The helots (Classical Greek: ????te? / Helotes) were an unfree population group that formed the main population of Laconia and the whole of Messenia (areas of Sparta). 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”.

Ancient Greece Helots

Tied to the land, they worked in agriculture as a majority and economically supported the Spartan citizens. They were ritually mistreated, humiliated and even slaughtered: every autumn, during the cryptic, they could be killed by a Spartan citizen without fear of repercussion.

History of Helots

Many have debated the nature of helots. As sometimes they are referred to as class and sometimes as a community.
It was in the 8th century BC, that Sparta conquered Messenia when they got hold of the helots and became an important part of their economy. It can be said to be the start of the rise of power in Sparta.

What did Helots mean in Ancient Greece?

Helots were a special type of slave living in the Laconian region under the Spartan Hegemony.

They were tied to a land just like a feudal system and had to till their lands and give almost half the produce to their masters.

Unlike the other slaves, they could have families, and marry without permission, and even have children.

They even own certain property with a designated sum and even be emancipated sometimes by invading armies and sometimes even by their masters according to Homer.

Ancient Greece Helots

Spartan Society

Spartan society was no exception to this rule. Like other towns in ancient Greece, all people belonged to different groups, and there was a class of unfree laborers, the helots.

Typically, they were peasants, but they are sometimes found in other sectors of Spartan society (as servants at home, guards, and grooms), and although they were believed to be ethnically different from the Spartan elite, they could be emancipated and enter the world of the free-born.

None of this is unique, and ancient and modern authors have found it very difficult to define helotism because it was not considered to be an ordinary type of unfree labor. Unlike the slaves in Athens, helots had families and communities of their own, and they were no private property. Therefore, Pausanias calls them “slaves of the commonwealth”.

The nature of Spartan society and Helots

Sparta, according to historians, is known as a military state. All the free men were engaged as professional soldiers and lived in barracks.

But in ancient Greece with a relatively low population, there was no standing army but a semi-professional citizens’ army that stayed back during the agricultural season and fought in other months.

The case was different in Sparta mainly for this huge Helot population which outnumbered the free Spartans. They did the farming and supplied them with food which allowed the free men to be engaged in the army permanently and build what was known to be the best hoplite army.

Ancient Greece Helots

Strabo of Amasia says

Strabo of Amasia says they were “some sort of public slaves”, and other authors say they were a category between slaves and free people. Perhaps the best approach is to leave the niceties for what they are and simply define helots as a class of unfree laborers.

Probably, helotism is a very ancient category; it may even be a survival from Mycenean times. It has been assumed that when the Dorians conquered Laconia (the southeast of the Peloponnese), they reduced the native population to the status of helots.

An argument for this theory is that the word hearts may be related to a verb that means “capture”. On the other hand, the Dorian invasion is poorly understood, and it is perhaps unwise to use a poorly understood phenomenon to explain another poorly understood phenomenon.

Ancient Greece Helots

Whatever the origins of helotism and its relation to slavery, it is reasonably certain that when the Spartans conquered Messenia in the southwest of the Peloponnese (probably in the eighth or seventh century), the native population became helots. They were forced to work on the land and had to give the fruits to the Spartans.

Helot Revolt

However, their communities were left intact and they were allowed to have their own religious ceremonies. They still had an identity as Messenians, must have defined themselves as a repressed class, and hoped to liberate themselves. Writing much later, Xenophon stated that helots would gladly eat their masters raw, and several revolts of Messenian helots have been recorded.

In fact, the creation of a great number of helots in Messenia caused great problems and led to the introduction of a strict military discipline among the Spartans, who became a specialized military class. They had to be permanently on their guard, and it is not surprising, therefore, that their magistrates (the ephors) declared war upon the Messenians every year.

The first helot revolt recorded was under the general Pausanias in the 5th century. But this did not lead to much trouble as he was ultimately turned in by the helots themselves.

A famous revolt was known as the conspiracy of Cinadon in 399 BC under another military officer named Cinadon who came from a poor family and aimed to break the Spartan oligarchy, aiming to transfer power to poor Spartans and helots. He led several elite soldiers and cavalry and wanted to rouse almost 4000 oppressed citizens and helots against the Ephors or the Elites of Sparta but was ultimately betrayed and, ultimately arrested and killed.

Ancient Greece Helots

If a member of the Spartan elite happened to kill a helot, it was not considered to be murder but an act of war. Other acts of violence and terror are recorded, and it seems that Spartan society as a whole suffered from a permanent fear of a helot rebellion. Probably, the helots outnumbered their masters by some seven to one.

On the other hand, there was also a more kind policy towards the helots, as if to appease them. Helots always could dream of being emancipated, and we know that the Spartan government did indeed sometimes liberate groups of helots.

They were known as Neodamdeis and had the right to serve in the Spartan army, which also meant that they shared in the spoils. Former helots are also recorded as rowers.

The system collapsed in the fourth century. In 371, the Theban commander Epaminondas defeated the Spartans at Leuctra, and later, he invaded the Peloponnese, where he liberated the helots of Messenia. The helots of Laconia appear to have been emancipated later by the reformer kings Cleomenes III (235-222) and Nabis (207-192).

How did Spartans treat the Helots?

The Spartans were paranoid of a helot revolt as their system was almost dependent on these helots so they always had their secret police, krypteia patrol the helot lands in search of treason.

There are many anecdotes of harsh treatment by the spartans humiliating the helots. In many instances, they are seen to be forced to dance in lewd songs while fully drunk in an open court.

But many historians have questioned this as being exaggerated. But whatever the truth about the anecdotes the helots was not treated humanly, naturally as they were slaves just with different characteristics. Although they did enjoy certain rights which were denied to slaves in other different states, but they did not enjoy a fair treatment.

Spartans sometimes encouraged their children to mistreat the helots to remove any sympathy for them and also to instill a martial way of life without much human softness.

Did Athens or other states other than Sparta?

States like Athens and others had their share of slave population but helots were a special category of slaves residing in areas of Laconia and Messenia under the control of Spartan state having much different rights than the normal slaves under the other states.