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The SW region of the Peloponnese (see Peloponnesus), bounded on the north by Elis—along the lower course of the river Neda—and Arcadia, and on the east by Laconia, where the frontier follows at first the main ridge of Taygetus, but further south runs to the west of it (here lay the ager Dentheliatis, long disputed between Messene and Sparta), and terminates at the river Choerius a few miles south of the head of the Messenian Gulf. Western Messenia, dominated by Mt. Aegaleos, is hilly but well watered, with settlements concentrated on the coast. In Classical times the central and eastern region watered by the (partly navigable) river Pamisus was more populous; this area was well known for stockraising (Strabo 8. 5. 6, 366), and the lower plain, Macaria, was famous for its fertility.


Survey work (see archaeology, classical) has provided a wealth of information on prehistoric Messenia, demonstrating that for much of the bronze age eastern Messenia was less significant than the western region, where the majority of important sites have been found. Neolithic finds remain scanty, but major early Helladic II buildings have been identified at Akovitika (near mod. Kalamata) and Voïdhokoilia (near Osmanaga lagoon). The later prehistoric sequence is best known from Nichoria, close to Rizomylo at the NW edge of the Messenian Gulf, which was occupied for the middle and most of the late Helladic periods, and again for much of the Dark Age. Middle Helladic Messenia has a markedly local character, without much evidence for contacts with the Aegean civilizations, but several of its more substantial settlements seem to have become the centres of small early Mycenaean principalities, to judge from the distribution of tholos-tombs, a type probably first developed in this province (early examples at Pylos, Nichoria, and elsewhere). These principalities seem to have been combined from the mid-14th cent. bce onwards, to form one of the more important Mycenaean states, whose centre was at Pylos. As indicated by the Linear B texts found in the Pylos palace, the state was divided into two provinces incorporating sixteen regions, which were taxed on a proportional system. While the importance allotted to Pylos and Nestor(1) its king in the Homeric poems may reflect dim memories of this state, the almost total mismatch between its regional centres and the sites named in the Homeric Catalogue of the Ships (in Iliad2) and other Greek legends elsewhere demonstrates the lack of reliable information about the prehistoric period in the Greek traditions (cf. MME113; J. Chadwick, Minos 1975, 55 ff.). The collapse of this state c.1200 bce is reflected in the destruction and abandonment of the palace at Pylos and a massive decline in the number of settlements, of which many have been identified by survey. A reasonable number of Early Iron Age sites can be identified (W. D. E. Coulson, The Dark Age Pottery of Messenia (1986)), but information derives principally from Nichoria, where substantial structures and habitation-strata have produced pottery of markedly local character, but a relative abundance of metalwork whose types suggest wider contacts. Dark Age Messenia may have become important enough to be involved in the foundation of Olympia (C. Morgan, Athletes and Oracles (1990), ch. 3), but the conflict with Sparta cut its development short.



This conflict dominates the patriotic historical tradition of the Messenians preserved in Pausanias (3) (4. 1–24). According to this the descendants of Neleus were expelled on the arrival of the Dorians in Messenia, led by the returning Heraclidae, one of whom, Cresphontes, had won the region by lot, founding the royal line of the Aepytids; when this failed, Aristodemus (1) was elected king and he, followed by Aristomenes(1), were the heroes of the Messenian resistance to Spartan expansionism during the so-called Messenian Wars. This tradition was worked up, perhaps largely fabricated, following the foundation of Messene in 369 bce; note too the 4th-cent. bce ‘historical’ murals at Messene seen by Pausanias (4. 31. 11); for other reminiscences of this tradition in local cult and onomastics see IG 5. 1. 1469 and SEG 23. 14 (Augustan bull-sacrifice to Aristomenes).


The Spartans had conquered central Messenia by (?) 700 bce, reducing the old population to the status of helots (cf. *Tyrtaeus fr. 6 West,2) or perioikoi; the Messenian diaspora dates from now. The Third Messenian War, after the great earthquake of 464 bce, terminated, like the first war, in the surrender of the stronghold of Ithome after a long siege. Granted a safe conduct, many of the survivors (of the perioikoi only?) were settled by the Athenians at Naupactus (455). During the Peloponnesian War the Messenian helots were encouraged to sporadic revolts by the Athenian garrison established at Pylos after the victory at Sphacteria (425), in which Messenians from Naupactus played a decisive part. In 369 Messenia was liberated with the help of the Theban Epaminondas. Its subsequent history is bound up with that of Messene. Of the lesser Messenian communities now emerging as autonomous poleis, the most important were Asine, Corone, and Methone (2) on the western peninsula; all three prospered in imperial times, partly as stages for east–west shipping. Sparta's influence in eastern Messenia lingered until well into the 2nd cent. ce.



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