The south-western region of the Peloponnese
, bordering in Laconia
to the east, Elis
to the north and the Ionian Sea
to the west and south. This area was a major cultural center already in the Micenean
era, and in its principal city, Pylos
, the largest library of Linear B
writings was found. The city is also mentioned numerous times in the Iliad
and the Odyssey
as a major and important city, and it constitutes the home of the wise and old king Nestor
Messenia was conquered by the Dorians during the Doric invasion of Greece, but we don't know much about the way the conquerers treated the old messenic population in the area. What we do know is that the Messenic state, though rather large and fertile, was rather weak, politically and military-wise, a thing that did not go unnoticed by Messenia's most powerful neighbour, Sparta. As early as the 8th century BC, the Spartans launched one military expedition after another into Messenic territories, and as the economic crisis (that engulfed all of Greece) intensified in Sparta in the 7th century, the militarist polis decided to conquer her weak neighbour.
However, the First Messenic War proved the Messenians far from willing to submit. They used their knowledge of the traitorous Messenic terrain, and its numerous mountains to ambush the advancing Spartan armies as well as to hide and perform acts of what I'll refer to, for the lack of a better word, as guerilla warfare.
But the brave and disorganized attempts of the Messenians proved to be no match for the glorious Spartan army and after several years (we do not know exactly how long) of siege and starvation, Messenia was completely devoured by the Spartans. The Messenians were all turned into heilotes, and their lands were divided between Spartans who didn't have land of their own.
The oppression of the Spartans was extremely cruel in Messenia (as it was, in fact towards all the heilotes), and just 2 decades or so after the occupation of Messenia, the Messenians started a full fledged rebellion against the Spartans. The Messenians received help from Sparta's traditional enemy, Argos, as well as from the tribes of Arcadia and Achaea. This was the Second Messenian War, that appears frequently in the poems of Tyrtaeus, and in which the Messenians almost managed to regain their former independence. However, eventually the Spartan army managed to crush the rebellion of the Messenians.
During the next two centuries the Messenians tried time and time again to rid themselves from the severe and cruel oppression of the Spartans, but to no avail. During the Second Peloponnesian War, the Messenians managed to liberate some of the territories of their countries, with massive support from Athens, but after the surrender of Athens in the war, the Messenians had to surrender as well.
In the 4th century, however as the Third Peloponnesian War raged all over Greece and poleis switched sides day in and day out, Sparta was weakened considerably, and after the Arcadians managed to regain their independence from Sparta, the Messenians launched another rebellion, again with the help of their former supporters, Argos and the Arcadians, as well as aid from non-Messenian heilotes and perioikoi, and this time succeded.
Messenia became a refuge and a favoured escape distination to many heilotes and perioikoi.
The success of the Messenian revolt of the 4th century marks more than anything the disintegration of Sparta, both as a major power in Greece, and as an actual state. The independence of Messenia was a hard blow to Spartan economy, that was retarded compared to that of any other Greek polis, and relied principally on the enslavement of the heilotes, a blow from which the Spartan polis never recovered.