A panegyric to ancient Messene

At the height of the Roman Empire, in the 2nd century AD, superstar Greek orators, known as sophists, travelled the cities of the eastern half of the Mediterranean giving performances of their art to assembled crowds. Among the repertoire of speeches that they gave were panegyrics in praise of the cities they visited. Surviving examples of this genre include several speeches by a sickly or possibly hypochondriac rhetorician called Aelius Aristeides in which he celebrates Athens, Rome and Smyrna, the city in Asia Minor that he made his home for a while. If I were a sophist the first ancient city I would write a panegyric for would be Messene, which is probably my favourite archaeological site in Greece.

Messenia, the most southwest region of the Peloponnese was, in Archaic and Classical times, under the control of Sparta. It was where the famous Helots lived, the native population who the Spartans had reduced to a slave-like status, and who were forced to farm the land so that the Spartan citizens could devote their lives to full-time military pursuits. In the early 4th century BC that situation changed when Sparta experienced a series of catastrophic military defeats by Thebes. The Thebans, under their talented general Epaminondas, liberated Messenia and helped the people of the region found a new city to hold Sparta in check and prevent any resurgence of her power. Elite Messenian refugees, living in exile in other parts of the Greek world, also flocked back to Greece to take part in building this new city.

From the spectacular remains uncovered through excavation – mostly in the last twenty years or so – it has become clear that Messene prospered and thrived until well into the Roman period. Because there is no modern town at the site – it seems to have been more or less completely abandoned with the Ottoman takeover of Greece in the 14th century – the archaeologists working there have been able to uncover a vast extent of the main civic centre. The level of preservation of the remains has turned out to be spectacular and has allowed accurate restoration of many of the principle monuments.

Both excavation and restoration work at the site are still ongoing under the direction of Professor Petros Themelis. Digging takes place in the summer months while the job of putting the ancient buildings back together, financed through various generous benefactions, proceeds continually throughout the year. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Professor Themelis at the site, busy restoring a public building on the agora and a newly uncovered palaestra (wrestling area), in the southern gymnasium, and he kindly discussed some of his recent work with me.

The site of Messene seen from the village of Mavromati
The site of Messene seen from the village of Mavromati

There are many things that make Messene a truly remarkable place to visit. For a start, the setting in the landscape is breathtaking. The city lies at the southern foot of Mount Ithome, a point of key strategic importance, described by some ancient authors together with Acrocorinth (I’m going to Corinth tomorrow) as being like the horns of a bull – whoever controlled both controlled the entire Peloponnese. From the delightful modern village of Mavromati, slightly higher up the slope and where I’ve been staying, it is possible to survey the entire site: from the theatre and agora in the northern part to the stadium and gymnasium in the south. It is also possible to see a good stretch of the incredibly well-preserved city walls – without doubt the most substantial surviving ancient city walls in Greece – cutting through the hills to the west and punctuated by several imposing defensive towers.

Because the site runs down from north to south the ancient Messenians constructed a series of level terraces on which to build the city. Watching some of the Greek workmen hacking away at the soil with great effort with pickaxes to uncover the base of a column being re-erected in the palaestra made me realise just how enormous a task it must have been to landscape the entire city in antiquity with similar tools and no modern industrial machinery.

Because there are no modern buildings in the way, unlike for instance at Argos, it is possible to really explore the site and get a good feel of how the ancient city – or at least the public spaces in the heart of it – fitted together. You enter the site near the theatre, constructed on level enough ground to have required massive retaining walls to create a sufficient slope for the seating. It has now been restored and serves as the venue for modern theatrical performances. Other highlights of the site include the grand north stoa of the agora, of which substantial sections of the back wall are preserved, the Asklepieion complex – a small square to the south of the agora with a temple to the god of medicine and surrounded by various rooms housing cult spaces to local gods and heroes and a splendid indoor theatre – and the vast stadium, a u-shaped sporting arena that stretches away to a building that looks like a temple but was, in fact, the ostentatious tomb of a local elite family.

The theatre of Messene
The theatre of Messene
The stadium of Messene - with the temple-tomb at the southern end
The stadium of Messene – with the temple-tomb at the southern end
The temple-tomb at the end of the stadium in Messene
The temple-tomb at the end of the stadium in Messene

The entire site is littered with various bases for statues and other monuments lots of them bearing inscriptions. Many were discovered fallen over very near where they had originally been set up so it is possible to get something of a feel for where different types of monument originally stood. For example, there is a cluster of statue bases in the north stoa of the agora to Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty (late 1st century AD). One shows very clear signs that inscription in honour of the last emperor that dynasty, Domitian (one of the so-called bad emperors) had been purposely hacked away in as part of the so-called “damnatio memoriae” that many of his monuments throughout the empire were subjected to following his murder. Another cluster of statues to emperors, this time those of the 2nd Century AD, were clustered to the south of the temple of the personified Goddess Messene. Both groups have been discovered in the last few years.

Monuments connected with the ephebes (youths passing through an offical state programme of physical and mental education) and the magistrates responsible for training them, the gymnasiarchs, stood in the gymnasium next to the stadium. In many areas of public space in Messene, there were also grave monuments for people who had died fighting for the city in the Hellenistic period or for local notables of Roman imperial times. Such large numbers of public tomb monuments in the heart of the city are not common for Greek cities where cemeteries were usually located outside the walls. Because Messene did not exist as a city before the late Classical times almost all of the remains are Hellenistic or Roman which means that here, more than at most other places in Greece, you can really get a feel for the role monuments played in shaping public life in a Greek polis in just the period I am interested in.

Two statue bases at Messene
Two statue bases at Messene

As I walked around looking at the remains of statue bases and other monuments I was thinking about how visible they might have been, about the direction that were facing, about how they were positioned in relation to other monuments, and about the impact that they might have had on the use of the spaces in which they stood. These are the types of questions that are at the heart of my current project and I certainly came away with new insights as well as new questions about such issues that I will need to address. It was an extremely fruitful visit and will certainly be of considerable use in helping me understand the latest excavation reports.

Another reason why Messene is such a great site to include in my research is that Professor Themelis is extremely diligent in making sure that the latest excavation material is published fast so that it is accessible to the scholarly community. Even though the fieldwork is still taking place, and detailed studies of parts of it are still in progress, several monographs have already appeared on various buildings and the regular annual fieldwork reports are highly detailed, to the point of even giving the full texts of recently discovered inscriptions, which is certainly not common practice.

The excavations at Messene have also yielded very impressive pieces of ancient sculpture, the best of which are displayed in the excellent site museum, again of Hellenistic or Roman date. These include an over-life-size Hermes, a statue of Isis striding forward on the prow of a ship, a goggle-eyed late Roman emperor and a beautiful statue of Artemis the Huntress found in a grand private dwelling to the southeast of the agora. There are also several pieces of sculpture by the Hellenistic artist Damophon, who I mentioned briefly last time. I also spent quite a bit of time in the museum photographing the statues from every conceivable angle, scrutinizing the details and trying to think about the impression that they would have made on ancient viewers. I was particularly struck, for instance by the sense of forward motion of the Isis and the air of divine distance, almost arrogance, of the Artemis.

Statue of Isis with late antique Roman emperor in the background
Statue of Isis with late antique Roman emperor in the background

A series of small – about 1/3 lifesize – statues of girls form the temple of Artemis in the Asklepieion had all been set up by proud families to commemorate their daughters’ initiation in the cult. They all show the girls in similar dress with characteristic pleats gathered in knots on the shoulders of their dresses. They also demonstrate, however, how within this standard form there was room for variation in terms of size, posture and artistic style. Seen as a group these subtle variations gave the statues a rather jumbled impression which made me think about the way that ancient aesthetic sensibilities must have been different to ours – we’d probably aim for greater uniformity between monuments set up together side by side.

There’s no need to resort to the kind of hyperbole that the ancient sophists used in their panegyrics to cities. The remains of ancient Messene speak for themselves and make the city well worth a visit, every bit as much as other large sites in Greece, such as Delphi or Olympia. Mavromati is also a lovely village to stay in with delightful local guestrooms and a great restaurant where you can eat overlooking the archaeological site. There’s a local spring in the village with deliciously refreshing water from which I filled my bottle. The only downside is that most of the locals seem to have guard-dogs which spend half the night barking back and forth to each other like the communication network in 101 Dalmatians. I forgot to bring ear-plugs. Still, the site is open from 8 till 8 so I was able to have a lie-in without missing closing time! (I heard, by the way, from Professor Themelis that Lykosoura is permanently closed at the moment so it really wasn’t my fault for being late that I couldn’t get in there).

I’ll be sorry to leave Messene tomorrow but I’m also looking forward to visiting Corinth again and I’m sure I’ll be back here next year. I wonder what new delights the excavations will have revealed by then…..

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