previous next


MESSE´NE (Μεσσήνη: Eth. and Adj. Μεσσήνιος: Adj. Μεσσηνιακός), the later capital of Messenia, built under the direction of Epaminondas in B.C. 369. (Diod. 15.66; Paus. 4.27.) The name of Messene had been applied in ancient times to the country inhabited by the Messenians; but there was no city of this name till the one founded by Epaminondas. The Thebans and their allies assisted the Messenians in building it; and the best architects and masons were invited from all Greece to lay out the city with regularity, and to arrange and construct properly the temples and other public buildings. Epaminondas also took especial pains with the fortifications, which were regarded by Pausanias as the most perfect in Greece. The walls, as well as the towers and bulwarks, were built entirely of stone; and the excellence and solidity of the masonry are still apparent in the existing remains. (Paus. 4.31.5.) The foundation of the city was attended with great pomp and the celebration of solemn sacrifices. First, sacrifices were offered by Epaminondas, who was recognised as Oekist or Founder, to Dionysus and Apollo Ismenius,--by the Argives to the Argive Hera and Zeus Nemeius,--by the Messenians to Zeus Ithomatas and the Dioscuri. Next, prayer was offered to the ancient Heroes and Heroines of the Messenian nation, especially to the warrior Aristomenes, that they would come back and take up their abode in the new city. After this, the ground was marked out and the building begun, under the sound of Argive and Boeotian flutes, playing the strains of Pronomus and Sacadas. (Paus. 4.28.6; Grote's Greece, vol. ix. p. 309.) The history of this town is related under MESSENIA so that it is only necessary in this place to give an account of its topography.

Messene is situated upon a rugged mountain, which rises between the two great Messenian plains, and which thus commands the whole country. This mountain, about half-way up, divides into two summits, of which the northern was called Ithome and the southern Eva. The sharp ridge connecting them is about half a mile in length. Mt. Ithome is one of the most striking objects in all Peloponnesus. It rises to the height of 2631 feet, or more than 700 feet higher than the Acrocorinthus; but it looks much loftier than it really is, in consequence of its precipitous sides and isolated position. Upon this summit the Acropolis of Messene was built; but the city itself was situated in a hollow somewhat in the form of a shell, extending on the west side of the sharp ridge which connects Ithome and Eva. The city was connected by a continuous wall with its acropolis. There are considerable remains of the ancient city, and the walls may still be traced in the greater part of their extent. They are most perfect on the northern side, with the. Arcadian or Megalopolitan gate in the centre. They. may be followed up to the summit of Ithome, and then along the ridge connecting Ithome and Eva ; but here towards the south-east traces of them are sometimes lost. In this part, however, the foundations of the eastern or Laconian gate, as it has been called, are clearly seen. The summit of Mt. Eva was evidently not included within the city walls. The direction of the southern wall is most uncertain. From the eastern gate to the ruins, which are supposed to be those of the southern gate, and near which the present road runs to the southern Messenian plain, no line of walls can be traced; but on the western side the walls may again be clearly followed. The circumference of the walls is about 47 stadia, or nearly 6 English miles ; but it includes a large space altogether unfit for the site of buildings; and the great extent was doubtless intended to receive a part of the surrounding population in time of war.

The space included within the city-walls now consists of corn-fields and pastures amidst woods of wild olive and oak. Nearly in the centre of the ancient town is the modern village of Mavromáti ; and near the southern gate, at the foot of Mount Eva, are two poor villages, named Simissa. On the eastern slope of Mount Eva is the monastery of Vurkáno, embossed in cypress and orange groves, and one of the most


[p. 2.339]

elegant and picturesque structures of this class in Greece.

PLAN OF THE RUINS OF MESSENE. A. Arcadian or Megalopolitan Gate.

The northern gate, leading to Megalopolis in Arcadia (Paus. 4.33.3), is one of the finest specimens of Greek military architecture in existence. Its form is seen in the preceding plan. It is a small fortress, containing double gates opposite to one another, and connected by a circular court of 62 feet in diameter. In front of the outer gate on either side is a strong rectangular tower. Upon entering the court through the outer gate, there is a niche on each side for a statue, with an inscription over it. The one on the left hand is still legible, and mentions Quintus Plotius Euphemion as the restorer (Böckh, Inscr. No. 1460). Pausanias (4.33.3) notices in this gate a Hermes in the Attic style, which may possibly have stood in one of these niches. Leake observes that the interior masonry of the circular court is the most exact and beautiful he ever saw. The lower course is a row of stones, each about 5 1/2 in length and half as much in height; upon this is placed another course of stones of equal length and of half the height, the joints of which are precisely over the centre of each stone in the lower course. The upper part of the walls has fallen: nine courses are the most that remain. Neither gateway retains its covering, but the flat architrave of the inner one lies in an oblique position upon the ruins of the wall by which it was formerly supported; it measures 18 feet 8 inches in length by 4 feet 2 inches in breadth, and 2 feet 10 inches in thickness. The road still leads through this gate into the circuit of the ancient city. The ruins of the towers, with the interjacent curtains, close to the gate on the slope of Mount Ithome, show this part of the fortifications to have resembled a chain of strong redoubts, each tower constituting a fortress of itself. “A flight of steps behind the curtain led to a door in the flank of the tower at half its height. The upper apartment, which was entered by the door, had a range of loopholes, or embrasures, on a line with the door, looking along the parapet of the curtain, and was lighted by two windows above. The embrasures, of which there are some in each face of the towers, have an opening of 7 inches within, and of 3 feet 9 inches without, so that, with a small opening, their scope is very great. The windows appear to be too high for any purpose but to give light. Both the curtains and towers in this part of the walls are constructed entirely of large squared blocks, without rubble or cement. The curtains are 9 feet thick. The inner face of the towers has neither door nor window. The tower next to the gate of Megalopolis has had all the stones disjointed, like those of the Propylaea at Athens, probably by an earthquake.” The towers are in general about 25 feet square, projecting about 14 feet from a curtain varying in length according to the nature of the ground, and 8 or 10 feet in thickness. [p. 2.340]The masonry was not in general such as has been described at the towers near the gate of Megalopolis, but, as in most Greek works of defence, consisted of an exterior and interior facing of that kind of masonry filled up with rubble.

In describing Messene, Pausanias first mentions the Agora, which contained a fountain called Arsinoe, supplied by a subterraneous canal from the source named Clepsydra. In the Agora, probably in the centre, was a statue of Zeus Soter. The various temples, which he then proceeds to enumerate, either surrounded the Agora, or were in its immediate neighbourhood. These were temples of Poseidon and Aphrodite; a marble statue of the mother of the gods, the work of Damophon, who also made the statue of Artemis Laphria; a temple of Eileithyia, a sacred building of the Curetes, and a sanctuary of Demeter, containing statues of the Dioscuri. But the temple of Asclepius contained the greatest number of statues, all of which were made by Damophon. The temple of Messene contained her statue in gold and Parian marble, while the back part was adorned with pictures representing the Messenian heroes and kings. A building, called Hierosythium, contained statues of all the gods worshipped by the Greeks. Pausanias next mentions the gymnasium, with statues made by Aegyptian artists, a pillar bearing a figure of Aethidas in relief, and the monument of Aristomenes,--the stadium containing a brazen statue of Aristomenes; and lastly, the theatre, with the adjoining temple of Serapis and Isis. The fountain called Clepsydra occurs in ascending to the summit of Ithome. On the summit was a temple of Zeus Ithomatas; and an annual festival, called Ithomaea, was celebrated in honour of the god. (Paus. 4.31.6-4.33.2.)

The Agora must have stood near the modern village of Mavromáti, in the neighbourhood of which most of the foundations of the ancient buildings are found. The rivulet, which now runs unconfined through the village, was in ancient times conducted through a subterraneous canal, and formed the fountain Arsinoe mentioned above. The modern village has derived its name from the spring,--Mavromáti meaning Black Spring or Black Eye. South of the site of the Agora are the ruins of the stadium, of which the upper or circular end and more than half of one of the sides still remain. The rivulet of Mavromáti now runs through the length of the stadium. “The stadium was surrounded by a colonnade, which was double at the upper end: here the lower parts of the columns are in their original places; there were about twenty in each row, 1 foot 10 inches in diameter, with Doric flutings. Part of the colonnade, on the right side of the stadium, is likewise in its place, and on the left side is the foundation of a public edifice, where are many pieces of columns of the same description as the colonnade round the stadium. Perhaps this was the Hierothysium. The stone seats of the stadium did not extend its whole length, but about two-thirds only; at the circular end, they are most perfect.” (Leake.) Immediately south of the stadium is a wall, which appears to have been part of the walls of the city. In this wall a small temple is built, like a kind of tower. Between the stadium and the village of Mavromáti, to the west of the rivulet, are the remains of a small theatre, about 60 feet in diameter. North of the stadium the slope is divided into terraces, of which the supporting walls still remain. Here some of the temples mentioned by Pausanias probably stood.

In ascending Mount Ithome, there is about half way up a terrace of considerable size, which commands a fine view of the Messenian gulf. Here the French Commission discovered some ruins overgrown with shrubs, which appear to have been an Ionic temple facing the east, containing a porch with two columns and a cella. This was probably a temple of Artemis, as an inscription here found contains the names of Messenians, who had held the priesthood of Artemis Limnatis, and the remains of the statue discovered in the cella appear to be those of this goddess. Below the temple are two smaller terraces ; and 60 feet further sideways, WSW. of the temple, is a kind of grotto cut out of the rock, with a portico, of which there are remains of five pillars. This was, perhaps, intended to receive the water of the fountain Clepsydra, which Pausanias mentions in his ascent to the summit of the mountain. The summit itself is a small flat surface, extending from SE. to NW. On the northern and eastern sides the wall runs along the edge of the perpendicular cliffs, and some remains of a more ancient masonry may be perceived, which probably belonged to the earlier fortifications of Messene. At the northern and broader end of the summit are the deserted buildings of the monastery of Vurkano; this was undoubtedly the site of the temple of Zeus Ithomatas. There is a magnificent view from the summit. Along the northern boundary of the horizon the Lycaean range extends ; to the east are seen the mountains now named Makryplái, which unite with the range of Taÿgetum; to the north-west the sea-coast between the rivers Cyparisseeis and Neda is visible; while to the south the mouth of the Pamisus and the Messenian gulf are spread open to view.

The similarity of Ithome to Acrocorinthus is noticed by Strabo (viii. p.361). He observes, that both are lofty and precipitous mountains, overhanging their respective cities, but connected with them by a common line of fortifications. Messene continued to exist in the later times of the Roman empire, as we learn from inscriptions ; but in the middle ages it had ceased to be a place of any importance; and hence the ancient remains have been less disturbed by the hands of man than in most other parts of Greece. (Leake, Morea, vol. i. p. 366, seq.; Mure, Tour in Greece, vol. ii. p. 264; Boblaye, Récherches, &c., p. 107, seq.; Curtius, Peloponnesos, vol. ii. p. 138, seq.)

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: