In 720 BC, one of the great defining events in Greek history took place: Sparta conquered the Messenians. It was in many ways a most unfortunate conquest in that the region of Messenia was as big and rich as Sparta itself, and Sparta was only able to hold it down by turning itself into the austere militaristic machine that has given the word Spartan to the world. Sparta became an instrument dedicated to fighting and war, and to the suppression of the Messenians.
But in terms of its legacy, the tables have been turned. When eventually Sparta was conquered, a new city was founded at Messene, and this flourished in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, so that today far more remains to be seen at Messene than at Sparta. Today, ancient Messene has become the site of one of the biggest archaeological excavations in Greece. It lies in the south western part of the Peloponnesus – an agriculturally rich and scenically magnificent area, but also one of the economically poorer regions of modern Greece. Thus, the Greek government and the European Community have been pouring money into the site. Messene is now Greece’s biggest restoration project apart from that of the Acropolis in Athens. So what is to be seen there?
The southern Peloponnese is divided broadly into two river valleys separated by the ferocious mountain range of Mount Taygetos. The eastern valley of the river Eurotas is occupied by Laconia (that is, Sparta), today a major centre of agricultural produce. The western valley is dominated by Messenia and, following the Spartan conquest, for the next 300 years the Messenians were turned into helots, virtually the slaves of the Spartans. Spartan youths were brought up in the belief that the finest sport was to go out helot hunting and to beat up and kill any helot that showed any sign of stroppiness. As a result, the Messenians periodically revolted, with or without the help of the Athenians. The liveliest of the Messenians emigrated to Sicily where they founded the very flourishing town known as Messina. But from the 7th to 4th century BC, it was definitely not a good idea to be a Messenian.
Eventually, however, the Spartans had their comeuppance and in 371 BC, at the battle of Leuktra, the Spartans were defeated by the Thebans under the great general Epaminondas. Epaminondas promptly set about dismantling the Spartan empire. In 370 he established a new great city of Megalopolis in Arcadia, in the centre of the Peloponnese, still the major town of the area. For the Messenians, Epaminondas also founded a new city of Messene. But where should it be located?
In Messenia there were a number of villages, some of them quite large, and one of these was chosen as the site for the new foundation. This was situated at the foot of Mount Ithome, one of the great ‘ritual’ mountains in the area, reputed to be the home of Zeus. The new town was laid out on a grand scale with the agora or market place at the centre, town council and meeting place, a large theatre and eventually an even larger stadium. It was surrounded by what Pausanias called the strongest fortifications in Greece. It is the excavation of these grand buildings by the Archaeological Society at Athens that has made the archaeological site so impressive.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 33. Click here to subscribe