Battle of the Great Foss - 631 B.C.

The date of this battle can't be agreed to, scholars mostly believe that this battle took place during the Second Messenian War and therefore should be dated in the range of 685BC to 668BC, others say it happened much later on around 631B.C.

The great elegiac poet Tyrtaeus emerged, perhaps serving as a general, to write several poems and marching songs that inspired the Spartans to renew the conflict with vigor. Tyrtaeus exhorted them to constancy and bravery and described the honor and glory that derived from fighting courageously for one's state.

A major turning point in the war with the Messenians came in 631 B.C., when the Messenians lost the Battle of the Great Foss (Great Trench) owing to an act of treachery by the Arcadian king, Aristocrates. The Spartans had succeeded in bribing Aristocrates, and in the midst of battle, he ordered his troops to withdraw through the Messenian lines. This maneuver threw the Messenians into disarray and enabled the Spartans to push forward and inflict heavy losses. Aristomenes led the Messenian survivors to the northern stronghold Mount Eira (Ira) on the river Nedon, a site near the border of their Arcadian allies and near Pylos, which was not yet Spartan.

From this fortress and under the resourceful leadership of Aristomenes, the Messenians launched periodic raids and ravaged the land of Laconia, seizing grain, cattle, wine, and their victims' personal property. They achieved a notable success at the town of Amyclaei, which they looted. Aristomenes twice escaped after being captured. But after eleven years, the Spartans, assisted by the Samians, finally prevailed because of superior manpower and the aid of an adulterous woman who betrayed her compatriots. During a violent storm in which the Messenian sentinels abandoned their posts to take cover, the Spartans attacked, using ladders to aid their onslaught. A seer familiar with the oracles told Aristomenes to withdraw with as many Messenians as possible while leaving a few behind to hold up the Spartan pursuit. Aristomenes escaped and fled to Mount Lykaion in Arcadia.

The Arcadians warmly welcomed the fugitives. At this time they learned of the earlier treachery of King Aristocrates and discovered that he was about to betray their allies again. The outraged Arcadians then stoned him. In a last desperate attack on the Spartans, Euegetidas and a small band of Messenians returned to Eira where they found their enemies rummaging through the spoils and inflicted considerable damage before succumbing. After considering a plan to occupy an island near the Laconian coast and conduct raids against the Spartans from there, most of the displaced Messenians decide to emigrate to distant lands.

Some went to Sicily where, with the help of Anaxilas of Region, they captured Zancle and changed its name to Messene (664 B.C., now Messina). Aristomenes reportedly was taken to Sparta where he was killed, but one legend suggests that he found refuge in Rhodes, where he died in exile. By 620 B.C., the Spartans had firm control of the Messenian plain, and the remaining Messenian Helots were consigned to a life of drudgery on the fertile lands of the Pamisus valley. They continued to resent their treatment and waited for another opportunity to revolt.


NEXT PAGE>>>The Second Messenian War


-Austin, M. M., and P. Vidal-Naquet. 1977. Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
-Forest, W. G. 1980. A History of Sparta, 950–192. London: Duckworth.
-Huxley, G. L. 1962. Early Sparta. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sealey, Raphael. 1976. A History of the Greek City States, ca. 700–338 b.c. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

At Athens c632/1 and perhaps much earlier the monarchy had been replaced by an annual board of nine elective officials; one of them bore the title of king.

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