Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman
When the love of money made its way into Sparta it carried with it a train of evils, and the people who had been famous for their bravery, endurance, and simplicity became avaricious, effeminate, luxurious, and mean-spirited.
Such was their condition when Agis and Leonidas began to reign. Both kings were descended from royal houses, but they had been differently brought up, and did not resemble each other in their ideas. Leonidas had spent many years at the Persian court, and had formed a taste for pomp and display, while Agis was a true Lacedæmonian for simplicity. He had been reared in wealth and luxury, and indulged in every possible manner by his mother and grandmother, yet before he was twenty years of age he had adopted the plainest style of dress, and the old, simple Spartan customs. He was often heard to say that he only wanted to be king in order that he might restore the ancient laws and discipline of his country.
Not over seven hundred of the genuine Spartan families remained when Agis ascended the throne, and only a hundred of those possessed estates. The reason of this was that the law of Lycurgus, which made the father's estate pass to the eldest son, had been done away with, and so property had been all divided up, leaving only a few very rich people. The rest were poor and miserable, and watched eagerly for any change that might bring relief.
Agis therefore determined to lay before the Spartan senate a plan for the new division of lands and for relieving the people from debt. The poor listened to him with pleasure when he went among them to find out how he could help them, and the young men showed themselves ready to make any change for the sake of freedom. But the old and the rich opposed him; they had been so long accustomed to their vicious way of living that they desired no other, and it displeased them to hear Agis constantly speaking of Sparta's ancient glory and wishing it might be restored.
However, he succeeded in gaining over three men of influence. These were Lysander, Mandroclidas, and Agesilaus. Lysander was a very prominent man, Mandroclidas was a shrewd, able one, and understood better than most others what was for the interest of Greece, and Agesilaus, though weak and avaricious, was uncle to Agis, and favored his plan not only because he was persuaded to it by his own son, but also because he had numerous debts which he hoped would be wiped out by a change in the government.
The sister of Agesilaus was Agis's mother. She had great influence in Sparta, and shared in the management of public affairs because her relations were numerous, she was very wealthy, and a large number of people owed her money. To her Agis next applied. He had a difficult task there, for she could not see any advantage to be derived from the changes her son proposed. But Agesilaus explained how the state would be benefited, and the young prince entreated his mother to sacrifice her wealth for his glory. "I cannot vie with other kings in display," said he, "for even the servants of the Asiatic monarchs are richer than all the Spartan kings put together, but if I can do something that will excel their pomp and luxury,—I mean the making of an equal division of property among all the citizens,—I shall really become a great king."
At last the mother was convinced, and as soon as that was the case she worked as hard as Agis did to carry out his views, going around among the other matrons and begging them to sacrifice something for the good of their country. These women all took part, more or less, in public affairs, consequently could influence their husbands; but many opposed Agis's scheme because the wealth was theirs, and they knew that if they consented to divide it they would lose the power and respect that property gave them. So they applied to Leonidas, the other king, and begged him, as the older man, to put a stop to the projects of Agis, whom they pronounced a very rash young man.
Leonidas was really inclined to serve the rich, but he dared not say so openly, because he feared those who were in favor of the change. However, he went about privately and spoke against Agis, telling the magistrates that his object in wishing to cancel debts and divide lands was not to serve Sparta, but to increase his own power.
Agis heard of how Leonidas was working against him, but all he did was to get Lysander elected Ephor, and through him propose to the senate his laws. After they were read, there was much discussion for and against them, and nothing was decided. Then Lysander called an assembly of the people, to whom he, Mandroclidas, and Agesilaus made addresses, urging them not to let the few insult the many and the majesty of Sparta be trodden under foot. They begged them to recollect the ancient oracles, which had bidden them beware of the love of money as a vice that would ruin Sparta, and then quoted a recent oracle, which had said they must by all means return to the state of equality regulated by Lycurgus. Then Agis stood up, and made a short speech, which he concluded in this way: "I will contribute as much as possible to the institution I recommend for your welfare. I will give up the whole of my estate, consisting of valuable lands, and six hundred talents (six hundred thousand dollars) in money, and my mother, grandmother, and all my friends and relations, who, you know, are the richest people in Sparta, will do likewise."
The people applauded the speech loudly, and rejoiced to think that at last, after three hundred years, they had a king worthy of Sparta. But Leonidas was more obstinate than ever, because he feared that he and his friends might be obliged to sacrifice their money and get little in return, while the honor would go to Agis. So the state was divided, the rich following Leonidas, while the populace clung to Agis. When the question was again brought before the senate and put to the ballot, the rich won it by only a single vote.
Lysander, who was still Ephor, was so angry that he determined to be revenged on Leonidas, so he brought two charges against him. One was that, as a descendant of Hercules, he had committed a crime in marrying a foreigner, and the other that, as a Spartan, he had been guilty of a capital offence in settling for many years in a strange country. Having set others to manage these charges, Lysander went with his colleagues to watch the heavens. This was a custom observed by the Ephori every ninth year. They would choose a starlight night, when there were neither clouds nor moon, and sit in silence, looking at the sky. If they chanced to see a shooting-star, they pronounced their king guilty of some offence against the gods, and he lost all his power until it was restored to him by one of the principal oracles.
Lysander assured the people that he had seen a star shoot, and Leonidas was accordingly summoned to answer the charges that had been made against him. But he was so frightened that he fled for refuge to the brass temple of Minerva, in Sparta. Thereupon Lysander persuaded Cleombrotus, the son-in-law of Leonidas and a prince of the blood, to lay claim to the throne. He did so, and was proclaimed king instead.
Soon after Lysander's term of office expired, and the new Ephori, being friendly to Leonidas, resolved to restore him to the throne. They also brought a charge against Lysander and Mandroclidas of cancelling debts and dividing property contrary to law. These two applied to the kings, saying, "These Ephori have no power except where a dispute arises between the two kings, and even then they have no choice, except to act for the public good; so it would be unlawful for us to notice them."
The kings saw the justice of this reasoning, and at once removed the Ephori and put others in their places. Agesilaus was one of the new ones, and when Agis heard that he had ordered a company of soldiers to waylay and kill Leonidas as he fled to Tegea, he sent others to defend him and bring him safe into the city.
Thus far all went well, and there was every appearance that Agis would succeed in what he had set out to accomplish; but the avarice of one man ruined everything. That was Agesilaus. He had fine, large estates; but at the same time he was deeply in debt. So he advised Agis not to carry out the whole of his plan at once, but just to cancel all debts, and then the rich would without doubt consent to the division of their lands, thus preventing any disturbance in Sparta. Agis was completely deceived by his uncle, and so was Lysander. An order was sent to the citizens to bring all their bills, notes, and bonds to the market-place at a stated time; these were piled up in a great heap and set on fire. While they were burning, Agesilaus exclaimed, "Never did I see so bright and glorious a flame."
The common people now pressed for an immediate division of the lands according to promise, and the kings ordered it to be done; but day after day Agesilaus found some excuse for postponing it. He was freed from debt, but he was by no means anxious to part with his lands, and this important point in the scheme of Agis remained unsettled until he was called to war in this way:
The Achæans expected an attack from the Ætolians, and so sent to ask the assistance of Agis. He had no difficulty in raising an army, for the young men who had just been released from debt were anxious to distinguish themselves, each hoping on his return to be rewarded with a piece of land. Agis preserved such excellent discipline that his army was admired everywhere, and marched from one end of the Peloponnesus to the other without the least disorder, but they had no opportunity to gain honors.
Meanwhile, affairs in Sparta were in a bad way, for Agesilaus had made the people so angry by constantly postponing the division of land, that the enemies of Agis openly brought back Leonidas and put him on the throne. Agesilaus would then certainly have been killed had it not been for his son, who was a great favorite in Sparta. He saved his father from the fury of the mob and helped him to escape from the city.
This happened just after Agis returned to Sparta, and during the commotion he fled for safety to one temple while Cleombrotus went to another. Leonidas advanced with a party of soldiers to seize Cleombrotus; he felt more angry with him for depriving him of his throne than he did with Agis, because Cleombrotus had married his daughter and ought to have shown more feeling for her father. Cleombrotus did not attempt to excuse himself, but his wife pleaded for him. Leonidas was touched by her appeal and desired her to stay with him, but commanded Cleombrotus to leave the country at once. The wife was too devoted to allow her husband to go into exile alone, so she put one of their children in his arms, took the other herself, and, after praying at the altar, departed with him.
As soon as Cleombrotus was gone, Leonidas turned out all the Ephori and put others in their places. Then he began to consider how he could get Agis out of the temple. First he tried persuasion, and told him that the people would willingly pardon a young man who out of ambition for glory had allowed himself to be deceived as he had been by Agesilaus. But Agis was suspicious, and treachery had to be resorted to.
Three young men who had always been his friends, but had now gone over to Leonidas, went constantly to see Agis, pretending friendship still. After a while they persuaded him to go to the baths, and each time accompanied him back to the temple, as if they were protecting him. One day, just as they came to the turn of a street which led to the prison, one of the pretended friends grasped his arm and said, "I take you into custody, Agis, in order that you may give an account to the Ephori of your government." Before he had recovered from his surprise, another threw a cloak over his head, twisted it tightly, and dragged him off to prison.
As this had been prearranged, Leonidas awaited them with the Ephori and such senators as were of their party, while a body of soldiers guarded the prison gates. Several questions were put to the prisoner, but he answered none until he was asked, "Do you repent of what you have done?" Then he replied, "I shall never repent of so glorious a design, though I see death before my eyes." Sentence of execution was immediately passed on him, and he was thrust into the decade, a dungeon where criminals were strangled. It was soon known throughout the city what had befallen Agis, and crowds flocked to the prison-grounds. Among the number were the mother and grandmother of the unfortunate man. They made an earnest appeal that he might be heard and judged by a full assembly of his countrymen, and called on one of the false friends to assist them, not knowing of his treachery. "No further violence shall be done to Agis," he said; "nor shall any harsh treatment be shown him; go in and see for yourselves if you please." So the two women entered the prison. The grandmother, an aged lady, highly esteemed in Sparta, was first shown into the decade. A few moments later the mother was ordered to follow. She obeyed, and a horrible sight met her gaze, for stretched upon the floor lay her beloved Agis, cold in death, while her mother's body hung lifeless from a rope attached to the ceiling. She was overcome with agony only for a short time; then recovering her composure, she embraced Agis, and exclaimed, "O my son, it was thy too great mercy and goodness which brought thee and us to ruin!"
"Since you approve your son's actions, it is fit that you should share his reward," roughly said one of the treacherous friends, as he advanced and placed the noose around the poor, suffering mother's neck.
She made no resistance, for she was too miserable to do so. Her last words were, "I hope that all this may be for the good of Sparta."
Great indignation was expressed when the three dead bodies were exposed to view, for Agis was the first Spartan king who had ever been executed by the Ephori.