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The Helots of Ancient Sparta?

When you think of Sparta, an image will most likely form of hoplites formed in line or on march. Men in gleaming armour, surly eyes and possibly the odd six pack. Spartan society attracted a lot of interest both in the time of the ancient Greeks and later, its mystique cultivated by a lack of anything substantial written by the Spartans about themselves. This led to the so-called ‘Spartan Mirage’, which has been challenged in the modern era.

What can be said with certainty of the Spartans and their society was that it relied heavily on a number of people who were not citizens of the state. Amongst these, and perhaps most numerous, were the helots. Without them Spartan society would crumble but much like the Spartans themselves we know little about them. In this piece guest writer AncientBlogger attempts to draw some basic conclusions on what was known about them along with what may have been invented by later writers.

An Archaic perspective.

Understanding the helots means understanding a lot about the landscape of the lands Sparta oversaw. These were roughly the lower part of the southern Peloponnese. Two regions, Laconia and what became known as Messenia were divided by the Taygetos mountain range running from north to south between them. In the east lies Laconia, the traditional homeland of the Spartans, with the city itself in the Eurotas river valley. On the west of the mountain range was a lush fertile region. It is unclear what this was called prior to the 5th century BC but I’ll stick with Messenia for the sake of practicality.

It was in these regions where the helots worked the lands and we meet one key feature which provide a rare glimpse into a known fact about this society. Helots were wedded to the land which they farmed on behalf of their Spartan masters. Their key function was to supply the goods necessary for a Spartan to continue his membership in the syssitia. This was a mess or club which gave a Spartan the necessary status to be a Spartiate, the elite class in Sparta.

Exactly how these helots came to be in this relationship with the state remains a big question.  Yet, the ancient Greeks were all too happy to speculate. In Messenia later sources such as Ephorus and Antiochus of Syracuse posited that it was the result of an invasion. Sparta had taken the land and thus those who lived there now served them as helots. The events were set in the distant past and form what are now known as the Messenian Wars, though nothing about them is particularly clear. Tyrtaeus, a Spartan poet of the 7th century BC went so far as to note an invasion by Sparta and that those there had become olbiged to it in some regard. Yet the word ‘helot’ was absent in his writings and the exact nature of them nowhere addressed.

The idea that Sparta obtained helots through conquest is perhaps bound more to the convenient than the accurate. The idea that an invading power could reduce a large population to working for it, is in itself doubtful and then we haven’t even thought about the logistics needed. Perhaps though there was a kernel of truth, it could be that the helots were a class of workers who were obliged to the powers of the day. When Sparta invaded it merely replaced the elites there, in a sense the helot just had a new boss, not a new role.

The sourcing of helots through conquest meets a further challenge when we turn our eyes to the east and to Laconia. It was here that helots were employed and this itself requires some consideration. After all this was the Spartan homeland and as such it wasn’t somewhere that Sparta could have invaded. In the 5th century BC Antiochus of Syracuse concluded that the helots of Laconia were originally those who had refused to join Sparta in its invasion of Messenia. In the 4th century BC Ephorus drew up a complex narrative of rebellion in Laconia which fits in with this idea. He even went further and stated that the rebellion had been directly linked to Helos, a location south of Sparta.

There is also an argument which sidesteps conquest and rebellion. It supposes that the helots were simply a class of people common to the time. These were a people who had limited rights and were largely employed in a way which has been linked to the Medieval serf. In time these people found access to political power and so evolved from this indentured state. A good example of this were the tenant farmers tied up in the crisis which Solon attempted to solve. In Athens this event had occurred in the early 6th century BC and the solution was to give those tenant farmer political and legal rights. But what if no such event occurred at Sparta? Perhaps the helot was just this, a type of people who hadn’t been afforded this type of change in their society.

Helot or slave?

A crucial distinction we can add to the earlier observation that they worked the land, was that helots were not a tradeable commodity. Whether they were owned by the state or individual Spartans is debated, but helots couldn’t be traded as such or  sold across Spartan borders.

This characteristic alone dislocates them further from the classification of a standard slave. What’s interesting is that they weren’t the only type of subjegated people who sat outside the standard slave/owner model. Elsewhere in Greece there were groups who resided in an area, were placed in servitude and performed similar roles within their society. The Penestai of Thessaly, the Konipodes near Epidaurus and Mariandynians of Heraclea. Each functioned in a similar manner to the helot. Interestingly the Mariandynians were also expected to support their masters in war and this can also be said of the helots. For example, when Sparta fought alongside other Greek city states against the Persians at Plataea. Herodotus noted that of the 5,000 Spartiates there were helots in support at a ratio of seven to one. That’s 35,000 helots and it’s presumed that many of these would have fought.

By the end of the 5th century BC the requirement for helots to aid Sparta in this capacity led to the creation of the neodamodeis. These were helots who pledged to fight in return for their freedom. Exactly how they worked on the kleroi, the farms belonging to their masters, has received attention with some fascinating results. According to the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project the helot communities in Messene which worked on the kleroi were grouped together (an estimate in one instance estimated a number of four figures). The kleroi here could be up to 70 km (43 miles) west of Sparta and across a mountain range. So how did they keep order?

One suggestion is that there was a hierarchy within these communities, with certain families rewarded in some way for ensuring best behaviour. There’s even a word which has argued as meaning ‘leaders of helots’  – mnoionomoi. It’s nearly impossible to imagine such an existance nowadays, but consider that this setup was something which had always been the case. That you were born into a family who had always worked a particular plot. The idea of freedom in the contexts we understand it to exist in weren’t an option for many in ancient Greece (inside and outside of Sparta). Slavery was a norm and though the helots weren’t slaves their range of options were sadly limited.

The Laconia survey noted that the kleroi communities differed from those in Messene, they were much more scattered. They were also closer to Sparta so perhaps this acted to dissuade any rebellious behaviour. But it didn’t mean helots were against rebellion.

An earthquake and a souring of relations

In 464 BC there was an earthquake which caused widespread damage in Messenia. The local helots rebelled and sought refuge in a fort on Mount Ithome. But it wasn’t just helots, Thucydides mentioned that perioikoi (another Spartan people) had joined in and this may be evidence to support that these people were an additional check on the helots. That they had rebelled has facilitated the helots in some way. Sparta failed to push the helots out of their fortified position on Ithome and soon Athens was on hand, though not to aid the helots and instead help Sparta.

Distrustful that Athens might find sympathy for the helots Sparta dismissed the Athenian force sent to help and this led to a huge diplomatic tension. Relations between Athens and Sparta had been frayed. In the Athenian political sphere Cimon, a leading politician, had been pro-Sparta. Now with this insult he fell from grace and in his place lept the likes of Ephialtes and later on Pericles. These were men far less favourable to Spartans and who made Athens even more democractic.

The revolt lasted several years and the helots only left once they’d accepted a deal with Sparta for them to walk free but never return to Sparta. In the later Peloponnesian War Athens pursued a policy of rallying the helots, for example when it took the island of Sphacteria just off the Spartan coast in 424 BC.

The final days to freedom

By the end of the 5th century Sparta had defeated Athens and was, for a short time, the leading power in Greece. However, Spartan power began to wane. In 371 BC it was defeated by Thebes at Leuctra. The state of the once great military power can be seen not in the outcome, but what Sparta was reduced to offering on the battlefield there. Of the 10,000 men who fought for Sparta most were made up of allies. Only 700 Spartiates were available to fight and on the day 400 of them were killed. Sparta also lost one of its kings, a feat not seen since Thermopylae in 480 BC.

Sparta was now a shadow of its former self and a Theban force prowled around Laconia unchecked. A proclomation was sent out to all helots in order to muster a force, it apparently drew 6,000 volunteers but many more declined. Perhaps those helots who had offered arms did so more with the concerns of what an invading army might do to their lands and families rather than out of any loyalty to the Spartan state. We can only speculate though.

In 369 BC the Theban general, Epaminondas, founded a city in Messenia and called it Messene. It was a rallying point of freedom for the helots. The idea that this was done purely out of altruism may be naïve, Epaminondas well knew that Spartan power had long drawn on the agricultural resource of Messenia. The foundation of Messene now put pay to that ever being an option once more. City states had waxed and waned throughout time. Perhaps Epaminondas realised this and feared what a resurgent Sparta might be capable of. This ensured that the Sparta of a century ago could not occur again.

It’s also at this point where the story of the helot began, or at least many of the writers sought to unravel their history. Thucydides and Herodotus, as well as others in the 5th century, hadn’t been as bothered much by the helot. But now the likes of Ephorus, and the later Pausanias, found the topic of the helot, well, topical. However, they were undermined by the lack of anything substantial – hence Ephorus’ complex tale of rebellion as the source for the helot. Or the idea that helot came from the place name ‘Helos’. It’s also argued that at this point the concept of the Messenian identity was formed and thrust back through time in order to provide structure to the story of the helot.

The helot didn’t completely disappear, they are mentioned when Pyrrhus visited the region and the later version of the helot may have confused things further with the likes of Pausanias perhaps thinking the later version to have been what existed centuries before. What would tidy all this up would have been a source in the Archaic or even early Classical Period which gave more of an explanation.

Without that insight we can merely fall back to a more general position. That the helot was a subjegated class, perhaps sourced partly through Spartan expansion but also belonging to a people who were present in its own lands prior to the invasion of Messenia. By the time of the Classical Period they were a group which was formally understood by Sparta and controlled due to their importance. Later writers tried to establish a central identity for them, though this wasn’t without issue and the helot seemed a puzzle even for them. As with many shapes in antiquity we study the helot not from observing it directly, but the shadow it left. We can only hope that something will be found which can add much needed clarity to this fascinating people.

AncientBlogger studied ancient history at degree and MA level. Since then he has maintained his passion for ancient history through his website and is the creator/host of the Ancient History Hound podcast. He is also on instagram/tiktok as ‘AncientBlogger’.

Further reading.

Cartledge, P. Raising hell? The Helot Mirage – a personal re-view in Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messenia.

Hodkinson, S. New approaches to Classical Sparta

Luraghi, N. The imaginary conquest of the helots in Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messenia.

Van Wees, H. Conquerors and serfs : wars of conquest and forced labour in archaic Greece in Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messenia.

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