The Helots and their Spartan Masters

Paul Cartledge, an author of several books on Sparta, referred to the helots as, “the single most important human facet about ancient Sparta.” The helots (the word supposedly derives from the Greek word for capture) were a subjugated people from the areas of Messenia and Laconia. Sometime during the 8th century, a group of invading Dorians, who later became the Spartans, first conquered Laconia. Some of the people of Laconia became helots, but most became perioikoi (“dwellers around” or “neighbors”). The perioikoi must be mentioned because they are in stark contrast to the helots. The perioikoi possessed more rights than the helots: they kept their freedom, but were not Spartan citizens, enjoyed some local autonomy, and practiced ordinary Greek trades that benefited the Spartan economy (perioikoi were allowed to deal in gold and silver whereas the Spartans were not). However, they were required to serve in the Spartan army in their own units commanded by a Spartan general, and they were not allowed to take part in the Spartan government.

After the conquest of Laconia, the Spartans set their eyes on their neighbors in Messenia. The details of the First Messenian War are lost, but tradition claims that it lasted twenty years and ended around 720 B.C. with a Spartan victory. Like the Laconians, some Messenians became perioikoi, but most were forced to become helots. The closest modern day equivalent to helotry would be a sharecropper; the helots were required to work the land on farms, which had been their own, within a certain kleros. Messenia was divided up in to nine-thousand equal kleroi (“allotments”) owned by the state, and each Spartan boy was allocated a share of this land and with it a family of helots. The helots were required to give a portion of their produce to the owner of their kleros; the amount of produce given varies by source: Trytaeus says they gave half their produce while Plutarch fixes the rent at 70 bushels of barley to be accompanied by oil and wine. This unique system freed Spartan women and men from the task of producing or purchasing their own food.

The helots were not like other Greek slaves and seem to be somewhere “between free persons and slaves.” They were neither bought and sold on the market nor were they foreigners like other Greek slaves; the helots were native, free-born Greeks. The helots did not belong to their individual Spartiate landlords to whom they were assigned; rather, all helots remained the property of the Spartan state. Helots were allowed to live on their assigned farm and have families, and outside of their obligation to provide produce, and occasionally serve as military auxiliaries, they had no specific obligation to their masters. In addition, helots were never to be sold abroad. It seems likely that certain pockets of the Messenian helots had a sense of common identity since they lived further away from Sparta proper, were allowed to practice certain religious rituals in common, and were once a part of the independent polis of Messene. The Laconian helots and perioikoi, being closer to Sparta and much more able to be brought into the fold, held less nationalistic tendencies, though that was not always the case. This, however, is not to say that all helots desired the demise of Sparta; it is a much more complicated issue with a lot of gray area that I hope to explain further later in this article.

Around 660B.C., the Spartans suffered a massive defeat by the Argives. The helot population, which possibly outnumbered its Spartan masters seven to one, took this defeat as an opportunity to rebel. This rebellion became known as the Second Messenian War, and, just like the first, little is known about its details. In the end Sparta prevailed, and the surviving Messenian rebels were exiled to Sicily where they gained control of the city of Zancle and renamed it Messene. The Second Messenian War convinced the Spartans that the Messenian helots were to be viewed with more suspicion within Spartan territory, as Aristotle described it, “an enemy constantly sitting in wait of the disaster of the Spartans.” With the helots now being seen as a risk, the Spartans began to incrementally reform their institutions in order to discipline their men for a state of constant war. The freedom that the Spartans derived from the system of helotry would now be aimed solely at military obligations and extraordinary regimentation and discipline, which later on would result in certain brutal tactics against the helot population.

In 464 B.C., an earthquake devastated Sparta and threw the polis in to a state of chaos. The death toll was reported to be as high as 20,000— however that number seems quite high for an area as spread out as Sparta—and destroyed most of the Spartan’s houses. As a result of the earthquake a large portion Messenian helots, some Laconian helots, and two communities of Messenian perioikoi revolted (this is the only mention of perioikoi ever revolting against Sparta). The rebels took refuge at a stronghold on Mount Ithome, where Messenians had gathered to defend themselves during past conflicts. Thucydides remarks that Mount Ithome inspired the Messenians as a place of importance to their history. The Spartans could not dislodge the helots, being inexperienced at siege warfare, from Mount Ithome. The Spartans appealed to its allies for aid, especially Athens who was known for its abilities in siege warfare. The Athenians sent 4,000 hoplites to assist the Spartans; however, relations quickly turned sour. Something about the way the Athenian soldiers conducted themselves panicked the Spartans. Dr. Richard Talbert asserts that, “The Spartans’ sudden fear was that their energetic, freethinking Athenian allies would actually sympathize with the rebel cause and contribute vital revolutionary inspiration to it.” Most of the ancient Greeks considered the enslavement of native-born Greeks to be a taboo, something that was banned in Athens by the reforms of Solon. Alone among the allies, the Athenians were sent home. The rebellion lasted for almost ten years, for in 455 B.C. the helots on Mount Ithome surrendered under the condition that they be permitted to leave the Peloponnese. The Spartans granted this request and added their own condition: that they never come back. The Athenians agreed to settle the released helots in the city of Naupactus, a port city located on a bay on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth. It is this period, after the rebellion of 464, that Plutarch attributes the beginning of harsher treatment of helots.

There is much controversy surrounding how the Spartans treated the helots and the way in which this supposed psychological warfare was carried out. However, much of the information about the treatment of helots derives from later sources, at least during or after the 5th century. This fact is evidence that the brutality exhibited by the Spartans was likely enacted during times of emergency, possibly, as the number of Spartiates began to fall drastically. The population of Spartans was never high to begin with—During the Archaic Period nine-thousand Spartans and in 479B.C. eight-thousand—but after the devastating earthquake in 464 B.C. the Spartan population began to nose dive; a fact that was exacerbated by the approaching war with Athens. Therefore, when discussing the institutions implemented by the Spartans to control the helot population, it is important not to see these institutions, although quite unique, as long-lasting or overarching facets of Sparta’s history. Another thing to keep in mind is that the way in which Spartans treated each other was not all that different from the way they treated helots, especially during the agoge training. Fighting between young Spartans was common and could escalate to the point of death.

The Krypteia (“Secret Police” or “Secret Service”) was a uniquely Spartan practice of controlling its helot population through the use of brutal force and fear. Young Spartans were selected from the agoge and, with only a dagger and basic rations, were ordered to covertly kill helots. The krypteia was a part of the Ephors—five elected officials who supervised the kings and represented Spartan law—yearly deceleration of war against the helots. This formal deceleration of war against the helots protected the Spartans from any religious pollution after killing a helot. The Spartan youths were required to stalk the helots and observe the strongest among them, which they would then be required to kill without being caught; if caught, the Spartan would be beaten for his failure. Plutarch gives a vivid description of the practice: “The magistrates would send those who gave them the best impression of being the most intelligent out into the countryside…by day the young men spread out and found remote spots where they could hide and rest, but by night they came down to the roads and murdered any helots they caught. They also often used to walk through the fields and kill the helots who were in the best shape and condition.” Other opinions assert that the krypteia was more likely a rare practice used only to give young Spartans experience and not to keep down the helots.

Most of the anecdotes about the treatment of helots display the Spartan desire to show the helots their “otherness.” The Spartans may have required the helots to wear dog-skin caps and animal hides as clothing to alienate them from the general population. During Spartan drinking parties, (“syssitia" akin to the Athenian symposia) helots were forced to drink wine unmixed with water, something considered utterly barbaric for a Greek, and to make drunken fools of themselves as an example to the younger Spartans. There is also the probability that public beatings of helots were sanctioned every year. It seems likely that some of these practices were indeed real, although none of our sources were Spartans themselves, which may show a Sparta shrinking in population adapting its tactics in order to deal with a much larger subjugated population. Nevertheless, it is important to note that helots had the opportunity, eventually and although limited, for social advancement.

During the 5th century, Sparta chose to use the populations of helots and perioikoi more often as a fighting force. We know that helots were present at both the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea, there were 35,000 helots accompanying 5,000 Spartiates and 5,000 perioikoi at Plataea. However, we do not hear of helots receiving rewards for their military service until later in the 5th century during Sparta’s war with Athens. The Peloponnesian War was disastrous for both sides involved: Sparta’s already dwindling citizen population was hit hard by the prolonged war, and the Athenians suffered doubly from a catastrophic plague and the disaster that was the Sicilian Campaign. Yet, Sparta had a resource to fall back on, their helots. Sometime during the mid-420’s the Spartan general Brasidas assembled a unique Spartan force. What made it unique was that it included no Spartan citizens; Brasidas recruited 700 helots and various other mercenaries to campaign in Thrace. To the surprise of the Spartans, the army of helots and mercenaries was a total success under Brasidas, and the 700 helots, nicknamed the Brasideioi, were given their freedom. Helots who were freed after serving valiantly were known as Neodamodeis (“new men of the people”). The neodamodeis were freed, but were not Spartan citizens and never would be. Yet, as the war with Athens progressed, we see mentions of neodamodies and helots being used, and, preferred by some Spartan generals, especially on campaigns far from Spartan territory. Soon, however, the number of neodamodeis was so high that the Spartans stopped recruiting new helots to join their ranks. By the year 400, the number of neodamodeis exceeded the number of Spartiates.

The fall in the number of Spartan citizens during and after the Peloponnesian War resulted in a reshaping of the Spartan social system. New classes, like the neodamodeis and the mothakes (the offspring of a Spartan father and helot mother), were rising in number while many Spartan citizens were losing their status as Homoioi (“peers” or “similars”) because they were either proven to be cowards in battle or, the more likely reason, they were no longer able to afford their status. These citizens were referred to as Hypomeiones (“inferiors”) and lost their civil rights. In addition, this demotion in status caused great tension between homoioi and hypomeiones, which led to a few secret coup d’état attempts by disgruntled Spartan inferiors. This social struggle, combined with the great influx of gold into Sparta after the war with Athens and a new overambitious foreign policy, resulted in an eroding of Spartan traditions. However, it was the helots who continued to uphold the old Spartiate military ideals as neodamodeis.

In 370 B.C., an army of 50-70,000 soldiers invaded the Peloponnese. At the head of this army were two Theban generals named Epaminondas and Pelopidas, both longtime friends and lovers who are most famously remembered for leading the elite fighting force known as the Theban Sacred Band, 150 pairs of select hoplites that were also lovers. After entering Spartan territory, they set to the task of severing Sparta’s economic foundation. Epaminondas’ forces ravaged Laconia, a first in Spartan history, freeing some of the Laconian perioikoi, which was met with mixed results. As was stated before, the subjugated people of Laconia were more connected to Sparta than their Messenian counterparts, therefore, when freed, the perioikoi refused to sing to their freedom for fear it would anger the Spartans. However, when Epaminondas entered Messenia he freed the entire region giving citizenship to all Messenian helots. He rebuilt the city of Messene on Mount Ithome with some of the most formidable fortifications in Greece. This event was a rallying cry for all Messenians around Greece to return to their ancient homeland. After more than three centuries of subjugation, in 370 the Messenian helots were a free people.

It is always difficult when dealing with any aspect of Spartan history to know fact from fiction; Sparta, even during the ancient era, was surrounded in mystery and legend. What we do know is that, as with every other aspect of Spartan society, the helots fell in to a gray area; the helots were not always a collection of brutalized slaves, nor were they treated as anything near equal citizens. The helots, however, did fare much better than other slaves around the Greek world. They were allowed to have families, profit from their surplus goods, and were trained by the Spartans in warfare. Over time they were able to prove themselves in battle, and, possibly, improve their social standing. However, for the majority of helots, they remained working on their allotted farms or being used in the city and tried to enjoy whatever life they could. Yet, The Spartans could never have been the first successful professional army without the helots.