Sparta's greatest enemey, Aristomenes of Messenia, was an “invincible” hero that lost the war. As such he provided the defeated Messenians with a hero they could be proud of and admire, while nevertheless transferring the blame for their defeat to others. Here is a short summary of Aristomenes heroic feats.
According to Pausanias, in the first three years of the Second Messenian War, Aristomenes led the Messenian army to victory in three pitched battles against the Spartans, the Battle of Derai, the Battle of the Boar’s Grave and the Battle of the Great Trench. As Pausanias tells the story, Aristomenes won the first of these battles outright and in consequence was offered the crown of Messenia by his grateful compatriots, which he declined. The following year he routed the Spartans so that they took flight “without shame.” Unfortunately, Aristomenes was brought to an abrupt halt in the midst of his pursuit of the defeated foe by the Dioskouroi. These deities, sitting in a pear tree in the middle of the battlefield, with unadulterated pro-Spartan bias made Aristomenes lose his shield as he chased after the fleeing Spartans. Aristomenes stoped to search for it, breaking off his pursuit and (presumably) enabling the frightened Spartans to escape, regroup, and live to fight another day. The following year, having recovered from their shock it seems, the Spartans rallied and again confronted the Messenians in a pitched battle which came to be known as the Battle of the Great Trench. Again, Aristomenes was winning the battle – until Messenia’s allies, the Arkadians, treacherously changed sides. So, due to no fault of their own or that of their leader, the Messenians were forced to take refuge it the fortress of Eira.
With the retreat to Eira, the hero Aristomenes transforms from a battlefield hero like Achilles into a guerrilla leader. In all legends describing the later phases of the Second Messenian War, Aristomenes distinguishes himself not in pitched battles but with daring raids and even more miraculous escapes. In one daylight attack, he is said to have captured dozens of Spartan maidens dancing in honor of Artemis and held them to ransom. In a night raid, he attacked an entire army of Corinthians coming to Sparta’s aid and slaughtered them in their sleep, killing, it is said, more than 100 men personally. Perhaps less heroic but more significant, he was credited with plundering Amyclae and generally making life on the western edge of the Eurotas so uncertain that the Spartans abandoned much of their farmland. This in turn led to food-shortages, civil strife and then revolution. In his most daring raid of all, Aristomenes allegedly slipped under cover of darkness into Sparta’s principle temple, the temple of the Bronzehouse Athena, and there dedicated either a captured shield or his own shield. The dedication of his own shield would be the most prominent kind of “calling card,” but would have deprived him of the very shield he supposedly dedicated later to a different temple (Trophonius in Boeotia), and from which it was later borrowed by the Thebans before confronting the Spartans at Leuktra. The dedication of a captured Spartan shield (one of the kings’ or polemarchs’ shields perhaps?) would have been equally shocking and humiliating to the Spartans.
The legends of Aristomenes miraculous escapes are, if anything, even more spectacular than the stories of his victories and raids. These include (aside from getting out of Sparta unharmed after the above shield dedication): seducing a priestess of Demeter after being captured and bound up by unarmed women and seducing the virgin daughter of a farmer after being captured and bound by Cretan archers. Without doubt the most spectacular and exciting of his escapes, however, followed being knocked out by and brought to Sparta unconscious. Here he and all other captured Messenian troops were thrown off a precipice into a gorge that should have ended in certain death. Aristomenes' companions, we are told, all died, but -- depending on which version of the legend one prefers -- either Aristomenes’ shield itself acted as a primitive parachute to catch the wind and soften his fall or an eagle (possibly the eagle emblem on the face of the shield itself) caught him on its wings and brought him safely to the floor of the gorge. On regaining consciousness, Aristomenes found himself in a dark crevice surrounded by the bones and rotting corpses of those who had been thrown off this precipice before him. Having survived the fall, Aristomenes was still at risk of starving to death in this macbre rock chamber. According to legend, he spotted a fox feeding on the corpses, and took hold of its tail. The fox (involuntarily and biting Aristomenes the whole way!) led Aristomenes out of the pit, as it fled by the way it entered the crevice.
Yet all these deeds of valor could not halt the inevitable – Sparta’s conquest of Messenia. The ancient Greek sources explain that the gods had (for whatever reason) set their hearts against Messenia. After fourteen years of defying Sparta, eleven of them from the fortress Eira, Aristomenes and his seers received a sign warning them of impending defeat. As the legend makes clear, Aristomenes did not see it as his duty to die in an already lost battle. True to his incarnation as guerrilla leader (rather than his Achillian earlier phase), he ordered “those providing cover in their bravery” to keep fighting, while he led the women and children out of the fortress under cover of darkness (by some accounts, incidentally, with Spartan complicity).
Aristomenes according to legend led the column of refugees to safety in Arkadia with his son commanding the rear guard. Here, so the legend goes, Aristomenes and five hundred of the bravest Messenians conceived a plan to attack Sparta by night (presumably while the bulk of the Spartan army was still besieging a now all-but-abandoned Eira). Unfortunately, the Arkadian king Aristocrates again betrayed the Messenians (one wonders why they fled to Arkadia in the first place?), and so the plan was abandoned. Aristomenes sent the surviving Messenians off to establish a colony on Sicily, while remaining behind to continue his fight against Sparta.
There are two versions of Aristomenes’ end. One version sees him going to Rhodos with his youngest daughter and her husband. There he allegedly died and was buried, and it was from here that the Messenians of the 4th Century retrieved his remains for a shrine in the re-established Messenia. The other version of his end is more obscure. Although it is not explained how, in this version of Aristomene’ life he somehow fell into Spartan hands again and this time they took no chances with throwing him off cliffs. Instead, they dissected him, discovering in the process that he had a “hairy” heart. Unfortunately, no one knows just what this signified, but curiously, according to Ogden, hairy hearts were attributed by the ancient Greeks to six other men including “Aetolia, the beloved of Herakles” and Leonidas I, the hero of Thermopylae!