Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Messenian War(s) Re-examined

Last week I noted that no event shaped Sparta’s early history more dramatically than the conquest of Messenia. Despite all the uncertainties surrounding it, historians agree that Spartan control of Messenia shaped its society and policy for centuries thereafter.  The conventional account of the Messenian war, however, suggests that Sparta fought two wars, and was victorious in both, but nevertheless experienced a period of severe domestic unrest between the two wars that resulted in the founding of Sparta’s only known colony and in the introduction of the Lycurgan constitution. Periods of intense domestic unrest, however, rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.

The history of modern revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly in a crisis that threatens recent gains.  If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.

What if, following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia – and then got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver on that promise?  What if, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the war to Laconia? (Remember all those legends of Aristomenes raiding Spartan temples and disrupting Spartan festivals?)

Such a situation would have produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new, revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict with organized, well-armed Messenian forces. 

Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.

The paranoid excesses of late classical Sparta (krypteia, mass executions, etc.) followed the Helot Revolt of 465, but they probably took the disproportionate form they did because there was still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. It is more likely that the trauma of a lost war rather than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army made Sparta what it was.

Note: The next two weeks I will be in Lacedaemon and unable to update this blog.

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