Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Power of the Xymbouli

The xymboulos Pharax was obviously thinking ahead to consider the political ramifications of the battle. To destroy the aristocratic elite of Argos when most of the ordinary, democratic Argives had escaped would guarantee the continued alliance of Argos with the other democracies, but if the Argive elite returned home after the great defeat of the anti-Spartan policy, they could gain control of the city and bring it into a Spartan alliance, striking a death blow to the enemy coalition. The vengeful, inexperienced Agis, determined to recover his honor, could not foresee this in the heat of the battle, and the Spartans' decision to appoint advisers to him proved to be a well-considered idea.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 240-241.
The Spartan King Agis II was a poor leader and awful strategist. His poor decision making, inexperience in leading during battle, and overall lack in inspiring confidence had left him in a precarious position of leadership. In addition, Sparta continued to lose prestige within their sphere of influence while Athens seemingly kept gaining. The situation was getting dire and any further loss by Sparta or Agis would seemingly cripple the Spartans and their hegemony within the Peloponnesian Alliance. Some form of success and victory was absolutely imperative. In 418 BC, in response to a situation in the Tegea/Mantinea area, Agis was given one final shot at proving himself in the Battle of Mantinea against the Argive Alliance.

History has a way of repeating itself as people tend to not change their habits, behaviors and ways of thinking. To say that Sparta was headed for doom under the ineffective leadership of Agis is not inappropriate. What made the Battle of Mantinea unique, however, was the decision made by the ephors (leaders who shared power with the Spartan kings - based upon election) that Agis had to be placed under supervision by advisers known as the xymbouloi. These 10 men were responsible for helping Agis make better decisions - specifically in the realm of military leadership. It seems that this would have been humiliating for a king and a tremendous check upon his power. Whatever the king's emotions must have been in regards to the decision, the ephors' decision held firm. So when the Spartan-lead alliance headed off from Tegea to Mantinea, the king was surrounded.

To avoid too much detail, the battle ended in Spartan victory. Multiple times within the execution of the battle Agis was saved by the decision making of the xymbouloi - including both prior to the battle beginning and after the battle was finished. In a nutshell, Agis (and Sparta!) were saved by not only the brilliant fighting ability of the elite Spartan warriors, but by the solid decision making of the men giving advice to the king. Although the battle did not guarantee anything for the future, it was absolutely critical to Sparta and would have a significant impact upon the Athenians and power of democracy within ancient Greece. Advice saved the day.

It is in these moments of history that I truly see the wisdom of Solomon come alive. As he wrote in Proverbs 11:14, "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure." How easy it is to be like Agis and simply continue forward in my own stupidity and ways of thinking. Trapped in my own inabilities, I make the same mistakes repeatedly which then prevent my future success. Pride refuses to allow me to see those blind spots and I stumble forward into a wavering future. And yet the answer lies in front of me much like it did for Agis. Advisers. Do I have people in my life that are consistently checking my power and decision making? Am I humble enough to see the need for my own set of xymbouli - who could very well be the determining factor in how bright my future might be? They mattered to Agis and the Spartan empire as a whole - the question now becomes can I learn from that situation and apply it to my own life.


Unknown said...

Those thoughts remind me of something I read by maxwell one time, of think it was called the law of the inner circle. Talking about not only the importance of a leader having a small circle of advisors, but also the importance of their quality. Basically, you will never rise higher in your level of leadership than the level of that inner circle. Thought was interesting. And also made me immediately look at who I considered my inner circle!

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