Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Xenophon’s biography Agesilaus
While other works of Xenophon’s have taken me a week or even longer to get through, I finished this one in just a night, and it wasn’t even the only thing that I read that evening. Agesilaus is a biography of the titular Spartan king, and unlike Xenophon’s “biography” of Cyrus the Great, is thought to be fairly accurate historically, if very brief, and somewhat biased. Where a modern biographer often goes out of his or her way to find “dirt” on their subject, highlighting their shortcomings and failures no matter how respected and revered a figure they might be, or how significant of feats they might have accomplished, it has been more common in history to write biographies that are meant to praise a figure and elucidate the person’s admirable traits, that others might follow suit. Xenophon certainly falls into the latter category, and his effusive praise for Agesilaus renders him as a veritable paragon of virtue, representative of every admirable characteristic and quite devoid of any flaws of blemishes.
Agesilaus is thought to be one of the earliest biographical works in history, certainly that has survived to the present day. Xenophon was a contemporary of Agesilaus, and his Hellenica covers some of the same time frame and events; in fact, some of the narrative is identical between the two works. If you’re worried about diving into Xenophon’s collected works, and don’t want to start with one of the longer pieces, this would be an excellent one with which to start; although short, it is in style, tone, and content representative of Xenophon’s other writings (at least his other historical writings). Plus, he gives a little summary of everything he said in the biography when he gets to the end, so if you missed something, you don’t have to worry about going back to find out what it was.
As this was a short piece of writing, and we’ve covered a lot of the general notes that I might make through our other reviews of Xenophon’s works, I don’t have a lot more to say for this review. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that Xenophon, while originally a citizen of Athens, was exiled from Athens and was ultimately adopted by the Spartans; he had an estate in Sparta, and fought for them on numerous occasions (including at least once against Athens, which was likely the cause of his exile). So perhaps that is part of why his praise for Agesilaus is so effusive; the adopted citizen is often the more loyal and grateful than the citizen by birth, and more conscious of the benefits of such membership. I really did enjoy this quick read, and I would encourage you to consider reading it, too. Next week, we’ll begin reviewing Xenophon’s philosophical texts.