Agesilaus, being a Spartan, was brought up with the severe discipline that formed so large a part of the education of that race. He was a younger brother, with little prospect of becoming a ruler, so he was trained to obey the laws strictly, and, being of a yielding, gentle, sensitive nature, anxious to do right, and distressed at the slightest rebuke, he was easily controlled.
According to the custom with Spartan youths, he was bred in one of the flocks or classes, and so orderly and well behaved was he that Lysander took a fancy to him. He was a handsome boy, in spite of a slight deformity, which consisted in one leg being shorter than the other; but that did not inconvenience him much, for he was high-spirited and eager to distinguish himself. When he grew to manhood he was undersized and insignificant-looking, but his good humor, cheerfulness, and kindliness made him attractive to the end of his life.
By the death of his brother he became king of Sparta, and grew into great power and popularity. In the life of Lycurgus there is an account of how that statesman instituted two bodies to act as a restraint upon the power of the kings. These were the Ephors, who were chosen annually, and the Elders, who held their offices during life. The idea which Lycurgus had in this change in the government was good, but it was a constant cause of disturbance, because the kings did not like to share their authority.
Agesilaus was wise enough to court favor with both the Ephors and the Elders; he asked their advice on every point, and was always ready to go to them when they needed him. Besides, he treated them with great respect, and made them so fond of him that they were satisfied with everything he did, and thus he became powerful almost without their suspecting it. By seeming to obey he ruled them and Sparta, and by justice to his enemies and attachment to his friends he won many hearts.
Agesilaus had not been long on the throne when news came that the king of Persia was preparing a great fleet to overthrow that of the Spartans. Lysander then wanted to be sent to Asia to support his friends, who were governors of the Greek cities there, so he persuaded Agesilaus to enter Asia at once with his forces, in order that the war might be carried on at a distance from home. Agesilaus consented, and called an assembly of the people, before whom he agreed to undertake the war on condition that they would supply him with thirty Spartans for captains and counsellors, two thousand chosen men of the newly-freed Helots, and six thousand of the allies. This request was granted, and Agesilaus started, with Lysander for his chief. Both were glad to go upon this expedition, because it seemed to offer an opportunity for them to win laurels.
While the army was collecting at the sea-shore, Agesilaus went with his friends to Bœotia, and the first night he slept there he dreamed that a man approached him and said, "O King of the Lacedæmonians, you know that since Agamemnon nobody has been appointed captain-general of all the Greeks but yourself. Therefore, since you command the same people, go against the same enemies, and depart from the very place that he did. You ought to please the goddess by offering the sort of sacrifice he offered before he sailed."
Now, Agesilaus knew that Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in obedience to the oracle, but he meant to do no such thing with his own daughter; so, when relating his dream next morning, he said, "I will not imitate the savage ignorance of Agamemnon, for I do not believe that would give pleasure to so reasonable a being as the goddess; I will offer another sacrifice, however." He thereupon put a crown of flowers on a hind, delivered her to his private soothsayer, and ordered him to perform the ceremony. This gave offence to the chief magistrates of Bœotia, who said that if their own soothsayers were left out of the sacrifice, which they could perform only according to the laws and customs of their country, the ceremony should not take place at all. So the thighs of the hind were thrown from the altar, and Agesilaus, highly offended at such treatment, departed in anger. He was distressed also, for the omen seemed to warn him of failure, and he dreaded to undertake the expedition against the Persian king.
He then joined Lysander at Ephesus, where he found that officer in such high favor that the greatest honors were being shown him. All sorts of applications were made to him, so that the importance of Agesilaus was lessened, and he became ruler only in name. He was not naturally a jealous man, but this he could not stand, and determined to change it. The method he chose was to oppose everything Lysander said or did. If a man applied to Lysander for anything, Agesilaus made it a point to refuse, so that even the friends of the former knew they must go straight to the king if they wanted to be heard. Agesilaus went further: he appointed his chief officer to the position of carver in the royal household, and, when he did so, said before several guests, "Now let the people who want favors pay their court to my carver."
Lysander was very much hurt, and said, "Agesilaus, you know well how to humble your friends." "I know those who want more power than I have," answered Agesilaus. "But perhaps," returned Lysander, "that has been so represented to you rather than tried by me. However, all I ask is that you will place me in a position where I may serve you without displeasing you." He was sent as lieutenant to the Hellespont, and was killed in the war not long after.
Agesilaus then proceeded with an army to Persia, and on his approach Tissaphernes, the Persian commander, was so frightened that he proposed a treaty by which the Greek cities in Asia were to be governed by their own laws; but when his forces were collected, they proved to be more numerous than he had expected, and so he took courage and declared war.
To punish him for breaking his word, Agesilaus pretended to march with his whole army to Caria, and as soon as the Persians were drawn to that quarter he turned about and entered Phrygia, where he took many cities and immense treasure. But he found his cavalry to be weak, and retired to Ephesus to increase it. The plan he adopted was to insist that every person of means who did not wish to serve should provide a man and a horse, and thus he got together quite a respectable body.
One day he ordered that all the prisoners should be stripped and sold at public auction. Their clothing was offered separately, and brought a large price, but, the prisoners being for the most part small, and their skins being white and soft, it was not thought that they could make valuable slaves, and the bids for them were low. Agesilaus, who stood by with his soldiers at the auction, said, in a tone of contempt, "These are the persons with whom ye fight;" then, pointing to the rich spoils, he added, "Those are the things for which ye fight."
Agesilaus then gave out that he would invade Lydia, but Tissaphernes, who had been deceived before, now made up his mind that Caria was to be the next scene of battle, and led his forces there. When the Greeks spread out on the plains of Sardis, the Persians had to march there in such haste, that, taking advantage of their disorder, Agesilaus gave them battle, put them to flight, took their camp, and killed great numbers. The king of Persia was so displeased with his general on account of this defeat, which opened the country to the enemy, that he sent Tithraustes to cut off his head and take the command instead. That general was also instructed to offer Agesilaus large sums of money on condition that he would go back home. "The making of peace belongs to the Lacedæmonians, not to me," answered Agesilaus. "As for wealth, I would rather see it in the hands of my soldiers than in my own; we Grecians do not think it honorable to enrich ourselves with bribes from our enemies; we prefer to carry home spoils." But, to show his gratification at the way in which Tissaphernes had been disposed of, he retired into Phrygia. While on the march he received a staff, or "scytale," from Sparta, appointing him commander of the navy as well as of the army, an honor that had never been given to any one else; but he was considered the greatest and most illustrious man of his time, more on account of his virtue and real merit than of his power.
The Grecian army did great damage in Phrygia, which was ruled by Pharnabazus. The latter did not feel strong enough to oppose the enemy, but moved about with his valuables from place to place to avoid a battle, and at last requested an interview with Agesilaus which was granted. Agesilaus reached the appointed place first and threw himself down upon the grass under a tree. Pharnabazus came with soft skins and rich rugs to recline upon, but when he beheld Agesilaus he grew ashamed of such luxury, and, in spite of his fine clothing, sat on the grass also.
After the usual salutations, Pharnabazus explained that he had just cause of complaint against the Lacedæmonians, they having ravaged his country, although he had done them great service at the time of the Athenian war. The Spartans who were present knew that they had wronged this man, who had indeed been their friend, and felt so ashamed that they hung their heads and blushed. Their general answered as follows: "While we were friends to the king of Persia, we treated him and his in a friendly manner; now that we are at war with him, we treat him as an enemy. As for you, we must look upon you as part of his property, and wound him through you. But whenever you prefer to be a friend to the Grecians rather than a slave to the king of Persia, you may count upon this army and navy to defend you, your country, and your liberties." To this Pharnabazus replied: "If the king send another governor in my place, I will certainly come over to you, but as long as he trusts me with the government I shall be just to him, and shall not fail to do my utmost to oppose you." Agesilaus was so struck by this noble reply that he took the hand of Pharnabazus, and said, "Heaven grant that so brave a man may be our friend rather than our enemy."
As Pharnabazus was going away, his son went up to Agesilaus, and saying, with a smile, "Sir, I extend to you the rites of hospitality," handed him a javelin. Agesilaus received it, and was so well pleased with the youth that he stripped a horse near by of its magnificent trappings and presented them in return. Many years later, when this same Persian was driven from his home by his brothers, he fled to Greece, and Agesilaus befriended him. One of the most marked traits in the character of Agesilaus was his loyalty to his friends, which sometimes led him to injustice. Thus, when Nicias was on trial, he wrote to the Prince of Caria, "If Nicias be innocent, acquit him; if he be guilty, acquit him on my account; but in any case acquit him."
By the time Agesilaus had been at the head of the army for two years he was so renowned that he was able to restore order in the governments of the various cities of Asia that had revolted from the Persians. He then resolved to remove the seat of war and attack the king in his own home, but before he could do so he was summoned to Sparta on account of the civil war which had broken out in Greece. Though at the very height of his glory, Agesilaus did not hesitate for a moment; his country needed him, and he must go, even though his work remained unfinished.
Some countries allowed him to pass as a friend, through others he was obliged to fight his way, and before he arrived home he was stopped by an Ephor, who came with a message that he was to go at once to Bœotia. He obeyed, and met the Thebans in battle, gaining a splendid victory after one of the most desperate fights ever known.
At last he returned to Sparta, and settled down to his former simple habits, just as though he had never seen a foreign country, and this made his fellow-citizens love and admire him more than ever. He was wise enough to make a friend of Agesipolis, the king who ruled Sparta with him, and by so doing got his half-brother, Teleutias, chosen admiral. Then, with his assistance at sea, Agesilaus made an expedition against the Corinthians, and took possession of their long walls. He was engaged in several other wars, being sometimes victorious and sometimes defeated, but always ready to fight the Thebans, whom he hated exceedingly. Indeed, this hatred was so well known that the Thebans complained of it, and said, "We are wearing ourselves out by going in such numbers on this or that expedition every year at the will of a handful of Lacedæmonians."
But Agesilaus convinced them that he had more warriors in the field than they had; for, as the Lacedæmonians were forbidden to learn trades, they were all warriors, whereas the Theban army was composed of mechanics of all sorts.
The Spartans were not always successful, but met with several defeats both by sea and by land, and at last, tired of so many wars, the various Greek states sent ambassadors to Lacedæmonia to arrange a treaty of peace. By the advice of Agesilaus, Thebes was left out when the treaty was signed, and war was declared on the spot against that city.
All the signs were opposed to war, but Agesilaus was determined to gratify his dislike of the Thebans, and the defeat of Leuctra was the consequence. In that battle four thousand Spartans were killed, and they were the flower of the army, brave young men, who fell sword in hand. From that time Sparta lost the superiority she had held in Greece for nearly five hundred years. The Thebans lost only three hundred men at Leuctra, and won the most glorious success that one Greek tribe could ever boast of over another.
The Spartans knew how to bear adversity with dignity, and showed in this case how truly brave they were. For when the news of their defeat reached Sparta a solemn feast was being celebrated, and many strangers from foreign countries were present. The Ephors gave orders that the rejoicings should not be interrupted, and privately sent the names of the slain to each family that had lost a member. The next morning the relations of those that had died fighting for their country appeared in public with cheerful countenances and congratulated each other, while those whose sons and brothers had survived hid themselves and looked troubled.
The reason of this was that among the Spartans those of their warriors who escaped death when their army was defeated were called runaways, and as such the laws against them were very severe. They had no honors of any sort shown them; no woman wanted to marry them; it was permitted to any one who should meet them in the street to beat them, and they dared not resist. They were in such disgrace that they were obliged to go about unwashed and poorly dressed, with patched clothes and unshaven beards.
At this time, when soldiers were needed, it was unfortunate for so many to be in disgrace, and it was feared that they might commit some desperate deed, so Agesilaus was requested to decide what was best to do. He would not take it upon himself to change any part of the laws, but, appearing in the public assembly, he proclaimed "that the law should sleep for to-day, and from this day forth be rigorously executed." So the young Spartans preserved their honor, and, in order to encourage them, Agesilaus led them at once into Arcadia, ravaged the country, and took the town of Mantinea. This success was balm to their wounded honor.
In the southern part of Greece is a district called Laconia, which, at the time we speak of, was inhabited by the Dorians. So powerful were these people considered that no man dared to invade their territory, and for six hundred years they had not seen the face of an enemy within its limits. But now the Thebans were aroused, and would stop at nothing, so with Epaminondas, a learned and virtuous statesman and soldier, to lead them, they invaded Laconia with a tremendous army, and ravaged and plundered the country to the very outskirts of Sparta.
Agesilaus stayed in Sparta to strengthen the fortifications and guard the exposed places. He was constantly taunted by the Thebans, who called him the author of all the trouble in his country, and bade him defend himself as best he could. Besides, he had to bear the reproaches of the old men and the women of Sparta, who were almost out of their senses on account of the enemy being so near, for hitherto it had been the proud boast of his countrymen that their wives and daughters had never beheld the smoke of the enemy's fire. This was changed now, and Agesilaus felt that he was to blame for it; his reputation was tarnished, and he had the pain of knowing that the country, which had been in a most flourishing and powerful condition when he mounted the throne, was now laid low; her glory had departed, and his own boasts had come to nothing.
While the disturbance lasted, several conspiracies were formed among the bad citizens, but, as soon as they were discovered, Agesilaus consulted with the Ephors and had the offenders put to death privately. This was a new proceeding, for Spartans had never before been punished without trial. Many of the Helot soldiers deserted to the enemy, thereby causing great alarm to the inhabitants, which Agesilaus sought to remedy by having the soldiers' quarters searched regularly before daylight and the arms of the deserters hidden, that it might not become known how many of them there were.
No historian gives a reason for the departure of the Thebans from Laconia, but certain it is that it took place after three months, and all agree that Sparta was saved from complete ruin by the wisdom of Agesilaus. He could not restore her glory or her ancient greatness, but he could and did sacrifice all personal feelings for her safety in time of peril.
Although Agesilaus had now grown old, he could not be satisfied with inactivity. So he entered the service of Tachos, the Egyptian chief, though it was regarded as unworthy for such a man to hire himself out as captain of a band of mercenary or paid soldiers to assist a rebel in opposing his sovereign. But he did this nevertheless, and fitted out a fleet with the money Tachos had sent him, and then set sail with thirty Spartans for counsellors, as he had done at the very beginning of his career.
On his arrival in Egypt, all the great officers of the kingdom flocked to the shore, anxious to behold a hero who was looked upon as the first commander in all Greece. When they saw only a little old man in mean attire seated on the grass, they laughed, and said, "The old proverb is now made good; the mountain has brought forth a mouse."
Tachos was preparing for the war, and Agesilaus expected to be put in command of all the forces, but he was disappointed in this as well as in other matters. The Egyptians were haughty and insolent towards him, and he soon began to regret having joined them. Therefore, an opportunity offering for him to desert, he did it, although even the most partial of his biographers cannot acquit him of base treachery in doing so. But he was growing old, and longed to return to Sparta, which was again engaged in war. It was winter when he set sail, and he was overtaken, by a storm, which drove him upon a desert shore of Africa called the Haven of Menelaus, where he died at the age of eighty-four.
It was a Spartan custom to bury ordinary persons in the land where they ceased to breathe, but their kings were carried home. So the attendants of Agesilaus embalmed his body with melted wax and conveyed it to Sparta, where it was buried with all due honors.