Lyric Messene: Collaborative Ethnogenesis and Historical Narrative

Luke Nathaniel Madson


A byproduct of Theban hegemony and a check against Spartan revival, the new city state of Messenia was simultaneously a return to the past (pre Spartan hegemony) and the creation of something brand new (the wholesale construction of the city of Messene upon the introduction of Theban hegemony). In this sense, the new Messenian polity was an artificial construct, a supposed rebirth of a city state, through the lens of classical rebellions and the ethnic diaspora, resulting in a new and free Messenia (Alcock 1998, Ober 1985, Luraghi 2008). The historical narrative tied to Messenian resurrection (mainly through Pausanias and Diodorus, whereas Xenophon is notably silent on this) is ripe for analysis. Indeed, in recent years, Messenian and Helot identity have witnessed a revival of interest in their own right within the academic community (cf., in particular, Luraghi and Alcock 2003). Through examining the Messenian ethnogenesis (Luraghi 2012) in conjunction with the sociopolitical subtext of the construction of Messene itself, we might better understand how groups “buy in” to one version of “resurgence”—namely, how new political realities look to the past to establish precedent and normalcy in the face of seismic change. The new Messenia was no return of the same, but rather a reinvention, one contingent on new historical circumstance. In this sense, we might look beyond the foundation of Messene to its legacy and notions of sustainability, in that its creation was dependent on Theban support and the leadership of Epaminondas. With the end of Theban hegemony and the ascendancy of Macedon, Messenia, like most of Greece, lost substantial political independence. The adversarial relationship between Sparta and Messenia remained long into the Hellenistic and Roman period. By studying the continuity of this adversarial historical narrative, Messenia offers a unique parallel with resurgent cities in the modern era.

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