Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Messenian Hero

Historians agree that the Messenian War(s) were instrumental in inducing Sparta to seek a new constitution and way of life. Certainly, the existence of a large, oppressed and periodically rebellious population contributed to the Spartan need for a militarized state and guided much of their foreign policy as well. 
But just who were the Messenians?
Significantly, they were a Dorian people like the Spartans themselves, and they had a hero - the curiously invincible Aristomenes. A brief look at the legends that surround this Messenian hero tell us a great deal about the Messenians themselves. 




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!


But the legend of Aristomenes includes other characteristics that are less obviously “heroic,” albeit very much in the Homeric tradition of fallible heroes.



One of these characteristics, perhaps inevitable in a popular hero, is Aristomenes undeniable sex appeal. On at least two occasions, Aristomenes is freed from captivity by women who fall in love with him. In one instance, he is rescued by the “virgin” daughter of a Messenian farmer, who at Aristomenes’ urgings serves too much wine to Aristomenes’ Cretan guards, and then, when the Cretons are in a drunken stupor, cuts Aristomenes’ bonds so he can kill his erstwhile captors and escape. In a second, more sensational episode of the Aristomenes legend, Aristomenes is shown charming (seducing?) a (presumably virgin) priestess of Demeter.

This second seduction is one of three incidents in the Aristomenes legend in which Aristomenes seeks to to capture unarmed Spartan women and girls for ransom. In the incident referenced above, Aristomenes and his companions try to carry off unarmed women celebrating a festival to Demeter at Aigila in Laconia, but the women defended themselves so effectively with their sacrificial knives and spits that they succeed in either killing or frightening off his companions while capturing Aristomenes himself. Aside from Aristomenes’ prowess as a seducer (since he subsquently seduces the chief priestess), this incident is not terribly heroic. Not only does he attack unarmed women, he fails in his attempt and -- on top of all that -- is himself captured by mere women.

The other two legends about the capture of maidens are more ambiguous. To be sure, in both the other episodes involving the capture of women, Aristomenes’ is successful. In one case he snatches girls dancing in honor of Artemis at Caryae and in the other he snatches fifteen virgins (presumably from Sparta itself) when “the defeated Spartans were celebrating some nocturnal rites called the Hyacinthia.” (See David Ogden, Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis, p. 39) The Messenian version of this latter event significantly recounts how some of Aristomenes men try to rape the girls, but Aristomenes kills his own men rather than let the captive girls be violated, thereby demonstrating his high moral character. Furthermore, he returns the girls "intact" to their fathers after their ransoms are paid, and the grateful girls later plead for his life when he is captured by the Spartans and put on trial. (Note: no further information about when this trial occurred or whether the Spartans heeded the pleas for mercy by the grateful girls is provided by my source.)

The Spartan version of these epidsodes is (not surprisingly) quite different. The Spartans claim the girls were carried off and raped and then killed themselves from shame. Alternatively, King Teleklos rushed to their defense, only to be killed by the Messenians – and this incident triggered the First Messenian War. Then again, according to another interpretation in Messenian legend, the “girls” were in fact “beardless” youth who attacked the Messenians, and they, in self-defense, killed the youth disguised as girls, but this understandable act of self-defense was wickedly used by King Teleklos as a transparent excuse to attack Messenia, as he had always intended form the start…..

Returning to Aristomenes, there is another aspect of all three of these incidents that would have been more obvious to ancient Greeks than to us: in each case Aristomenes seized (or attempted to seize) the girls when they were in the act of worshiping one or another deity. In short: all three episodes constitute an act of sacrilege. One other legend underlines Aristomenes sacreligious character particularly dramatically.

Ogden provides the following quote from Polyaenus, (Ogden, p. 63):

When the Spartans were making a public sacrifice to the Dioscuri, Aristomenes the Messenian and a friend mounted white horses and put golden stars around their heads. In the course of the night, they manifested themselves at a moderate distance before the Spartans, who were celebrating their festival outside the city with their women and children. They thought there had been an epiphany of the Dioscuri and launched themselves into drinking and great pleasure. But Aristomenes and his friend dismounted from their horses, drew their swords and slaughtered a great many of them before riding off again. (Polyaenus 2.31.4)

This was clearly an act of inexcusable sacrilege. It entails not just attacking unarmed men (with their wives and children present), who were in the act of worshiping the gods, it involves impersonating the gods themselves. If, as Ogden suggests, this incident was intended to explain how Aristomenes incurred the enduring hostility of the Dioscuri, it would have to pre-date the Battle of the Boar’s Grave and so would have occurred at the very start of the Second Messenian War. This in turn suggests that at that time the Messenians could ride right up to the border of Sparta. If combined with the capture of Spartan maidens at another festival, it might have provided the kind of provocation that made the notoriously pious Spartans mad with rage and determined to defeat Aristomenes at all costs. In short, the incident might in fact offer significant insight into the roots of the Messenian Wars – or at least the bitterness with which they were apparently pursued.

It is also noteworthy that the conquered Messenians would keep alive legends in which their greatest hero shows decidedly sacrileges tendencies. One explanation would be that they preferred to attribute their defeat to the hostility of the gods than to their own failing. They needed, however, to explain the unrelenting hostility of the gods, and Aristomenes’ impudence did just this. Another explanation might be that, as a conquered people, they felt abandoned by the gods and identified with a hero who was impious. Precisely because the Diosouri were some of Sparta’s most honored gods, being disrespectful of them was in effect being disrespectful to Sparta, so this particular legend might have been particularly popular – especially since it shows the Spartans being duped by such a cheap trick.

Another consistent feature of the Aristomenes legend is the frequency with which the hero is humiliated. Aristomenes is not just captured by women and (lowly) Creton archers, he is wounded in the buttocks, loses his shield (by divine intervention) in the middle of a battle, is turned back during another night raid by Helen (of all martial figures!), forced to retreat to a fortress, then to flee his homeland, and yet he remains defiant and capable of outwitting and escaping his opponents. In short, for all his failings and defeats – or rather because of them – the Legend of Aristomenes is ideally suited to giving a defeated people hope. Aristomenes is defeated – but never killed (unless we want to believe that story with the hairy heart), and so he was an ever-present companion to the Messenians, promising a better future -- just as soon as the bias of the gods in favor of Sparta ended….


The Messenian Wars are the subject of Are They Singing in Sparta? Aristomenes is a secondary character in the book. 


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