Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

Aristomenes, The Hero Of Messenia

We have told by what means the Spartans grew to be famous warriors. We have now to tell one of the ancient stories of how they used their warlike prowess to extend their dominions. Laconia, their country, was situated in the southeast section of the Peloponnesus, that southern peninsula which is attached to the remainder of Greece by the narrow neck of land known as the Isthmus of Corinth. Their capital city was anciently called Lacedæmon; it was later known as Sparta. In consequence they are called in history both Spartans and Lacedæmonians.

In the early history of the Spartans they did not trouble themselves about Northern Greece. They had enough to occupy them in the Peloponnesus. As the Romans, in after-time, spent their early centuries in conquering the small nations immediately around them, so did the Spartans. And the first wars of this nation of soldiers seem to have been with Messenia, a small country west of Laconia, and extending like it southward into the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

There were two wars with the Messenians, both full of stories of daring and disaster, but it is the second of these with which we are specially concerned, that in which the hero Aristomenes won his fame. We shall not ask our readers to believe all that is told about this ancient champion. Much of it is very doubtful. But the war in which he took part was historical, and the conquest of Messenia was the first great event in Spartan history.

Now for the story itself. In the first Messenian war, which was fought more than seven hundred years B.C., the leader of the Messenians was named Aristodemus. A quarrel had arisen between the two nations during some sacrifices on their border lands. The Spartans had laid a snare for their neighbors by dressing some youths as maidens and arming them with daggers. They attacked the Messenians, but were defeated, and the Spartan king was slain.

In the war that ensued the Messenians in time found themselves in severe straits, and followed the plan that seems to have been common throughout Grecian history. They sent to Delphi to ask aid and advice from the oracle of Apollo. And the oracle gave them one of its often cruel and always uncertain answers; saying that if they would be successful a virgin of the house of Æpytus must die for her country. To fulfil this cruel behest Aristodemus, who was of that ancient house, killed his daughter with his own hand,—much as Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter before sailing for Troy.

Aristodemus afterwards became king, and had a stirring and tragic history, which was full of portents and prodigies. Thus an old blind prophet sud- denly recovered his sight,—which the Messenians looked upon to mean something, though it is not clear what. A statue of Artemis (or Diana) let fall its brazen shield; which meant something more,—probably that the fastenings had given way; but the ancients looked on it as a portent. Then the ghost of his murdered daughter appeared to Aristodemus, pointed to her wounded side, stripped off his armor, placed on his head a crown of gold and on his body a white robe,—a sign of death. So, as it seemed evident that he had mistaken the oracle, and killed his daughter without saving his country, he did the only thing that remained for him: he went to her grave and killed himself. And with this tragedy ends all we need to tell about the first champion of Messenia.

The war ended in the conquest of Messenia by the Spartans. The conquered people were very harshly treated by the conquerors, being forced to pay as tribute half the produce of their fields, and to humble themselves before their haughty masters. As a result, about fifty years afterwards, they broke out into rebellion, and a second Messenian war began.

This war lasted for many years, the Messenians being led by a valiant hero named Aristomenes, who performed startling exploits and made marvellous escapes. Three great battles took place, with various results, and three times Aristomenes made a remarkable sacrifice to the king of the gods. This was called the Hekatomphonia, and could only be offered by one who had slain, with his own hands, one hundred enemies in battle.

But great battles were not all. There were years of guerilla warfare. At the head of a band of brave followers Aristomenes made his way more than once to the very heart of Laconia, surprised two of its cities, and on one occasion ventured into Sparta itself by night. Here he boldly entered the temple of Athene of the Brazen House and hung up his shield there as a mark of defiance to his enemies, placing on it an inscription which said that Aristomenes presented it as an offering from Spartan spoil.

The Messenian maidens crowned their hero with garlands, and danced around him, singing a war strain in honor of his victories over his foes. Yet he found the Spartans vigorous and persistent enemies, and in spite of all his victories was forced at length to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses, where he held out against his foes for eleven years.

We do not know all the adventures of this famous champion, but are told that he was taken prisoner three times by his enemies. Twice he made marvellous escapes while they were conveying him to Sparta. On the third occasion he was less fortunate. His foes bore him in triumph to their capital city, and here he was condemned to be cast from Mount Taygetus into the Keadas, a deep rock cavity into which they flung their criminals.

Fifty Messenian prisoners suffered the same fate and were all killed; but the gods, so we are told, came to their leader's aid. The legend says that an eagle took Aristomenes on its outspread wings, and landed him safely in the bottom of the pit. More likely the bodies of the former victims broke his fall. Seeing no possible way out from the deep cavity, he wrapped himself in his cloak, and resigned himself to die. But, while thus lying, he saw a fox prowling among the dead bodies, and questioned himself how it had found its way into the pit. When it came near him he grasped its tail, defending himself from its bites by means of his cloak. Holding fast, he followed the fox to the aperture by which it had entered, enlarged it so that he could creep out, and soon appeared alive again in the field, to the surprise of his friends and the consternation of his foes.

Being seized again by some Cretan bowmen, he was rescued by a maiden, who dreamed that wolves had brought into the city a chained lion, bereft of its claws, and that she had given it claws and set it free. When she saw Aristomenes among his captors, she believed that her dream had come true, and that the gods desired her to set him free. This she did by making his captors drunk, and giving him a dagger with which he cut his bonds. The indiscreet bowmen were killed by the warrior, while the escaped hero rewarded the maiden by making her the wife of his son.

But Messenia was doomed by the gods, and no man could avert its fate. The oracle of Delphi declared that if the he-goat (Tragos) should drink the waters of the Neda, the god could no longer defend that fated country. And now a fig-tree sprang up on the banks of the Neda, and, instead of spreading its branches aloft, let them droop till they touched the waters of the stream. This a seer announced as the fulfilment of the oracle, for in the Messenian language the fig-tree was called Tragos.

Aristomenes now, discouraged by the decree of the gods, and finding himself surrounded, through treachery, by his enemies in his mountain strong-hold, decided to give up the hopeless struggle. He broke fiercely through the ranks of his assailants with his sons and followers, and left his country to the doom which the gods had decreed.

The end of his career, like its earlier events, was, according to the legend, under the control of the deities. Damagetes, the king of the island of Rhodes, had been told by an oracle that he must marry the bravest of the Hellenes (or Greeks). Believing that, Aristomenes had the best claim to this proud title, he asked him for the hand of his daughter in marriage, and offered him a home in his island realm. Aristomenes consented, and spent the remainder of his days in Rhodes. From his daughter descended the illustrious family of the Diagoridæ.

This romantic story of the far past resembles those of King Alfred of England, of Wallace and Bruce of Scotland, and of other heroes who have defended their countries single-handed against a powerful foe. But we are not done with it yet. There is another singular and interesting episode to be told,—a legend, no doubt, but one which has almost passed into history.

The story goes that the Spartans, losing heart at the success of the Messenians in the early years of the war, took the usual method then adopted, and sent to the oracle at Delphi for advice. The oracle told them to apply to Athens for a leader. They did so, sending an embassy to that city; and in response to the oracle the Athenians sent them a lame schoolmaster named Tyrtæus. They did not dare to resist the command of the god, but they had no desire to render any actual aid to the Spartans.

However, Apollo seems to have been wiser than the Athenians. The lame schoolmaster was an able poet as well, and on reaching Sparta he composed a series of war-songs which so inspirited the army that they marched away to victory. Tyrtæus was probably not only an able poet; very likely he also gave the Spartans good advice in the conduct of the war, and though he did not lead their armies, he animated them by his songs and aided them with his advice until victory followed their career of defeat.

For many years afterwards the war-songs of Tyrtæus remained highly popular at Sparta, and some of them have come down to our own days. As for the actual history of this war, most of what we know seems to have been written by Tyrtæus, who was thus not only the poet but the historian of the Messenian wars.