Xenophon’s Hellenika Book III: Sparta’s Struggle for Hegemony

Book III of Xenophon’s Hellenika turns our attention toward Sparta and away from Athens because civil strife in Athens has now ended. The Spartans maintain near total hegemony of the Hellenes following the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. Persia under Cyrus seeks to strengthen its relationship with Sparta, and thus Sparta sends a mercenary force to support Cyrus (the younger) who attempts to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II from his assumed rulership of Persia. Xenophon became an instrumental leader in this quest which is recounted by Xenophon in the Anabasis of Cyrus -an autobiography of sorts. In the Hellenika Xenophon says the story was actually written by Themistogenes of Syracuse (perhaps a pseudonym for Xenophon himself in antiquity).

At any rate, peace between Sparta and Persia does not last. Some cities in Ionia are disputed by the Greeks and Persians, and the Ionian cities send for help from Sparta since Sparta is now the undisputed ruler of Greece. This scene is reminiscent of the outbreak of the Persian Wars as recounted by Herodotus (however in that situation Ionia called for aid from Athens). Tissaphernes is sent from Persia to Ionia to create a sub-satrap over the disputed Greek cities, while Thibron is sent from Sparta but he is soon replaced by Derkylidas who refuses to harm Greek allies if they are recalcitrant. Derkylidas reveals himself to be a capable ruler. When he arrives he notices there are two rival satraps between Pharnabazos and Thibron -Derkylidas decides to direct his force against Pharnabazos. This chapter details all the Greek Ionian cities that succumb to Derkylidas before peace is made with Pharnabazos. Once much of the Greek Ionian cities are united under Derkylidas, the Spartans prepare for battle with Tissaphernes but a truce is quickly achieved.

Some initial observations on this chapter include the following: we see Spartan leaders relying heavily on favorable religious sacrifices before battle. In some instances it hampers their readiness, as Xenophon notes. We are also introduced to “satraps” or provincial governors of the Persia Empire, and we are invited to question their effectiveness as a regime.

Meanwhile the Spartans are forced to address inner turmoil and grievances -a plot is discovered (the infamous Kinadon plot). We witness the death of the Spartan King Agis in 400 BC, and he is tumultuously succeeded by Agesilaus who invades Asia Minor and battles the Persians, while drawing the ire of the Thebans for his impiety (Thebes was previously an ally of Sparta). Agesilaus is perhaps the most famous king of Sparta and his kingship is further explored by both Xenophon as well as Plutarch. Sparta battles with its northern neighbor Elis, and then finally war breaks out with Thebes, forcing Agesilaus to return from his expedition in Asia. Thebes successfully appeals for support from Athens and a battle at Haliartos leads to a truce in 395 BC.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Xenophon’s Hellenika by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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