Greek: / Heílôtes) were an unfree population group
that formed the main population of Laconia and the
whole of Messenia (areas of
Their exact status was already disputed in
antiquity: according to Critias
, they were
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 Spartan
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."
to Hellanicus, the word relates
to the village of Helos, 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.
have associated the word with
, as in /
, "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
"those of the Lacedaemonians who did not take part in the
expedition were adjudged slaves and were named helots
(fragment 122), cited by
(VI, 416c), states, "...and
the one nation called their slaves helots and the others called
"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
The situation is less clear in the case of the earliest helots,
who, according to Theopompus, were descended from the initial
, who had been conquered by the
. But then not all Achaeans were reduced to
helotism: the village of Amykles, 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
, 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
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
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.
paid their tribute, the helots could often live rather well; the
lands of Laconia 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
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
, 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
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
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
) born of Spartan fathers and helot women held an
intermediary rank in Lacedaemonian society (cf. mothakes
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
by Athenaeus, the emancipation of helots was "common" ( /
). 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
such call came during the Theban invasion of
(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
same, in 424 BC, the 700 helots who served Brasidas in Chalcidice were emancipated, and they were henceforth known as
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
) of the
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
A special case: mothakes and mothones
mentions a class of men that
were at the same time free and non-citizens: the /
, 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
The classical authors used a number of terms which appear to evoke
- / 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
- / 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
attests that mothakes
were slave children ( /
) 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
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
- the mothakes were an independent freeborn group of
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
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
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
" during syssitia
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
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
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
(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
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
. 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
Thus Paul Cartledge
claims that "the
history of Sparta (…) is fundamentally the history of the class
struggle between the Spartans and the Helots".
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
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
massacre of Cape Taenarus, at the tip
of Taygetus, 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
, 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
uprising coincident with the earthquake of 464 BC is soundly attested to, although Greek historians
do not agree on the interpretation of this event.
to Thucydides, the helots and perioeci of
Thouria and Aithaia took advantage of the earthquake to revolt and
establish a position on Ithome.
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
this Aithaia was in Laconia, thus indicating a large-scale uprising
in the region. The version of events given by Pausanias is
(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 River valley want to use the earthquake to attack the
Spartans whom they think are disarmed.
The intervention of
, 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
the same war and after the capitulation of the Spartans besieged in
Sphacteria, the Athenians installed a garrison in Pylos composed of
Messenians from Naupactus.
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
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
second such outpost was at Kythera.
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
- Apud Libanios,
Orationes 25, 63 = Frag. 37 DK; see also Plutarch,
Life of Lycurgus 28, 11.
- Pollux 3, 83. The expression probably originates in
Aristophanes of Byzantium;
- Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7.
- Herakleides Lembos Fr. Hist. Gr. 2, 210.
- Athenaeus, 657 D.
- Hellanicos, Frag. 188 J.
- Trans. by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod (1918),
Accessed: 11 June 2006. Pausanias. Description of Greece,
3, 20, 6.
- P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue
grecque, s.v. .
- Geography Trans. by H.L. Jones (1924),
Accessed: 11 June 2006. Apud Strabo 6, 3, 2.
- Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the
Learned, of Athenæus. Accessed: 11 June
- Ducat (1990), p. 7.
- Plutarch. Life of Agesilaus, 3, 1.
- Lévy, p. 119.
- Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 8, 7 and 24, 2.
- Apud Pausanias 4, 14, 4–5.
- Lévy, pp. 120-121.
- Lévy, p.121.
- Cartledge, p.141.
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 4, 26,
- Plutarch. Life of Cleomeles, 23.
- Tyrtaeus, Frag. 7.
- Herodotus. Histories, 8, 28-29.
Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta. London:
Johns Hopkins University, 1994, p. 174.
- J. Tregaro, "Les bâtards spartiates" ("Spartan Bastards"), in
Mélanges Pierre Lévêque, 1993.
- Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists, VI, 271F.
- Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. London, J. M. Dent;
New York, E. P. Dutton. 1910. Online at the Perseus project. Accessed: 11 June 2006.
- Apud Athenaeus, 6, 271e.
- 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.
- Politics 1269 a 37-39.
- Critias, Frag. B 37; see also Xenophon, Rep. Lac. 12,
- FGH 115 F 13.
- Talbert, p. 26.
- 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
- 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
- Pollux (7, 70) defines it as a "thick chiton with a a
hood". Ducat (1990), p. 114; Lévy, p. 122.
- Ducat (1990), p. 120.
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 4, 6,
- Ducat (1990), p. 120. The besieged Spartan hoplites on
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.
- Ducat, pp. 119-121.
- Quoted by Cartledge, p. 151.
- Partially followed by Lévy, pp. 124–126.
- Lévy, p. 12, with a warning that this evidence should not be
worked too hard.
- Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 28, 10.
- P. Cartledge, review of Ducat (1990), Classical
Philology, Vol. 87, No. 3 (July, 1992), pp. 260-263.
- Aristotle, frag. 538 Rose = Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus
28, 7 = frag. 538 R.
- Herakleides Lembos, Frag. 370,10 Dilts = Frag. 538 Rose.
- Cartledge. Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, p.
- Thucydides, 1.132, 4.
- Ducat (1990), p.130.
- Thucydides, 1.128, 1.
- Pausanias, 4, 24, 5.
- Ducat (1990), p.131.
- Thucydides, 1.101, 2.
- Diodorus Siculus, 11.63, 4-64,1.
- Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 28, 12.
- Plutarch. Life of Cimon, 17, 8.
- Thucydides, 4.41, 2-3.
- Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Lakonia. A Regional
History 1300 to 362 BC. Routledge, New York, 2002 (2nd edn).
- 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.
- 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.