Agis IV (ca. 262-241 B.C.) was a Spartan king who tried with youthful idealism to return Sparta to the ancient laws of the country and paid for his failure with his life.
Agis, the son of Eudamidas II, was elected one of Sparta's dual kings in 244 B.C. At that time full Spartan citizenship depended on the possession of land and the ability to subscribe to the syssition, the daily group meal which constituted a civil and social occasion. The number of citizens had shrunk rapidly as the ownership of land became concentrated in the hands of a few families, and circulation of foreign money widened the gulf between rich and poor. Agis proposed that all land be redistributed to 4,500 men as citizens and to 15,000 noncitizens, or perioeci, who served in the military, and that all debts and mortgages be canceled.
To show his good faith, Agis surrendered the royal estates. Though his altruism gained him support among the younger men, vested interests opposed him. Nonetheless, Agis and his friend Lysander, one of the ephors, pushed his proposals through the assembly after deposing the other of Sparta's dual kings, Leonidas. Agis, however, was unable to implement these proposals because the newly elected ephors of 242 B.C. were in opposition (the five ephors were magistrates who exercised control over the kings). He therefore instigated a bloodless revolution, replacing the ephors with men he trusted. One was his uncle, Agesilaus, a very wealthy and astute man, who persuaded Agis to burn all records of debts and mortgages but then obstructed the actual redistribution of land. This delaying tactic began to undermine Agis's position.
At this critical time the Achaean general Aratus asked for a Spartan army to defend the Isthmus against attack by the Aetolian League. As sole king and Sparta's military commander, Agis left for war, and most of his supporters went with him. In his absence Leonidas returned, was reinstated as king, organized all those whose vested interests were in danger, and got his own supporters elected ephors in 241.
Agis returned disheartened by the treachery of Agesilaus, but he did not use the army for a coup d'etat, preferring to take sanctuary in the temple of Athena. Decoyed onto common ground, he was arrested, put in prison, and condemned in a mock trial. Agis, his mother, and his grandmother were executed.
Agis had the merits and the failings of a young king. He was a puritan, a visionary, and a statesman who saw the need for reform; but he was ingenuous, impetuous, and impractical. His mistake was to use unconstitutional methods to reform the constitution and to dethrone Leonidas when he himself relied on Leonidas's royal position. Agis's inexperience caused him to underestimate the strength and the unscrupulousness of the vested interests of financial conservatism, and his bad judgment of individuals caused his own failure. But his short reign was important. The status quo had been revealed as a folly, and his martyrdom in the cause of social justice and Spartan nationalism was both an inspiration and a warning to the next royal reformer, Cleomenes III.
Further Reading on Agis IV
Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans contains a good biography of Agis IV. Background works which discuss him briefly are Max Cary, A History of the Greek World, 323-146 B.C. (1932; 2d rev. ed. 1951), and Humphrey Michell, Sparta (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
King Agis of Sparta and his campaign in Arkadia in 418 B.C.: a chapter in the history of the art of war among the Greeks, New York: AMS Press, 1978.