Ancient Messene


The archaeological site of Ancient Messene(Ithome) lies in a fertile valley around the centre of the region, south of Mount Ithome. Ithome was the strongest natural and man-made fortress in Messenia.

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The fortification walls are best preserved on the northwestern side, on either side of the Arcadian Gate. Messene was surrounded by a wall 9km long and 7 to 9m high. It was fortified by 30 square or horseshoe-shaped guard towers with doors giving access to a protected walkway on top of the wall.

The site was first built on in the early Bronze age, and in the 9th-8th c. BC the cult of Zeus Ithomatas was established on the peak of Mount Ithome. Building also began at that time in the lower city. Following the First Messenian War (743-724 BC) the Spartans anexed the area and put a stop to the growth of the town.

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After taking care to make sacrifices and receive omens from the gods, Epaminondas invited construction engineers and artisans from anywhere to join him. In 85 days the combined armies and exiles guided by the engineers and artisans had completed the walled city of Messene over the site of the previous Ithome. The city included within its walls Mount Ithome and enough agricultural land and springs to withstand a siege indefinitely.

The wall had two main gates - the Arcadian Gate and the Laconian Gate (which has not survived). The western Gate, called the Arcadian, is in relatively good condition. It is a monumental construction built of gigantic limestone blocks, circular in shape 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.

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The inner gateway had a magnificent lintel formed from a nineteen foot block. Sections of the walls are among the best-preserved examples of Greek fortifications of their time.

The Messene Amphitheatre, with room for several thousand spectators, is quite unusual: it does not sit in a natural hollow as is usually the case for Greek theatres, but is sited on an artificial hill supported by a massive retaining wall. A series of stepped passageways lead through that wall to the interior. The amphitheatre would have been used for dramatic performances and also for political assemblies.

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A great deal of excavation work has been carried out at Messene in the last few years and a lot more is ongoing. I have been visiting the site at least once or twice a year since 2007. Work has been carried out on the amphitheatre seating area and the proscenium had extensive reconstruction in 2014.

The restoration of the Amphitheatre, has been funded by the 2nd and 3rd Community Support Framework and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, it has taken 20 years and the first concert for 1700 years was held in the Theatre in 2013.

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A little above the theatre lie the foundations of an enormous fountain house, named after the mythical character Arsinoe. Its waters came from the Klepsydra spring in the village of Mavromati above the city.

Excavation of the site began in 1828 by the French who left in 1833, then only exploratory excavation was carried out. The current excavator, Petros Themelis, who received permission to dig from the Council of Athens Archaeological Society in 1986, suggests that systematic excavation of the site was first undertaken by George Oikoumenos of the Athens Archaeological Society in 1895.

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Since then a number of noted archaeologists have made contributions. For the past 29 years, ongoing excavations in Messene by Professor Themelis and his associates have uncovered an elaborate ancient city, complete with theatres, a stadium, breath-taking temples, sanctuaries, water fountains, statues and private residences.

Residence of a dignitary of Roman Messene (1st to 4th century AD) built on the remains of Hellenistic Houses of the 3rd to 1st century BC. It occupies the area of a whole insula of the Hippodamian town plan. It compised a vestibule with a mosaic floor; audience hall with opus setile; niches with marble statues (Artemis, Hermes, Roman Emperor); Atruim; residence quarters; storeroons; dining room; entrance.

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Pausanius (a Greek writer) gave a description of the city, its chief temples and statues, its springs, its market-place and gymnasium, its place of sacrifice, the tomb of the hero Aristomenos and the temple of Zeus Ithomatas on the summit of the acropolis.

The Stadium is amazing and work continues on the columns that range around the outside. The wonderful Saithidai family Heroon/Mausoleum at the far end of the Stadium is now complete. There is also work being carried out on the Gymnasium area above the Stadium.

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Excavations over the years have brought more than 18,000 artefacts to light, including the Asclepeion, a group of buildings originally adorned with more than 100 bronze and stone statues and dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing.

On the shoulder of the mountain are the foundations of a small temple, probably that of Artemis Laphria.

High above Messene on Mount Ithome is the old Voulkano Monastery and also a ruined Acropolis, very little of which can be seen.

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Behind the Amphitheatre are the ruins of buildings where three amazing mosaic floors have been excavated - one is almost intact.

It was good to see, in November, that all the mosaic floors that had been excavated in the last few years have been covered for the winter with sheeting and gravel.

The museum above the site just outside the village is very small but beautifully set out. I was told that they have thousands of artifacts stored in the laboratory underneath the Museum.

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There is a grave monument next to the Asclepieion and a whole series above the stadium in the gymnasium area.

Behind the west stoa of the Gymnasium a funerary monument came to light (K3) including eight cist graves in its interior axially arranged around a small cist. The numerous surviving members of its upper structure suggest that it had the form of a square-shaped chamber (approximately 4.80m. X 4.80m.) with a conical roof which bore on its top a column probably supporting an ex voto. On the geison around the chamber appear the names of the deceased, both of men and women honored with this impressive monument.

This monument has now been reconstructed in 2018, see photograph at the bottom of the page.

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Another Byzantine structure near the theatre is a small basilica church, reduced to its foundations which present a very clear image of the typical ground plan of that common building type. A new excavation on the site, quite near the amphitheatre, shows tiled floors and work is being carried out to excavate the walls.

The other buildings which can be identified are the theatre, the Arsinoe fountain house, the Stadium and Gymnasium, the Sanctuary of Demetra & Dioskouroi, the Asclepieion, the council chamber or Bouleuterion, the Agora and the propylaeum of the market, the Cross Road and the Hierothysion.

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There have been many new excavations carried out in the last few years. There has been ongoing work at the Basillica with more wall uncovered. The Basilica, divided into 3 aisles was entirely built with materials taken from earlier buildings, as indicated by the pavement at the nave and the walls of the apse. It was first established at the end of the 7th century AD and functioned during the Byzantine period being continually repaired and transformed.

During the Frankish period the side aisles were used for burials. Most of the ionic column bases are in place.

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This 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.

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Two standards in the form of stone tables were found in situ in front of its eastern wall. The measuring cavities on every table were used for testing the capacity of the containers used by merchants who were selling dry fruits and grain.

I believe that Messene is one of the most wonderful Archaeological Sites in Greece - certainly the best one that I have seen and the one that is the least known and visited. Also, nothing is "roped off" so there are no restrictions on where you can walk (except for a couple of areas where there are ongoing excavations.

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The cult of Isis and Sarapis moved to Messene from Alexandria during the 2nd century BC. The sanctuary of the Egyptian gods is located close to the amphitheatre. A vaulted underground water crypt in a square U shape 46.5m long and 35.5m wide was an important element of the sacred space. It was symbolic of the Nile which was connected to the cult and the rituals of initiation.

A marble statue of Isis nursing her child Horis was found, as well as others, in the underground crypt.

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The Paliastra was connected to the gymnasium and used as a wrestling hall. It consists of a central courtyard surrounded by Doris stoas and small rooms. It was built in the 3rd century BC and was used until the late Roman period. There are numerous names of Messinian youths inscribed on 2 columns on the north stoa.

The colonnades belong to the Gymnasium which together with the Stadium formed one single architectural unit. The western stoa terminated at a distance of 110m. from its northern end. At this point a doric peristyle court is located which is identified as the palaistra.

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This is a rectangular building measuring 17.5 x 25.8 metres and identified on epigraphic evidence as a Bouleuterion (Council House) of the 4th century BC. The roof of the council hall was supported by 16 large pillars. There are 2 door openings on the south front side of the hall and a porch along the same side.

The architectural design of the building derives from the type of Hypostyle Halls with a cultic character, like the Eleusis Telesterion, or a political one, like the Thersilion of Megalopolis.

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The Doric style stoa on the west side of the Agora (market place) was established in the 3rd century BC, repaired in the 1st century AD and functioned until the end of the 4th. An inscription on one of the architraves refers to the renewal of the wall coating and repairs to the roof. The stoa is connected with a courtyard to the east used as the meat market. The floor of the courtyard was covered with mosaics and a perforated stone was used to tie the animals until they were slaughtered.

Conservators working at the archaeological site are occupied mainly on architectural elements (stone, bricks, mortar, etc.) and mosaic pavements. The control of environmental parameters and regular supervision help maintain the monuments and archaeological objects in an unchanging state.

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A great deal of work has been carried out on the columns that surround the Stadium. Many more columns have been put in place and architraves have been added. The sight is very impressive.

The Stadium and Gymnasium count among the most impressive and well preserved building complexes of the site. The northern horse shoe-shaped end of the Stadium includes 18 wedge-shaped divisions of seats with 18 rows of seats divided by stairways. It is enclosed on its three sides by doric stoas with most of their columns standing in place. The northern colonnade is double, while the eastern and western ones are single.

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Excavations have been ongoing on the Agora and two wonderful hypercausts have been uncovered along from the Arsinoe Fountain as well as stone tables that were used for measuring grain, etc. In 2013, soot and charring was still evident on the stone work of one of the hypercausts.

The Treasury House is a subterranean chamber built of rectangular stone blocks firmly fastened with iron dowels and lead. It was hermetically covered over with two super-imposed rows of elaborately worked bulky stones, except for a rectangular opening in the middle in which a 1.5 tons heavy lid was placed.

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The Roman Baths building complex was a small public bath enclosing hypercausts the floors of which were supported by columns made of circular and rectangular terracotta tiles. It was built in the early 5thC BC and functioned until the 7th. It comprises the following rooms in a row from east to west: a) a praefurnium (area where the fire was set), b) caldarium (sauna hall with heated floor and walls), c) frigidarium (hall with pools), d) trepidarium (hall with warm bath).

If you visit Messene during the summer months, make sure you have water, a hat and good walking shoes. You need a good 2/3 hours to see the whole of the site and there is a very nice self-service cafe inside the site which is somethimes open.

A must is a visit to the taverna called Ithome in the village of Mavromati above the site where the view is amazing.

Opening hours of the Museum and the Archaeological Site of Ancient Messene: 1st November to 31st March: 9:00-16:00 AND 1st April to 31st October: 8:00-20:00 daily

TICKETS: Archaeological Site and Museum - Full: €12 Reduced: €6