Becoming Messenian

Journal of Hellenic Studies 122:45-69 (2002)


The article is an enquiry into the identity of two groups who called themselves Messenians: the Helots and perioikoi who revolted against Sparta after the earthquake in the 460s; and the citizens of the independent polity founded by Epameinondas in 370/69 bc in the Spartan territory west of the Taygetos. Based on the history of the Messenians in Pausanias Book 4, some scholars have thought that those two groups were simply the descendants of the free inhabitants of the region, subdued by the Spartans in the Archaic period and reduced to the condition of Helots. According to these scholars, the Helotized Messenians preserved a sense of their identity and a religious tradition of their own, which re-emerged when they regained freedom. One objection to this thesis is that there is no clear archaeological evidence of regional cohesiveness in the area in the late Dark Ages, while the very concept of Messenia as a unified region extending from the river Neda to the Taygetos does not seem to exist prior to the Spartan conquest. Furthermore, evidence from sanctuaries dating to the Archaic and Early Classical periods shows that Messenia was to a significant extent populated by perioikoi whose material culture, cults and language were thoroughly indistinguishable from those documented in Lakonia. Even the site where Epameinondas later founded the central settlement of the new Messenian polity was apparently occupied since the late seventh century at the latest by a perioikic settlement. Some of these perioikoi participated with the Helots in the revolt after the earthquake, and the suggestion is advanced, based on research on processes of ethnogenesis, that they played a key role in the emergence of the Messenian identity of the rebels. For them, identifying themselves as Messenians was an implicit claim to the land west of the Taygetos; therefore the Spartans consistently refused to consider the rebels Messenians, just as they refused to consider Messenians ¿ that is, descendants of the ¿old Messenians¿ ¿ the citizens of Epameinondas¿ polity. Interestingly, the Spartan and the Theban-Messenian views on the identity of these people agreed in denying that the ¿old Messenians¿ had remained in Messenia as Helots. Messenian ethnicity is explained as the manifestation of the will of perioikoi and Helots living west of the Taygetos to be independent from Sparta. The fact that most Messenian cults attested from the fourth century onwards were typical Spartan cults does not encourage the assumption that there was any continuity in a Messenian tradition going back to the period before the Spartan westward expansion

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