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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Smith, A Smaller History of Ancient Greece





Early History of Peloponnesus and Sparta to the end of the Messenian Wars, B.C. 668













Page 11

For thirty-nine years the Messenians endured this degrading yoke. At the end of this time they took up arms against their oppressors. The SECOND MESSENIAN WAR lasted from B.C. 685 to 668. Its hero is Aristomenes, whose wonderful exploits form the great subject of this war. It would appear that most of the states in Peloponnesus took part in the struggle. The first battle was fought before the arrival of the allies on either side, and, though it was indecisive, the valour of Aristomenes struck fear into the hearts of the Spartans. To frighten the enemy still more, the hero crossed the frontier, entered Sparta by night, and affixed a shield to the temple of Athena (Minerva), with the inscription, "Dedicated by Aristomenes to the goddess from the Spartan spoils." The Spartans in alarm sent to Delphi for advice. The god bade them apply to Athens for a leader. Fearing to disobey the oracle, but with the view of rendering no real assistance, the Athenians sent Tyrtaeus, a lame man and a schoolmaster. The Spartans received their new leader with due honour; and he was not long in justifying the credit of the oracle. His martial songs roused their fainting courage; and so efficacious were his poems that to them is mainly ascribed the final success of the Spartan arms.

Encouraged by the strains of Tyrtaeus, the Spartans again marched against the Messenians. But they were not at first successful. A great battle was fought at the Boar's Grave in the plain of Stenyclerus, in which they were defeated with great loss. In the third year of the war another great battle was fought, in which the Messenians suffered a signal defeat. So greet was their loss, that Aristomenes no longer ventured to meet the Spartans in the open field. Following the example of the Messenian leaders in the former war, he retired to the mountain fortress of Ira. The Spartans encamped at the foot of the mountain; but Aristomenes frequently sallied from the fortress, and ravaged the lands of Laconia with fire and sword. It is unnecessary to relate all the wonderful exploits of this hero in his various incursions. Thrice was he taken prisoner; on two occasions he burst his bonds, but on the third he was carried to Sparta, and thrown with his fifty companions into a deep pit, called Ceadas. His comrades were all killed by the fall; but Aristomenes reached the bottom unhurt. He saw, however, no means of escape, and had resigned himself to death; but on the third day perceiving a fox creeping among the bodies, he grasped its tail, and, following the animal as it struggled to escape, discovered an opening in the rock, and on the next day was at Ira to the surprise alike of friends and foes. But his single prowess was not sufficient to avert the ruin of his country. One night the Spartans surprised Ira, while Aristomenes was disabled by a wound; but he collected the bravest of his followers, and forced his way through the enemy. Many of the Messenians went to Rhegium, in Italy, under the sons of Aristomenes, but the hero himself finished his days in Rhodes.

The second Messenian war was terminated by the complete subjugation of the Messenians, who again became the serfs of their conquerors. In this condition they remained till the restoration of their independence by Epaminondas in the year 369 B.C. During the whole of the intervening period the Messenians disappear from history. The country called Messenia in the map became a portion of Laconia, which thus extended across the south of Pelponnesus from the eastern to the western sea. 

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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