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Ancient Messene

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Messene is a significant ancient city in terms of its size, form, and state of preservation, and still has much to offer. It possesses not only sanctuaries and public buildings, but also imposing fortifications, and houses and tombs. It enjoys, amongst other things, the advantage of never having been destroyed or covered by later settlements, and is located on an unspoiled inland site. Its natural setting combines the grandeur of the mountains of Delphi with the low-lying, riverine tranquillity of Olympia, the dominating bare limestone mass of Ithome, the site of the ancient acropolis, with the low fertile valley around the ancient city.

To reach Messene from Athens you have to drive through the highway Corinth - Tripolis - Megalopolis - Kalamata or Corinth - Patras - Pyrgos - Kyparissia - Meligalas. From Olympia the journey to Messene lasts only 1 and 1/2 hr by car (around 75km.)

Ancient Messene was protected at its Northeast from mountain Ithomi, like a natural wall. The rest of the city was surrounded by strong walls about 9,5 km length, which can be admired up to date.

Descending from Mavromati village, we reach the Museum. Passing through the vineyards and the olive fields, we see on the right the theatre of ancient Messene with its spectacular walls, and on the left, the Arsinoi Fountain. Moving on to a narrow path, we see on our left the Market, and after that, the sacred area of Asklipieion.


The buildings of the city of Ancient Messene have the same orientation and follow up the grid which is formed by parallel (orientation EW) and perpendicular (orientation NS) roads. This system of city planning is the so called Hippodameian system named after its original inventor, Hippodamus from Miletus, an architect, geometrician and astronomer of the 5th c. B.C. This plan was pre-determined, strictly geometric in nature, and based on the virtues of the democratic constitution, that is, the principles of isonomy (equality before the law), of isopolity (equal civic rights) and of isomoiria (equal share in landownership); still, it could afford to adapt to the peculiarities of the landscape and the particular climatic conditions of each site so that it conformed smoothly with the natural environment.

It is according to these very principles that Ancient Messene, the new capital of the free and independent Messenia, was built in 369 B.C. by Epameinondas from Thebes. Messene was worshipped as a goddess. She was one of the principal deities of the city together with Zeus Ithomatas and, in the Hellenistic times (3rd-2nd c. B.C.) when the Asklepieion was built, she was worshipped probably together with Asklepios who was also a chthonic deity of fertility, of life and death historically linked to the pre-dorian past of the land of Messene.








The Theatre


The first monument one encounters on the way from the Museum to the archaeological site is the theatre. The theatre was used for large scale assemblies of political character. In this theatre was held the meeting between King Philipp V Macedon and Aratos the Sikyonian in 214B.C, the day following the revolt of the Messenian people. According to the testimony of Livius (39.49.6-12), many Messenians preceded to the theatre of Messene and demanded that the great general of the Achaean League Philopoimen from Megalopolis captured by the Messenians in 183B.C. be transferred there and exposed to common view. Stone blocks belonging to the retaining wall of the theatre seem to have been built into the nearby fountain house Arsinoe during its last phase of constructions in the time of Diocletian; thus the theatre must have been abandoned around that time, that is, in the end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th c. A.D.

The cavea of the theatre sits on an artificial fill supported by a strong semicircular wall. A large part of the western retaining wall of the cavea survives. The wall is interrupted at regular intervals by entrances with pitched arches which led via stairways to the upper corridor; from there, other stairways provided access to the orchestra and also defined the wedge-shaped divisions of seats. The exterior of the retaining wall is built in exactly the same way as the fortification walls and towers of the city. The fort like impression is accentuated by the arched entrances and ascending stairways. These elements and the fact that the retaining wall of the cavea visible andaccessible from the outside make the Theatre of Messene an exceptional building anticipating the theatres and amphitheatres of the Roman period.

Arsinoe Fountain

Traveller Pausanias (4.31.6) informs us that the fountain house of the Agora was named after Arsinoe, the daughter of Leukippos (the mythical king of Messenia) and mother of Asklepios. Pausanias also notes that Arsinoe fountain house received the water from the Klepsydra spring. Arsinoe fountain house includes a cistern of 40m. long, located at a short distance in front of the rear wall. Between the cistern and the rear wall was a facade with ionic half columns. A semicircular exedra situated exactly at the centre of the cistern supported a group of bronze statues. Two more cisterns are located at a slightly lower level and symmetrically on each side of a paved court. The facade of the fountain house during its first phase was screened by a doric colonnade which was removed during the monument´s second phase in the 1st c. A.D.


The third and final phase of restoration and reconstruction activities that took place at the Arsinoe fountain house including the addition of two identical projections at the two ends at the front side, is dated to the years of Diocletian (284-305 A.D.). The Arsinoe fountain house had the same fate as the other secular and sacred buildings of the city of Messene; they were all abandoned c. 360-70 A.D. due to the economic decline of the Roman Empire and the final disintegration which was aggravated by barbaric raids and earthquakes. The eastern section of Arsinoe fountain house remained standing and was used during the Early Christian period, as suggested by additional constructions on the upper cistern and a building, possibly a water-mill, added in front of the fountain house in the first half of the 6th c. A.D. The discovery of a coin of Leo VI (886-912 A.D.) indicates that after a certain period of abandonment the area is inhabited again in the beginning of the 10th c. A.D. This hypothesis is further corroborated by the large quantities of Byzantine pottery dated from the 10th to the 13th c. A.D.

The Agora (market) - Temples of Zeus Soter and Poseidon

Fragments of a balustrade slab of local sandstone faced with poros, with a representation of winged thunderbolt of Zeus set in a lozenge-shaped border are connected with the Agora and the temple of Zeus Soter, whose statue is mentioned by Pausanias (4.31.6). The Doric temple of Zeus Soter has been recently uncovered. A number of scattered Doric architectural members and relief metopes come from the temple of Poseidon mentioned by Pausanias. One of them, dating from the 3rd century B.C, depicts Andromeda tied to a rock and the dragon guarding her. Another, also of the 3rd c. BC, is carved in high relief with a representation of a sea-horse with a huge twisted fishtail, carrying a Triton or a Nereid on its back. The Agora covers a huge area of about 40 acres; it is surrounded by stoas on all its four sides. Only the western part of the North long stoa has been brought to light

The sanctuary of Demeter and the Dioskouroi

To the SW of the Agora a building has been discovered with dimensions of 24 X 24 m. Excavation brought to light the foundations of a cult building of the 4th-3rd century BC, surrounded by annexes. A vast number of terracotta votive plaques and figurines was found beneath the floor of the main building, where they had been thrown along with fragments of pottery and animal bones in hollows in the bedrock. A wide variety of subjects is depicted on them, including funerary banquets , horsemen, seated or standing female or male figures, warriors, and three frontal female figures. Pausanias (4.31.10) mentions a sanctuary of Demeter and statues of the Dioskouroi in Messene which, according to the order that he follows in his description of the monuments, these should be located to the south of the agora near the Asklepieion, where the sanctuary described above is located. The sanctuary of Demeter is also mentioned among the buildings that were to be repaired in the inscription from the Sevasteion of the Tiberan period

The Asklepieion

Pausanias represents the Asklepieion as a museum of art works, mainly statues, rather than the more usual sanatorium for sick patients. It was the most conspicuous site in Messene and the center of the public life of the city, functioning as such alongside the nearby Agora. The temple and altar are closely hedged about by about 140 bases for bronze statues, mainly of political figures, and five exedras, and many other statues were erected along the stoas. The Asklepieion consists of an almost square area measuring 71.91 x 66.67 m., with four internal stoas opening on to the central open-air courtyard. Each of the stoas on the north and south sides had 23 Corinthian columns on the facade, supporting an entablature that consisted of an Ionic architrave and a frieze with relief bull´s heads adorned alternately with floral scrolls and bowls. There were similar stoas on the east and west sides, though these each had 21 columns. All the stoas had a second, inner colonnade with fourteen columns on the north and south sides and thirteen on the east and west. In the east wing of this peristyle courtyard is a complex of three buildings: the small, roofed, theatre-like Ekklesiasterion A, the imposing Propylon B, and the Synedrion or Bouleuterion (Γ) together with the hall of the Archive (Γ-Γ). Along the west wing is a row of rooms or oikoi (K-Σ) which, according to Pausanias´s description, contained statues of the following deities, from south to north: Apollo and the Muses (oikos Ξ), Herakles, Thebes, Epaminondas (oikos N), Fortune (oikos M), Artemis Phosphoros (oikos K).

The north wing of the Asklepieion is framed by a large bipartite building erected on a high podium and accessed by way of a central monumental staircase, the north end of which leads to a propylon with a pedimental facade. The two enormous halls of this structure, which extend either side of the north staircase and are divided in identical fashion into five rooms, have been identified with the Sebasteion or Caesareum of the inscriptions and were devoted to the cults of the goddess Roma (personification of the city) and the emperors. At the east end of the north side, at the level of the stoa, stands the carefully constructed oikos H with a pedestal-cistern for exhibiting statues probably of Asklepios and his sons.

The great Doric temple

The greatest part of the central open area of the Asklepieion is occupied by the imposing temple of Asklepios and its large altar. The temple is doric and peripteral (6x12 columns) with porch (prodomos) and rear porch (opisthodomos) each one with two columns in antis. The exterior of the monument measures 13.67m. χ 27.94m., its original height was approximately 9m. resting on a three course stepped krepis. On the eastern side access is provided to the entrance via a ramp. The cella, the pronaos (or porch), and the opisthodomos (or rear porch) are built of local limestone, while the colonnade is built of coated sand stone. Sand stone is also used for the non visible parts of the foundation. The adyton (the innermost room of a temple which was not to be entered) was screened by a stone parapet and in its far end stood the cult statue of the god. Restoration and renovation activities in the temple and in the surrounding buildings were taking place until Late Antiquity (3rd c. A.D.). In the last decades of the 4th c. A.D. the sanctuary was abandoned. No dedications appropriate to the worship of the healer god Asklepios have been found. This probably confirms the view that at Messene, Asklepios was not prominently a healer god, but a civic deity, a ´Messenian citizen´, in Pausanias´s expression (4.26.7). He had his place in the genealogical tree of the legendary kings of Messene, both before and after the arrival of the Herakleidai in the Peloponnese (Pausanias 4.31.11-12)

The Ekklesiasterion (assembly hall)

It is a small theatre-like construction with its cavea enclosed within a rectangular structure and with a semicircular orchestra. The scene (width: 21m.) possessed a proscenium with three openings in the front and an exit stairway at its eastern side.The cavea, slightly larger than a semicircle, is divided by means of a corridor into an upper and lower part. The better preserved lower part of the cavea comprises eleven rows of seats and is divided into three wedge-shaped divisions of seats by two stairways. Two more ascending stairways can be found at the two ends of the cavea near the parodoi. There are two entrances to the east, on the side of the adjacent ascending road, one leading to the orchestra via a descending stairway, and the other giving directly to the corridor between the upper and lower part of the cavea. It is surrounded by a strong retaining wall with its lower part of its eastern and northern side built with orthostats while its upper part was built in the so called pseudoisodomic curved system common in Priene in Asia Minor. A roofed staircase situated at the NW corner of the retaining wall gave access from the north to the uppermost corridor of the cavea. This elegant theatre hall seems to have been used for assemblies of political nature as well as for theatrical and musical performances in honor of Messene and Asklepius who were worshipped probably side by side in the Asklepieion. The PROPYLON leads from the uphill road at the east of the sanctuary down to the Asklepieion. About halfway along it there is a transverse wall with three doorways, a larger central one flanked by two smaller doorways. The thresholds of these are preserved in situ with the sockets for the bolts and hinges, as are the cuttings used in attaching the wooden lacing. On the east side of the wall there was a porch consisting of four square pillars supporting Ionic columns. The pillars have bases carved with mouldings and are crowned by impost capitals. Between the outer face and the transverse wall with the triple doorway is preserved a floor consisting of large square stone slabs. The porch that opened on to the Asklepieion had two poros Corinthian columns. This west porch was hastily repaired in late antiquity (3rd-4th c. AD). The two dissimilar bases of the Corinthian columns that are preserved in situ come from this later repair.

The Fortification Walls

Ithome was the strongest natural and man-made fortress in Messenia. It controlled the Stenyklaros valley to the north and the Makaria valley to the south. The fortification walls are best preserved on the north- northwestern side, on either side of the Arcadian Gate. Remains of the walls are extant along its entire course (9.5km). Large rectangular limestone blocks were used for its construction quarried on the spot on the rocky body of Mt. Ithome which at places preserves evidence of ancient quarrying activity.

The top of Mt. Ithome was also fortified. The towers are normally square- shaped with the exception of one horse shoe-shaped and a circular on.

The Laconian Gate

The eastern Laconian Gate did not survive. It was destroyed in the 18th century during road construction works necessary for providing access to the lower new Monastery of Voulkano. A relief representing Artemis and the feet of a marble male statue are built into the southeastern corner of the enclosing wall of the new Monastery.

The Arcadian Gate

The western Gate, the so called Arcadian, is preserved in relatively good condition and since the time of the early travelers it has become the symbol of the city depicted repeatedly on engravings. The Arcadian Gate is a monumental construction built of gigantic awe inspiring limestone blocks Its shape is circular with two entrances, a double one in the interior and an external one, the latter being protected on either side by two square-shaped towers. The circular area inside the Gate has two niches, one on each side of the entrance where a Hermaic stele stood. God Hermes appears under his capacity as Propylaios, that is, the protector of Gates. Above the north niche one can read the following inscription: Κoιντος Πλώτιος Ευφημίων επεσκεύασεν Cointus Plotius Euphemion restored (the Gate)

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