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Agis and Cleomenes – Revolutionaries or Retrogrades?

Roman Parallel: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus

Jump to Cleomenes

Important People

Lycurgus – ancient lawgiver, whose biography Plutarch also wrote, and to whom everyone refers constantly in this life as the original set of laws they are trying to hearken back to.

Leonidas – one of two kings of Sparta (along with Agis, the protagonist of this life) who first secretly and then openly resists and thwarts Agis’s reforms at every turn.

Lysander – Not the Lysander who was a contemporary of Agesilaus, but a new Lysander, elected as ephor and one of the main allies for Agis in his implementation of the new Spartan system.

Important Places

Sparta – This is the story of Sparta’s last gasp attempt to become an important political and military influence in the Peloponnesus.

Key Vices and Virtues


Discretion (or piety?) – εὐλάβεια – Some interesting shades of meaning cover this one. The conventional Greek word for piety is εὐσέβεια (eusebeia), but this less common word can work like our English word pride. That is, it can be considered a vice or a virtue depending on the context. No one wants to be prideful, but we certainly allow and often even encourage people to be proud of the good things they’ve done for their communities.

Gentleness – πρᾶον – A common theme we’ve seen in lives as disparate as Pericles, Aristides, and Aemilius Paullus. Also a contrast to those who lack it like Coriolanus or Pelopidas. Ultimately, the gentle leaders are the greater ones.

Humane / Kindness – φιλάνθρωπον – Another virtue that shows up often among Plutarch’s greatest heroes. This particular virtue seems to be part of Agis’s downfall. In what way can our vices be our undoing? Is it like the life of Dion where tyrants feel challenged by virtuous living? Or was it something else?


  • greed – πλεονεξία (cf. 10)
  • parsimony – μικρολογία
  • luxury – ἀπολαύσει
  • softness – μαλακία (cf. 10)
  • extravagance – πολυτέλεια


Captain Ideas

What is a citizen?

  • A person born and raised in a certain place and manner?
  • Someone who adopts the language, customs, and laws of the land in which they reside?
  • When and how should citizens fight for regime change?
  • When and how should citizens admit defeat and work within an unjust or imperfect system of government?

When in a leadership position, how does one know to instigate a change? Is every virtue to be insisted upon all the time by the laws?

What were the weaknesses of Lycurgus’s system? Why could it not be revived?

C. 1 – Ixion’s Lesson

Ixion is the backstory and introduction. Embracing what he thought was Hera in his lust, he in fact embraced a cloud that looked like Hera and so brought about the monster-race of the Centaurs. This warning applies most strongly to lovers of glory “φιλοδόξους” because glory looks like virtue (but so often isn’t), producing only what is monstrous. Sophocles example of shepherds being “masters” of their flock, but really the obedient servants who must listen to them. [not the ideal, even for a shepherd. The image of a leader as shepherd goes back to Homer]. Politicans who respond to the passions and appetites [ἐπιθυμίας and ὁρμὰς] of their people make themselves their slave, being ruler in name only (ὄνομα δὲ ἀρχόντων ἔχουσιν)

C. 2 – Leading and Following – Virtue and Leadership

Theophrastus reminds us that virtue grows in youth by praise (ἐπαίνοις) from their elders, as completes itself by its own pride (φρονήματος).

But excess is everywhere dangerous (τὸ δὲ ἄγαν πανταχοῦ μὲν ἐπισφαλές) but destructive for political lover’s of honor (ταῖς πολιτικαῖς φιλοτιμίαις ὀλέθριον).

So, Tiberius and Gaius found their end not in an immoderate desire for glory, but a fear of losing it.

And why Agis and Cleomenes? They also exalted the people and attempted to restore an “honorable and just government” incurring the hatred of the nobles, whose greed never abated. Their political programs were cousins if not brothers.

C. 3 – The Corruption of Sparta

The vices that love of gold and silver (ἀργύρου καὶ χρυσοῦ ζῆλος —> used to mean greed by itself in Section 10) bring to a polis:

  • greed – πλεονεξία (cf. 10)
  • parsimony – μικρολογία
  • luxury – ἀπολαύσει
  • softness – μαλακία (cf. 10)
  • extravagance – πολυτέλεια

Agis’s roots – distant descendant (6 generations south) of the Agesilaus from the middle of the fourth century.

Agesilaus —> Archidamas —> Agis II (died at Megalopolis 330 BC) —> Agis’s brother Eudamidas —> Archidamas —> Eudamidas —> THIS AGIS (the third)

Leonidas, the king reigning around 256 BC, had learned too much from the Seleucids (o.g. Seleucus died in 281), and brought those habits and laws to Sparta.

C. 4 – Rejecting the Wealth He was Raised In

Agis wanted only to follow the old Spartan ways of eating, bathing, training, and dressing to make himself worthy of the royal power to restore the discipline of the ancient laws (τοὺς νόμους καὶ τὴν πάτριον ἀγωγήν).

C. 5 – The Lynchpin Law

Lycurgus had kept all estates in the family, descending from father to son. A certain Epitadeus quarreled with his son and had the law changed for a private grievance. Land (and thus wealth) was quickly concentrated into the hands of the few. This brought about a lack of leisure (a-scholē) and envy and hatred toward “the haves” (μετὰ φθόνου καὶ δυσμενείας πρὸς τοὺς ἔχοντας).

700 families remained owning land.

C. 6 – Agis Builds Alliances

Agis convinces the young men, among whom he’ll have important allies with additional skills. He wins over his uncle, but his uncle’s character has flaws that make him do the right thing for the wrong reason (soft and avaricious – μαλακὸν καὶ φιλοχρήματον), and his indebtedness made him an ally of Agis. His mother, because of her wealth and connections, wielded significant influence, so he needed her supporting him as well.

C. 7 – Agis’s Mom

His mom doesn’t think it possible or profitable as a risk, but Agis points out that while he can’t outsrip the Macedonian warlords in slaves and possessions, he could outdo them in self-restraint, simplicity, and magnanimity (σωφροσύνῃ καὶ λιτότητι καὶ μεγαλοψυχίᾳ).

Agis’s mother and grandmother become zealous supporters, but most of the other Spartan women will resist as they hold much of the wealth and power in the city and do not want it “redistributed” to equality.

The wealthy went to the other king, Leonidas, for balance. Leonidas, too cunning to work openly against Agis, plans to act as a speed bump or block from within. His “spin” on Agis’s reforms are interesting. He blames Agis for:

  • purchasing a tyranny
  • robbing from the rich to give to the poor
  • remission of debts to have a large group loyal to him (i.e. bodyguard), not Spartan citizens.

C. 8 – Reform Rolls Out

Lysander (not to be confused with Leonidas) elected as ephor and introduces the legal reforms as follows:

  • relief of debt – cf. Solon and the importance of “shaking off the burdens” (could Agis have used better marketing?)
  • redivision of land – 4500 small lots for Spartan citizens; 15000 large ones for perioikoi
  • 15 public messes to encourage the men to re-adopt the Spartan lifestyle (δίαιταν) – “diet and discipline of Lycurgus”

C. 9 – Agis’s Own Contribution

Exhorting the people to adopt this change, Agis first leans on the power of prophecy, and then turns to the power of personal example: He splits up his own land and offers 600 talents to get the ball rolling.

C. 10 – Leonidas’s Backlash

The people think he is now a “worthy king” of Sparta after 200 years. Leonidas sees this as all pain and no gain for himself (give up his land, Agis gets all the glory and honor as the idea guy). So, he also plays the Lycurgus card and present his resistance in rhetorical questions:

  • Would Lycurgus abolish debts?
  • What did Lycurgus think of foreigners as citizens?

Then Agis uses Leonidas’s birth and youth in the courts of the Hellenistic kings against him. Agis points out that Lycurgus kept foreign poets with him because they were of the same mind.

C. 11 – Sides Taken, Lines Drawn; Stars Fall

Agis with common people; Leonidas openly leads the rich. The proposed law rejected… by one vote. Lysander, still ephor, pulls out all the old laws against him. He also goes “star watching” an ancient Spartan custom (moonless night, seek shooting stars which imply the king is criminal, only can be exonerated by Delphi or Olympia). Spartans can’t raise kids with foreign women and any Spartan who settles in a foreign land should be put to death. The political tide sours against Lysander quickly and he refuses to show himself for trial, instead fleeing to Athena’s temple. He is deposed and replace by his son-in-law Cleombrotus.

C. 12 – Reaction Breeds Revolution

New ephors try to bring Lysander and Mandracleidas to trial, but Agis and Cleombrotus (rather unconstitutionally) replace the five ephors with ones of their own choosing. No blood is spilled, but many had planned for it. The newest pro-Agis ephor was going to try to set an ambush for Leonidas as he fled, but Agis sent men to defend the former Spartan king and make sure the violence didn’t happen.

C. 13 – Agesilaus Undoes All

φιλοπλουτίᾳ – avarice (literally love of wealth) undoes it all. Agesilaus had huge debts and huge tracts of land. He tells Agis to make his plan in two steps: first, debt cancellation, and then land redistribution to preven too much confusion all at once. Lysander agrees… and Aratus alerts them to an Aetolian group threatening the Peloponnesus.

C. 14 – Agis in the Field

Agis, with a group of fiery young men personally loyal to him, sets out to meet with Aratus. They march with the discipline of the old Spartan army, provoking respect from all the poleis they pass by.

C. 15 – Agis and Aratus

Agis would prefer to stand and fight (near Corinth) at the entryway to the Peloponnesus, but defers to Aratus who called for his aid and who is more senior and experienced. Aratus chooses not to fight, and the Spartans march back to find their city in flames.

C. 16 – Agesilaus’s Excess and Family Ties

Agesilaus now openly trying to heap up more money; 13 month tax and a second year as ephor. A group of Spartans invite Leonidas back and Agis and Cleombrotus now flee. Cleombrotus attacked first, as the perfidious son-in-law.

C. 17 – The Female Link

Chilonis, wife of Cleombrotus and daughter of Leonidas, first chose exile with her father when forced to choose. But when Cleombrotus’s fate had reverse, Chilonis then went with him into exile and begged her father not to kill the husband of her youth.

C. 18 – Cleombrotus Spared

Cleombrotus spared by Leonidas and sent into exile, and Chilonis goes with him, which Plutarch considers an amazing blessing, since she could have remained (in power) with her father the king. Ephors replaced again with pro-Leonidas men and then Leonidas turns his attention to Agis. Agis remains in sanctuary, and some of his old friends continue to visit him, but one of them (Amphares) who is also an ephor is really becoming an enemy, corrupted by what he has borrowed from Agis’s family and won’t have to pay back if he and his mother and grandmother are destroyed.

C. 19 – Agis in Sanctuary; Agis on Trial

Agis would leave to bathe, and got used to his friends accompanying him. On one of those occasions though, about halfway back to the temple there was a fork in the road that led to the prison. Here Amphares laid hold of him to bring him to trial before the ephors. Overpowered by his former friends, he is dragged to prison. They try in several ways to get him to renounce his past plans and actions… to no avail, Agis staunchly defends his actions and would do them again if asked. Agis sentences to death but no soldiers will bring him (sacrilege to lay hands on a king), so Damochares himself has to bring him. The trial has attracted the attention of the city which throngs outside, including Agis’s mother and grandmother.

C. 20 – Death for Agis and…

Agis dragged away to the death chamber and both mother and grandmother beg for his life and to see him. Amphares sends them in, promising them he will not die. Agis killed first, then the grandmother, and last of all Agesitrata. She kisses her son and lists three virtues as his downfall: reverence/piety, gentleness, and love of his fellow man (εὐλάβεια καὶ τὸ πρᾶον καὶ φιλάνθρωπον).

C. 21 – Precedents Broken

First king killed by the ephors. A man born with the virtues of another age? His conduct was noble and worthy of Sparta, but he trusted too much his enemies (Julius Caesar?).


Important People

Aratus – The same Aratus from the last life, but older and more experienced now. Between Aratus, Cleomenes, and Philopoemen, it becomes clear that the Greeks themselves are the architects of their own undoing. None of these three men cooperates with the other and this dissension makes easy target for Antigonus.

Megistonoüs – Cleomenes’s father-in-law and right-hand man once he takes the throne. His character remains underdeveloped by Plutarch, though, so that when he dies in Argos we don’t have a clear idea of how helpful he was as a sidekick to the revolutionary king.

Antigonus III “Doson”- The king of Macedon who eventually comes down to the Peloponnesus in person to settle the Spartan mischief. His nickname “The Giver” is ironic, though it doesn’t play much of a role in this life. His death is reported right after winning his kingdom back from barbaric Illyrian invaders. He was the most powerful person standing in Cleomenes’ way, but Cleomenes is unaware of his death until he has already landed in Egypt.  

Ptolemy III – The successor of Alexander and ruler of wealthy Alexandria when Cleomenes arrives. He dies too soon to fulfill his promises to Cleomenes, though Cleomenes is greatly respected by the king, who also had his mother and sons as hostages in the last few years of their lives.

Ptolemy IV – Ptolemy III’s son is not fit to rule, interested more in parties and pleasures. As such, he does little to help Cleomenes and eventually grows suspicious (with the help of his courtiers) of Cleomenes’s lack of interest in partying.

Sphaerus the Stoic (or Sphairus) – This student of the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Cittium, teaches Cleomenes in his youth and helps him reform the Agōge to what it was. Plutarch has some criticisms for Stoicism in this Life that are worth considering.

Important Places

Argos – An important polis in north-western Peloponnesus, Cleomenes takes, but does not hold the city. While this is more than Pelopidas could do, it nonetheless marks the beginning of the end for him, and his father-in-law dies trying to take the city back.

Corinth – The actual gateway to the Peloponnesus, called by Philip of Macedon “the fetters of Greece.” Cleomenes has to allow Antigonus to take this fortified position when he falls back to quell the revolt in Argos.

Sicyon – Aratus’s hometown! Just north and east up the road from Corinth, on the opposite end of a bay facing that polis. Sicyon is not a populous or powerful polis, but their hometown hero’s talents at forging unity in the Peloponnesus puts them on the map, until Cleomenes’s dreams of Spartan hegemony threaten that unity.

Key Virtues

πειθαρχίας (obedience) – This touches on a Platonic concept of knowing how to lead and be led (also popular with Xenophon). (cf. 18.4)

ἐγκράτεια – self-control – A virtue that overlaps well with Lycurgan laws and Stoic ethics. This same self-control leads to suicide, though, in the end. Something most Greeks considered a noble means of escape under certain circumstances, but a choice that nonetheless gives a tragic tenor to this whole biography.

ἀφέλεια – simplicity – The ultimate Spartan virtue, particularly when compared to other Greek poleis like Athens or Corinth.

φιλότιμος – love of honor – This virtue could better be translated ambition, but so could the next one. This is a key idea brought up in the mythical introduction when he points out that Ixion fell for what looked like Hera but was not, in fact, Hera. Leaders need to be aware of which feedback loops they attend to, because attending to the wrong sense of honor will quickly lead to one’s downfall.

μεγαλόφρων – great-mindedness / ambition – The natures that seek the great things. This is ambition to a T. Not all of us want to be president, but those that do are this type.

πρᾶον – gentleness – Agis had this, Cleomenes lacks it, as we’ll see in his final dealings.

εὐλαβὲς – piety – Another virtue Agis had but Cleomenes lacked. For a Spartan, there’s a paucity of Cleomenes consulting the gods or being a religious leader in almost any form throughout this life. Plutarch comments on it but doesn’t highlight it afterwards, so it felt like a subtle questioning of his “return to Lycurgus” project, since Lycurgus was the epitome of Spartan piety, and both Agesilaus and Agis was more pious than Cleomenes.

Key Vices

ἀκολασία – intemperence (opposite of σωφροσύνη)

βωμολοχία – buffoonery

πανηγυρίσμος – display, ostentation

Youth, Marriage and Education (1-2)

So, Archidamas, Agis’s brother, flees Sparta and leaves behind his wife and infant baby. This wife, Agiatis, is compelled to marry Cleomenes, though their ages are disparate. But, as Cleomenes grew up, he came to admire Agis and his aspiring and magnanimous nature (φιλότιμος μὲν καὶ μεγαλόφρων), coupled with simplicity and self-control (ἐγκράτειαν καὶ ἀφέλειαν) was inspired by Agis’s kingship. He lacked the gentleness and piety (πρᾶον and εὐλαβὲς) of Agis, though, even if that had been Agis’s downfall.

Growing up, he saw Sparta fallen back into private pursuit of gain. He may have learned some philosophy from Zeno of Citium (founder of Stoicism) students. “For great and impetuous natures the Stoic doctrines are somewhat misleading and dangerous, although when they permeate a deep and gentle character, they redound most to its proper good.

King of Sparta – Enter Aratus (3)

  • at the death of Leonidas​ [235 BC – Cleomenes now 24] Cleomenes takes the throne
  • rich neglected the common interests for their own private pleasure and aggrandizement
  • whole power in hands of ephors
  •  Aratus, the most power­ful man among the Achaeans, was from the outset desirous of bringing all the Peloponnesians into one confederation
  • Aratus began to harass the Arcadians…His object was to put the Lacedaemonians to the test, and he despised Cleomenes as a young and inexperienced man.

Cleomenes vs Aratus (4-6)

The Three-Fold Plan (7-14)

Aratus Calls on MAcedon (16-21)

Quickly Won, Quickly Lost (22)

The Megalopolis Campaign (23-25)

The Attempt on Argos (and Antigonus) (26)

Time vs. Money: The Timing of Sellasia (27-29)

Sparta Falls; Antigonus Falls (20)

Cleomenes’s Flight to Egypt (31-32)

Growing Discomfort in Egypt (33-35)

Treachery, Revolution?, and Death (35-37)

Aftermath and Conclusion (38-39)

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