed, the old ruler would soon show the Egyptians that he still had a spark left over from his glory days. During his stay in the region, Agesilaus was said to have helped Tachos’ cousin, Nectanebis (or Nectanebo II), successfully usurp power in Egypt. After helping the new pharaoh achieve the throne, Agesilaus set sail for home, but died before he reached Sparta. He was reportedly eighty-four years old. For more information and context about the reign of King Agesilaus II, read more of our articles about his reign, HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley