ARISTOMENES AND THE FOX
 THE Spartans were eager to fight and to add to their dominions.
So they determined to attack the Messenians, whose country
lay west of Laconia, close to their own borders.
One day, while the Messenians were feasting and offering
sacrifices to their gods, the Spartans sent three youths
disguised as maidens across the borderland. Beneath their
robes the young soldiers carried arms. They stole quietly
in among the Messenians and attacked them in the midst of
But although the Messenians were unarmed they soon captured
the three Spartan lads. They then advanced against the
Spartans, and in the tumult that followed, one of the kings
of Sparta was slain.
The war, which was thus begun in 743 B.C., lasted for many
years, and was known as the First Messenian War.
No great battle was fought until four years had passed.
Even then neither side could claim a victory, but so many
Messenians had fallen that Aristodemus, their chief,
withdrew, with those of his followers who were left, to a
mountain fortress called Ithomé.
Then, as was their custom, when it was difficult to know
what to do next, the Messenians sent to consult the oracle.
The answer filled them with dismay, for the oracle declared
that not until a maiden belonging to one of their ancient
houses was sacrificed to the gods need they hope to conquer
the Spartans. But Aristodemus loved his country so dearly
 that he did not hesitate to sacrifice his own daughter to
When the Spartans heard what the brave chief had done, they
hastened to make peace with the Messenians. They could not
hope to conquer those for whom the gods would now fight.
A few years passed, and then the Spartans determined to
attack the Messenians once again, and to drive them from
Ithomé their mountain fortress.
Again a great battle was fought, and again neither side
could claim the victory. But the king of the Messenians was
killed, and Aristodemus was chosen to rule in his place. In
the fifth year of his reign he defeated the Spartans and
drove them from his dominions.
The victory brought no happiness to the king, for omens of
evil seemed to pursue him.
In the temple a brazen shield fell from the hand of the
statue of Artemis the goddess. The daughter of Aristodemus
appeared to her father and bade him lay aside his armour.
He obeyed, and she then placed on his head a crown of gold
and clad him in a white robe. These things meant that the
death of the king was near.
Aristodemus believed that not only he but his country was
doomed, and deeming that he had sacrificed his daughter in
vain, he slew himself in his despair on her tomb.
For twenty years the war still dragged on, and only then
were the Spartans able to drive the Messenians from Ithomé
and raze the fortress to the ground.
Many of the conquered people fled, while those who remained
were treated more harshly than were the Helots. For they
were compelled to pay as tribute to the Spartans half the
produce of their lands. This was the end of the First
For almost thirty years the conquered people bore their
cruel lot, then in 685 B.C. they rebelled, and the Second
Messenian War was begun.
 Aristomenes, the leader of the rebels, was a bold and daring
foe. To show how little he feared the Spartans, he secretly
crossed the borderland into the enemy's country, and one
night he succeeded in entering the city of Sparta itself.
He made his way to the temple of Athene, and walking in
boldly he hung up his shield beside the statue of the
goddess, with these words tied to it: "Dedicated by
Aristomenes to the goddess from the Spartan spoils."
With a band of his bravest followers, the chief made more
than one successful raid into the heart of the enemy's
country, and plundered two of their cities.
As in the first war, so in this second war, no decisive
victory was gained at first by either side. But legend
tells that Aristomenes did many valiant deeds.
Three times he offered a strange sacrifice to the king of
the gods, which one who had slain in battle a hundred of the foe
was alone permitted to do. The sacrifice was named the
The Spartans, alarmed at the daring of Aristomenes, sent to
consult the oracle at Delphi. They were told to send to the
famous city of Athens for a leader. Now the Spartans did
not wish to do this, for they were not on good terms with
the Athenians. Still, as they dared not disregard the
oracle, they did as they were bid.
The Athenians did not wish to help the Spartans any more
than they wished to ask for help, yet they too knew
they could not ignore the oracle. So they got out of the
difficulty, as they thought, by sending a lame schoolmaster,
named Tyrtaeus. He would not be likely to lead an army far.
But although Tyrtaeus was a lame man, he was also a poet.
His war-songs roused the Spartans, and inspired them to
fight more bravely than ever. When they marched again to
battle they were singing the songs of Tyrtaeus and marching
to victory. Aristomenes was forced to retreat to the
mountains to a fortress called Ira.
 For eleven years the war lingered on. The Spartans often
encamped at the foot of Ira to keep the enemy in check. But
again and again Aristomenes broke out of the fortress, and
with a band of followers crossed the border and laid waste
Laconia. Twice he was taken prisoner and twice he escaped,
but the third time he was captured he was carried in triumph
to the city of Sparta. With fifty of his countrymen he was
flung from Mount Taygetus into a great chasm in the rock
The fifty followers of Aristomenes were killed by the fall,
but Aristomenes was saved by the gods. For, so the legend
tells, an eagle with wings outspread carried him unhurt to
the bottom of the pit.
For three days Aristomenes lay in the cavern surrounded by
the dead bodies of his comrades. To escape seemed
impossible. But when no hope was left in the heart of the
brave man, he noticed something move at the foot of the
cave. At once he roused himself to look more closely at the
moving object; it was a fox, prowling about in search of
In an instant hope was alive in the heart of
Aristomenes. If an animal had got into the cave, it was
possible for him to get out of it.
Weak though he was for want of food, Aristomenes managed to
seize the tail of the fox, and to hold it fast when the
animal tried to escape.
Onward the fox struggled, until it reached a narrow hole in
the rock. Then Aristomenes let his deliverer go, while he
began at once to enlarge the hole.
The next day, to the joy of his countrymen and to the alarm
of his enemies, Aristomenes was again in the Messenian
But there was a traitor in the camp of the Messenians, and
one night, soon after the return of their leader, the
mountain fortress at Ira was betrayed into the hands of the
In the battle that followed, Aristomenes was wounded,
gathering together the bravest of his followers, he made a
desperate charge through the lines of the enemy and escaped.
Some time after he died in Rome, but it is told that two
hundred and fifty years later, he was seen on a battlefield
fighting against the Spartans.
The Second Messenian War ended, as had the first, in the
triumph of the Spartans, who again treated their prisoners
as slaves. In 464 B.C. war again broke out between the
Messenians and Sparta. The Spartans were victorious, and
the conquered people were driven from Peloponnesus. But in
369 B.C. a great Theban leader called Epaminondas restored
freedom to the Messenians, and brought them back again to
their own country.
The history of the Messenian War was written by the poet
Tyrtaeus, whose songs were sung for many years by the
Spartans as they marched to battle.
Some of these songs we can still read for ourselves.