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The end of the civil wars, the advent of the pax Augusta, and the transformation of mainland Greece into the Roman province of Achaea marked an important turning point in the history of the Greeks. Occasional disturbances are documented in certain areas until the Flavian age, but by and large peace enforced by Roman domination became a fact of life. With the loss of political independence, the military role of the polis, which had survived, if in an increasingly curtailed fashion, in the face of the rise of the Hellenistic monarchies and of the Roman conquest, finally came to an end. Even though poleis remained alive as political communities, in various relationships of dependence on Rome but with their own functioning political institutions, one of the main raisons d'être of the polis had disappeared, and with it the main characteristic of the Greek world, internecine conflict. In the first centuries of the Roman Empire, being Athenian, Spartan, Theban, or Messenian could not mean what it used to. Attachment to the patris became just one layer in a tiered identity, at the top of which a unified Hellenic identity, based on shared cultural practices and underpinned by the assumption of a shared genealogy, became increasingly important. In parallel to this process, the ruling elites of Greece, consolidated and stabilized by the Roman domination, came to constitute one of the pools from which the imperial elite was recruited.
Thanks to the fourth book of Pausanias' Description of Greece, there is virtually no event or complex of events in archaic Greek history for which the evidence of the ancient literary sources can be said to approach, in terms of comprehensiveness and level of detail, that for the Spartan conquest of Messenia. This is slightly embarrassing. Ephorus said that narratives of the most distant past are the more credible the less detailed they are (FgrHist 70 F 9), and a modern reader would concur, albeit with some qualification. However, Pausanias' narrative of the First Messenian War, which he dated to the second quarter of the eighth century, takes some twenty-four pages of Greek. It may help us absorb the implications of this fact if we recall that Pausanias was farther away in time from that war than we are from John Lackland and the battle of Bouvines. Of course, he certainly had recourse to the work of earlier authors, but the fact that his narrative is more than four times longer than all the remaining evidence for that war does not encourage optimism.
In a nutshell, this peculiar situation is at the root of all problems that affect the reconstruction of an archaic history of Messenia, not to mention Sparta.
After 401, the Messenians disappeared again from mainland Greece for three decades. They reappeared as a consequence of that enormously momentous event, the defeat of the Spartans at Leuktra in 371 bc. In the fall of 370/69, Epaminondas led a huge expeditionary corps formed by the army of the Boeotian League and its allies, and the armies of Argos, Elis and Arcadia, in the first invasion of Laconia since the return of the Heraclids. Although vastly outnumbering the Spartans, the army was unable to take Sparta itself, and after ravaging the countryside between Sparta and the sea Epaminondas led his troops north along the Eurotas Valley and then marched out of Laconia into Messenia. The most direct way from Sparta to the Pamisos Valley led, then as now, across the Taygetos by way of the Langadha Pass. However, given the size of the army and the time of the year, it is likely that Epaminondas retraced his way back towards the Alpheios basin and marched into Messenia by way of its natural entrance, the Derveni Pass. The sources do not mention any resistance met by Epaminondas, and it is hardly thinkable that there could have been any. The allied army must have reached Mount Ithome undisturbed.
After the disappearance of their predecessors sometime during the archaic period, the fifth century saw the return of the Messenians to the political landscape of Greece. Unexpectedly, however, they did not reappear at first in the area they were most closely associated with, the southwestern Peloponnese. Instead, the first polity that called itself “the Messenians” arose in Sicily, on the site of the ancient Chalcidian colony of Zankle, which was founded anew around 490 BC by the tyrant of Rhegion Anaxilaos and called Messene. The name of the new colony reflected the fact that the tyrant considered himself to be of Messenian descent. Participation of Messenians coming directly from the Peloponnese to the foundation of Sicilian Messene is controversial and ultimately unlikely, but almost a century later for a short while a large contingent of Messenians from Naupaktos was indeed settled in the city, whence it went on to found the city of Tyndaris, on the northeastern coast of Sicily. In spite of their name and traditions of origin, the nature of the relationship of the Western Messenians to the Messenians of the Peloponnese turns out to be unclear and possibly ambivalent, and a scrutiny of the little we know about the Messenian diaspora on the Strait of Messina may shed interesting light on the development of the Messenian identity as a whole.
Diverse and controversial as it is, the evidence discussed in this book converges in delineating a consistent picture of the Messenian identity and makes it possible to reconstruct a reasonably intelligible trajectory for its historical development over the centuries. It is now time to draw the threads together, summarizing briefly in an integrated way the conclusions formulated in the chapters of the book. This will be done first in the form of comparing traditional narratives of the history of the Messenians with what would result from the arguments presented here. Then two rather peculiar monuments will offer starting points for discussions of the structural aspects of the Messenian identity.
STORIES OF THE MESSENIAN IDENTITY
According to Pausanias, the only ancient author who offers a comprehensive account of it, the history of the Messenians could be summarized as follows. Messenia had existed as a unified kingdom ever since queen Messene and her husband Polykaon migrated to the region from the Argolid and Laconia respectively. Various short-lived dynasties ruled Messenia, until the Heraclid Kresphontes conquered it with his army of Dorians, establishing a dynastic line that was destined to occupy the throne until the conquest of the region by the Spartans. In the second half of the eighth century, the First Messenian War brought the whole of Messenia under Spartan control.
From the scrutiny of the literary evidence on Messenia from the return of the Heraclids to the Spartan conquest conducted in the previous two chapters, two broad conclusions should result in a reasonably uncontroversial way. The first and positive one is that such evidence sheds interesting light on the struggles for the Messenian past – in fact, for the Messenian present – that took place from the moment when, in the second quarter of the fifth century, Spartan domination of the land west of the Taygetos started being called into question. The second and negative one is that it will never be possible to reconstruct the history of Messenia from the eighth century to the sixth in any detail and with any degree of confidence based on the literary evidence. No matter how many details of Pausanias' early history of Messenia derive ultimately from oral traditions handed down for centuries among the inhabitants of Messenia, the amount of observable deformation is such that it is simply impossible, in the absence of contemporary evidence, to isolate supposedly genuine bits from the flow of the story.
A different but related question is what sort of ethnic identity and collective memory we should expect among the inhabitants of Messenia under Spartan rule – a legitimate and extremely interesting question, but one that has often been approached from a rather unhelpful angle.
From the point of view of the early twenty-first century, any book on the history of ancient Greece is, or at least pretends to be, a book about the past. However, the present book is not only a book about the past from the point of view of the modern or post-modern reader. Rather, it is mostly a book about the past from the point of view of the Greeks themselves. More precisely, it is a book about the ways in which, at different points in time, Greeks living in Messenia in the southwestern Peloponnese, and Greeks elsewhere who identified themselves as Messenians, construed, interpreted and transmitted, by ways of stories, rituals, and other symbolic practices, representations of their shared past, of what made of them a specific and recognizable group inside the greater community of the Greeks – and also, about how other Greeks reacted to those ideas and contributed, for various reasons, to their shaping. Even though, in order to investigate these issues, it is necessary also to devote some attention to what is from our point of view the history of the Messenians, this will be done in a succinct way and with the purpose of creating a framework in which to investigate how ideas about the past and symbolic practices that articulated such ideas developed over time.
By the age of Plato at the latest, the Greeks saw the return of the Heraclids to the Peloponnese at the head of a Dorian army as a turning point, not only for the history of that region, but also for Greek history in general. Although the farther mythical past was certainly very important to them, there is no doubt that in the fifth and fourth centuries the Dorian states of the Peloponnese, and especially the Spartans, had a particularly strong feeling of continuity between their present and the Dorian migration. To choose this mythical episode as a starting point for an investigation of the history of the Messenians is therefore peculiarly appropriate. In the pages that follow, the Dorian migration and the return of the Heraclids will not be considered as historical events, but rather as narrative constructs that variously embody different stages of beliefs about the past held by Greeks of the archaic, classical, Hellenistic and early Imperial ages. In other words, ancient narratives of the Dorian migration and the return of the Heraclids will not be considered here as more or less distorted memories of events of the early Iron Age. Their controversial historicity will not be at stake. The focus will be on their function as foundation myths for polities of the Peloponnese and as ethnic charters for their inhabitants, in an attempt at locating their variants in space and time.
Early in the archaic period of Greek history, Messenia was annexed and partially settled by its powerful neighbour, Sparta. Achieving independence in the fourth century BC, the inhabitants of Messenia set about trying to forge an identity for themselves separate from their previous identity as Spartan subjects, refunctionalising or simply erasing their Spartan heritage. Professor Luraghi provides a thorough examination of the history of Messenian identity and consequently addresses a range of questions and issues whose interest and importance have only been widely recognised by ancient historians during the last decade. By a detailed scrutiny of the ancient written sources and the archaeological evidence, the book reconstructs how the Messenians perceived and constructed their own ethnicity at different points in time, by applying to Messenian ethnicity insights developed by anthropologists and early medieval historians.