Briefly Noted: Xenophon, “Agesilaus”

The end of the Peloponnesian War saw Sparta alone as the preeminent power in Greece, but it did not take long for trouble to start again. According to Xenophon, it was said the Persian king was assembling forces for another attack on the Greeks (Agesilaus I: 6-7). The Spartan response was handled by one of their kings, Agesilaus, who crossed over into Asia Minor, liberated quite a few Greek cities there, and destroyed Persian forces while raiding. Agesilaus became “ruler of countless cities on the mainland, and master of islands – for the city [Sparta] had now added the fleet to his command” (I: 36). But he gave all of this up the second Sparta requested his aid closer to home (Xenophon himself thought about creating a city with the army he had in the Anabasis and never returning to Athens). The Persians bribed and aided many Greek cities – most notably Athens and Thebes – who were displeased with Sparta. Many of the engagements with which Agesilaus was involved from that point onwards were against other Greeks; we now call the disunity Persia helped sow the Corinthian War.

And yet it does not seem Xenophon speaks of Agesilaus’ relation with Sparta as much as his desiring Greek unity (see esp. chp VII). Agesilaus is praised heavily for his piety (III; XI: 1-2). He is said to have thought kingship depends on being a “noble and good” (perfect) gentleman (XI:6). Xenophon attests personally that he wanted to be praised rather than acquire money (XI: 9; note moi). And his conception of justice seems to have been that of “helping friends and harming enemies” (IV: 5-6, XI: 12).

The extensive Persian bashing of chapters VII, VIII and IX does not fit with Xenophon’s shrewdness. Xenophon’s Anabasis is partly an account of his admiration for an actual Persian; his Cyropaedia sets forth Cyrus as an example of divine rule, ruling men as if they were herds. Moreover, the Persian political shrewdness in dealing with Sparta reveals Agesilaus himself to be a bit limited in his approach to things. I suspect the contrast between Greek and Persian rule is for the purpose of bringing forth this counterfactual: What if Greek virtue was actually the ruling element among the Greeks? This would seem to be an expansion on what is implicit in the character of Thucydides’ Nicias. Nicias, an Athenian general, is very Spartan in his approach to things; he is very pious, to say the least. He is more concerned with moderation than acquisition; the spirit of the law and stability govern his mindset. There is much he can be criticized for, but he may ultimately speak to the possibility of Greek unity.

Agesilaus is a different man than Nicias. He seems more capable than fearful. His continence most certainly serves him better than Nicias’ wealth (IX: 3-7; XI: 11-12). The complete list of his virtues: piety (III), justice (IV), moderation (V – the virtue is unnamed in the text; it is tied to piety. See Leo Strauss, Xenophon’s Socrates p. 101), courage, wisdom (VI), love of the city (VII), gracefulness (VIII). The center of his virtues is courage – no surprise, given II: 12-13. Courage is discussed in the same chapter with wisdom. There are 11 chapters in the work as a whole; chapter VI is doubly central.

There is a list of Socrates’ virtues at the very end of the Memorabilia (Memorabilia IV.8.11): piety, justice, continence, prudence. Socrates is said in that same passage to have turned people to virtue and being “noble and good” (perfect) gentlemen. Is Agesilaus a Socratic? Socrates was just in that he harmed no one; Agesilaus went and attacked the Persians before anything happened. Agesilaus’ wisdom is described as follows:

Of his Wisdom I find the evidence in every one of his deeds. Towards his fatherland he behaved in such a manner that, being entirely obedient to her, he won the obedience of the citizens, and by his zeal for his comrades he held the unquestioning devotion of his friends: and as for his troops, he gained at once their obedience and their affection. Surely nothing is wanting to the strength of that battle-line in which obedience results in perfect discipline, and affection for the general produces faithful promptitude. As for the enemy, though they were forced to hate, he gave them no chance to disparage him. For he contrived that his allies always had the better of them, by the use of deception when occasion offered, by anticipating their action if speed was necessary, by hiding when it suited his purpose, and by practising all the opposite methods when dealing with enemies to those which he applied when dealing with friends. Night, for example, was to him as day, and day as night, for he often veiled his movements so completely that none could guess where he was, whither he was going, or what he meant to do. Thus he made even strong positions untenable to the enemy, turning one, scaling another, snatching a third by stealth. On the march, whenever he knew that the enemy could bring him to an engagement if they chose, he would lead his army in close order, alert and ready to defend himself, moving on as quietly as a modest maiden, since he held that this was the best means of maintaining calm, of avoiding panic, confusion, and blundering, and of guarding against a surprise attack.

And so, by using such methods, he was formidable to his enemies, and inspired his friends with strength and confidence. Thus he was never despised by his foes, never brought to account by the citizens, never blamed by his friends, but throughout his career he was praised and idolized by all the world (Agesilaus VI: 4-8).

It is true Xenophon describes philosophy in martial terms in some places: the boar in On Hunting is Being, and must be hunted with friends willing to shed both its and their own blood. Maybe something philosophic is occurring above (Socrates is a midwife and erotic, not a maiden, and certainly not praised and idolized in his “career”), but if so, it is notable that a philosopher can be a general, but perhaps not the other way around (Memorabilia III.1, Plato’s Laches – kids, really don’t try this at home. Or abroad). Agesilaus’ “wisdom” bears a striking resemblance to courage putting his notion of justice into action, as opposed to justice simply flowing from wisdom.


Xenophon, Agesilaus. tr. E.C. Marchant in Xenophon: Scripta Minora. (Loeb Classical Library) ed. Jeffrey Henderson. Cambridge: Harvard, 1968.

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