MESSENIA (Gr. Mewfivri or Monrovia), the S.W. district of the Peloponnese, bounded on the E. by Mt Taygetus, on the N. by the river Neda and the Arcadian Mountains, on the S. and W. by the sea. Its area is some 825,000 acres, considerably less than that of Shropshire or Wiltshire. Historically and economically its most important part is the great plain, consisting of two distinct portions, watered by the river Parnisus (mod. Pirnatza) and its affluents. This is the most fertile tract in Greece, and at the present day produces oranges, citrons, almonds, figs, grapes and olives in great abundance and of excellent quality. The plain is bounded on the north by the Nomian Mountains (mod. Tetrasi, 5210 ft.) and their westerly extension, on the west by the mountains of Cyparissia (4000 ft.), a southern continuation of which forms the south-west peninsula of the Morea, attaining its greatest height in Mt Mathia (mod. Lykodimo 3160 ft.). Off the south coast of this peninsula lie the three Oenussae islands and the islet of Theganussa (Venetiko). In spite of its long coast-line, Messenia has no good harbours except the Bay of Pylos (Navarino), and has never played an important part in Greek naval history.
The earliest inhabitants of Messenia are said to^have been Pelasgians and Leleges (qq.ii.), of whom the latter had their capital at Andania. Then came an Aeolo-Minyan immigration, which apparently extended to Messenia, though the Pylos of Nestor almost certainly lay in Triphylia, and not at the site which in historic times bore that name. In the Homeric poems eastern Messenia is represented as under the rule of Menelaus of Sparta, while the western coast is under the Neleids of Pylos, but after Menelaus's death the Messenian frontier was pushed eastwards as far as Taygetus. A body of Dorians under Cresphontes invaded the country from Arcadia, and, taking as their capital Stenyclarus in the northern plain, extended first their suzerainty and then their rule over the whole district. The task apparently proved an easy one, and the Dorians blending with the previous inhabitants produced a single Messenian race with a strong national feeling. But the fertility of the soil, the warm and genial climate, the mingling of races and the absence of opposition, combined to render the Messenians no match for their hardy and warlike neighbours of Sparta. War broke out in consequence, it was said, of the murder of the Spartan king Teleclus by the Messenians which, in spite of the heroism of King Euphaes and his successor Aristodemus (q.v.) ended in the subjection of Messenia to Sparta (p. 720 B.C.). Two generations later the Messenians revolted and under the leadership of Aristomenes (q.v.) kept the Spartans at bay for some seventeen years (648-631 B.C., according to Grote): but the stronghold of Ira (Eira) fell after a siege of eleven years, and those Messenians who did not leave the country were reduced to the condition of helots. The next revolt broke out in 464, when a severe earthquake destroyed Sparta and caused great loss of life; the insurgents defended themselves for some years on the rock-citadel of Ithome, as they had done in the first war; but eventually they had to leave the Peloponnese and were settled by the Athenians at Naupactus in the territory of the Locri Ozolae. After the battle-of Leuctra (371 B.C.) Epaminondas invited the exiled Messenians scattered in Italy, Sicily, Africa, and elsewhere to return to their country: the city of Messene (q.v.) was founded in 369 to be the capital of the country and, like Megalopolis in Arcadia, a powerful check on Sparta. Other towns too were founded or rebuilt at this time, though a great part of the land still remained very sparsely peopled. But though independent Messenia never became really powerful or able to stand without external support. After the fall of the Theban power, to which it had owed its foundation, it became an ally of Philip II. of Macedon and took no part in the battle of Chaeroneia (338 B.C.). Subsequently it joined the Achaean League, and we find Messenian troops fighting along with the Achaeans and Antigonus Doson at SeUasia in 222 B.C. Philip V. sent Demetrius of Pharos to seize Messene, but the attempt failed and cost the life of Demetrius: soon afterwards the Spartan tyrant Nabis succeeded in taking the city, but was forced to retire by the timely arrival of the Philopoemen and the Megalopolitans. A war afterwards broke out with the Achaean League, during which Philopoemen was captured and put to death by the Messenians (183 B.C.), but Lycortas took the city in the following year, and it again joined the Achaean League, though much weakened by the loss of Abia, Thuria and Pherae, which broke loose from it and entered the League as independent members (see ACHAEAN LEAGUE). In 146 B.C. the Messenians, together with the other states of Greece, were brought directly under Roman sway by L. Mummius. For centuries there had been a dispute between Messenia and Sparta about the possession of the Ager Dentheliates on the western slope of Taygetus: after various decisions by Philip of Macedon, Antigonus, Mummius, Caesar, Antony, Augustus and others, the question was settled in A.D. 25 by Tiberius and the Senate in favour of the Messenians (Tac. Ann. iv. 43).
In the middle ages Messenia shared the fortunes of the rest of the Peloponnese. It was overrun by Slavic hordes, who have left their traces in many village names, and was one of the chief battlefields of the various powers Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and Turks who struggled for the possession of the Morea. Striking reminders of these conflicts are afforded by the extant ruins of the medieval strongholds of Kalamata, Coron (anc. A sine, mod. Korone), Modon (Methane) and Pylos. At the present day Messenia forms a department with its capital at Kalamata, and a population numbering (according to the census of 1907), 127,991.
See W. M. Leake, Travels in the Morea (London, 1830), i. 324 scjq. ; E. Curtius, Pelopannesos (Gotha, 1852), ii. 121 sqq.; C. Bursian, Geographic von Griechenland (Leipzig, 1868), ii. 155 sqq. ; E. P. Boblaye, Recherches geographiques sur les mines de la Moree (Paris, 1835), 103 sqq.; Strabo vhi. 358 sqq. ; Pausanias iv., and the commentary in J. G . Frazer, Pausanias's Description of Greece, vol. iii.; and articles by W. Kolbe, Athenische Mitteilungen (1904), 364 sqq., jnd M. N. Tod, Journal of Hellenic Studies, xxv. 32 sqq. Physical features: A. Philippsqn, Der Peloponnes (Berlin, 1892), 340-381. Inscriptions: Inscnptiones graecae, v. ; Le Bas-Foucart, Voyage archeologique: Inscriptions, Nos. 291-326 A; Collitz-Bechtel, Sammlung der griech. Dialektinschriften, iii. 2, Nos. 4637-4692.
(M. N .T.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)