BMCR 2005.07.46

Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis

, Aristomenes of Messene : legends of Sparta's nemesis. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2004. xxiv, 244 pages : map ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780954384548. $69.50.

Daniel Ogden (hereafter O.) is the author of a number of books and articles on a range of topics. His self-proclaimed interests are “Greek social history, Greek traditional narratives of various kinds, and magic and ghosts in antiquity.”1 His most recent work, Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis, combines all of these interests. In the introduction, O. asks the question: “why should we care about Aristomenes of Messene?” (xiii) His answer is twofold. First, because the legend of Aristomenes is interesting in its own right, and second, because it reflects the actual voice, however muted, of the Messenian people. O. is certainly correct in saying that Aristomenes is a hero who deserves more of our attention. This book, which deals with every aspect of Aristomenes and his legend, goes a long way toward compensating for that neglect.

The fullest surviving account of the legend of Aristomenes is to be found in book 4 of Pausanias, whose long excursus into the early history of Messenia has been the subject of a great number of studies.2 O. is rightly critical of past scholarship on Messenian history and traditions as being dominated by two fruitless endeavors—the search to discover which parts of Pausanias’ account derive from which ancient sources and the attempts to assign Aristomenes to a particular war or generation (xvii). Aristomenes’ role in Messenian tradition and his character as a hero of folklore are the objects of O.’s study.

Pausanias’ account of the life of Aristomenes can briefly be summarized as follows. A descendant of the former kings of Messenia, Aristomenes won several victories over the Spartans in the Second Messenian War before being defeated in the so-called Battle of the Great Trench, not by the superior forces of the enemy, but because he was betrayed by his ally, Aristocrates, king of the Arcadians, who had been bribed by the Spartans to desert at a key moment. With a small band of followers, Aristomenes withdrew to a fortress on Mount Eira in northern Messenia near the Arcadian border, where for the next eleven years he withstood a Spartan siege and even managed occasional raids into Laconia.3 During this period, Aristomenes was the scourge of the Spartans, defeating them in encounter after encounter. He is said to have celebrated the sacrifice of the hekatomphonia three times, meaning that he had slain 300 men (Paus. 4.19.2-3). After many extraordinary exploits, including three daring escapes from Spartan captivity, Aristomenes was finally forced to abandon Eira, but, forewarned by an oracle, he buried certain secret things on Mount Ithome which, if kept out of enemy hands, would guarantee that the subjugation of Messenia would not last forever. Many of the fugitive Messenians, including Aristomenes’ son Gorgus, sailed to Sicily, while others took refuge in Arcadia. Aristomenes himself went to Rhodes where his youngest daughter married Damagetus, ruler of Ialysus, and it was there that he died. Through his daughter’s marriage, Aristomenes was an ancestor of the Diagorid family which dominated Rhodes until the fourth century BC. In a different version of Aristomenes’ death, mentioned in a number of other ancient sources, Aristomenes is killed by the Spartans, who cut him open and find that he has a hairy heart.

Besides recounting the events of Aristomenes’ life in Book 4, Pausanias also relates how the hero resurfaced to help the Thebans defeat the Spartans at Leuctra, both appearing in person on the battlefield (Paus. 4.32.4) and participating through the use of his shield which had been placed in the care of the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadea (4.32.5-6). During the events surrounding the refounding of Messene (Ithome), the location of the secret things which he had buried was disclosed in dreams to both Epaminondas and the Argive commander Epiteles. Epiteles dug where his dream directed and found a bronze hydria containing the rites of the mysteries at Andania (Paus. 4.26.6-8). At the founding of the city of Messene, Aristomenes was called upon first of the many heroes and deities summoned as guardians of the new city (Paus. 4.27.6) and at some undisclosed time his bones were supposedly brought from Rhodes and buried in the city (Paus. 4.32.3).

Chapter 1, “Pausanias’ Account of the Aristomenes Legend,” contains a very thorough summary of Aristomenes’ role in Book 4. Since O. later examines the various episodes in depth, this is a vital part of the book. What follows, however, is illustrative of a defect of O.’s approach. Since he has earmarked chapter 1 for the exposition of the ancient sources, O. must then include what Pausanias has to say about Aristodemus, hero of the First Messenian War, on the basis of his contention that Aristodemus is a doublet for Aristomenes. He has placed his arguments for this contention, however, in chapter 7, so that when the reader finally gets to that chapter, O. feels it necessary either to repeat much of what he already said, or else simply refer the reader back to chapter 1. Thus, either the reader is faced with repetitive passages or flipping back and forth through the book and searching for the original passage, which is usually not specified by page. Another defect surfaces in the final section of chapter 1 which concludes with an analysis of Auberger’s treatment of Aristomenes as a literary hero of the imperial period.4 It was unclear why O. decided to include this analysis at this point in the book. It seems indicative of a larger tendency to follow trains of thought to their conclusion, whether they are productive or not and whether they are appropriate for that point in his narrative or not. A better place perhaps for this section would have been in chapter 3 which deals with the various facets of Aristomenes as a hero.

Chapter 2, “The Aristomenes Legend as Popular Tradition,” examines the question of how much of the story of Aristomenes is derived from popular tradition and how old that tradition might be. Ultimately, O. concludes that it cannot be proved or disproved that the traditions date to before the 371-369 restoration of Messene, but the large number of doublets and recurring motifs in the Aristomenes tradition suggest to him “a complex and mature popular tradition” (21). The central section of this chapter is a list of these doublets and recurring motifs, such as the ‘halted pursuit’ where Aristomenes is chasing the Spartans when something intervenes to prevent him from catching them, or his capture by ‘unworthy’ opponents and subsequent escape. After this list, one might expect some kind of a concluding analysis of how use of doublets and recurring motifs indicates popular tradition at work, but one would be disappointed. Instead, the chapter ends with an analysis of the ‘Herodotean’ Aristomenes, that is, how admiration of Herodotus shaped Pausanias’ treatment of the Aristomenes’ tradition. Once again there is material that seems unconnected with the main thrust of the chapter and which might have been better placed somewhere else.

Chapter 3, “From Achilles to Aesop; the Nature and Character of Aristomenes,” traces various strands of Aristomenes’ character. It concludes that in addition to receiving cultic honors as a hero, he combines the figure of a martial hero such as Achilles with those of a cunning thinker such as Odysseus and a fox-like trickster such as Aesop, all of which is suitable to his character as a resistance hero. During the course of the chapter, O. also discusses the evidence for Aristomenes’ cult at Messene, the nature of the hekatomphonia, Aristomenes’ reputation as a lover, the question of whether he was bisexual, and the significance of the names of his family members. This was probably the most interesting chapter in the book. O. makes a good case for his argument that Aristomenes combines the features of many traditional heroes.

In chapters 4 through 7, O. begins an extended examination of the symbolism behind many of the stories that adhere to Aristomenes. In chapter 4, “Aristomenes Loses his Shield,” he discusses the recurring motif of the loss of the shield. The shield is lost at the hands of the Dioscuri (Paus. 4.16.4-6) and then again when Aristomenes is thrown into the Caeadas (4.18.4-19). He is said to dedicate it both in the sanctuary of Athena Chalkioikos in Laconia to terrorize the Spartans (4.15.5) and then again in the sanctuary of Trophonius at Lebadea (4.16.7). Pausanias does not explain whether the same shield is involved in all these incidents, and it is at this point that O. begins to play an all too common game. When details of a story do not harmonize, it seems to be an irresistible temptation to imagine the existence of “an ideally simpler story” (59) where they all do. Despite my disagreement with O.’s search for a simple version of events where all these inconsistencies no longer exist, his ultimate conclusion, that Aristomenes’ shield was not just an ordinary piece of armor, seems inescapable. The shield comes and goes in an extraordinary fashion and its final appearance as an object to terrorize the Spartans at Leuctra seems clear evidence that it was believed to be magical. As such, all kinds of stories could be created around it and there is no reason to expect them to harmonize, any more than the details of any myth harmonize. Here, as in many other places, O. seems to be trying to rationalize events. If the story of Aristomenes is truly a popular tradition, then such rationalization seems out of place.5

At the same time, while O. is being too rational about inconsistencies within Pausanias’ narrative, he also has a tendency to see connections which seem tenuous at best. One of these occurs in his analysis of the story of the Dioscuri, who somehow cause Aristomenes to lose his shield after the Battle of the Boar’s Grave. Although admitting that the fact that it takes a seer to see them sitting in a pear tree overlooking the battlefield suggests that they are invisible, O. embarks on an extended argument that they might be imagined to have appeared in the form of a statue pair or even the dokana, aniconic wooden beams which were used to represent the Dioscuri. He follows with a lengthy discussion of dokana and a comparison of this episode with others that involve statues that induce madness, coming to the conclusion that Aristomenes was beset by madness upon seeing the dokana or perhaps a statue pair of the Dioscuri. O. ends the chapter by discussing the symbolism of the eagle which appears on Aristomenes’ shield (Paus. 4.16) and the fox who helps him escape from the Caeadas chasm.

In chapter 5, “Aristomenes In and Out of the Underworld,” O. continues his examination of the symbolism of Aristomenes’ shield and his recurring connection with the underworld through it. One actual and several figurative returns from the dead are described for Aristomenes. The actual one occurs when he returns to lead the Thebans in victory against the Spartans at Leuctra. One figurative return occurs when he escapes from the seemingly certain death of being thrown into the Caeadas, and another when he visits the cavern of Trophonius at Lebadea whose ritual of consulting the oracle closely resembles a katabasis. Certainly as a hero of cult Aristomenes could be expected to rise from his grave upon occasion to help his friends and harm his enemies.

In chapter 6, “Aristomenes and the Mysteries,” O. discusses the incident of Aristomenes’ secreting the bronze hydria containing the secrets of the Andanian mysteries. He finds the recurrence of bronze in Aristomenes’ tradition significant. Aristomenes’ shield is bronze, he hides the secrets of the mysteries in a bronze hydria and he dedicates his shield in the temple of Athena Chalkioikos, ‘Bronze House.’ These connections and O.’s arguments for them seem forced and his parallels unconvincing. O. compares the burial of the bronze hydria to the “burial of the bones of friendly heroes in it for a similar purpose,” as a talisman. I have argued elsewhere,6 however, that the Greeks do not appear to have regarded the bones themselves as a talisman, but simply as the best possible proof that the hero’s powers (which were not necessarily connected to his bones) had been transferred from the previous owners to new ones. His comparison of the finding of the bronze hydria to foundation narratives involving Messenians in Sicily also is unconvincing.

Chapter 7, “Aristomenes, Aristodemus and the Hairy Heart,” develops the idea that Aristodemus, the hero of the First Messenian War, is a doublet for Aristomenes, the hero of the Second. First, there is the similarity in names and the fact that each competes for a prize of valor. Second, there is the story that when cut open Aristomenes was found to have a shaggy heart which is comparable to the story that Aristodemus sliced open his daughter’s womb to show that she was not pregnant. At this point O. embarks on a lengthy examination of other tales of hairy hearts in antiquity and the possibility that the hairy heart is symbolic of Aristomenes’ associations with animals such as the wolf, the fox, or the monkey. Again, the connections between these stories and the supposed symbolism are hard to accept.

In chapter 8, “Aristomenes and History,” O. begins with the admission that it is impossible to know whether Aristomenes was a real person. He then considers the question of when the story of Aristomenes arose and with which war he should be associated. He concludes that there are reasons to believe that the “core of folkloric traditions surrounding Aristomenes” could well date to long before the restoration of Messenia in 371 BC. The evidence is conflicting and ultimately inconclusive. Various elements of his legend may have come from sources in Boeotia, Arcadia, Rhegium, Rhodes and Sparta.

There are three appendices. The first contains a very useful examination of the evidence for Rhianus of Bene, author of the Messeniaka, who Pausanias says was his chief source for information about Aristomenes, and an evaluation of the so-called ‘Rhianus hypothesis,’ which contends that Rhianus was not writing about the Second Messenian War as Pausanias thought, but about a revolt of the Messenian helots that occurred in 490 BC. O. is absolutely correct in saying that the difficulties caused by this hypothesis have been the chief roadblock in the progress of Aristomenes’ studies. It is to be hoped that the Rhianus hypothesis has finally been laid to rest.

The second appendix contains an examination of the ancient sources that mention Aristomenes. There is considerable repetition of information and analysis made in the earlier parts of the book. Finally, the third appendix is a fascinating examination of the afterlife of the Aristomenes tradition in English literature and its probable influence on the story of Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.

There are nuggets of great interest in this book, along with much that fails to convince. O. clearly has anticipated the skepticism he might arouse in the critic. He remarks in the conclusion that “investigations into the symbolism of myth and legends of the sort undertaken here have now achieved a level of acceptance in the Anglo-Saxon world. The remaining critics of such projects may not readily agree with the contentions in Chapters 4-7” (153). Certainly many of the connections made in those chapters seemed unconvincing. However, his analysis of the chronological difficulties involved in early Messenian history and its relation to the figure of Aristomenes and his analysis of the fallacies in the Rhianus hypothesis are of great use. His thorough examination of all aspects of the story of Aristomenes will be invaluable to those of us who are interested in this hero.

I noted only one typographical error, Roberston for Robertson on p. 41 n. 35. Occasionally O. seems to be dozing. On page 62 he talks about the age of Aristomenes being the age when Sparta fell subject to the ‘curse of the Dioscuri.” However, it is clear that it was Messenia that fell subject to the curse. Elsewhere (90 n. 4) he says that “Epaminondas himself left the Peloponnese soon after Leuctra” which gives the impression that Leuctra was in the Peloponnese instead of Boeotia. There are also a great number of discrepancies between the footnotes and the bibliography which a careful editor should have caught. Several works mentioned in the footnotes do not appear in the bibliography, including one by O. himself. Also, throughout most of the book the footnotes refer to Luraghi 2002 while the bibliography contains a Luraghi 2002a and 2002b. Finally, a matter of personal taste perhaps, but I found O.’s practice throughout the book of footnoting all translations with the entire passage in the original Greek or Latin to be unnecessary in the case of the more familiar authors and somewhat tedious.


1. Interests are listed on his web page. A brief bibliography of O.’s works recently reviewed in BMCR includes Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties, London 1999, Greek and Roman Necromancy, Princeton 2001, and Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Sourcebook, New York 2002.

2. The bibliography is so extensive that I make no attempt to include it here.

3. Eleven years is how Pausanias interprets Rhianus’ statement that Eira remained untaken for twenty-two winters and summers.

4. J. Auberger, “Pausanias et les Messéniens: une histoire d’amour!,” REA 94 (1992) 187-97, “Pausanias romancier? Le témoinage du livre IV,” DHA 18.1 (1992) 257-80 and “Pausanias et le livre 4: une leçon pour l’empire?,” Phoenix 54 (2000) 253-81.

5. Sarah Iles Johnston made a not dissimilar criticism of O. in her review of his Greek and Roman Necromancy in BMCR 2002.06.19.

6. “Heroes and Power: The Politics of Bone Transferal,” in Ancient Greek Hero Cult. Proceedings of the Fifth International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, Robin Hägg, ed., Stockholm 1999, 85-98.