Ancient Messene in the southwestern Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of the Greek Mainland, has in the last two decades become one of the most spectacular among the country’s many great archaeological sites. In spite of its wonderful setting and impressive remains, including stupendous city walls, a grand theatre and one of Greece’s finest ancient stadiums, the site has yet to become a core standard on archaeological tours of Greece, such as e.g. Delphi, Epidauros or Olympia. This is probably mostly due to its relatively remote location and relatively recent excavation, but increasing numbers of visitors are finding their way there. Needless to say, it will be a highlight on our brand-new Exploring the Peloponnese tour.
An unusual history
What many of those visitors may not realise is that Messene is a highly unusual site in Greece, reminiscent in many ways of the great ruined cities we visit in Asia Minor, i.e. modern Turkey. Comparable to sites like Kaunos, Miletus or Knidos, Messene has the unusual distinction that none of the visible remains are earlier than Late Classical or Early Hellenistic, in other words, nothing is older than the 4th century BC. That makes for a stark contrast with famous Greek cities such as Athens or Corinth and sanctuaries such as Delphi and Olympia, where Archaic and Classical (6th an 5th century BC) architecture are key points of interest. This is because Messene was one of history’s most generous gifts.
The lateness of Messene is the result of the strange, fascinating and rather sad history of the region whose capital it was to be: Messenia. Until the late 8th century BC, the southwestern corner of the Peloponnese, one of the most fertile areas in southern Greece, was, as far as we understand, in the process of developing its own cultural identity and set for its own historical trajectory, which might have had all the potential of other regions of Greece. It was not given the chance to explore that – in the First Messenian War, lasting from the 740s to the 720s BC, the increasingly dominant neighbouring state, Laconia, better known by the name of its capital, Sparta, ruled by a small but extremely militaristic class of citizens, crossed the mighty Taigetos mountains to gain control of Messenia. We know next to nothing about the conquest, but we know that Messenia was treated as a subject territory and its inhabitants were reduced to the status of helots (serfs) for three-and-a-half centuries. They were not permitted to live in towns or cities, they were denied meaningful political organisation and there was no room for cultural expression of their identity. Nevertheless, that identity prevailed, as indicated by multiple rebellions over the centuries, and by many Messenians seeking exile to pursue their ambitions and develop their identities abroad, most famously in Messina on Sicily.
All this changed with the Battle of Leuktra in 371 BC, when Sparta suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the Theban army, led by the great Epaminondas. This decisive military encounter, only 33 years after Sparta had reached the pivotal apex of power, defeating Athens after the 27-year Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, was the end of a myth: until Leuktra Sparta’s land armies were considered virtually undefeatable. In the immediate aftermath of Leuktra, Thebes and her allies decided to sweep down into the Peloponnese, to liberate Messenia and make her into a viable city state, inviting exiled Messenians to return to their homeland. To achieve this, Messenia needed a secure capital and central city. Aware of the threat of a Spartan resurgence, Thebes and her allies opted for an inland and upland location, the site of ancient Ithome, an important Messenian settlement and sanctuary before the Spartan conquest. No expense was spared to make Messene a proper city: she received an extensive set of massive fortifications enclosing a vast area, on which a then-modern rectilinear “Hippodamian” street grid was imposed, allowing ample space for public buildings and private housing alike. It is often overlooked that this decision entailed a huge and quite unprecedented investment on part of the allies: they were literally gifting an entire city with all its trimmings to the Messenians.
A city built to impress
It is this exceptional history that made Messene what it was: namely much more than a regional capital, but one of the finest provincial centres in Greece for many centuries. It also defines what its remains are now: one of the most impressive ancient sites in the Peloponnese, but not one that developed organically throughout the periods when most other Greek cities founded themselves and found their identities. Everything about Messene is monumental, everything is deliberate and thought-out, and nearly everything is designed to tell a story about Messenian identity being a core part of Greece, and Greekness being a core aspect of Messenia. These points are being made throughout, and they are being made neither subtly nor modestly. As a result, Messene is – or rather should be – a textbook example of an idealised Greek city in a remarkable setting, occupying an amphitheatre-like upland valley, overlooked by wild craggy mountains and overlooking the Gulf of Kalamai (Kalamata) in the distance.
The only feature of the ancient site that was clearly visible and appreciable even before excavations are its massive fortification walls, with a total length of 9.5km (5.9mi). Built in the usual Late Classical technique, with inner and outer faces of limestone blocks and a rubble fill in between, they were 7m (23ft) wide and 9m (30ft high). There were over 30 towers, some semicircular, others square. Sections of the walls are among the best-preserved examples of Greek fortifications of their time. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the whole fortification was erected in only 85 days. It clearly illustrates how seriously the Thebans took the possibility of a Spartan reconquest. One of the most impressive parts of the wall is the enormous “Arcadian Gate”, where a huge circular court is placed between an inner and an outer portal, serving as a trap for a potential invading force, but also as an overawing entry to the city for less belligerent visitors. The nearby peak of Mt. Ithome was also fortified, to serve as the acropolis, the citadel and last refuge of the city.
The city centre: public buildings and great shrines
The city within the walls has been undergoing excavations on and off since the late 19th century, but especially in recent decades. So far, these have concentrated on monumental public buildings and areas, as is usually the case, and not on residential or industrial quarters. In my personal opinion, that oversight is lamentable, but it will surely be amended in the future. Our understanding of the city has progressed in leaps and bounds as the result of the ongoing research. That said, it is still incomplete, as only a fairly small proportion of the area has been uncovered so far. Messene was visited in the 2nd century AD by the writer Pausanias and is one of the sites described in his Description of Greece, which can be considered one of the first guidebooks ever. Usually, this is a boon for our comprehension and interpretation of sites (e.g. for Athens, Olympia or Delphi), but alas, Pausanias treats Messene in a fairly offhand manner.
Still, the archaeologists have revealed a whole series of impressive monuments that show very clearly how Messene was conceived as a grand city. One of them is the theatre, a typical feature of the Greek city. The Messene one, with room for several thousand spectators, is quite unusual: its auditorium does not simply sit in a convenient natural hollow as is usually the case for Greek theatres, but rests on an artificial fill supported by a massive retaining wall. A series of stepped passageways lead through that wall to the interior, resembling similar features in Roman theatres and arenas. The Messene theatre will have served the performance of drama, perhaps as part of the cult of Dionysos, but was also used for political assemblies.
A little above the theatre lie the foundations of an enormous fountain house, a typical urban amenity of the period. According to Pausanias, it was named after the mythical character Arsinoe, whom the locals considered a Messenian and princess and mother to Asklepios, the god of healing. It drew its waters from the Klepsydra spring in the modern village further up the hill. After multiple repairs and extensions throughout antiquity, the fountain was reused as a watermill in the Byzantine period. Another Byzantine structure near the theatre is a small basilica church, reduced to its foundations which present a very clear image of the typical ground plan of that common building type.
The next major monument, or series thereof, is the agora, the city’s formal and probably commercial centre, where excavations are still ongoing. This vast square, measuring about 230 by 180m (750 by 590ft) appears to have been surrounded by stoas (colonnades) on its sides. It contained several temples, including ones dedicated to Zeus, the head god, to Poseidon, god of the sea and to Messene, the personification of the city and region. In the Early Byzantine period (5th to 7th centuries AD), the area was used as a cemetery.
A veritable museum: the Asklipieion
Immediately to the south of the area and separated from it by a monumental column-lined street is an area continuing a whole series of important sanctuaries, including ones to Demeter (goddess of agricultural fertility) and Artemis (the virgin huntress). But the most important, largest and strangest by far is that identified as the sanctuary of Asklepios, dating in its present form to the 3rd century BC and later. Normally, his sanctuaries were healing shrines that functioned like spas or health centres. But the Asklepieion of Messene is distinctly odd, as indicated by Pausanias’ description:
The most numerous statues and the most worth seeing are to be found in the sanctuary of Asklepios. For besides statues of the god and his sons, and besides statues of Apollo, the Muses and Herakles, the city of Thebes is represented and Epaminondas the son of Kleommis, Fortune, and Artemis Bringer of Light. The stone statues are the work of Damophon (I know of no other Messenian sculptor of merit apart from him); the statue of Epaminondas is of iron and the work of some other artist. There is also a temple of Messene the daughter of Triopas with a statue of gold and Parian marble. At the back of the temple are paintings of the kings of Messene: (…) of the inhabitants of Pylos, Nestor, Thrasymedes and Antilochos (…). Asklepios too is represented, being according to the Messenian account a son of Arsinoe.
The last line quoted is central here: it looks like the Messenians saw Asklepios as an ancestral deity directly connected with their city, and thus made his shrine into a veritable museum of their mythological and historical connections, and thus their identity. Pausanias’ account is borne out by the presence of over 140 stone bases that once held bronze statues, indicating that the site was indeed immensely rich in sculpture. The sanctuary was a large square, lined by colonnades, with the Doric temple and the altar of the god at its centre. The surrounding rooms contained more artwork. Another illustration of the Asklipieion‘s central role in the life of the city is the fact that its eastern wing contains the seats of its two main political institutions: the benched bouleuterion or meeting chamber for the city council, and the extraordinarily well-preserved theatre-like ekklesiasterion, a parliamentary chamber for a fuller civic assembly.
Grand finale: the stadium
A short walk to the south of the ancient city’s centre is another important monument: the 190m (620ft) stadium, among the best-preserved in Greece and offering stunning views over the beautiful rolling hills of Messenia and the coast far below. Its northern end is surrounded by a series of long colonnades, underlining the monumental impression. They served as the gymnasium and palaistra, spaces dedicated to the training of athletes – highly appropriate in this location, they are also standard features of a Greek city, necessary for the city’s youth to be trained in athletics, keeping them fit to defend their homeland. Monumental tombs to important families or benefactors to the city also stood in this area, including a temple-like mausoleum, unusual in Greece but very familiar in Asia Minor, at the end of the stadium. Most interesting, perhaps, is a semicircular wall built to block the stadium’s race-track: this is a Roman addition, showing how the building’s use was changed in Roman times from athletic contests to gladiator fights.
These are the main monuments of Messene at the time of writing, but as excavations continue steadily, there may be more to see by the time we visit on Exploring the Peloponnese next June – another factor that makes this beautiful site also a very exciting one. Ancient Messene also has a small museum with a collection of unusually fine sculpture found at the site. On our tour, it will be just one of many archaeological highlights…