Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Danger of Messenian Myths

We cannot know when the legends about the Messenian hero Aristomenes started. Many may have be invented only after the restoration of Messenian independence. Yet it is also quite probable that at least some myths dated back to the Messenian War(s) themselves and circulated as folk history among the Messenian helots. These stories of a glorious past and an immortal hero could well have contributed to simmering Messenian resentment of Spartan rule.
Based on this speculation, I included the following scene in "A Heroic King." In this scene, on the feast of the Dioskouria (honoring Castor and Polydeukes) the sons of a Spartan citizen and his helot mistress are sitting together.


Pelops sat astride one of the benches his uncle's men had made earlier in the day and explained to his wide-eyed younger brother Kinadon, "...and it was on a night just like this that Aristomenes and a companion slipped across Taygetos from Messenia. They were dressed all in white with golden headbands with bright stars on them, and they rode pure white horses!" Pelops narrated. "It was getting dark, just like this, but a moon was rising," he continued, pointing unnecessarily to the far side of the Eurotas. "And the light of the moond made Aristomenes and his companion on their white horses stand out in the darkenss. Aristomenes was tall with long, golden hair," Peplos explained to his awestruck younger brother. "And his companion looked just the same -- like twins, you see?"

"Leonidas doesn't look like Brotus," Kinadon protested.

"That's different!" Peplos retorted, dismissing the annoying interruption. "The Divine Twins looked so much alike that mortals couldn't tell them apart. And from a distance, Aristomenes and his friend looked just the same. When the Spartans saw these two beautiful youths on white horses riding along the side of Taygetos, they thought they were the Divine Twins come back to life!" Pelops started giggling. "The Spartans threw themselves down on their knees, and started worshiping Aristomenes of Messenia as if he were  god! And so he and his companion rode closer and closer, and the Spartans were so dumb they still didn't see through his disguise. So he rode right in among them and then jumped down and started---"

Pelops was cuffed so hard on the back of his head that he nearly fell off the bench. Reeling, he turned to see who had delivered the blow, and came face to face with his father.

"Since when do you tell tales of Aristomenes of Messenia?" Temenos demanded. Then, without giving his son a chance to answer, he added, "Aristomenes was a coward! A man who preferred to attack unarmed women and children. A man who attacked by night and in disguise. A man who impersonated Gods and raped priestesses! Where did you learn to admire such a creature? If Pelopidas has been telling such tales--"

"Temenous!" Chryse hissed, coming up beside him. "Not so loud! You're attracting attention. Of course my father didn't tell him about Aristomenes. They hear it from their friends."
 
"What friends? Laconian helots don't idolize Aristomenes."

"There are plenty of Messenians here -- working as attendants, or in the workshops and stores and factories. Aristomenes appeals to some Laconian helots too --"

"You mean because he fought us?"

"Yes, it's only natural--"

"Natural? Natural to admire a man who kidnapped girls, raped priestesses, and impersonated the Dioskouroi? Why do you think he lost the war despite all his tricks?" he demanded of his sons, but he did not give them a chance to answer. Instead, he declared himself, "Because the God were offended by his impious behavior!"

"Yes, Temenos, " Chryse tried to calm him. "Of course. Come along, boys. It's time to go home."

The boys had long since gotten to their feet, expecting this, and yet something got into Kinadon and he burst out angrily. "Why can't we stay? Why do we have to hide? Everybody knows about us! What more can they do after making you walk around naked with a dead ---" It was his mother who him him to shut him up, but his father's face was enough to make him wish she had killed him. His father hadn't known they knew....



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