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Ἀριστομένης), the Messe nian, the hero of the second war with Sparta, has been connected by some writers with the first war (Myron. apud Paus. 4.6; Diod. 15.66, Fragm. x.), but in defiance apparently of all tradition. (Tyrt. apud Paus. l.c. ; Müller, Dor. 1.7.9.) For the events of his life our main authority is Pausanias, and he appears to have principally followed Rhianus the Cretan, the author of a lost epic poem, of which Aristomenes was the hero. (Paus. iv 6.) The life of Aristomenes, therefore, belongs more to legend than to history, though the truth of its general outline may be depended on. (Paus. 4.22; Plb. 4.33.)

Thirty-nine 1 years had elapsed since the capture of Ithome and the end of the first Messenian war, when the spirit of Messenia, chafing under a degrading yoke (Plb. 4.32; Just. 3.5; Tyrt. apud Paus. 4.14), and eager for revolt, found a leader in Aristomenes of Andania, sprung from the royal line of Aepytus, and even referred by legendary tradition to a miraculous and superhuman origin. (Paus. 4.14.) Having gained promises of assistance from Argos, Arcadia, Sicyon, Elis, and Pisa (Paus. 4.15; Strab. viii. p.362), the here began the war, B. C. 685. The first battle at Derae, before the arrival of the allies on either side, was indecisive; but Aristomenes so distinguished himself there by his valour, that he was offered the throne, but refused it, and received the office of supreme commander. This was followed by a remarkable exploit. Entering Sparta by night, he affixed a shield to the temple of Athena of the Brazen House (Χαλκίοικος), with the inscription, "Dedicated by Aristomenes to the goddess from the Spartan spoils." The next year, he utterly defeated the enemy at the battle of the Boar's Pillar (κάπρου σῆμα), a place in the region of Stenyclerus, at which the allies on both sides were present, and the hosts were animated respectively by the exhortations of Tyrtaeus and the Messenian Hierophants. (Paus. 4.16; Müller, Dor. 1.5.16, 1.7.9, note, 2.10.3.) His next exploit was the attack and plunder of Pharae (Pharis, II. 2.582); and it was only the warning voice of Helen and. the Twin Brothers, visiting him in a dream, that saved Sparta itself from his assault. But he surprised by an ambush the Laconian maidens who were celebrating at Caryae with dances the worship of Artemis. and carried them to Messenia, and himself protected them from the violence of his followers, and restored them, for ransom, uninjured. Next came, in the third year of the war, at which point the poem of Rhianus began, the battle of the Trench (μεγάλη τάφρος), where, through the treachery of Aristocrates, the Arcadian leader, Aristomenes suffered his first defeat, and the Messenian army was cut almost to pieces. (Paus. 4.17.) But the hero gathered the remnant to the mountain fortress of Eira, and there maintained the war for eleven years (Rhian. apud Paus. 4.17), and so ravaged the land of Laconia, that the Spartans decreed that the border should be left untilled. In one of his incursions, however, they met and overpowered him with superior numbers, and carrying him with fifty of his comrades to Sparta, cast them into the pit (κεάδας) where condemned criminals were thrown. The rest perished; not so Aristomenes, the favourite of the gods; for legends told how an eagle bore him up on its wings as he fell, and a fox guided him on the third day from the cavern. The enemy could not believe that he had returned to Eira, till the destruction of an army of Corinthiaus, who were coming to the Spartans' aid, convinced them that Aristomenes was indeed once more amongst them. And now it was that he offered for a second time to Zeus of Itholme the sacrifice for the slaughter of a hundred enemies (ἑκατομφόνια, comp. Plut. Rom. 100.25). The Hyacinthian festival coming on at Sparta, a truce was made, and Aristomenes, wandering on the faith of it too far from Eira, was seized by some Cretan bowmen (mercenaries of Sparta) and placed in bonds, but again burst them, and slew his foes through the aid of a maiden who dwelt in the house where they lodged him, and whom he betrothed in gratitude to his son Gorgus. But the anger of the Twins was roused against him, for he was said to have counterfeited them, and polluted with blood a Spartan festival in their honour. (Thirlwall, Gr. Hist. vol. i. p. 364; Polyaen. 11.31.) So the favour of heaven was turned from his country, and the hour of her fall came. A wild fig-tree, called in the Messenian dialect by the same name that also means a goat (τράγος), which overhung the Neda, touched at length the water with its leaves, and Theoclus the seer privately warned Aristomenes that the Delphic oracle was accomplished, which after the battle of the Trench had thus declared (Paus. 4.20) :

εὖτε τράγος πίνῃσι Νέδης ἑλικόρροον ὕδωρ,
οὐκ ἔτι Μεσσήνην π̔ύομαι, σχεδόθεν γὰρ ὄλεθρος

Sparta, therefore, was to triumph; but the future revival of Messenia had been declared in the prophecies of Lycus, son of Pandion (Paus. 4.20, 26, 10.12) to depend on the preservation of a sacred tablet, whereon were described the forms of worship to Demeter and Persephone, said to have been brought of old by the priestly hero Caucon from Eleusis to Messenia. (Paus. 4.26.) This holy treasure Aristomenes secretly buried in Ithome, and then returned to Eira prepared for the worst. Soon after, the Spartans surprised Eira by night, while Aristomenes was disabled by a wound, even as though it had been impossible for Messenia to fall while her hero watched; yet for three days and nights (though he knew the will of the gods, and was fighting against hope) he maintained the struggle with his thinned and fainting band, and at length, forming the remnant into a hollow square, with the women and children in the midst, he demanded and obtained a free passage from the enemy. (Paus. 4.20, 21.) Arriving safely and receiving a hospitable welcome in Arcadia, he formed a plan for surprising and assaulting Sparta, but was again betrayed by Aristocrates : him his countrymen stoned for his treachery, while Aristomenes, gentle as brave, wept for the traitor's fate. (Paus. 4.22; Plb. 4.33; but see Müll. Dor. 1.7.11.) Yet he could not bear to relinquish the thought of war with Sparta, and he refused therefore to take the lead of the band which, under his sons, went and settled at Rhegium. He obtained, however, no opportunity for vengeance ; it was not in his life that retribution was to come ; but while he was consulting the Delphic oracle, Damagetus, king of Ialysus in Rhodes, being there at the same time, was enjoined by the god "to marry the daughter of the best of the Greeks." Such a command, he thought, could have but one interpretation; so he took to wife the daughter of Aristomenes, who accompanied him to Rhodes, and there ended his days in peace. The Rhodians raised to him a splendid monument, and honoured him as a hero, and from him were descended the illustrious family of the Diagoridae. (Paus. 4.24; Pind. Ol. vii.; Müll. Dor. 1.7.11.) His bones were said to have been brought back to Messenia (Paus. 4.32); his name still lived in the hearts of his worshipping countrymen; and later legends told, when Messenia had once more regained her place among the nations (B. C. 370), how at Leuctra the apparition of Aristomenes had been seen, aiding the Theban host and scattering the bands of Sparta. (Paus. 4.32.)


1 * This date is from Paus. 4.15; but see Just. 3.5; Müll. Dor. 1.7, 10, Append. ix., Hist. of Gr. Lit, 10.5; Clint. Fast. i. p. 256

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  • Cross-references from this page (14):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.66
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10.12
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.17
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.20
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.22
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.24
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.32
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.14
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.15
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.16
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.21
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.26
    • Polybius, Histories, 4.32
    • Polybius, Histories, 4.33
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.15
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