In the heroic age Peloponnesus was occupied by tribes of Dorian conquerors. They had no share in the glories of the Heroic age; their name does not occur in the Iliad, and they are only once mentioned in the Odyssey; but they were destined to form in historical times one of the most important elements of the Greek nation. Issuing from their mountain district between Thessaly, Locris and Phocis, they overran the greater part of Peloponnesus, destroyed the ancient Achaean monarchies and expelled or reduced to subjection the original inhabitants of the land, of which they became the undisputed masters. This brief statement contains all that we know for certain respecting this celebrated event, which the ancient writers placed eighty years after the Trojan war (B.C. 1104). The legendary account of the conquest of Peloponnesus ran as follows: - The Dorians were led by the Heraclidae, or descendants of the mighty hero Hercules. Hence this migration is called the Return of the Heraclidae. The children of Hercules had long been fugitives upon the face of the earth. They had made many attempts to regain possession of the dominions in the Peloponnesus, of which their great sire had been deprived by Eurystheus, but hitherto without success. In their last attempt Hyllus, the son of Hercules, had perished in single combat with Echemus of Tegea; and the Heraclidae had become bound by a solemn compact to renounce their enterprise for a hundred years. This period had now expired; and the great-grandsons of Hyllus - Temenus, Cresphontes, and Aristodemus - resolved to make a fresh attempt to recover their birthright. They were assisted in the enterprise by the Dorians. This people espoused their cause in consequence of the aid which Hercules himself had rendered to the Dorian king, AEgimius, when the latter was hard pressed in a contest with the Lapithae. The invaders were warned by an oracle not to enter Peloponnesus by the Isthmus of Corinth, but across the mouth of the Corinthian gulf. The inhabitants of the northern coast of the gulf were favourable to their enterprise. Oxylus, king of the AEtolians, became their guide; and from Naupactus they crossed over to Peloponnesus. A single battle decided the contest. Tisamenus, the son of Orestes, was defeated and retired with a portion of his Achaean subjects to the northern coast of Peloponnesus, then occupied by the Ionians. He expelled the Ionians, and took possession of the country, which continued henceforth to be inhabited by the Achaeans, and to be called after them. The Ionians withdrew to Attica, and the greater part of them afterwards emigrated to Asia Minor.

The Heraclidae and the Dorians now divided between them the dominions of Tisamenus and of the other Achaean princes. The kingdom of Elis was given to Oxylus as a recompense for his services as their guide; and it was agreed that Temenus, Cresphontes, and Eurysthenes and Procles, the infant sons of Aristodemus (who had died at Naupactus), should draw lots for Argos, Sparta, and Messenia. Argos fell to Temenus, Sparta to Eurysthenes and Procles, and Messenia to Cresphontes.

Such are the main features of the legend of the Return of the Heraclidae. In order to make the story more striking and impressive, it compresses into a single epoch events which probably occupied several generations. It is in itself improbable that the brave Achaeans quietly submitted to the Dorian invaders after a momentary struggle. We have, moreover, many indications that such was not the fact, and that it was only gradually and after a long protracted contest that the Dorians became undisputed masters of the greater part of Peloponnesus.

Argos was originally the chief Dorian state in Peloponnesus, but at the time of the first Olympiad its power had been supplanted by that of Sparta. The progress of Sparta from the second to the first place among the states in the peninsula was mainly owing to the military discipline and rigorous training of its citizens. The singular constitution of Sparta was unanimously ascribed by the ancients to the legislator Lycurgus, but there were different stories respecting his date, birth, travels, legislation, and death. His most probable date however is B.C. 776, in which year he is said to have assisted Iphitus in restoring the Olympic games. He was the son of Eunomus, one of the two kings who reigned together in Sparta. On the death of his father, his elder brother, Polydectes, succeeded to the crown, but died soon afterwards, leaving his queen with child. The ambitious woman offered to destroy the child, if Lycurgus would share the throne with her. Lycurgus pretended to consent; but as soon as she had given birth to a son, he presented him in the market-place as the future king of Sparta. The young king's mother took revenge upon Lycurgus by accusing him of entertaining designs against his nephew's life. Hereupon he resolved to withdraw from his native country and to visit foreign lands. He was absent many years, and is said to have employed his time in studying the institutions of other nations, in order to devise a system of laws and regulations which might deliver Sparta from the evils under which it had long been suffering. During his absence the young king had grown up, and assumed the reins of government; but the disorders of the state had meantime become worse than ever, and all parties longed for a termination to their present sufferings. Accordingly the return of Lycurgus was hailed with delight, and he found the people both ready and willing to submit to an entire change in their government and institutions. He now set himself to work to carry his long projected reforms into effect; but before he commenced his arduous task he consulted the Delphian oracle, from which he received strong assurances of divine support. Thus encouraged by the god, he suddenly presented himself in the market-place, surrounded by thirty of the most distinguished Spartans in arms. His reforms were not carried into effect without violent opposition, and in one of the tumults which they excited, his eye is said to have been struck out by a passionate youth. But he finally triumphed over all obstacles, and succeeded in obtaining the submission of all classes in the community to his new constitution. His last act was to sacrifice himself for the welfare of his country. Having obtained from the people a solemn oath to make no alterations in his laws before his return, he quitted Sparta for ever. He set out on a journey to Delphi, where he obtained an oracle from the god, approving of all he had done, and promising prosperity to the Spartans as long as they preserved his laws. Whither he went afterwards, and how and where he died, nobody could tell. He vanished from earth like a god, leaving no traces behind him but his spirit: and his grateful countrymen honoured him with a temple, and worshipped him with annual sacrifices down to the latest times.

The population of Laconia was divided into the three classes of Spartans, Perioeci and Helots.

  I. The SPARTANS were the descendants of the leading Dorian
conquerors. They formed the sovereign power of the state, and
they alone were eligible to honours and public offices. They
lived in Sparta itself and were all subject to the discipline of
Lycurgus. They were divided into three tribes, - the HYLLEIS, the
PAMPHILI, and the DYMANES, - which were not, however, peculiar to
Sparta, but existed in all the Dorian states.
II. The PERIOECI were personally free, but politically subject
to the Spartans. [This word signifies literally DWELLERS AROUND
THE CITY, and was generally used to indicate the inhabitants in
the country districts, who possessed inferior political
privileges to the citizens who lived in the city.] They
possessed no share in the government, and were bound to obey the
commands of the Spartan magistrates. They appear to have been
the descendants of the old Achaean population of the country, and
they were distributed into a hundred townships, which were spread
through the whole of Laconia.
III. The HELOTS were serfs bound to the soil, which they tilled
for the benefit of the Spartan proprietors. Their condition was
very different from that of the ordinary slaves in antiquity, and
more similar to the villanage of the middle ages. They lived in
the rural villages, as the Perioeci did in the towns, cultivating
the lands and paying over the rent to their masters in Sparta,
but enjoying their homes, wives, and families, apart from their
master's personal superintendence. They appear to have been
never sold, and they accompanied the Spartans to the field as
light armed troops. But while their condition was in these
respects superior to that of the ordinary slaves in other parts
of Greece, it was embittered by the fact that they were not
strangers like the latter, but were of the same race and spoke
the same language as their masters, being probably the
descendants of the old inhabitants, who had offered the most
obstinate resistance to the Dorians, and had therefore been
reduced to slavery. As their numbers increased, they became
objects of suspicion to their masters, and were subjected to the
most wanton and oppressive cruelty.

The functions of the Spartan government were distributed among two kings, a senate of thirty members, a popular assembly, and an executive directory of five men called the Ephors.

At the head of the state were the two hereditary kings. The existence of a pair of kings was peculiar to Sparta, and is said to have arisen from the accidental circumstance of Aristodemus having left twin sons, Eurysthenes and Procles. This division of the royal power naturally tended to weaken its influence and to produce jealousies and dissensions between the two kings. The royal power was on the decline during the whole historical period, and the authority of the kings was gradually usurped by the Ephors, who at length obtained the entire control of the government, and reduced the kings to a state of humiliation and dependence.

The Senate, called GERUSIA, or the COUNCIL OF ELDERS, consisted of thirty members, among whom the two kings were included. They were obliged to be upwards of sixty years of age, and they held their office for life. They possessed considerable power and were the only real check upon the authority of the Ephors. They discussed and prepared all measures which were to be brought before the popular assembly, and they had some share in the general administration of the state. But the most important of their functions was, that they were judges in all criminal cases affecting the life of a Spartan citizen.

The Popular Assembly was of little importance, and appears to have been usually summoned only as a matter of form for the election of certain magistrates, for passing laws, and for determining upon peace and war. It would appear that open discussion was not allowed and that the assembly rarely came to a division.

The Ephors were of later origin, and did not exist in the original constitution of Lycurgus. They may be regarded as the representatives of the popular assembly. They were elected annually from the general body of Spartan citizens, and seem to have been originally appointed to protect the interests and liberties of the people against the encroachments of the kings and the senate. They correspond in many respects to the tribunes of the people at Rome. Their functions were at first limited and of small importance; but in the end the whole political power became centred in their hands.

The Spartan government was in reality a close oligarchy, in which the kings and the senate, as well as the people, were alike subject to the irresponsible authority of the five Ephors.

The most important part of the legislation of Lycurgus did not relate to the political constitution of Sparta, but to the discipline and education of the citizens. It was these which gave Sparta her peculiar character, and distinguished her in so striking a manner from all the other states of Greece. The position of the Spartans, surrounded by numerous enemies, whom they held in subjection by the sword alone, compelled them to be a nation of soldiers. Lycurgus determined that they should be nothing else; and the great object of his whole system was to cultivate a martial spirit, and to give them a training which would make them invincible in battle. To accomplish this the education of a Spartan was placed under the control of the state from his earliest boyhood. Every child after birth was exhibited to public view, and, if deemed deformed and weakly, was exposed to perish on Mount Taygetus. At the age of seven he was taken from his mother's care, and handed over to the public classes. He was not only taught gymnastic games and military exercises but he was also subjected to severe bodily discipline, and was compelled to submit to hardships and suffering without repining or complaint. One of the tests to which he was subjected was a cruel scourging at the altar of Artemis (Diana), until his blood gushed forth and covered the altar of the goddess. It was inflicted publicly before the eyes of his parents and in the presence of the whole city; and many Spartan youths were known to have died under the lash without uttering a complaining murmur. No means were neglected to prepare them for the hardships and stratagems of war. They were obliged to wear the same garment winter and summer, and to endure hunger and thirst, heat and cold. They were purposely allowed an insufficient quantity of food, but were permitted to make up the deficiency by hunting in the woods and mountains of Laconia. They were even encouraged to steal whatever they could; but if they were caught in the fact, they were severely punished for their want of dexterity. Plutarch tells us of a boy, who, having stolen a fox, and hid it under his garment, chose rather to let it tear out his very bowels than be detected in the theft.

The literary education of a Spartan youth was of a most restricted kind. He was taught to despise literature as unworthy of a warrior, while the study of eloquence and philosophy, which were cultivated at Athens with such extraordinary success, was regarded at Sparta with contempt. Long speeches were a Spartan's abhorrence, and he was trained to express himself with sententious brevity.

A Spartan was not considered to have reached the full age of manhood till he had completed his thirtieth year. He was then allowed to marry, to take part in the public assembly, and was eligible to the offices of the state. But he still continued under the public discipline, and was not permitted even to reside and take his meals with his wife. It was not till he had reached his sixtieth year that he was released from the public discipline and from military service.

The public mess - called SYSSITIA - is said to have been instituted by Lycurgus to prevent all indulgence of the appetite. Public tables were provided, at which every male citizen was obliged to take his meals. Each table accommodated fifteen persons, who formed a separate mess, into which no new member was admitted, except by the unanimous consent of the whole company. Each sent monthly to the common stock a specified quantity of barley-meal, wine, cheese, and figs and a little money to buy flesh and fish. No distinction of any kind was allowed at these frugal meals. Meat was only eaten occasionally; and one of the principal dishes was black broth. Of what it consisted we do not know. The tyrant Dionysius found it very unpalatable; but, as the cook told him, the broth was nothing without the seasoning of fatigue and hunger.

The Spartan women in their earlier years were subjected to a course of training almost as rigorous as that of the men, and contended with each other in running, wrestling and boxing. At the age of twenty a Spartan woman usually married, and she was no longer subjected to the public discipline. Although she enjoyed little of her husband's society, she was treated by him with deep respect, and was allowed a greater degree of liberty than was tolerated in other Grecian states. Hence she took a lively interest in the welfare and glory of her native land, and was animated by an earnest and lofty spirit of patriotism. The Spartan mother had reason to be proud of herself and of her children. When a woman of another country said to Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, "The Spartan women alone rule the men," she replied, "The Spartan women alone bring forth men." Their husbands and their sons were fired by their sympathy to deeds of heroism. "Return either with your shield, or upon it," was their exhortation to their sons when going to battle.

Lycurgus is said to have divided the land belonging to the Spartans into 9000 equal lots and the remainder of Laconia into 30,000 equal lots, and to have assigned to each Spartan citizen one of the former of these lots, and to each Perioecus one of the latter.

Neither gold nor silver money was allowed in Sparta, and nothing but bars of iron passed in exchange for every commodity. As the Spartans were not permitted to engage in commerce, and all luxury and display in dress, furniture, and food was forbidden, they had very little occasion for a circulating medium, and iron money was found sufficient for their few wants. But this prohibition of the precious metals only made the Spartans more anxious to obtain them; and even in the times of their greatest glory the Spartans were the most venal of the Greeks, and could rarely resist the temptation of a bribe.

The legislation of Lycurgus was followed by important results. It made the Spartans a body of professional soldiers, all trained and well disciplined, at a time when military training and discipline were little known, and almost unpractised in the other states of Greece. The consequence was the rapid growth of the political power of Sparta, and the subjugation of the neighbouring states. At the time of Lycurgus the Spartans held only a small portion of Laconia: they were merely a garrison in the heart of an enemy's country. Their first object was to make themselves masters of Laconia, in which they finally succeeded after a severe struggle. They next turned their arms against the Messenians, Arcadians, and Argives. Of these wars the two waged against Messenia were the most celebrated and the most important. They were both long protracted and obstinately contested. They both ended in the victory of Sparta, and in the subjugation of Messenia. These facts are beyond dispute; but of the details we have no trustworthy narrative.

The FIRST MESSENIAN WAR lasted from B.C. 743 to 724. During the first four years the Lacedaemonians made little progress; but in the fifth a great battle was fought, and although its result was indecisive, the Messenians did not venture to risk another engagement, and retired to the strongly fortified mountain of Ithome. In their distress they sent to consult the oracle at Delphi, and received the appalling answer that the salvation of Messenia required the sacrifice of a virgin of the royal house to the gods of the lower world. Aristodemus, who is the Messenian hero of the first war, slew his own daughter, which so disheartened the Spartans, that they abstained from attacking the Messenians for some years. In the thirteenth year of the war the Spartan king marched against Ithome, and a second great battle was fought, but the result was again indecisive. The Messenian king fell in the action; and Aristodemus, who was chosen king in his place, prosecuted the war with vigour. In the fifth year of his reign a third great battle was fought. This time the Messenians gained a decisive victory, and the Lacedaemonians were driven back into their own territory. They now sent to ask advice of the Delphian oracle, and were promised success upon using stratagem. They therefore had recourse to fraud: and at the same time various prodigies dismayed the bold spirit of Aristodemus. His daughter too appeared to him in a dream, showed him her wounds, and beckoned him away. Seeing that his country was doomed to destruction, Aristodemus slew himself on his daughter's tomb. Shortly afterwards, in the twentieth year of the war, the Messenians abandoned Ithome, which the Lacedaemonians razed to the ground, and the whole country became subject to Sparta. Many of the inhabitants fled into other countries; but those who remained were reduced to the condition of Helots, and were compelled to pay to their masters half of the produce of their lands.

For thirty-nine years the Messenians endured this degrading yoke. At the end of this time they took up arms against their oppressors. The SECOND MESSENIAN WAR lasted from B.C. 685 to 668. Its hero is Aristomenes, whose wonderful exploits form the great subject of this war. It would appear that most of the states in Peloponnesus took part in the struggle. The first battle was fought before the arrival of the allies on either side, and, though it was indecisive, the valour of Aristomenes struck fear into the hearts of the Spartans. To frighten the enemy still more, the hero crossed the frontier, entered Sparta by night, and affixed a shield to the temple of Athena (Minerva), with the inscription, "Dedicated by Aristomenes to the goddess from the Spartan spoils." The Spartans in alarm sent to Delphi for advice. The god bade them apply to Athens for a leader. Fearing to disobey the oracle, but with the view of rendering no real assistance, the Athenians sent Tyrtaeus, a lame man and a schoolmaster. The Spartans received their new leader with due honour; and he was not long in justifying the credit of the oracle. His martial songs roused their fainting courage; and so efficacious were his poems that to them is mainly ascribed the final success of the Spartan arms.

Encouraged by the strains of Tyrtaeus, the Spartans again marched against the Messenians. But they were not at first successful. A great battle was fought at the Boar's Grave in the plain of Stenyclerus, in which they were defeated with great loss. In the third year of the war another great battle was fought, in which the Messenians suffered a signal defeat. So greet was their loss, that Aristomenes no longer ventured to meet the Spartans in the open field. Following the example of the Messenian leaders in the former war, he retired to the mountain fortress of Ira. The Spartans encamped at the foot of the mountain; but Aristomenes frequently sallied from the fortress, and ravaged the lands of Laconia with fire and sword. It is unnecessary to relate all the wonderful exploits of this hero in his various incursions. Thrice was he taken prisoner; on two occasions he burst his bonds, but on the third he was carried to Sparta, and thrown with his fifty companions into a deep pit, called Ceadas. His comrades were all killed by the fall; but Aristomenes reached the bottom unhurt. He saw, however, no means of escape, and had resigned himself to death; but on the third day perceiving a fox creeping among the bodies, he grasped its tail, and, following the animal as it struggled to escape, discovered an opening in the rock, and on the next day was at Ira to the surprise alike of friends and foes. But his single prowess was not sufficient to avert the ruin of his country. One night the Spartans surprised Ira, while Aristomenes was disabled by a wound; but he collected the bravest of his followers, and forced his way through the enemy. Many of the Messenians went to Rhegium, in Italy, under the sons of Aristomenes, but the hero himself finished his days in Rhodes.

The second Messenian war was terminated by the complete subjugation of the Messenians, who again became the serfs of their conquerors. In this condition they remained till the restoration of their independence by Epaminondas in the year 369 B.C. During the whole of the intervening period the Messenians disappear from history. The country called Messenia in the map became a portion of Laconia, which thus extended across the south of Pelponnesus from the eastern to the western sea.