First development of Sparta: the Messenian wars
During the eighth century BCE, Sparta, like other peoples of Hellas, was a small city-state ruled by a monarchy and aristocratic oligarchy of Doric descent. Driven by population growth and a need for resources and power, the Spartans looked to the West and decided that beyond the mountains Taygetus, in Messenia would create a nation of slaves to serve them.
The geopolitics of Laconia did not leave them much choice: they were on a rough terrain and isolated by mountains and a non-navigable river. Laconia was something like the heartland, or cardial region of the Peloponnesus: an area inaccessible to any power that used the sea as a vector to project their power. So it was well protected from abroad, but in return the Laconians could not afford to sea as the coast was steep and there was only one suitable site to establish a port at Gythium, 43 km from the capital (unlike Piraeus, which was very close to Athens). Therefore, they could not follow the example of the Athenians, who jumped from island to island, colonizing the coasts and drawing large amounts of wheat from the north shore of the Black Sea.
On the other hand, the neighboring kingdom of Messenia had the most fertile plains of Hellas (“good for planting, good for plowing” said Tyrtaeus; “a happy grassland” the Spartans called it). By annexing it they would achieve autarkic supply of food and no longer need to rely on remote territories, trade, merchants, strategic islands, and maritime straits easy to control by the enemy or naval fleet.
Moreover, they would not cosmopolitanize, as usual with all trading nations. Sparta, then, was shaping up as a telurocracy—a geopolitical power of clearly continental type—opposed to the maritime Athenian thalassocracy.
Around 743 BCE, at a time when the Messenians were feasting and offering sacrifices to their gods, Sparta sent three lads dressed as maids. These little soldiers, well trained, carried short swords under their robes, and had no trouble infiltrating the carefree party atmosphere in Messenian territory. From inside they stalked the unarmed Messenia crowd, and at a given signal they began a bloody carnage in the thick of the crowd, before the Messenia mass subdued the boys. After the incident the Messenians grouped and, enraged, armed themselves and marched into Laconia. In the fight that broke out, one of the kings of Sparta fell, and the First Messenia War began (described by Tyrtaeus and Pausanias, who in turn relied on Myron of Priene).
After four years of war and a great battle, neither side emerged victorious. That was a deaf resistance, guerrilla style, and probably conventional armies had been relatively disrupted after the first battle. Although not adopting yet the tactics of the phalanx or Hoplite equipment, the most decisive actions were hand strikes, raids and sieges. However, the Messenians had suffered so many losses that a Messenian warlord, Aristodemus and his men, retreated to a fortress on Mount Ithome, and visited the oracle for advice. The oracle answered that to resist the Spartans a maiden of an ancient and respectable Messenian family should be sacrificed to the gods. Aristodemus, who was to be a great patriot, did not hesitate to sacrifice his own daughter. When the Spartans heard this, they rushed to make peace with the Messenians as, superstitious or not, they attached great importance to such ritual matters.
After some years, however, the Spartans decided to attack the Messenians again. There was another great battle, but the victory yet again did not go for any of the two sides. And since the Messenian king had fallen, the leader Aristodemus went to reign over the Messenians. In the fifth year of his reign he was able to expel from his territory the Spartan forces. However, Aristodemus seemed to be under a dark curse. In a Messenian temple a shield fell from the hand of the statue of the goddess Artemis. The sacrificed daughter of Aristodemus appeared as ethereal figure and asked him to take off his armor.
Artemis did it, and she crowned him with a golden crown, dressed in a white robe. According to the mentality of the time, all these omens meant that the death of Aristodemus was coming. Ancient peoples took these things very seriously. It was not superstition but the unraveling of the archetypal signs, repeated on Earth and echoing what was happening in the sky. Accordingly, black premonitions gravitated around Aristodemus. A dense depression took over his mind. He began to think that he and his nation were condemned to slavery. Believing he had sacrificed his daughter in vain, he committed suicide over her grave. The Greeks said that “one whom the gods wish to destroy they first make him crazy.”
The war lasted a total of nineteen years, and it was only after this time that the Spartans could exterminate Messenian resistance and raze the fortress of Ithome. Some Messenians fled the Peloponnesian, and those who remained were treated more harshly than the very Helots of Laconia. They were relegated to be peasant vassals of Sparta at the Messenia fertile plain, and also forced them to pay half of the production of their land to their Spartan masters.
But the Messenians, much more numerous than the Spartans, were not satisfied with this situation of second-class and submitted people. Two generations after the First Messenian War a bold leader named Aristomenes, supported by the states of Argos and Arcadia, preached rebellion against Sparta. Following this, in the seventh century BCE the Second Messenian War began. With a band of loyal followers, Aristomenes starred numerous raids on Spartan territory, even weeping out two populations.
Three times he celebrated a Hecatomb sacrifice, a ritual only allowed to perform to those who had killed more than a hundred enemies. The Messenians, for the first time, used the Hoplite phalanx tactics characterized by close order formations, barricading behind a shield wall from which the spears stabbed with impunity. The Spartans had not yet adopted this form of combat from the Middle East, and suffered catastrophic casualties in the Battle of Hysiae.
Sparta then consulted the oracle of Delphi. There they were told to go to Athens to procure a leader. This was not supposed to please the Spartans, as their relations with Athens were not good, and neither pleased the Athenians for the same reason, but both States respected the decisions of Delphi and did not object. The Athenians, however, acted in bad faith: they sent a lame teacher called Tyrtaeus (known to posterity as Tyrtaeus of Sparta), thinking that he would not have value as military captain.
However, Tyrtaeus was a great poet. His chants of war inflamed the martial ardor of the Spartans and raised their morale. In the next battle against the Messenians, the Spartans marched already inflamed and in phalanx combat, singing his songs. With such impulse they defeated Aristomenes in the Battle of the Great Pit, forcing the Messenians to retreat to another mountain fortress called Ira, at whose feet the Spartan camp was established. This state of siege, in which guerrillas returned stronger than during the first war, lasted eleven years. Aristomenes often managed to break the Spartan siege in Ira and head toward Laconia, subjected to pillage. Twice he was captured by the Spartans and twice escaped.
The third time was captured along with fifty of his men, and they were paraded victoriously through Sparta as if they were a Roman triumph. Then they were taken to the foot of Mount Taygetos and thrown off a cliff, the famous Kaiada. According to Greek history, only Aristomenes miraculously survived the fall and was able to leave the abyss following a fox. Soon, he was in the fortress of Ira in front of his men.
But the Spartans ended infiltrating a spy into the fortress, and one night, after Aristomenes returned from one of his raids, the fort was betrayed. In the fierce battle that followed it is said Aristomenes was wounded and, clasping his bravest men, broke the Spartan lines and fled to Rome, where he died soon after. It is more than likely that this myth was built to revitalize Messenian pride: even 250 years later it was said that Aristomenes was seen in a battlefield fighting against the Spartans.
The Spartans conquered by spear and sword enough land to support all their people and maintain the other peoples subjected. They subjugated the Messenians, beat hostile crowds far more numerous than themselves and indisputably subjected them to their rule. Messenian coastal populations became a sort of middle-class commercial and navy populations, and the rest of the country, mere Helots (peasant rabble). Encompassing the entire southern half of the Peloponnesus, including the original territory of Laconia and the conquered land of Messenia, Sparta became the largest state in all Hellas by far—three times larger than the Attic state of Athens.
Unlike other Hellenic states, Sparta had chosen to be a continental land power of compact territory instead of engaging in seafaring and colonizing areas outside Greece, as other Hellenic states did in Asia Minor, Italy, the Black Sea or Africa. At least in part this was due to its immense agricultural potential: Messenia was the most fertile of the Greek world by far, while Athens suffered chronic lack of grain and continuously had to go to the Black Sea coast to look for it. Sparta had no such problems.
Think for a moment about how these battles, terribly fierce and long, could have influenced the Spartan character. The Messenian Wars marked forever their mentality. Ultimately, the teachers of the Spartans were their own enemies and the wars forced upon them. They were the ones who instituted in Sparta military paranoia and preparation for combat that characterized it; who forced Spartan aristocracy enter into crisis and, by necessity, find the best way to prevail over their enemies. Sparta would never have been what it became if in combat it had hit a cowardly people. Holding a long struggle against high-quality elements, bold and fearsome enemies to boast, aroused the Spartan force. Perhaps that is the only advantage of the unfortunate fratricidal wars, so typical of Europe.