Spartan War

Against Messene in particular Sparta fought two celebrated wars, the first terminating in 724 B.C., and the second about 668 B.C.

Messene occupied the westernmost of the three large divisions of the southern Peloponnesus. The Spartans said they first attacked it because the Messenean sovereign, one of those doubtful descendants of Hercules, had been murdered by his people; and that the Spartans, being his kinsmen, were compelled to avenge him. This sounds as though the native Greek populace of Messene had rebelled against a Dorian ruler, who sought aid from the other Dorian states. At any rate, the result was a war of twenty years, during which the Messeneans abandoned all their villages and towns, and took refuge on the mighty mountain of Ithome, a natural fortress having upon its summit a plain large enough to grow crops for all the defenders. On this mountain eyrie they lived, and from it they descended to fight, year after year.

The Messeneans were finally driven even from Ithome. Many of them fled into exile, and the remainder submitted as servitors to the yoke of Sparta. Forty years later there arose among the Messenean exiles a remarkable leader, Aristomenes, who persuaded his companions to return in a body to their native land and reassert their right to it. This caused the second Messenean war.

Aristomenes was the chief national hero of Messene. We are told that he repeatedly defeated parties of the hitherto invincible Spartans, that he even dared to venture into the market-place of Sparta itself, and, as an offering to the gods, he fastened upon the temple door some of the spoils which he had taken from the Spartans themselves. At length he defeated all the hosts of Sparta in a decisive battle, and reestablished the independence of his beloved city.

The discouraged Spartans applied repeatedly to the Delphic oracle for advice against Aristomenes, and were told that to defeat him they must seek a leader from among the Athenians. Hence the Spartans most unwillingly appealed to Athens for a general. The Athenians, equally unwilling to aid Sparta or to offend her, and defy the oracle, thought to turn the prophecy to ridicule by sending to the Spartans the Athenian least fitted of all to lead in war. So they chose an old lame schoolmaster, Tyrtaeus. The Spartans received him as contemptuously as he was sent. But Tyrtaeus proved the very man they needed. He was a poet, and by his martial songs celebrating the ancient Spartan valor, he so roused the spirit of the people to shame and revenge that Aristomenes and all his army were utterly defeated.

Still the resolute Messenean continued the war, though almost without followers. Hiding amid the mountains, he continued his raids into Laconia. Thrice he was captured by the Spartans, and thrice he escaped almost miraculously. At one time, being cast as dead or dying into a pit from which there was no way of climbing out, he was saved by a fox, which dug its way by subterranean passages to feed upon the dead. Aristomenes, catching the fox's tail, was led by it up to the daylight. On another occasion, a maiden of the city had a dream from the gods bidding her free the captive Aristomenes, and she did so and fled with him and was wedded to one of his sons.

Clearly, in such tales, we are still dealing with romance rather than with fact. The end alone is certain. Aristomenes abandoned the struggle after nearly twenty years, fought his way through the Spartan army that surrounded his mountain hiding-place, and with a handful of followers fled to Sicily. Here the remnant of the Messeneans founded the city known to this day by the name of Messina, which their patriotism led them to assign to it.

Thus Sparta became mistress of two of the three southern valleys of the Peloponnesus. But Argos, enthroned in the third valley, continued to defy and sometimes to do battle with her. In Argos, as in Messene, the Dorian kings were overthrown, and a republic was established, though probably it was a republic still under Dorian leadership. Then in 519 B.C. there came to the throne of Sparta a king, Cleomones, who won a great victory over the Argives. They fled from him, and their city was only saved from capture by the women, who, under the lead of one of their number, Telesilla, manned the walls and defied the assailants.

Cleomenes raised Sparta to the highest pinnacle of her power. Not only did he crush the strength of Argos; he also interfered in the affairs of Athens, and expelled an anti-Spartan ruler from that city. A second time he did the same, but, coming this time with but a small force, he was suddenly attacked by the Athenians, and only escaped through their voluntarily permitting him to go free. Resolved on revenge, he summoned all the forces of Greece to join him, and such was the authority of Sparta that almost all obeyed. But when the gathered allies learned that he purposed to destroy Athens, they refused him their aid, and even his colleague, the second Spartan king, rebuked him for his vindictiveness against a Grecian city.

It is evident that this incident marks a new spirit rising among the Greeks, a sense of nationality, of a bond of brotherhood, a realization that disaster to one city meant disaster to all. With the recognition of that fact, Greek history takes on a new phase, the period of union rather than of discord begins, and Greece steps forward at a bound to assume her place among the leading powers of the ancient world. She fights her remarkable battles against the huge empire of Persia.

But before approaching the story of the Persian war, we must pause to trace the rise of this new power. Athens, which had thus ventured to defy Sparta, and was soon, in the eyes of men, to rank even above that famous city in honor and in splendor.

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Read about Spartan War in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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