The Second Messenian War - c668 ~c600 B.C.

"You should reach the limits of virtue before you cross the border of death."


The sources are contradictory about the date of this war, and the 68 year time frame we give it must be way too much, as the First Peloponnesian War lasted for 20 years and we are told that the 31 year Peloponnesian war was the longest war in ancient Greek history. But we do have some clues that can help zero in a time.
- The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote about this war and was known to be militarily involved in it, he is deemed to have existed around 650 B.C.
- The Spartans heavy defeat in 669 B.C. by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae, put Sparta in a deep hole militarily and we must believe that Messenia realised that they had a great oppotunity to revolt after it.
-It is assumed that the Argos' king at the Battle of Hysiae was Pheidon, who is known to have invaded the state of Elis, just north of Messenia. The ancient author Strabo mentions that Argos and Elis were both city-states that helped Messenia during this war. [2]
-The Spartan King Polydoros who took up the grievances of the ordinary Spartans and proposed some land reforms but was assasinated because of it in 665 B.C.before they were implemented. This shows that Sparta was increasingly suffering from political discord at this time and may have allowed the Messenians a foothold in their revolt. [1].
-The remark to Epaminondas, the Theban who engineered the final liberation of the Messenian helots from Sparta in 370 B.C. that 'he had refounded Messenia after 230 years. [3]

Reason of the war:

The Second Messenian War was in many ways much more worse in its ruthlessness and bloodshed, than the First Messenian War. The Messenians desperate to brake through their fate as helots and regain their freedom and Sparta had to transform itself into a permanently militarised society, to try desperatley to keep the Messenians in check, realising that if Messenia was to be allowed to break away, the threat of impending invasion would be from more places than just from Argos to the North-East.

The Second Messenian war also stimulated the development of hoplite warfare, in which armored infantry fought together in regiments in close ranks. This transformation reduced Spartan dependence on the nobility in time of war and increased the importance of the general population. Accompanying the Spartan victory was a growing demand for the redistribution of the newly acquired Messenian lands, which was the probable origin of the practice that gave each Spartan male at birth a minimum parcel of land to be worked by Helots. That practice, in turn, became the basis for the Spartans' considering themselves as equals or peers who could all make their contributions to communal life.


After Epaminondas finally liberated the Messenians from Spartan influence, but around the 3rd century B.C. authors seem to have started to write mythical and glorious stories of Messenian resistance based on heroic figures such as Aristomenes. However, most of their evidence must therefore be considered worthless, but we still think it useful to add it here below: ~

With Messenia revolting again their leader Aristomenes in a daring move entered Sparta at night and offered a shield in the temple of Athena. Spartans after this event went to the oracle of Delphi, which gave them the answer "to take an Athenian adviser".
Spartans asked from the Athenians a general and they sent them Tyrtaeus, who was poet and lame from the one leg. Tyrtaeus with his poems encouraged Spartans and helped them to win the war. (It is more likely that Tyrtaeus is not from Athens but this storyline probably comes out of the Athenian help for Sparta against the Messenia's. Tyrtaeus probably came from within the Peloponesse).

During the war the leader of the Messenians, Aristomenes, was made a great hero and many stories talk about him.

According to the legend three times Aristomenes sacrificed to Zeus Ithomatis, the so-called Hecatophonia, reserved only to the warrior who had killed with his own hands one hundred enemies. Three times he was captured by the Spartans but he managed to escape. His last capture occurred in a battle between him and many Spartans, in which he was wounded all over his body, but he was still fighting, until a stone found him on the head and fell. He was captured along with fifty others and for punishment were thrown into the deep pit Kaeadas, on Mt. Taygetos. All the others were killed, but Aristomenes fell upon the wings of an eagle and survived. When he realized, that there was no way to get out from this abyss, he laid down and covered himself with his cloak, waiting to die. Three days later, during the night he heard a soft sound and in the darkness show a fox eating the corpses. He managed to catch the fox from the tail and he was guided by her to a small hole, which he opened further and passed through.
Immediately he went to the city of Eira, which was besieged by Spartans. Passing from their camp, he killed many of them in their sleep and plundered the tents of the generals.
Some time later, in a stormy night and with the help of an informer, the Spartans entered Eira. There was a hard battle, Messenians fought desperately, the women too, throwing tiles to Spartan soldiers, but at the end they were defeated.
Aristomenes with many others managed to brake the Spartan lines and took the women and children to Arcadia. Many of the Messenians broke up and found their way around Greece.
Aristomenes did not follow the majority and went to his brother in Rhodes, where he died from bitterness.


With the close of the Second Messenian War, many Messenians moved then to Kyllene and from there to lower Italy, where they founded the new city of Zancle (later renamed Messene). Sparta again put the Messenians as Helots and was able to secure more of the land with greater control.

Third Messenian War:

Some scholars believe there was a Third Messenian War, that broke out prior to the Peloponnesian War. While the Messenians did again revolt from Sparta, it is totally seperate to the first two which are interlinked in many ways and have alot of similarities. So, we will not refer to it as that on this web site.

NEXT PAGE>>>The First Sacred War


  • *1 'Guide to Greece' by Pausanas (3.3.3)
  • *2 'Geography' by Strabo (8.4.10)
  • *3 'Moralia' by Plutarch (194B)

Ancient References:


Spartan poetry flourished during this time. See the comparison between two of their greatest poets. Tyrtaeus and Archilochus.


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