N OT very far from Sparta, and next to Laconia, was a country called Messenia, which was much more fertile, and had long been occupied by a kindred race descended from Lelex, brother of Lacedæmon.
When the Spartans found out that the Messenian fields were more fruitful than their own, they longed to have them, and anxiously watched for some excuse to make war against the Messenians and win their land. It was not long before they found one.
There was a temple on the boundary of Messenia and Laconia, where the people of both countries used to assemble on certain days to offer up sacrifices to the gods. The Messenian lads, seeing the beauty of the Spartan girls, and longing to have such strong, handsome, and intelligent wives, once carried off a few of them into their own country, and refused to give them up again. The Spartans, indignant at this conduct, flew to arms, and one night, led by their king, attacked the Messenian town of Amphea.
As no one expected them, they soon became masters of the place, and in their anger killed all the inhabitants. The other Messenians, hearing of this cruel deed, quickly made ready to fight, and bravely began the struggle which is known as the First Messenian War.
Although very brave, the Messenians had not been as well trained as the Spartans, and could not drive them back. On the contrary, they were themselves driven from place to place, until they were forced to take refuge in the fortified city of Ithome. Here they were shut in with their king, Aristodemus, who was a proud and brave man.
Ithome was built high up on a rock, so steep that the Spartan soldiers could not climb it, and so high that they could not even shoot their arrows into the town.
The Messenians, hoping to keep this place of refuge, kept a sharp lookout, and, whenever the Spartans made any attempt to climb the rocks, they rolled great blocks of stone down upon them.
All went well as long as the food lasted, but the time came when the Messenians in Ithome had nothing to eat. Some of their bravest men tried to go down into the valley in search of provisions; but, as they were attacked by the Spartans, they could not bring the hungry people much to eat.
When Aristodemus saw that the people would all die of hunger unless some way were found to get food, he consulted an oracle, in order to find out what it was best for him to do. The oracle answered that a battle should be fought, and promised the victory to the king who offered his daughter in sacrifice to the gods.
When Aristodemus heard this answer, he shuddered with fear; for, although he knew that his ancestors had offered up human victims on their altars, he loved his only daughter too well to give her up.
For some time longer, therefore, he resisted every attack, and tried to think of some other way to save his people. At last, however, seeing that they would all die unless something were done, he sacrificed the child he loved so well.
The Messenians were touched by his generosity, and by his readiness to do all in his power to save them. They felt sure that the gods would now give them the victory, and rushed out of the town and into the Spartan camp. Their attack was so sudden, and they fought with such fury, that they soon killed three hundred Spartans and one of their kings.
This battle did not, as they had hoped, end the war, which went on for several years. At last Aristodemus, despairing of victory, went to his beloved daughter's tomb, and there killed himself.
When he was dead, the city of Ithome fell into the hands of the Spartans. They treated the conquered Messenians with great cruelty, made them all slaves, and were as unkind to them as they had been to the Helots.