How a city rose from the ashes

Evan and his companions leave Pylos and head to Messenia, a region protected by mountains.

Ancient Messenia is located in the southwestern part of the Peloponnese, and founded in 369 BCE. The site was settled in the Early Bronze Age, though it may date back to the Late Neolithic period. Today the site is protected under the World Heritage foundation. You may be wondering why Messenia is an important site. The ancient Messenians were subjugated by their fellow Greeks, perhaps not a new concept as recent history can attest, but it was certainly wasn’t the norm.

Public Domain,

So, what was it about Messenia that differed from the other Greek city-states? The region in which ancient site of Messene is located, is in a fertile valley, and considering the mountainous landscape of Greece, it made it desirable to their neighbours: the Spartans. This post isn’t about the Spartans because they deserve a whole series dedicated to their unique culture, but one cannot discuss the history of Messenia and its people without mentioning their southern neighbours.

In the eighth century BCE, the first Messenian war occurred between Sparta and Messenia. Why? The Spartans desired Messenia’s arable land as they did not have enough to divvy up between them. Hence, they went to war. Unfortunately, the Messenian’s were defeated. There was a second Messenian War (640-630 BCE) and this time they lost a lot more than just their lands. They were forced to be helots. Helots were a combination of serfs and slaves, but neither at the same time.

Attic black-figure band cup
Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Archaic Greek Art (7th-6th centuries BC)

The helots were assigned to lots of land to seed, grow, and harvest. These parcels of land were apportioned to the Spartans, who in turn were the masters of the helots. The helots had to give two thirds of the harvest to their master, and they were entitled to keep a third for themselves and families. The women and men worked in the fields alongside. There wasn’t any discrimination in this situation.

The most interesting part about this subjugation was that the Messenian population outnumbered that of the Spartan’s, yet if it wasn’t for the latter’s formidable reputation, history may be a little different.

In 371 BCE, the Thebans and Spartans went to war and the Spartans lost, and a few years later the city of Messenia was founded. After four hundred years of occupation, the helots were able to overthrow their harsh masters and went back to their ancestral home.

The site today has a number of astonishing and remarkable ruins, some of which have been reconstructed. Parts date back to the Classical period (480-323 BCE), the Hellenistic era (323-31 BCE) and the Roman period (31 BCE – 324 CE). There is also Byzantine monuments at the site: a monastery and tombs.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Thank you for your continued support and as always, I look forward to your comments and will respond.

Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, burnt out but not done… yet.


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  1. Kathleen_Vail

    It seems we may be closing in on the ‘presumed’ differences between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, doesn’t it? Your closer looks at this region of the Peloponnese is fascinating, Luc. and the way you intrigue us with your excellent writing is so enjoyable and captivating! ;^)

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  2. cathleentownsend

    Thanks so much, Luciana. I’ve never heard about the Messenians before, nor their 400 year subjegation. It reminds me of the Irish struggle. I guess some things about humanity stay constant, although the English and Irish seem to have come to a more peaceful resolution. Maybe there is hope that we can learn. 🙂

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    • cav12

      Thank you, Cathleen. I don’t think many people would have heard of the Messenians, nor of their plight.
      It does seem humans are intent on repeating the mistakes of the past, yet there is hope as you mentioned 😀

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