Whoever of all these dancers now plays most delicately, to him this ...
(I am) Nestor’s cup, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks from this cup, him straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.
Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
Feasts for the dogs and birds,
And the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Iliad 1:1 Fagles
These poems were descriptions of an ancient war in an age of heroes, where the gods dealt more directly with men, who were themselves closer to gods. The first poem, the Iliad, speaks of an incident during a war across the sea, when the greatest of the Greeks quarrelled whilst besieging windswept Troy on the far side of the Aegean. The second poem, the Odyssey, speaks of the quest of one of victorious Greek warriors braving perils to return to his home across the wine-dark sea. The two books are the earliest truly European literature and can still stand among the finest works of art ever produced by European civilisation.
|Later depiction of Homer|
Once they'd put aside desire for food and drink, old Nestor the noble charioteer began, at last: "Now's the time, now they've enjoyed their meal, to probe our guests and find out who they are. Strangers — friends, who are you? Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes? Out on a trading spree or roving the waves like pirates, sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives to plunder other men?"
Odyssey: Book 3
Despite being so vital for European cultural history, they may not in fact have even been written in Europe. The language of the poems is a mixture of Aeolic and Ionic (two dialects of Greek), suggesting that the poems may have been written in present day Turkey, or on the islands in the Aegean rather than the mainland. This underpins the fact that the Greeks cities were becoming crowded and that, seeking a better life, or more land, or to trade, to engage in piracy, for simple love of adventure or all of the above reasons, Greeks were leaving mainland Greece and colonising the adjacent lands. The western coast of Asia Minor was full of Greek cities by this point and around the year 733, a group of Corinthian settlers founded the city of Syracuse in Sicily, which would go on to become of pivotal importance in later centuries (and still a major city today).
|Later vase depiction of a scene from the Trojan War|
…the mutual hatred of the Lacedaemonians and Messenians was aroused, and the Lacedaemonians began war, obtaining a pretext which was not only sufficient for them, eager for a quarrel as they were and resolved on war at all costs,
Pausanias: Description of Greece 4.4.4
The Messenians were Achaean Greeks (named for their dialect) while the Spartans were Dorian Greeks, who saw themselves as conquerors of the earlier Achaeans. There were tensions between the two states and sometime around 740 the two states went to war. Both sides would only have been able to field around 5000 soldiers (usually a lot less than that) and both sides would struggle to field armies throughout the year as neither side was fully militarised. Hoplite warfare had not developed fully so the armies would have fought in irregular infantry formations but many elements of the later Greek warfare were already present. Some sources suggest that the Spartans may have developed the beginnings of the phalanx in this war but these sources are later and there is no evidence that this was actually the case.
When the leaders on either side gave the signal, the Messenians charged the Lacedaemonians recklessly like men eager for death in their wrath, each one of them eager to be the first to join battle. The Lacedaemonians also advanced to meet them eagerly, but were careful not to break their ranks.
Pausanias: Description of Greece 4.8.1
The war stretched on for nearly two decades of irregular warfare, with Sparta gaining the upper hand. Both sides appealed to the Oracle of Delphi and both sides were granted relatively ambiguous advice but neither side was fully promised victory. The Messenians fortified Mt Ithome in their territory and when this finally fell to the Spartans around 720 it marked the end of the Messenian state.
|Mt Ithome: Fortified by the Messenians at the end of the war|
Pausanias: Description of Greece 4.13.6
This was a very unusual war for the Greeks. The Spartans had spent decades fighting the war and never wanted to repeat it. So, after the war, they enslaved and permanently conquered the city of Messene, destroying the city and reducing the population to a perpetual underclass of slaves, who were known as helots. This was the true beginning of Sparta as we know it. The warrior class was maintained by the grudging labour of the helots. In turn, because the memory of Messenia never faded, the helots were always a danger to the state. A slave rebellion was always imminent so the Spartan warrior class had to remain ever vigilant. This paranoid military arrangement forced the Spartan state to maintain a permanent warrior class and the fact that their city actually had the land of two large city-states at their disposal meant that the Spartans were the most powerful of the city states. However, because of their continual need to prevent rebellion at home, the Spartans used this power lightly, never sending their armies on campaign for long periods.
|Greek pottery from the period|
As to the wanton punishments which they inflicted on the Messenians, this is what is said in Tyrtaeus' poems:–
Like asses worn by their great burdens, bringing of dire necessity to their masters the half of all the fruits the corn-land bears.
Pausanias: Description of Greece 4.14.4-5
On a rather different note, with the Spartan army on campaign for long periods during the war, a number of illegitimate children were supposedly born to the Spartan women and were viewed as being outside of society. These fatherless men were sent to colonise southern Italy and founded the colony of Taras around 710. This city, afterwards known as Tarentum/Tarento would become famous in its own right in years to come.
Not many bows will be drawn,
nor will slingshots be common,
whenever battle will be joined in the plain;
instead the much-sighing work will belong to the swords,
for the warlike lords of Euboea are experienced in that manner of war.
|Greek pottery from the period|
Muses of Pieria who give glory through song, come hither, tell of Zeus your father and chant his praise. Through him mortal men are famed or un-famed, sung or unsung alike, as great Zeus wills. For easily he makes strong, and easily he brings the strong man low; easily he humbles the proud and raises the obscure, and easily he straightens the crooked and blasts the proud,--Zeus who thunders aloft and has his dwelling most high.
Beginning of Works and Days by Hesiod
|Mt Helikon, where Hesiod was inspired by the Muses|
For never yet have I sailed by ship over the wide sea, but only to Euboea from Aulis where the Achaeans once stayed through much storm when they had gathered a great host from divine Hellas for Troy, the land of fair women. Then I crossed over to Chalcis, to the games of wise Amphidamas where the sons of the great-hearted hero proclaimed and appointed prizes. And there I boast that I gained the victory with a song and carried off a handled tripod which I dedicated to the Muses of Helicon, in the place where they first set me in the way of clear song.
Hesiod: Works and Days
Unlike Homer, Hesiod was almost certainly a real person, and he describes his life in a number of passages in his work. There is a later myth that Homer and Hesiod were in fact contemporaries and that they competed in poetry competitions against each other (supposedly the prize went to Hesiod, whose poem promoted peace rather than war). The venue of the competition was supposedly the city of Chalcis, at the funeral celebrations of Amphidamas, a noble who had fallen in the Lelantine War. Hesiod himself mentions the competition but the tradition that his opponent was Homer is a much later and probably false invention.
A gift of HDR for our lord Hazael, from the plain of Basan, a brow-band for our respectful lord
Inscription from a votive offering found in Samos
Lastly, there is some evidence that the Greeks of this era were involved as mercenaries and traders in the larger empires of the Near East. In 733/732 Damascus was taken by the Assyrians and looted. Certain items that had been looted by Hazael and dedicated in the temples of his god Hadad were taken as loot from the sack of Damascus. Some of these items were dedicated in temples in Eretria and Samos and may have been the parts of the spoil allocated to Greek mercenaries serving in the Assyrian army. It is a tempting supposition but it is of course possible that the items were looted several more times and were dedicated at the Greek temples at a later date. Either way, it is an interesting case study in the movement of people and artefacts during the Greek Archaic Period.
|Item with inscription mentioning Hazael|
Inscription from the Hazael Blinkers found in Eretria