Amidst the picturesque hills and valleys of the Southern Peloponnese, Greece, at the foot of Mt Ithomi, lies the archaeological site of Ancient Messene, a once-flourishing city-state that played a significant role in the region’s ancient history.
The first installation on the site dates to the Late Neolithic or the Early Bronze Age, while in the 9th-8th c. BCE. The cult of Zeus Ithomatas was established on the peak of Mt Ithome. A heroon shrine was founded in the lower city during the Geometric period (800-700 BCE), along with the first sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Asklepios and Messene. All the sacred buildings belonged to a town named Ithome. The Spartan annexation of the area following the First Messenian War (743-724 BCE) put a stop to the evolution of the town. The Spartan occupation, however, did not result in a total loss of national consciousness among the inhabitants, who were now helots.
The independent city of Ancient Messene was founded in 369 BCE by the Theban general Epaminondas (after the battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, which resulted in Spartan defeat and the establishment of the Theban hegemony). It became the capital of the free Messenian state following a long period (about four centuries) of occupation of the Messenian territory by the Spartans. To enhance their defenses the Messenians built strong fortifications, including imposing 9-kilometer-long walls with massive towers .
A City of Grand Buildings and Magnificent Structures
Within its sturdy walls, Messene boasted an array of grand buildings and magnificent structures, reflecting the city’s newfound prosperity. The Agora, or marketplace, served as the city’s economic and social hub, while the theater, with its capacity of over 15,000 spectators, hosted a variety of performances and events. The sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of healing, attracted pilgrims from around the region, seeking solace and treatment. We also find the other typical components of a florishing polis: a stadium, a gymnasium, various temples, and a hall for political meetings. The city’s residents were highly educated, and the arts flourished, with poets, sculptors, and architects contributing to the city’s rich cultural tapestry.
Because of an earthquake in 365 and an invasion by the Visigoths around 395, the city fell into ruin, picked apart by local inhabitants in search of building materials. However, from the beginning of the 5th century CE Messene is being reconstructed as a Christian city and the seat of a local bishop. Yet neither in the Byzantine period or during the Ottoman reign the place reached its former importance. When a French expedition in search of forgotten classical Greek sites found the ruins of Messene, the place was almost deserted – the land was used for farming, olive growing and grazing by the inhabitants of the nearby village of Mavromati.