Sparta had many opponents over the centuries, but only one man stands out as the consummate enemy. That man was Aristomenes of Messenia, the commander of Messenia’s armies during the Second Messenian war. Aristomenes is credited with routing Spartan armies on three occasions, with killing King Theopompos, with capturing Spartan maidens and carrying them off for ransom, with sneaking into the heart of Sparta to dedicate a shield in the most sacred of Sparta temples, of escaping death after being cast down a chasm, of leading the Messenian civilians out of their besieged fortress of Eira, and ultimately of rising from the dead to fight with the Thebans at Leuctra to ensure Sparta’s final humiliating defeat. This is clearly a hero of Homeric proportions that deserves much more attention than he has received to date.
To my knowledge, the most extensive, modern study of Aristomenes is provided by David Ogden in his concise yet comprehensive study, Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis (published by the Classical Press of Wales in 2004). This short but dense book provides an excellent analysis of the known legends about the almost forgotten Messenian hero and his historical roots. While many modern historians prefer to think of Aristomenes as an invention of the (re-)founders of Messenia in the mid-fourth century BC, Ogden argues convincingly that Aristomenes was at least in part a legend kept alive by oral traditions in exiled and enslaved communities. It seems reasonable to me that Aristomenes, much like King Arthur, was a real historical figure, whose legend was embellished and expanded over the centuries by story-tellers. Perhaps some deeds subsequently attributed to Aristomenes had been committed by other, now nameless, men, and surely the most fantastical adventures were pure fabrications, but that does not make the legend of Aristomenes less interesting to students of Sparta.
On the contrary, it can be extremely productive and educational to examine the complicated relationship between Sparta and Messenia through the lens of legend. Before turning to Aristomenes’ legend itself, therefore, I want to first review the importance of the conquest of Messenia for Sparta.
As far as we can make out based on the historical and archeological record, Sparta was founded sometime in the 9th or 10th century BC by invading “Dorians” from the north. The invading Dorian tribes settled in what is called Laconia after first subduing a population already occupying the fertile Eurotas valley. Several things are notable about this subjugation. First, although it must have involved bloodshed and violence, the ultimate solution was amazingly mild. The pre-inhabitants, rather than being driven out altogether (like the American Indians), massacred and enslaved (like the Trojans by the Achaeans or later the inhabitants of Melos by the Athenians), were allowed to continue living by their own laws in freedom on the edges of the valley, while the invaders took control of the heartland and established a city there. Thus, an entire body of “second class” citizens was from the very start a feature of Spartan society. While it is never pleasant to be “second class,” the perioikoi, as these non-Dorian, pre-inhabitants of Laconia were called, knew that things could have been much worse (extermination, exile) and rewarded the Spartans with roughly 1,000 years of astonishing loyalty.
Second, there was apparently a second group of conquered people in the Eurotas valley when the Dorians arrived. One theory based on linguistic studies (that makes a great deal of sense to me) is that these peoples, ethnically different from the perioikoi, were descendants of a yet earlier population that had, in unrecorded history, been conquered by those peoples that became Sparta’s perioikoi. The name given to these people, the helots, is probably derived from the a word that meant “capture,” and the helots were very probably already slaves – the slaves of the perioikoi – at the time of the Dorian invasion. This explains why they had even less privileges than the perioikoi, but comparatively more privileges than chattel slaves in the rest of the Greek world. Conceivably, the perioikoi (about whose society prior to the Dorian invasion we know nothing) had instituted the curious system of slavery more akin to serfdom than chattel slavery that the Spartans continued. But this is pure speculation.
What seems certain is that the Spartans had control of the entire Eurotas valley by the start of the 8th century BC and then, like every other successful, city state of the age, started to expand. Meanwhile, however, the valleys to the northeast and to the west of Laconia, had also been conquered and settled by Dorian tribes. To the northeast were the Argives and to the west the Messenians.
Geographically, the Paron range to the east of the Eurotas valley is a less formidable barrier than mighty Taygetos, and it is probable that the Spartans first tried to expand to the northeast. The Argives, however, proved a hard nut to crack, and so the Spartans turned their attentions to the west, probably outflanking Taygetos and crossing into Messenia via the Mani peninsula and then advancing up the eastern coast of the Gulf of Messenia.
What is absolutely certain is that the Messenians, like the Argives, resisted the Spartan invasion. What is more, they resisted so effectively that at least one and possibly two very long wars ensued. The “First Messenian War” is assumed to have lasted 19-20 years based on fragments of a poem by Tyrtaios, a participant in the Second Messenian War. The Second Messenian War is believed to have lasted almost as long (14-15 years), so that the entire armed conflict with Messenia lasted roughly 35 years with a break of one or two generations somewhere in the middle. This alone is evidence not only of the fierce resistance put up by the Messenians, but also of near parity of forces.
It seems to me that too little attention has been paid to the question of why the Spartans gave up against Argos, but persisted so bitterly in their war against Messenia. A number of explanations are possible: simply greater riches in Messenia, sheer stubbornness on the part of the Spartans, or even invasion attempts by the Messenians. Perhaps, after winning the first war, the Messenians became agressive and brought the Seconde Messenian War to Sparta? After all, Spartans would not have been fighting fully pitched battles in the Second Messenian War (as Tyrtaios unquestionably describes), if the Messenians had already been defeated and subjugated in the First Messenian War.
In short, it is far more likely that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and that this defeat led to a domestic crisis that resulted in the introduction of a new constitution and a complete reorganization of society. In short, the loss of the First Messenian War led to the changes in Spartan society that made it so unique – and these changes laid the foundation for victory in the second clash with Messenia that followed a generation or two later. (See "Sparta's Forgotton Defeat" for a detailed description and explanation of this thesis.)
There is no doubt, however, that Sparta won the Second Messenian War, and imposed a notoriously brutal regime on the defeated Messenians. The primary source and evidence of Sparta’s “exceptionally” oppressive regime in Messenia (although how it could be more oppressive than Athens on Melos no one has yet been able to explain to me) is a fragment of poetry from Tyrtaios in which he describes the Messenians “like asses exhausted under great loads to bring their masters fully half the fruit their ploughed land produced.” (Tyrtaios, fr. 6). This vivid image is repeated in nearly every book on Sparta, particularly by those that like to portray Sparta as particularly brutal and unjust. Undoubtedly, this fascination with the phrase comes from the fact that it stems from a Spartan poet, and so can be assumed to be genuine (not just propaganda). In addition, the vivid image conjured up by the phrase “assess exhausted under great loads” catches the imagination and is easily remembered.
There is, however, a problem. Tyrtaios here makes explicit that the Messenians had to surrender one half (50%) (“fully half” as he words it) of their produce. Slaves everywhere else in the world surrendered all (100%) of the fruits of their labor. In short, Tyrtaois’ poem, far from being evidence of an excessively oppressive regime, is evidence of an astonishingly mild form of slavery – and of the wealth of Messenia. Another way of reading this passage is: “although only surrendering one half of the fruit of their ploughed fields, they were like assess exhausted under the great loads.” Messenia was rich, and once Sparta had control of it, they could not “afford” to let it go again.
In summary, the conquest of Messenia was a defining moment in Spartan history that had at least three profound effects on Spartan society and history. 1) the conquest itself caused the unrest that led to revolution and the introduction of a new constitution; 2) the conquest made Sparta and all Lacadaemon self-sufficient in food and so uninterested in trade and colonies to the same extent as other Greek cities, and 3) it created a subject population unlike the perioikoi and Laconian helots. It was a population that retained a memory of independence -- and heroic deeds.
This is where Aristomenes comes in. The legends of Aristomenes preserved traditions of a free and heroic Messenia. The tales bolstered Messenian pride and fostered hope of regaining independencein the future. In short, the legend of Aristomenes helped make the Messenians dissatisfied with their current status; it made Messenians more rebellious.
Spartan treatment of Messenians might have been objectively better than that of chattel slaves, but subjectively it was an intolerable indignity because the Messenians retained their national identity. While chattel slaves were uprooted and cut off from even their families, Messenian helots remained on the land of their forefathers with unbroken ties to their gods and heroes. People with proud, martial traditions are more likely to rebel, and the need to keep the Messenian under control in turn made Sparta over time increasingly militaristic and paranoid.
Given the importance of Messenia in defining Sparta’s development and character, it is useful to look more closely at Messenia’s greatest hero even – or especially – if he was only apocryphal. Next week, I will look more closely at specific aspects of the Aristomenes legend in the hope of shedding some more like on Sparta’s relationship with Messenia and helots.