By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Messenian Wars, which took place between Sparta and Messenia in the 8th century BC, were very crucial in the rise of Spartan society. Victory in the Messenian Wars was important in the history of Sparta, and by extension, in the history of Ancient Greece as a whole.
Background to the Messinian Wars
The Spartans were a Dorian tribe who invaded Greece from the southern Balkans. They conquered much of the Peloponnesian from the native Achaeans (1100 BC), and some Dorians settled in what became Messenia. There, they created a small kingdom and later adopted the culture of the native Achaeans. Over time, tensions developed between the Spartans and the Messenians; this was born out of a rivalry for resources as well as cultural differences. While the Spartans in Laconia may have resented the Messenian elite, who they believed betrayed their Dorian origins, many historians suggest that the actual cause of the war was the Spartans’ desperate need for more fertile land.
The Outbreak of Messenian War
The immediate casus belli was the theft of some cattle by a Messenian Olympic champion. This led to reprisal raids by the Spartans, during which several Laconians were killed, sparking an all-out war. The dating of the war is not known for certain, but it is thought to have begun in 743/742 BC and lasted until roughly 722 BC.
The Spartan King Alcmenes led an army of heavy infantry into Messenian territory in order to launch a surprise attack on Ampheia, an important Messenian city. Alcemes ordered his men to march by night on the city and they caught the defenders completely by surprise. The Spartans massacred the men and enslaved the children and the women.
Euphaes, the king of Messenia, placed all able-bodied men under arms. He was aware that the Spartans were superior infantrymen, so he decided to rely on a strategy of field defenses. The war largely consisted of raids and counter raids during the campaign season. In 739 BC the two armies fought an inconclusive battle in a ravine not far from the capital of Euphaes.
The following campaigning season saw another pitched battle; this time the Spartans and the Messenians clashed near the destroyed city of Ampheia. The two armies were led by their respective kings, consisted mostly of heavy infantry, and also had some light skirmishers and archers. There is some controversy as to whether or not the Laconians adopted the phalanx tactics. If so, it was possibly that this was the first time that a Greek army had adopted the strategy.
Whatever the case, the fight was brutal and bloody and it lasted all day long. There was no quarter shown by either side. By evening the Spartans emerged victorious and the Messenians were in full retreat. Their king decided to return to his strategy of fixed defense and he ordered a stronghold to be built on Mount Ithome, which is over 2,400 feet high (800 meters) and located just above the capital of Messenia. It appears that King Eupales died soon after, as did his archenemy, Alchemnes.
War of Attrition
The Messenians were able to resist the Spartans and maintain their independence. However, they were hard pressed and every summer the Laconians would raid their land, which must have caused economic collapse and food shortages.
The Messenians sent an embassy to obtain advice from the Oracle at the Delphi, and they were ordered to sacrifice a virgin to the gods to secure their favor. According to some accounts, the Messenian sacrificed the daughter of a noble, Aristodemus. After this the fortunes of the Messenians improved, and they had a number of minor successes against the Spartans. It seems Aristodemus, the father of the girl sacrificed, was made the new Messenian king; he went on the attack, driving the Spartans completely out of his kingdom. The Messenians engaged the Spartans in a set-piece battle for the first time since their defeat at Ampheia.
The Last Phase of the Messenian War
The Messenian War had by now entered its second decade. Sparta was exhausted and was not sure of how it should proceed. It was not in their nature to give up. They emulated the Messenians and sent a delegation to the Oracle of Delphi. The delegation from Laconia was given advice by the oracle, which they followed, however what exactly they were told has not been passed down to us. Sparta possibly adopted a new tactic; they appear to have besieged the Messenian stronghold on Mount Ithome. This led to the collapse of the Messenians and their king took his own life.
Aftermath of the Messenian War
Many of the Messenians were killed, enslaved or went into exile when Sparta annexed nearly all of Messenia. The Laconians reduced the remaining Messenians to the status of helots, a form of slave. They worked the land of their Spartan masters, who had absolute power over them. The conquest of Messenia meant that Sparta grew richer and stronger, and it allowed the Spartan elite to become a class of professional warriors. The capture of Messenia allowed the Laconians to develop their unique constitution and peculiar institutions, such as the agoge, where boys trained to be warriors.
However, the Messenians continued to resist, and they rose in a revolt known as the 2nd Messinian War, which was suppressed. Nonetheless, unrest continued. The constant threat of rebellion and the need to repress the helots meant that Sparta became a very militarized society. Sparta would not have developed as it had, if they had not been victorious in the Messenian War.
The Messenians were eventually to regain their freedom and independence in the 3rd Messenian War in the 4th century BC.