The Spartan relationship with those that they conquered was designed to maintain their superior strength as a fighting power. To do this they needed an underclass of workers who could maintain the living standards of their society. Those that they subjugated within the Peloponnese were called Helots, and they fulfilled this role. To consider whether this relationship could be described in terms of class struggle it is necessary to identify who the Helots were, their particular role in Spartan life, their reaction to this role, their treatment by the Spartans and its eventual effects.
Excepting for a few Achaean centres, when the Mycenaean period ended in about 1200 BCE it was followed by a severe depopulation of the Peloponnesian peninsula. In about 1000BCE, the Dorians, a northern migrant-warrior tribe invaded and settled Laconia. This occupation of the land happened over a long period, with any pre-Dorian population being used as slave labour or expelled, as the Dorians were not an agricultural people.
The city of Sparta began as a conglomeration of villages on the Eurotas River, on a site founded in the early tenth century that was previously uninhabited, evidenced by the absence of Mycenaean sherds. About ten kilometres south of Sparta was Amyclae, the centre of the Laconian Achaeans. It was captured by the Dorian Spartans in the middle of the eighth century adding a fifth village to the four villages of Sparta. The land of Helos at the mouth of the Eurotas River was also subjugated. In this early Spartan period of settlement and occupation social conditions developed that were the result of a relationship between the conquerors and the conquered.
Being a warrior community of small numbers, the Dorian-Spartans needed others to work the land for them. The land was divided into lots and tilled by the conquered, that filled the role of serfs, or Helots [captives ], and provided the livelihood for their masters. These early Helots were made up of a pre-Dorian agricultural community. The Spartans, being a dominant force and increasing in number, acquired land in the west, north and south, but in particular the land of Messenia in the west of the Peloponnese.
This led to the First Messenian War around the latter part of the seventh century. After the battle for the Messenian’s mountain fortress at Ithome, the Spartans were victorious and turned the inhabitants into Helots. The seventh Spartan poet Tyrtaeus describes the Messenians paying tribute to their new masters ‘just like donkeys, worn down by heavy burdens. This burden was great, in that Helots had to deliver half of their crop to their Spartan masters. Yet there were many of them and consequently they became a threat to the Spartan state.
Although the expansion of Spartan territory into Laconia and Messenia doubled the state’s size and resulted in whole populations being subjugated into serf-like primary producers, it also found the Spartans constantly having to control ‘an enemy within’. Unlike slaves elsewhere in Greece who were bought and sold by individual masters at will, Helots were not of disparate origin but born only in Laconia or Messenia and not sold beyond these lands. Ehrenberg states that ‘it was the Messenians who ever afterwards threatened to revolt against Sparta’. Forrest also asserts that through their numbers, their race and their identity, being of Messenian or Dorian-Greek origin, these Helots were a constant threat to Spartan society.
THE ROLE OF HELOTS IN SPARTAN SOCIETY
Surface surveys conducted in southwest Messenia show isolated settlements across the landscape, rather than individual farmsteads. This suggests that Helots lived together on estates and under some surveillance, not spread out in small family groups on cultivated land. Xenophon saw the Helots as being integral to the Spartan state, much like slaves elsewhere. Other than agricultural tasks, the functions performed by Helots were as domestic servants, wet nurses, grooms, attendants to Spartans on military campaigns, as well as troops and even hoplites between 424-369BCE. Kennell thinks that Helots may have been owned individually. Xenophon writes that the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus allowed anyone to borrow another’s hunting dogs, horses or helots, which suggests that they were considered private property. However, this could also mean that, rather than being owned, they were considered part of an individual’s share of the common good.
Helots did have a form of property and marriage rights and some form of social life. Talbert argues that, for some Helots, life must have been good through having some influence and power in administrating property while the owners were away fighting or in the city. This meant that they might profit from their work and their loyal military services and might suggest an acceptance of their position. Herodotus states that Helots were used as troops in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BCE (Herod. 6.80; 8.25), and at the Battle of Plataea in 479BCE there were seven armed helots to one Spartan hoplite. There was a substantial drop in the Spartan population during the fifth century and therefore the number of Helots required serving in Spartan military expeditions increased. Being small in number and located in the city itself unless on official business, the Spartans must have left the Helots to their own devices much of the time.
The territory of Sparta was extensive and difficult with many mountain ranges isolating various areas. Spartan households used a large amount of domestic attendants to do tasks such as wool-working that were normally carried out by women in other areas of Greece. As a Spartan’s whole life was training for war, the whole orientation of society needed an enslaved population to assist this and constructed their lifestyle to make this hierarchy. In this way, the Helots were fundamental to the Spartan economy. To rely for their survival on the helots the Spartans had to turn their city into a military barracks, but the compensation for this meant that Sparta became one of the most powerful cities in the Hellenic world. However, this also resulted in Sparta having to devote much energy to asserting its power over the Helots and, until the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE; it involved a constant rebalancing of benefits and dangers.
HELOT REACTION TO INFERIOR ROLE
Talbert asserts that the longevity of Helot submission is more significant than Helot rebellion, and the fact that population numbers remained high points to general well-being. The helots had the advantage of being in a country that was protected from outside invaders. It was also a country where the masters had limited literary or cultural interests, therefore it is unlikely that isolated Helots would have been politically interested. As Sparta’s neighbours were all oligarchies, rather than democracies like Athens, it would appear that there was little chance for political organisation for the Helots, being isolated and uneducated. As Helots infrequently came into contact with free people, this situation may have changed with the use of Helots in military expeditions in the early fifth century.
While the first revolt of the Helots came in the latter half of the seventh century, the Spartans took years to quell the rebellion and suggests a cause for the ongoing tensions between the Spartans and the Helots. While there are no accounts of rebellion in the sixth century, there are more than a few accounts of Helot disloyalty or conflict in the fifth and fourth centuries. By the time of Thucydides it seems that Spartan society was designed to keep it secure against the Helots.
Thucydides states that all Helots, whether Laconian or Messenian were called Messenian, which suggests that the Spartans saw them all as potential dissidents. An earthquake that devastated Sparta in 465/4 BCE had an immediate effect upon the helots, with those in Messenia revolting and again being garrisoned in their mountain stronghold at Ithome. It was not until a decade later that there was a compromise. However, Xenophon writes that by the late fifth century the Helots would have been happy to eat the Spartans raw.
SPARTAN TREATMENT OF HELOTS
In the Parnian area of Sparta a seventh century pattern can be seen through site surveys of small single-family farmsteads and hamlets. Surveyors surmise that these were evidence of the perioeci, free people who were neither helots nor Spartans. After the middle of the fifth century these decrease sharply indicating Spartan security concerns after the earthquake. All Spartan treaties with their allies had a clause calling for assistance in case of a helot uprising , and the Spartan state allegedly maintained an annual declaration of war against the helots through the use of a secret service of young warriors who would murder unsuspecting helots.
A fragment from Myron tells of how the Spartans forced the Helots into the most insulting and degrading positions in order to reinforce their inferior position, even to the point of giving a death sentence if they looked too robust. Plutarch cites the practice of making Helots get drunk within the Spartan common dining halls as a form of humiliation designed to reinforce their inferior status. Also, during a siege at Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that many Helots came to assist the Spartans who offered them silver and freedom. Later 2000 of these Helots were alleged to have been executed by the Spartans in fear that they had become too powerful.
Spartan apprehension of Helots is highlighted by them sending seven hundred with Brasidas to Thessaly during the Peloponnesian War. When they returned in 421BCE they were freed by the state and offered land at Lepreum becoming known as ‘Brasedeoi’ and part of a new class of Neodamodeis [‘new men’]. This new status for Helots may have been a state action to balance the societal problems that arose through the stark inequalities of the Spartan/Helot relationship. However, while they were granted land in return for military service, they were not granted citizenship. There is also evidence of the state allowing Helots to be freed in exchange for helping besieged Spartans with food and also on the eve of the Theban invasion of 369BCE. However, so many volunteered to be hoplites that the Spartans retracted their offer in fear that they were arming their enemy.
It appears that with the severe decline in Spartan population during the fifth century, there was a need for Spartans to rely upon Helots as a fighting force which contradicted the underpinnings of their society, where Spartans were the soldiers and Helots were the workers. However, the longevity of the relationship over centuries between Spartans and Helots infers that the relationship was much like that of serfs in medieval society. Although there were periods of unrest the relationship relied upon a mutual security which could not be completely undone unless there was a significant change in political outlook. This change may have occurred with the use of Helots in more military expeditions, allowing them to observe other relationships and societies outside of their own isolated experience and being the likely cause of demands for freedom in the fifth and fourth centuries. Therefore, as population decline was a major contributing factor to the eventual demise of Spartan society, it would seem that Cartledge overstates the role of class struggle in Sparta.
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- Ehrenberg, V. (1971), From Solon to Socrates- Greek History and Civilization during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., Methuen & Co Ltd, London
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 Ehrenberg, V. (1971), From Solon to Socrates- Greek History and Civilization during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., Methuen & Co Ltd, London, p. 29
 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.10.2
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p.29
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p.30
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p.31
 Cartledge, P. (2009), Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities, Oxford University Press, New York, p.75
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p. 31
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p. 39
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p. 34
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p. 35
 Thomas, R.M., (n.d.), An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 6.8
 Pausanius, Description of Greece, 4.14.4
 Cartledge, (2009), p. 75
 Kennell, N. (2010), Spartans: A New History, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, p. 81
 Ehrenberg, (1971), p. 35
 Forrest, W.G., (1968), A History of Sparta: 950-192 B.C., W.W. Norton & Co., New York, p.31
 Kennell, (2010), p.81
 Kennell, (2010), p.79
 Kennell, (2010), p.81
 Kennell, N. (2010), p. 82
 Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 6.3
 Xen., Hellenica, 6.4.11
 Talbert, R.J.A. (1989) “The role of the Helots in the class struggle at Sparta”, Historia , 38:2 , 1989 , p.31
 Herodotus, The Histories, 6.80; 8.25.1;
 Herod., 9.10.1; 9.29.2; 9.30
 Talbert, (1989), p. 23
 Talbert, (1989), p.33
 Xen. Lac. 1.3-4
 Cartledge, (2009), p. 71
 Cartledge, (2009), p.81
 Forrest, (1968), p. 39
 Talbert, (1989), p. 32
 Talbert, (1989), p.30
 Thuc. 1.132.4-5
 Thuc. 1.101.2
 Talbert, (1989), p. 37
 Thuc. 1.101.2
 Thuc. 1.103. 1-3
 Xen. Hell. 3.3.6; Anabasis 4.18.4
 Kennell, (2010), p.81
 Talbert (1989), p. 34
 Plutarch, Lyc., 28.2
 Talbert, (1989), p.36
 Plut, Lyc. 28.4
 Thuc. 4.26.5-6
 Thuc. 4.80.5
 Thuc. 5.67.1, 71.3, 72.3
 Thuc. 5.34.1
 Talbert, (1989), p. 27
 Xen. Hell. 6.5.28-9