Spartan Conquest of Messenia

The Spartan conquest of Messenia reduced the Messenian population to servitude and helped Sparta become the dominant military state in Greece.

Summary of Event

In the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e., the Peloponnesian city-state of Sparta in Laconia developed some unique institutions. Although these institutions were not precisely imitated by other states, they were admired by many, including the Athenian philosopher Plato. In a Greek environment increasingly dominated by economic commerce, Sparta remained almost exclusively agrarian. In a world in which other states had developed social diversity and rich cultural expression, Sparta retained a strict and simple social structure and a spiritual character rich in strength but seemingly wanting in creative artistic expression. Scholarly studies have shown the existence of some Spartan artistic creativity. Because archaeological and literary evidence indicates that Sparta was in the mainstream of Greek cultural development until the beginning of the seventh century b.c.e., the reason for Sparta’s later uniqueness must have its origins in developments later in that century. The most likely explanation is to be found in the deliberate crystallization of permanent military institutions made necessary by Sparta’s conquest of Messenia as a response to the problem of overpopulation in the eighth century b.c.e.
Theopompus I

The Dorian invaders of Laconia, who settled in the valley of the Eurotas River during the twelfth century b.c.e., remained ethnically distinct from the residual non-Dorian inhabitants whom they had conquered and over whom they exercised administrative jurisdiction. The distinction seems to have been preserved especially by maintenance of a social code from the period of conquest that featured strict separation of the sexes, early military training for boys in kinship groups, and common daily gatherings of adult males within kinship groups.

During the eighth century b.c.e., most communities in the Greek world faced the problem of overpopulation and responded to the challenge by establishing overseas colonies throughout the Mediterranean world. Sparta stood aloof from the general movement of colonization, founding only a few colonies and solving its problem of overpopulation by conquering the neighboring province of Messenia. Located to the southwest, Messenia was one of the richest agricultural districts in a region known for its generally rocky, mountainous, and infertile terrain. The war between Sparta and Messenia extended over a twenty-year period from approximately 736 to 716 c.e. According to tradition, the Spartan army was led by Theopompus I, one of its hereditary kings. There are abundant legends about the war, but little more can be firmly established beyond the bare facts recounted above and the Spartan organization of the land and its people following the conquest. Because the war had been fought in response to the challenge of overpopulation, Messenian land was divided into estates that were distributed among the victorious Spartan soldiers. The Messenians themselves continued to work the land as serfs and were obliged to pay one-half of their produce to the new Spartan landowners. The conquered Messenians were called helots, a term that probably had the original meaning of “prisoners of war.”

Ancient Sparta.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Encouraged by Sparta’s involvement in local wars against Argos, Arcadia, and Elis in the mid-seventh century b.c.e., the Messenians attempted to throw off Spartan domination after several generations of servitude. The ensuing struggle was bitterly fought and apparently engendered a constitutional crisis from which Sparta emerged as a permanently militarist society with a rigid social and political structure. Primary sources describing events of this period include the poems of Tyrtaeus, exhortations of Spartan soldiers to resolution in the war with Messenia, a paraphrase of an Oracle of Delphi sanctioning the constitution (apparently adopted or amended at this time), and the text of a document called the Great Rhetra (quoted by Plutarch in his “Life of Lycurgus” in Bioi paralleloi, c. 105-115; Parallel Lives, 1579) containing information about the provisions of this constitution.

A major factor in this political crisis involved a shift in military tactics from fighting based on spear carriers and aristocratic cavalry to reliance on the close-knit phalanx of heavily armed foot soldiers known as hoplites. In Sparta and throughout the Greek world, the shifting of the burden of community defense to the shoulders of the hoplite infantry was accompanied by a demand by these soldiers for greater political authority. The imperative economic necessity of the reconquest of Messenia forced aristocratic leaders to grant concessions that were formalized by the Great Rhetra. In addition, the Spartan assembly (apella) of nine thousand warriors adopted the framework of a military organization based on local considerations rather than one based solely on claims of kinship. According to the Great Rhetra, this assembly was to be sovereign in the state and would hold final authority over the gerousia, an aristocratic council of thirty elders. Some adjustment of land distribution was evidently involved as well, for the nine thousand were henceforth called “equals” and were so content with their new lot that they did not resist the formulation of an amendment to the Great Rhetra granting veto power to the gerousia over decisions made by the apella.


Although they successfully conquered the Messenians and suppressed the revolt, the Spartans were fully conscious that their economic security depended on the continued subjection of a large population of serfs under the control of a relatively small Spartan army. The Spartan commitment to a life of relentless military preparedness was maintained at the cost of cultural stagnation—a price that the Spartans were willing to pay.

Further Reading

  • Atkinson, Kathleen Mary Tyrer Chrims. Ancient Sparta: A Re-examination of the Evidence. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999. Atkinson examines the traditional and archaeological sources on Sparta, separating myth and fact. Bibliography and index.
  • Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History, 1300-362 b.c.
    2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. A history of Sparta and Laconia that draws from both traditional sources and archaeological findings. Bibliography and index.
  • Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans: An Epic History. London: Four Books, 2002. In this volume, which has a television tie-in, noted scholar Cartledge covers the history of the city-state.
  • Jones, A. H. M. Sparta. 1967. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993. A history of the ancient city and its environs. Maps, genealogy tables, bibliography, and index.
  • Powell, Anton, and Stephen Hodkinson, eds. Sparta: Beyond the Mirage. London: Classical Press of Wales and Duckworth, 2002. A collection of essays presenting various views of Sparta, originally presented at a conference at the National University of Ireland in September, 2000. Bibliography and index.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Agesilaus II of Sparta; Epaminondas; Pericles.