Messene: A free-spirited city in the shadow of Sparta

One glance at the stout towers and high defensive walls of Ancient Messene, in the southwest of the Peloponnese, leads to the realization that the massively fortified Classical and Hellenistic city had something great to fear. Located about 25 kilometers northwest of modern Kalamata, Ancient Messene lay in the region of Messenia ? a large, fertile district that constituted a desirable hinterland for powerful neighboring Sparta. Although separated by Mount Taygetos, Messene and Sparta had close ties ? not as friendly allies but as longstanding adversaries. The Spartans, wishing to dominate the greater region, set about subjugating Messenia in the early centuries of the Iron Age (10th-7th centuries BC). The Messenians, however, were an independent people, aggressive and warlike in their own right, who resented the subservient role that required them to provide regular tribute and military service to their Spartan masters.

The Messenians, along with similarly subjugated peoples in Sparta?s own home region of Laconia, were known as ?helots.? Messenian helots were more resistant to Spartan domination than their Laconian counterparts but all helots were considered suspicious by the Spartans ? who regularly took measures to keep them supressed and obedient.

Nevertheless, Messenian hunger for self-determination burned on, resulting in several historically recorded revolts in the late 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries BC. Continuous Messenian aggression, according to contemporary specialists, directly led to the Spartans? characteristic embrace of strict military discipline and rigorous training. In short, the Messenians forced the Spartans to become the supremely tough warriors they are still renowned as.

After another uprising of many years, beginning in 464 BC, the Spartans finally overran the Messenians and forced them into exile. The Athenians, who helped the Messenians to resettle in Nafpaktos and later on Cephalonia, benefited in return from Messenian assistance during the humiliating defeat of Spartan hoplites at Pylos in 425 BC. Thanks to such continuing tensions, the Messenians were unable to return to their native territory until 369 BC, when the Theban general Epaminondas re-established them in the newly founded city of Messene. The rich archaeological site of Messene now evident today represents one of the best-preserved late Classical and Hellenistic cities in Greece.

Excavations at Messene, conducted since 1987 by Petros Themelis, professor of Classical archaeology at the University of Crete, have revealed and recorded the extensive remains of an elaborate city nestled against the slopes of Mount Ithome. The fortification walls, augmented by numerous towers and gates, are preserved to a length of 9.5 kilometers. Themelis?s investigations have focused particularly on the Asclepeion (a grouping of buildings dedicated to Asclepius) and other structures composing the heart of the city, including a theater, gymnasium, stadium and palaestra.

The Asclepeion was originally adorned with more than 100 bronze and stone statues, most of them depicting political figures. On all four sides of this square space were Corinthian-style stoas (colonnades), with a large Doric temple of Asclepius in the center. Apparently not a place of mass healing like the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros, the Asclepeion at Messene was instead an art gallery and public meeting place adjacent to the city?s central square and marketplace (agora) next door. Large chambers to the east of the Asclepeion contained the Ekklesiasterion (a small theater-like assembly hall for political gatherings, plays and musical performances), bouleuterion (a council hall for meetings of representatives of Messenian cities) and an archive. Opposite the Ekklesiasterion on the Asclepeion ?s western side stood a series of niches that represented small shrines or sanctuaries, including one dedicated to Artemis.

Preservation of Ancient Messene?s extensive architectural remains is well under way, with the consolidation of walls, respositioning of displaced blocks, re-erection of columns and partial restoration of key features already having been accomplished. A protective shelter was erected over the Artemision in 1990.

Especially impressive now is the Asclepeion complex and the ancient city?s fortifications, whose reassembly and partial restoration during the period 2003-05 were done under the supervision of architect Eleni Anna Chlepa.

Themelis?s ongoing excavations, under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens, have also uncovered the intriguing traces of city streets laid out orthogonally, public fountains, monumental gateways, a bath complex, small outlying shrines and a residential quarter with at least two basilicas belonging to early Christians who inhabited the site in the 5th-7th centuries AD. Most recently, archaeologists have discovered a large, round colonnaded structure 10 meters in diameter that Themelis has postulated may have been a Hellenistic temple to Aphrodite destroyed by an earthquake in AD 375. A second circular Roman-era structure with mosaic floors has also been revealed in the latest investigations, which have included further excavation of the 186-meter-long north stoa within the city?s large agora.

The discovery of five further statue bases in this last area offers additional proof that Messene, despite its position in the shadow of Sparta, was once an elegant, powerful, thriving city whose inhabitants cherished their hard-won freedom.

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