Peloponnese (5): Ancient Messene, Nestor’s Palace, Pylos

We woke up to a clear day in Kalamata and set out for Messene, ancient capital city of the SW Peloponnese, a rare ancient city that was abandoned and not covered with later structures. Founded during the Bronze Age (3000-1000 BC) at the foot of Mt. Ithome, the settlement prospered based on agricultural richness of the region. Around 800 BC, Sparta began conquest of Messene, and after a series of wars, subjugated the area. People went into exile or were made serfs (helots) to Spartan landowners for the next 400 years. At last, in 369 BC, Spartan rule was overthrown and the city of Messene was founded to be the capital of the region.

The walls of Messene are impressive, and are reported to have been built in 85 days by the victors along with exiled Messenians returning from Sicily, North Africa, and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. That’s quite a feat for the time, as the walls encircled the city and Mt. Ithome, more than 5 1/2 miles of stonework and guard towers.

Inside the massive though collapsed Arcadian gate, all the elements of an ancient city of classical Greece are present.

The lintel of the Arcadian Gate, Messene.

The agora at Messene was the town square, shopping precinct, and civic meeting area. At the small amphitheater, or Bouleuterion, a council of citizens met to decide public affairs. Its tile floor is an unusually well-preserved checked pattern. There was also an Asklepion, or healing area, though healing was not the entire focus as it was at Epidaurus.

Messene had a large amphitheater built into an artificial hillside. The stage area included areas for dragging scenery on and off with large wheeled carts.

Messene also had a large stadium surrounded by colonnades, statues, markers, and stele celebrating those who participated in events at the stadium, offerings to patron gods, and efforts to invoke a winning competition. One of the monuments is unique in having a conical roof. The Messene stadium has its starting line in the curved end of the stadium, and the distance was always measured so that the finish line was in the same place–spectators got to see all the exciting parts.

Aristotle showed us a place where athletes sat and whiled away the time playing a game like checkers or tic-tac-toe on a board scratched into a stone step.

By the middle of the second century BC, Rome began to expand, and eventually took control of Greece. In Messene, that meant the addition of Roman villas to the city–the conquest seems to have been more economic than battle-driven. Some of the villas have been excavated, revealing elaborate mosaic floors like the one below.

We enjoyed the completeness of the city of Messene. It was easy to recognize structures and sometimes to distinguish their function. The Bouleterion, amphitheater, and the stadium show that it was large and cosmopolitan city, with people coming from all around to worship, take part in healing ceremonies, trade, or participate in games.

That wasn’t the end of our day, either.

We stopped for lunch in Chora, a town in the hills near Messene. Sitting outside, the view was lovely

In the afternoon, we drove across the hills to the coast to Pylos, another Greek city mentioned by Homer and Pausanias. On the way, we stopped at a large Mycenean (1700-1000 BC) site called Nestor’s Palace. In the Iliad, Nestor is king of Pylos, and though he could have lived at this site, it isn’t certain whose palace it was.

It doesn’t look like much now, but Nestor’s Palace was a grand place in Mycenean times.

Bathing facilities included a row of sinks, and even a bathtub.

There were stores of oil, grain, and perhaps wine, and lots of staff to keep the place going. During the excavations, stacks of dishes were uncovered, and a roomful of broken cups, possibly the result of an earthquake.

Nearby is a large domed tomb, a tholos. The large size suggests that a very grand person was buried inside. The top of the beehive shaped tomb is at least 15 ft high, and represents a lot of work. Though it was looted long ago, the tomb must have had fancy grave goods, perhaps weapons, gold objects, and lots of pottery vessels.

It was lovely to end the day on the coast, looking out over the water. We had dinner along the shore, and ordered a whole fish that the waiter boned at our table.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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