The Spartans were eager to fight and to add to their dominions. So they determined to attack the Messenians, whose country lay west of Laconia, close to their own borders.
One day, while the Messenians were feasting and offering sacrifices to their gods, the Spartans sent three youths disguised as maidens across the borderland. Beneath their robes the young soldiers carried arms. They stole quietly in among the Messenians and attacked them in the midst of their feast.
But although the Messenians were unarmed they soon captured the three Spartan lads. They then advanced against the Spartans, and in the tumult that followed, one of the kings of Sparta was slain.
The war, which was thus begun in 743 b.c. , lasted for many years, and was known as the First Messenian War.
No great battle was fought until four years had passed. Even then neither side could claim a victory, but so many Messenians had fallen that Aristodemus, their chief, withdrew, with those of his followers who were left, to a mountain fortress called Ithomé.
Then, as was their custom, when it was difficult to know what to do next, the Messenians sent to consult the oracle. The answer filled them with dismay, for the oracle declared that not until a maiden belonging to one of their ancient houses was sacrificed to the gods need they hope to conquer the Spartans. But Aristodemus loved his country so dearly that he did not hesitate to sacrifice his own daughter to the gods.
When the Spartans heard what the brave chief had done, they hastened to make peace with the Messenians. They could not hope to conquer those for whom the gods would now fight.
A few years passed, and then the Spartans determined to attack the Messenians once again, and to drive them from Ithomé their mountain fortress.
Again a great battle was fought, and again neither side could claim the victory. But the king of the Messenians was killed, and Aristodemus was chosen to rule in his place. In the fifth year of his reign he defeated the Spartans and drove them from his dominions.
The victory brought no happiness to the king, for omens of evil seemed to pursue him.
In the temple a brazen shield fell from the hand of the statue of Artemis the goddess. The daughter of Aristodemus appeared to her father and bade him lay aside his armour. He obeyed, and she then placed on his head a crown of gold and clad him in a white robe. These things meant that the death of the king was near.
Aristodemus believed that not only he but his country was doomed, and deeming that he had sacrificed his daughter in vain, he slew himself in his despair on her tomb.
For twenty years the war still dragged on, and only then were the Spartans able to drive the Messenians from Ithomé and raze the fortress to the ground.
Many of the conquered people fled, while those who remained were treated more harshly than were the Helots. For they were compelled to pay as tribute to the Spartans half the produce of their lands. This was the end of the First Messenian War.
For almost thirty years the conquered people bore their cruel lot, then in 685 b.c. they rebelled, and the Second Messenian War was begun.
Aristomenes, the leader of the rebels, was a bold and daring foe. To show how little he feared the Spartans, he secretly crossed the borderland into the enemy's country, and one night he succeeded in entering the city of Sparta itself. He made his way to the temple of Athene, and walking in boldly he hung up his shield beside the statue of the goddess, with these words tied to it: "Dedicated by Aristomenes to the goddess from the Spartan spoils."
With a band of his bravest followers, the chief made more than one successful raid into the heart of the enemy's country, and plundered two of their cities.
As in the first war, so in this second war, no decisive victory was gained at first by either side. But legend tells that Aristomenes did many valiant deeds.
Three times he offered a strange sacrifice to the king of the gods, which one who had slain in battle a hundred of the foe was alone permitted to do. The sacrifice was named the Hekatomphonia.
The Spartans, alarmed at the daring of Aristomenes, sent to consult the oracle at Delphi. They were told to send to the famous city of Athens for a leader. Now the Spartans did not wish to do this, for they were not on good terms with the Athenians. Still, as they dared not disregard the oracle, they did as they were bid.
The Athenians did not wish to help the Spartans any more than they wished to ask for help, yet they too knew they could not ignore the oracle. So they got out of the difficulty, as they thought, by sending a lame schoolmaster, named Tyrtaeus. He would not be likely to lead an army far.
But although Tyrtaeus was a lame man, he was also a poet. His war-songs roused the Spartans, and inspired them to fight more bravely than ever. When they marched again to battle they were singing the songs of Tyrtaeus and marching to victory. Aristomenes was forced to retreat to the mountains to a fortress called Ira.
For eleven years the war lingered on. The Spartans often encamped at the foot of Ira to keep the enemy in check. But again and again Aristomenes broke out of the fortress, and with a band of followers crossed the border and laid waste Laconia. Twice he was taken prisoner and twice he escaped, but the third time he was captured he was carried in triumph to the city of Sparta. With fifty of his countrymen he was flung from Mount Taygetus into a great chasm in the rock below.
The fifty followers of Aristomenes were killed by the fall, but Aristomenes was saved by the gods. For, so the legend tells, an eagle with wings outspread carried him unhurt to the bottom of the pit.
For three days Aristomenes lay in the cavern surrounded by the dead bodies of his comrades. To escape seemed impossible. But when no hope was left in the heart of the brave man, he noticed something move at the foot of the cave. At once he roused himself to look more closely at the moving object; it was a fox, prowling about in search of food.
In an instant hope was alive in the heart of Aristomenes. If an animal had got into the cave, it was possible for him to get out of it.
Weak though he was for want of food, Aristomenes managed to seize the tail of the fox, and to hold it fast when the animal tried to escape.
Onward the fox struggled, until it reached a narrow hole in the rock. Then Aristomenes let his deliverer go, while he began at once to enlarge the hole.
The next day, to the joy of his countrymen and to the alarm of his enemies, Aristomenes was again in the Messenian fortress.
But there was a traitor in the camp of the Messenians, and one night, soon after the return of their leader, the mountain fortress at Ira was betrayed into the hands of the Spartans.
In the battle that followed, Aristomenes was wounded, but gathering together the bravest of his followers, he made a desperate charge through the lines of the enemy and escaped. Some time after he died in Rome, but it is told that two hundred and fifty years later, he was seen on a battlefield fighting against the Spartans.
The Second Messenian War ended, as had the first, in the triumph of the Spartans, who again treated their prisoners as slaves. In 464 b.c. war again broke out between the Messenians and Sparta. The Spartans were victorious, and the conquered people were driven from Peloponnesus. But in 369 b.c. a great Theban leader called Epaminondas restored freedom to the Messenians, and brought them back again to their own country.
The history of the Messenian War was written by the poet Tyrtaeus, whose songs were sung for many years by the Spartans as they marched to battle.
Some of these songs we can still read for ourselves.