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Messene, out from under the shadow of Sparta

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the 300 Spartans
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« on: September 01, 2012, 10:03:22 pm »

Messene, out from under the shadow of Sparta
   by John Leonard          17 Aug 2012
The Propylon of the Gymnasium
The Propylon of the Gymnasium
THERE are many reasons to take particular notice of the sprawling, park-like archaeological site and the ongoing excavation and reconstruction projects at ancient Messene in the southwestern Peloponnese.
With its towering backdrop provided by the monastery-capped Mt Ithome, Messene once was one of Hellenistic and Roman Greece’s greatest cities, whose scenery and remaining architecture recall today in the minds of visitors images that may be less reminiscent of European Greek centres than of Priene and other similarly dramatic sites, rich in ruins, in the former Greek lands of western Asia Minor.
Messene’s 9.5km-long circuit of stoutly constructed defensive walls enclosed an extensive array of uniquely designed public and private structures, including the city’s enormous, colonnade-lined marketplace (agora); a large theatre; numerous temples and smaller shrines; a monumental fountain (nymphaeum); a combined gymnasium-stadium complex whose tracks and walkways were forested with more than 150 columns; and strikingly singular smaller structures such as a tall, cone-roofed family tomb and a thick-walled, slab-lidded, subterranean treasury, likely the scene of the imprisonment and infamous murder of a Peloponnesian general.
Mt Ithome and its southwestern slopes are soaked in history, their occupation dating back to at least the Early Bronze Age. The city of Messene, within the larger region of the same name, was only founded in 369BC, at the behest of the Theban leader Epaminondas, two years after Boeotian forces had defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra and ended their domination over the Peloponnese. Messene and its northeastern neighbour Megalopolis, established in 371BC, were intended as a pair of fortified strongholds that would hem in and prevent Sparta from reasserting its regional hegemony.
The Messenians had long suffered in the shadow of mighty Sparta, pressed into centuries of servitude as helots until - after countless rebellions, banishments, killings and full-out wars - they finally were allowed their own city within which their culture could flourish. The peak and surrounding township, collectively known as Ithome had been a traditional place of assembly and defence for rebellious Messenian helots (see box below). The city of Messene, increasingly ornate in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, came to be a crowning achievement and a hard-won monument to Messenian independence.
The Spartans long feared the potential strength of their subordinated neighbours (see adjacent page top box), but the massiveness of Messene’s walls, towers and gates - whose construction began immediately after the city’s foundation in 369BC - reveals the level of respect also held by the Messenians for their former Spartan overlords. Drawn to the vibrant, militarily strategic city were a long line of prominent political and military figures, as well as inquisitive tourists including Pausanias in the 2nd c AD, who remarks on Messene’s impressive walls and persistently flowering Roman-era culture (see adjacent page bottom box).
Archaeological park
Mediaeval and early modern tourists also came to Messene, many of whom later published romantic engravings of the city’s now-overgrown fortifications and other picturesque ruins nestled among the Peloponnesian hills.
More scientific, measured drawings and reconstructions on paper appeared at least as early as the 1830s, but scientific excavation began in 1895 under the auspices of the Greek Archaeological Society. Further excavation took place in 1909-1925, directed by George Oikonomos; in 1957-1974, by Anastasios Orlandos; and since 1987, by University of Crete-Rethymno Professor Petros Themelis (photo).
An eloquent, affable, exceedingly knowledgeable director, Themelis is one of contemporary Greek archaeology’s great characters, an impassioned, rousing spokesman for the site of Messene and the ongoing studies there. Themelis is also a notably successful fundraiser, who has managed to drum up regular support not only for a quarter-century of excavation, but also for one of the most awe-inspiring restoration programmes to be found anywhere in Greece.
Tireless reconstructive and landscaping efforts over the years - including the rerouting of a gushing mountain stream that in post-antique times had commenced to cut a destructive path across Messene’s ancient stadium - have resulted in an extraordinary archaeological park featuring numerous clearly visible monuments, pleasant grassy lawns, good explanatory signage and, almost everywhere one looks, instructive, aesthetically-pleasing restorations. For increased visitor comfort, however, especially during summer months, benches with shade and several additional drinking-fountains placed regularly throughout the extensive site would be a welcome improvement.
Particular features of Messene not to be missed include the small but delightful museum with its rich collection of Classical, Hellenistic and Roman sculpture. Just below the entrance to the downward sloping site, the theatre (3rd c BC) exhibits few remaining seats but an intricately preserved, three-phased skene, a building behind the playing area used for changing or as theatre backdrop. No explanatory signs for visitors are in evidence, but works on this monument are still in progress. The earliest skene was apparently wooden and movable, as stone-cut tracks for wheels are visible at its eastern end.
Further on, to the left of the main path through Messene’s agora, are the low remains of a heavily-built subterranean chamber - the Treasury House -where in 183BC Philopoemen, the captured general of the Achaean Confederacy, was likely imprisoned and subsequently poisoned by the Messenian general Deinokrates and his followers.
End of oligarchy
The nearby Asklepieion represented the heart of ancient Messene, consisting of a large Doric temple dedicated to god of medicine Asclepius surrounded by four Corinthian colonnades (stoas) that enclosed a square complex reserved for public and religious activities. This complex includes on one side shrines of Artemis, Tyche, Epaminondas and Herakles, and Apollo and the Muses. Opposite are the Ekklesiasterion (a combined theatrical and political meeting hall), the Bouleuterion (council house) and the state archives.
According to Themelis, the founding of Asklepieion in 214BC, during a period of civil strife and nationalistic fervour, marked the end of oligarchic rule and the establishment of democracy. It also commemorated the city’s foundation by the Thebans.
The Gymnasium-Stadium area of Messene is especially striking. The shafts of re-erected columns reach stretch skyward in long, dense rows.
At the Stadium’s far, southern end an almost fully restored mausoleum on a high podium, resembling a small, prostyle Doric temple, served as a funerary monument for Messene’s prominent, Roman-era Saithidae family (1st-3rd c AD).
Behind the Stadium’s western colonnade lies an earlier family tomb, Funerary Monument K3 (late 3rd c BC-1st c AD), whose form - a square enclosure containing seven cist (rectangular slab-lined) graves, covered with a pointed, conical roof that supports a Corinthian column capped by a bronze sculpture - is unique in Greece.
Also near the Stadium, according to Pausanias, lay a sanctuary of Isis (Iseum). Themelis and his team have yet to locate this sacred complex, but they have discovered a vaulted, subterranean channel filled with statuary and other artefacts that appears to be connected with the Iseum. As excavations continue at Messene in 2013, Themelis plans further exploration of the city’s agora and hopes to locate the Isis temple.
An excellent guidebook issued by the Greek government (2003) exists for Messene, with a newly revised edition slated to appear by the end of the year. Further details on Messene can also be gleaned from the project web site (, although this too needs updating.
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the 300 Spartans
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« Reply #1 on: September 01, 2012, 10:04:25 pm »

Mt Ithome, a traditional centre of Messenian resistance
Thucydides reports that following a severe earthquake in 464BC, Sparta’s helots - consisting of neighbouring peoples long forced to serve the Spartans - took advantage of their weakened masters to rebel and seek refuge on Mt Ithome
"(…) In which earthquake [of 464 BC] their helots, and from neighbouring towns the Thuriatae and Aethaeans, revolted and seized on Ithome. Most of these helots were the descendants of the ancient Messenians brought into servitude in former times"
(History of the Peloponnesian War)
Helot strength a source of Spartan nervousness
During the Theban invasion of Laconia in 370BC, according to Xenophon, the Spartans riskily sought to reinforce their army by recruiting helots
"It was also determined by the [Spartan] authorities to make proclamation to the helots that if any wished to take up arms and be assigned to a place in the ranks, they should be given a promise that all should be free who took part in the war. And it was said that at first more than six thousand enrolled themselves,
so that they in their turn occasioned fear when they were marshalled together, and were thought to be all too numerous"

Pausanias praises the mighty walls of Messene

"The Messenians have a city below Ithome. Not only Ithome shuts it in, but also Mt Eua … They say this mountain got its name from the Bacchic cry of ‘Euoi!’ that Dionysus and his women first uttered in this place. The walls of Messene are a complete circle built in stone, with towers and fortifications … If you take the walls at Ambrossos in Phokis and at Byzantium and at Rhodes, which are extremely well-walled places, the Messenian walls are stronger still. In the marketplace [agora] the Messenians have … a water fountain of Arsinoe … There are divine sanctuaries of Poseidon and Aphrodite, and the most memorable thing of all is a statue of the Mother of the Gods in Parian stone by Damophon"
(Guide to Greece, 2nd c AD)
« Last Edit: September 01, 2012, 10:05:51 pm by the 300 Spartans » Report Spam   Logged
the 300 Spartans
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« Reply #2 on: September 01, 2012, 10:07:11 pm »

The Propylon of the Gymnasium
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