Ancient Greek History

What to Know About the First Messenian War

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When most of us think about styles of warfare in Ancient Greece, we no doubt think about the traditional phalanx style that was commonly used in Ancient Sparta. However, there was a time when this style of warfare didn’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t still wars.

The First Messenian War was fought between the Ancient Greek city-state of Sparta and the Messenians and the style of fighting that was used then was very different than we may expect. Here’s a look at the details of the First Messenian War and the way that it was fought:

War Between Two Greek City-States

Essentially, the First Messenian War was a war between two Greek-city states that were in close proximity of each other. Messenia and Sparta were both located on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. It got started in 743 and ended in 724 B.C, according to Pausanias, an Ancient Greek traveler and geographer.

The two city-states had a fierce rivalry between one another which eventually erupted in violence. There was a time when the Spartans actually ruled over the Messenians, so on some level, Sparta still believed that Messenia still belonged to him. On some level, the two city-states always had a rivalry. 

There were two other Messenian Wars that took place after this one concluded, since the First Messenian War didn’t really resolve all of the conflicts between the two peoples. Essentially, it was a war between two different Greek-speaking people, the Achaeans, who were the Messenians, and the Dorians, who were the Spartans. These two peoples had different cultures, and the two often clashed. 

The War Began With an Incident

The two sides thought that they would use violence as a way to settle their rivalry. Essentially, the Peloponnese had been predominantly Achaean until the Dorians (the Spartans) rose to prominence. As Sparta grew stronger, the tensions between Messenia and Sparta escalated until there was an incident at the Temple of Artemis Limnatis where Messenians harassed the maidens at the temple that were performing a ritual during a festival.

The temple was also raised. Typically, this temple was located at a point in the southern Peloponnese where it bordered different territories and it was considered a sanctuary. However, that day, it wasn’t a safe haven. There is some debate as to whether or not the “maidens” in the temple were actually maidens or if they were soldirs in disguise. 

War Finally Breaks Out

Even though the raiding of the Temple of Limnatis was considered to be one of the catalysts that propelled the region to war, it would take around 25 years for the actual war to break out. However, the immediate catalyst to war was when a Messenian Olympic champion had his cattle stolen. Since he leased the land from some Spartans, the theft of his cattle was the breaking point.

The Messenians and Spartans finally began the war that had been escalated for decades. The incident escalated to the point where both city-states got involved with trying to resolve the issue, which quickly got violent. Finally, the Spartans invaded Messenia and were the ultimate victors of this portion of the war. The wars were costly and bloody, but Sparta was able to add Meessenia to its holdings. 

The First Messenian war was fought between Messenia and Sparta and although the Spartans were victorious, it didn’t resolve all the problems. The two sides would fight in two more wars. In fact, these First Messenian Wars broke out as part of a larger, more widespread problem that had been going on for some time.


Wikipedia – First Messenian War

Wikipedia – Messenia (ancient region)

Wikipedia – Sparta

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This post was written by Greek Boston

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