Aristomenes, of Andania, the semi-legendary hero of the second Messenian war. He was a member of the Aepytid family, the son of Nicomedes (or, according to another version, of Pyrrhus) and Nicoteleia, and took a prominent part in stirring up the revolt against Sparta and securing the co-operation of Argos and Arcadia. He showed such heroism in the first encounter, at Derae, that the crown was offered him, but he would accept only the title of commander-in-chief. His daring is illustrated by the story that he came by night to the temple of Athene "of the Brazen House" at Sparta, and there set up his shield with the inscription, "Dedicated to the goddess by Aristomenes from the Spartans." His prowess contributed largely to the Messenian victory over the Spartan and Corinthian forces at "The Boar's Barrow" in the plain of Stenyclarus, but in the following year the treachery of the Arcadian king Aristocrates caused the Messenians to suffer a crushing defeat at "The Great Trench." Aristomenes and the survivors retired to the mountain stronghold of Eira, where they defied the Spartans for eleven years. On one of his raids he and fifty of his companions were captured and thrown into the Caeadas, the chasm on Mt. Taygetus into which criminals were cast. Aristomenes alone was saved, and soon reappeared at Eira: legend told how he was upheld in his fall by an eagle and escaped by grasping the tail of a fox, which led him to the hole by which it had entered. On another occasion he was captured during a truce by some Cretan auxiliaries of the Spartans, and was released only by the devotion of a Messenian girl who afterwards became his daughter-in-law. At length Eira was betrayed to the Spartans (668 B.C. according to Pausanias), and after a heroic resistance Aristomenes and his followers had to evacuate Messenia and seek a temporary refuge with their Arcadian allies. A desperate plan to seize Sparta itself was foiled by Aristocrates, who paid with his life for his treachery. Aristomenes retired to Ialysus in Rhodes, where Damagetus, his son-in-law, was king, and died there while planning a journey to Sardis and Ecbatana to seek aid from the Lydian and Median sovereigns (Pausanias iv. 14-24). Another tradition represents him as captured and slain by the Spartans during the war (Pliny, Nat. Hist. xi. 187; Val. Maximus i. 8, 15; Steph. Byzant. s.v. 'AvSavia). Though there seems to be no conclusive reason for doubting the existence of Aristomenes, his history, as related by Pausanias, following mainly the Messeniaca of the Cretan epic poet Rhianus (about 230 B.C.), is evidently largely interwoven with fictions. These probably arose after the foundation of Messene in 369 B.C. Aristomenes' statue was set up in the stadium there: his bones were fetched from Rhodes and placed in a tomb surmounted by a column (Paus. iv. 32.3, 6); and more than five centuries later we still find heroic honours paid to him, and his exploits a popular subject of song (ib. iv. 14.7; 16.6).
For further details see Pausanias iv.; Polyaenus ii. 31; G. Grote, History of Greece, pt. ii. chap. vii.; M. Duncker, History of Greece, Eng. trans., book iv. chap. viii.; A. Holm, History of Greece, Eng. trans., vol. i. chap. xvi. (M. N. T.)
Besides Pausanias' extended writings on Aristomenes, the list of other ancient authors by whom Aristomenes is mentioned is not a long one:
Didorus Siculus 8.12: 15.66.3f
Valerius Maximus 1.8 ext.15
Pliny the Elder N.H.11.185
Plutarch. Agis 21.2; Romulus 25.3; Quaest. Conviv. 4.1 [660F]; De Malign. Her 11[856F]
Dio Chrysostom Or. 35.3
Clement of Alexandria; Protrept.42[36 Potter] (a passage which is repeated in Eusebius Praepar. Evang. 4.16)
Stephanus of Byzantium, s.v. "Ανδανια"
All of these authors are late, and most of the references are brief. But there is no sound reason to doubt that Aristomenes was a historical person. Indeed, it was not only in the pages of the historians that his memory was preserved.
Other references mentioned as being sited include:
His shield used to inspire terror towards the Spartans during Epaminondas' campaign against them (4.32.5f).
His shield sited by Pausanias himself at the shrine of Trophonius in Lebadea (4.16.5, 7; 9.39.14)
The tomb of Aristomenes and a statue of him sited in Messene (4.32.3, 6)
He had been honored with the cult of hero at religious ceremonies connected with the founding of the city of Messene by Epaminondas in 369 B.C. and that he was invoked with greater enthusiasm that any of the other national heroes (4.27.6) and that these honors were still being preformed down to Pausanias' own day (4.14.7; 4.32.3).
While it is possible that a Aristomenes was a creation of somebody's imagination, it seems very unlikely that this is so.
Essentially, the question that needs to be asked is, not if he existed but when did he exist? This question has been in doubt from the 3rd century B.C., as his legacy seems to have turned to legendary status even at that stage. There are two main time zones, both zoomed in on the two major outbreaks between Messenia and Sparta. The times are either during the First Messenian War (c750 B.C) or the Second Messenia War (c635 B.C).
Today's historians and ancient writters cannot agree with many arguments for and against (this web site isn't long enough to write down all the pro's and con's for each agrument, and indeed many books have been written on the subject). All we can give you is what we believe based on our knowledge and beliefs, it is up to the reader to make up their own minds through further readings.
Aristomenes existed during the Second Messenia War, his importance isn't only because of the resistance he put up against the Spartans, but the fact that he united Messenian under one banner to resist Spartan supremecy. The two wars are seperate in style and scope. The First Messenian War was a boarder dispute between two regions in the Peloponnese, Messenia would raid Lacedaemonia, the Spartan's would counter raid inside Messenia, tit for tac as the stakes grew higher, until ultimatly the Lacedaemonians lead by Sparta fractured Messenia enough to reduce them to surfs. Several generations later Messenia united a people who had predominatley been nothing more than surfs, the military was not their expertise, knowledge of war had been lost to them, indeed the Spartan's would through the krypteria and other meausures kill any Messenian who had strength, size and ability to be a military man. Yearly, they were chopped down to be kept as surfs and deprived of men of merit who might rise up one day to challenge them. The Messenian's needed 'a hero' and in Aristomenes they got one, he united the Messenian tribes together against a smaller but better militarily city-state in Sparta. The Messenian's outnumbered the Spartan's by what some say was 16 to 1, but Spartan men were trained to be part of the military from a young age, the stage was set for a mega struggle between two powerful city-states.
So, Aristomenes united Messenia, resisted the hegemony of Sparta, which was seen at that time to be the greatest city-state in Greece, and thus instilled 'fear' in Lacedaemonia, trained the Messenian men into the art of war, inspired the national spirit in his men. All these points work more favourable to a nation already under the hegemony of another city-state. For instance, the Spartan's would seem to 'fear' less a man who lost his rule to Sparta, defending and loosing his rule to Sparta, but they would 'fear' more greatly a man who regained his rule and broke the hegemony of Sparta over his kingdom and awoke the sleeping giant right next to the Lacedaemonians.
In short he seems more likely to be a man that 'stirred up a revolt' rather than a man who 'instigated a war' against Sparta.