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The helots (Classical Greek: / Heílôtes) were an unfree population group that formed the main population of Laconiamarker and the whole of Messeniamarker (areas of Spartamarker). Their exact status was already disputed in antiquity: according to Critias, they were "especially slaves" whereas to Pollux, they occupied a status "between free men and slaves". Tied to the land, they worked in agriculture as a majority and economically supported the Spartanmarker citizens. They were ritually mistreated, humiliated and even slaughtered: every autumn, during the crypteia, they could be killed by a Spartan citizen without fear of repercussion.


Several theories exist regarding the origin of the name "helots." According to Hellanicus, the word relates to the village of Helosmarker, in the south of Sparta. Pausanias thus states, "Its inhabitants became the first slaves of the Lacedaemonian state, and were the first to be called helots". This explanation is however not very plausible in etymological terms.

Linguist have associated the word with the root / wel, as in / halískomai, "to be captured, to be made prisoner." In fact, some ancient authors did not consider the term ethnic, but rather an indication of servitude: Antiochus of Syracuse writes: "those of the Lacedaemonians who did not take part in the expedition were adjudged slaves and were named helots", while Theopompus (fragment 122), cited by Athenaeus (VI, 416c), states, "...and the one nation called their slaves helots and the others called them penestae...."

"In all of these texts, the christening of the group as helots is the central and symbolic moment of their reduction to serfhood. By this name they are thus institutionally distinguished from the anonymous douloi (slaves)."

It is certain that one aspect of helotism was the element of conquest; thus Messenians, who were conquered in the Messenian Wars of the 8th century BC, become synonymous in Herodotus with helots.

The situation is less clear in the case of the earliest helots, who, according to Theopompus, were descended from the initial Achaeans, who had been conquered by the Dorians. But then not all Achaeans were reduced to helotism: the village of Amyklesmarker, home of the Hyacinthia festival, enjoyed special status, as did others.

Contemporary authors propose alternative theories: according to Antiochus of Syracuse, helots were the Lacedaemonians who did not participate in the Messenian Wars; for Ephorus of Cyme, they were the perioeci ("dwellers in surrounding communities") from Helos, reduced to slavery after a failed revolt. Modern historiography favours the hypothesis of Antiochus of Syracuse.



Helots and klēroi

Helots were assigned to citizens to carry out domestic work or to work on their klēroi. Various sources mention such servants accompanying this or that Spartan. Plutarch has Timaia, the wife of King Agis II, "being herself forward enough to whisper among her helot maid-servants" that the child she was expecting had been fathered by Alcibiades, and not her husband, indicating a certain level of trust. According to some authors, in the fourth century BC, citizens also used chattel-slaves for domestic purposes. However, this is disputed by others. Some helots were also servants to young Spartans during their agoge, the Spartan education; these were the μόθωνες / móthōnes (see below). Finally, helots, like slaves, could be artisans or tradesmen.

They were required to hand over a predetermined portion of their harvest ( / apophorá), with the helots keeping the surplus. According to Plutarch, this portion was 70 medimnoi of barley for a man, 12 for a woman, as well as a quantity of oil and wine corresponding to an amount reasonable for the needs of a warrior and his family, or a widow, respectively. The existence of the apophorá is contested by Tyrtaeus: "Secondly, though no fixed tribute was imposed on them, they used to bring the half of all the produce of their fields to Sparta.... Like asses worn by their great burdens, bringing of dire necessity to their masters the half of all the fruits the corn-land bears." Pausanias is describing the period immediately after the first Messenian War, when conditions were probably more severe.

Having paid their tribute, the helots could often live rather well; the lands of Laconiamarker and Messenia were very fertile, and often permitted two crops per year. It seems they could enjoy some private property: in 425 BC, some helots had their own boats. A certain amount of wealth was achievable: in 223 BC, 6,000 helots purchased their freedom for 500 drachmas each, a considerable sum at the time.


Helots lived in family units and could, at least de facto, contract unions among themselves. Since helots were much less susceptible than other slaves in Greek antiquity to having their family units dispersed, they could reproduce themselves, or at least maintain their number. Probably not insignificant to begin with, their population increased in spite of the crypteia, other massacres of helots (see below), and losses in war. Simultaneously, the population of Spartiate citizens declined.

The absence of a formal census prevents an accurate assessment of the helot population, but estimates are possible. According to Herodotus, helots were seven times as numerous as Spartans during the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. At the time of the conspiracy of Cinadon, the beginning of the fourth century BC, only forty Peers, or citizens, could be counted in a crowd of 4000 at the agora (Xenophon, Hellenica, III, 3, 5). The total population of helots at that time, including women, is estimated as 170,000 – 224,000.

Since the helot population was not technically chattel, their population was reliant on native birth rates, as opposed to prisoners of war or purchased slaves. Helots were encouraged by the Spartans to impose a eugenics doctrine similar to that which they, themselves, practiced. This would, according to Greek beliefs of the period, ensure not only genetic but also acquired favourable characteristics be passed along to successive generations. Tempering these selective factors was the crypteia, during which the strongest and fittest helots were the primary targets of the kryptes; to select soft targets would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. This theoretically removed the strongest and most able potential rebels while keeping the general populace fit and efficient.

What is more, the Spartans used helot women to satisfy the state's human personnel needs: the 'bastard' (nothoi) born of Spartan fathers and helot women held an intermediary rank in Lacedaemonian society (cf. mothakes and mothones below) and swelled the ranks of the citizen army. It is difficult to determine whether these births were the results of voluntary liaisons (at least on the part of the father) or part of a formal state program. Girls born of such unions, serving no military purpose, were likely abandoned at birth and left to die.


According to Myron of Priene, cited by Athenaeus, the emancipation of helots was "common" ( / pollákis). The text suggests that this is normally associated with completion of military service. The first explicit reference to this practice in regards the helots occurs in Thucydides (IV, 26, 5). This is on the occasion of the events at Sphacteria, when Sparta had to relieve their hoplites, who were besieged on the island by the Athenians:
"The fact was, that the Lacedaemonians had made advertisement for volunteers to carry into the island ground corn, wine, cheese, and any other food useful in a siege; high prices being offered, and freedom promised to any of the helots who should succeed in doing so".
Thucydides reports that the request met with some success, and the helots got supplies through to the besieged island. He does not mention whether or not the Spartans kept their word; it is possible that some of the helots later executed were part of the Sphacterian volunteers.

The second such call came during the Thebanmarker invasion of Laconia. Xenophon in Hellenica (VI, 5, 28) states that the authorities agreed to emancipate all the helots who volunteered. He then estimates that 6,000 heeded the call, leading to some embarrassment for the Spartans

All the same, in 424 BC, the 700 helots who served Brasidas in Chalcidicemarker were emancipated, and they were henceforth known as the "Brasidians". It was also possible to purchase freedom, or achieve it by undergoing the traditional Spartan education. Generally, emancipated helots were referred to as "neodamodes" ( / neodamōdeis): those who rejoined the / dễmos (Deme) of the Perioeci.

Moses Finley underscores that the fact helots could serve as hoplites constituted a grave flaw in the system. In effect, the hoplite system was a strict method of training to ensure that discipline was maintained in the phalanx. The Spartans gained considerable reputation as hoplites, due to tactical capabilities developed through constant training. In addition to this military aspect, to be a hoplite was a key characteristic of Greek citizenship.To introduce helots to this system thus led to inevitable social conflict.

A special case: mothakes and mothones

Phylarchus mentions a class of men that were at the same time free and non-citizens: the / mothakes, who had undergone the agoge, the Spartan educational system. Classical historiography recognizes that the helots comprised a large portion of these mothakes. Nevertheless, this category poses a number of problems, firstly that of vocabulary.

The classical authors used a number of terms which appear to evoke similar concepts:
  • / mothakes: a connotation of freedom, Phylarchos affirmed that they were free (eleutheroi), Claudius Aelianus (Varia Historia, 12, 43) that they could be citizens;
  • / mothōnes: a connotation of servility, the word designates slaves born to the home;
  • / trophimoi: pupils, adopted children, whom Plutarch classified among the xenoi (strangers);
  • / suntrophoi: literally, "they who were raised with", that is to say, milk-siblings, given by Phylarchus as equivalent to mothakes;
  • / paratrephonoi : literally, "those who were fed near you", signification rather different from the preceding (this word also applied to domestic animals).

The situation is somewhat complicated by a gloss of Hesychios of Alexandria which attests that mothakes were slave children ( / doũloi) raised at the same time as the children of citizens. Philologists resolve this quandary in two ways:

  • they insist on reading / mothãnes, as a hapax for (Arnold J. Toynbee);
  • the hypothesis that douloi has been interpolated by a copyist who confounded mothakes and mothônes.

In any case, the conclusion needs to be treated carefully:

  • the mothônes were young servants charged with domestic tasks for young Spartans during their education (Aristotle, I, 633c), they remained slaves on reaching adulthood;
  • the mothakes were an independent freeborn group of helots.

Treatment by Spartans

At least from the classical era, the number of Spartans was very small compared to that of the Helots. In a celebrated passage, Thucydides stresses that "most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security against the Helots". Aristotle compares them to "an enemy constantly sitting in wait of the disaster of the Spartans". Thus, fear seems to be an important factor governing the relations between Spartans and Helots. According to tradition, the Equals always carried their spears, undid the straps of their bucklers only when at home lest the Helots seize them, and locked themselves in their homes. They also took active measures, subjecting them to what Theopompus describes as "an altogether cruel and bitter condition".

According to Myron of Priene, an anti-Spartan historian of the middle 3rd century BC:

Plutarch also states that Spartans treated the Helots "harshly and cruelly": they compelled them to drink pure wine (which was considered dangerous - wine usually being cut with water) "…and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs…" during syssitia (obligatory banquets) However, he notes that this rough treatment was inflicted only relatively late, after the 465 BC earthquake.

Some modern scholars advocate a reevaluation of ancient evidence about Helots. It has been argued that the kunē was not actually made of dogskin, and that the dipthera (literally, "leather") was the general attire of the poor peasant class. The obligation of masters to prevent fatness amongst their helots is deemed implausible: as the Homoioi lived separately, dietary intake could not be rigorously controlled; as manual labour was an important function of the Helots (for example, being used to carry their master's arms and armour on campaign), it would make sense to keep them well nourished. Besides, the rations mentioned by Thucydides for the Helots on Sphacteria are close to normal. Myron's evidence is interpreted as an extrapolation from actions performed on symbolic representatives. In short, Grote writes that "the various anecdotes which are told respecting [Helot] treatment at Sparta betoken less of cruelty than of ostentatious scorn". He has been followed recently by J. Ducat (1974 and 1990), who describes Spartan treatment of the Helots as a kind of ideological warfare, designed to condition the Helots to think of themselves as inferiors. This strategy seems to have been successful at least for Laconian Helots: when the Thebans ordered a group of Laconian helot prisoners to recite the verses of Alcman and Terpander (national poets of Thebes), they refused on the grounds that it would displease their masters.

Other modern scholars consider than, "although the details may be fanciful, [Myron's evidence] does reflect accurately the general Spartiate attitude towards helots". It has also been stressed that contempt alone could hardly explain the organized murder of Helots mentioned by several ancient sources. According to Aristotle, the ephors annually declared war on the Helots, thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without fear of religious pollution. This task was apparently given to the kryptes, graduates of the difficult agoge who took part in the crypteia. This lack of judicial protection is confirmed by Myron of Priene, who mentions killing as a standard mode of regulation of the Helot population. Thus, helots were massacred in 425 BC in a carefully staged event:

Thus Paul Cartledge claims that "the history of Sparta (…) is fundamentally the history of the class struggle between the Spartans and the Helots".

Helot revolts

In spite of the brutality of their existence, helots seldom revolted. The few citations which have been associated with helot revolt are discussed below.

The Pausanias plot

The first helot attempt at revolt which is historically reported is that provoked by general Pausanias in the 5th century BC. Thucydides reports:
"Besides, they were informed that he was even intriguing with the helots; and such indeed was the fact, for he promised them freedom and citizenship if they would join him in insurrection, and would help him to carry out his plans to the end."
These intrigues do not however lead to a helot uprising; Thucydides indeed implies that Pausanias was turned in by the helots (I, 132, 5 - ...the evidence even of the helots themselves.) Perhaps the promises made by Pausanias were too generous to be believed by the helots; not even Brasidas, when he emancipated his helot volunteers, offered full citizenship.

Massacre at Taenarus

The massacre of Cape Taenarusmarker, at the tip of Taygetusmarker, is also reported by Thucydides:
"The Lacedaemonians had once raised up some helot suppliants from the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus, led them away and slain them; for which they believe the great earthquake at Sparta to have been a retribution. "

This affair, recalled by the Athenians in responding to a Spartan request to exile the Alcmaeonidae Pericles, is not dated. We know only that it happened before the disastrous earthquake of 464 BC. Thucydides here is the only one to implicate the helots: Pausanias speaks rather about Lacedaemonians who had been condemned to death. Nor does the text allow us to conclude that this was a failed uprising of helots, only that there was an attempt at escape. Additionally, a helot revolt in Laconia is unlikely, and Messenians would not likely have taken refuge at Cape Taenarus.


The uprising coincident with the earthquake of 464 BCmarker is soundly attested to, although Greek historians do not agree on the interpretation of this event.

According to Thucydides, the helots and perioeci of Thouria and Aithaia took advantage of the earthquake to revolt and establish a position on Ithomemarker. He adds that most of the rebels were of Messenian ancestry—confirming the appeal of Ithome as a historical place of Messenian resistance—and focuses attention on the perioeci of Thouria, a city on the Messianian coast. Conversely, we can deduce that a minority of the helots were Laconian, thus making this the one and only revolt of their history. Commentators such as Stephanus of Byzantium suggest that this Aithaia was in Laconia, thus indicating a large-scale uprising in the region. The version of events given by Pausanias is similar.

Diodorus Siculus (XI, 63,4 – 64,1), probably influenced by Ephorus of Cyme, attributed the uprising equally to the Messenians and the helots. This version of events is supported by Plutarch.

Finally, some authors place responsibility for the uprising with the helots of Laconia. This is the case of Plutarch in his Life of Cimon: the helots of the Eurotas Rivermarker valley want to use the earthquake to attack the Spartans whom they think are disarmed. The intervention of Archidamus II, who calls the Lacedaemonians to arms, simultaneously saves them from the earthquake and the helot attack. The helots fold, but revert to open warfare joined by the Messenians.

It is difficult to reconcile these versions. It is nevertheless clear that in any case the revolt of 464 BC represented a major traumatic event for the Spartans. Plutarch indicates that the Crypteia and other poor treatments of the helots were instituted after this revolt. If there is any doubt in these affirmations, they at least underscore the immediate Spartan reaction: allies are gathered and war ensues with the same Athens that would be faced later in the Peloponnesian War.

Athenian outposts

During the same war and after the capitulation of the Spartans besieged in Sphacteria, the Athenians installed a garrison in Pylosmarker composed of Messenians from Naupactusmarker. Thucydides underlines that they had hoped to exploit the patriotism of the latter in order to pacify the region. Though the Messenians may not have triggered full-blown guerrilla warfare, they nevertheless pillaged the area and encouraged helot desertion. Sparta was forced to dedicate a garrison to controlling this activity; this was the first of the / épiteikhismoi ("ramparts"), outposts planted by the Athenians in enemy territory.

The second such outpost was at Kytheramarker. This time, the Athenians set their sights on the helots of Laconia. Again, pillaging and desertion did occur, but not on the scale hoped for by the Athenians or feared by the Spartans: there was no uprising like that which accompanied the earthquake.

See also


  1. Apud Libanios, Orationes 25, 63 = Frag. 37 DK; see also Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 28, 11.
  2. Pollux 3, 83. The expression probably originates in Aristophanes of Byzantium; Cartledge, p.139.
  3. Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7.
  4. Herakleides Lembos Fr. Hist. Gr. 2, 210.
  5. Athenaeus, 657 D.
  6. Hellanicos, Frag. 188 J.
  7. Trans. by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod (1918), Accessed: 11 June 2006. Pausanias. Description of Greece, 3, 20, 6.
  8. P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, s.v. .
  9. Geography Trans. by H.L. Jones (1924), Accessed: 11 June 2006. Apud Strabo 6, 3, 2.
  10. Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the Learned, of Athenæus. Accessed: 11 June 2006.
  11. Ducat (1990), p. 7.
  12. Plutarch. Life of Agesilaus, 3, 1.
  13. Lévy, p. 119.
  14. Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 8, 7 and 24, 2.
  15. Apud Pausanias 4, 14, 4–5.
  16. Lévy, pp. 120-121.
  17. Lévy, p.121.
  18. Cartledge, p.141.
  19. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 4, 26, 6.
  20. Plutarch. Life of Cleomeles, 23.
  21. Tyrtaeus, Frag. 7.
  22. Herodotus. Histories, 8, 28-29.
  23. Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta. London: Johns Hopkins University, 1994, p. 174.
  24. J. Tregaro, "Les bâtards spartiates" ("Spartan Bastards"), in Mélanges Pierre Lévêque, 1993.
  25. Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists, VI, 271F.
  26. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton. 1910. Online at the Perseus project. Accessed: 11 June 2006.
  27. Apud Athenaeus, 6, 271e.
  28. Trans. by Cartledge, Annex 4, p. 299; The sentence can also be translated quite differently: "as far as the Helots are concerned, most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security" (ibid.). Thycydides 4, 80, 3.
  29. Politics 1269 a 37-39.
  30. Critias, Frag. B 37; see also Xenophon, Rep. Lac. 12, 4.
  31. FGH 115 F 13.
  32. Talbert, p. 26.
  33. Life of Lycurgus 28, 8-10. See also, Life of Demetrios, 1, 5; Constitution of the Lacedemonians 30; De Cohibenda Ira 6; De Commmunibus Notitiis 19.
  34. The word / kunễ is used in Greek literature, especially by Homer in the Iliad, to mean a helmet; in Athens, and in the Odyssey (XXIV, 231), it also means a leather or skin hat.
  35. Pollux (7, 70) defines it as a "thick chiton with a a hood". Ducat (1990), p. 114; Lévy, p. 122.
  36. Ducat (1990), p. 120.
  37. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 4, 6, 1.
  38. Ducat (1990), p. 120. The besieged Spartan hoplites on Sphacteria received two khoinikes of barley flour, two kotyloi of wine and an unquantified portion of meat. The helots were on half-rations. An Attic koinix is 698 gr. which, according to calculations (L. Foxhall and H.  A. Forbes, "Sitometria: The Role of Grain as a Staple Food in Classical Antiquity" in Chiron Number 12 (1982), pp. 41–90), was far from miserable: it corresponds to 81% of daily nutritional needs for a moderately active man, according to FAO standards. Complemented with the wine and meat, it can be considered as close to normal, given that the fighting had subsided and that the said helots were only attending to their domestic duties.
  39. Ducat, pp. 119-121.
  40. Quoted by Cartledge, p. 151.
  41. Partially followed by Lévy, pp. 124–126.
  42. Lévy, p. 12, with a warning that this evidence should not be worked too hard.
  43. Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 28, 10.
  44. P. Cartledge, review of Ducat (1990), Classical Philology, Vol. 87, No. 3 (July, 1992), pp. 260-263.
  45. Aristotle, frag. 538 Rose = Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 28, 7 = frag. 538 R.
  46. Herakleides Lembos, Frag. 370,10 Dilts = Frag. 538 Rose.
  47. Cartledge. Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, p. 13.
  48. Thucydides, 1.132, 4.
  49. Ducat (1990), p.130.
  50. Thucydides, 1.128, 1.
  51. Pausanias, 4, 24, 5.
  52. Ducat (1990), p.131.
  53. Thucydides, 1.101, 2.
  54. Diodorus Siculus, 11.63, 4-64,1.
  55. Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 28, 12.
  56. Plutarch. Life of Cimon, 17, 8.
  57. Thucydides, 4.41, 2-3.


  • Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Lakonia. A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC. Routledge, New York, 2002 (2nd edn). ISBN 0-415-26276-3
  • Ducat, Jean:
    • "Le Mépris des Hilotes", in Annales ESC, Number 29 (1974), p. 1451-1564
    • "Aspects of Helotism", in Ancient Society, Number 9 (1978), p. 5-46
    • Les Hilotes. Athènes : École française d'Athènes, Bulletin de correspondence hellénique, suppl. XX, 1990. ISBN 2-86958-034-7
  • Finley, Moses. "Sparte et la société spartiate", Économie et société en Grèce ancienne, Seuil, "Points Histoire" collection, 1984. ISBN 2-02-014644-4
  • Garlan, Yvon:
    • "Greek slaves in time of war", in Actes du Colloque d'histoire, Besançon, 1970
    • Slaves in Ancient Greece, La Découverte, coll. "Textes à l'appui" collection, Paris, 1995. ISBN 2-7071-2475-3
  • Lévy, Edmond. Sparte : histoire politique et sociale jusqu’à la conquête romaine. Seuil, "Points Histoire" collection, Paris, 2003. ISBN 2-02-032453-9
  • Oliva, Pavel. Sparta and her Social Problems, Academia, Prague, 1971
  • Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002. ISBN 0-19-513067-7
  • Talbert, R.J.A. "The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta", Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 38, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1989), p. 22-40.

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