Chapter 1. Researching the Helots; Details, Methodologies, Agencies

Susan E. Alcock
This introductory essay, tidily enough for a volume divided in three parts, likewise possesses a tripartite structure—of details, methodologies, and agencies. These rubrics combine to outline and to argue why a collection of essays on “helots and their masters” is a valid and timely exercise.

Details …

… details. Or better, lack of details. Reading or re-reading past and current scholarship about helots and about any or all aspects of their lives, one is apt to come across a plethora of qualifying parenthetical phrases—“if we had the details”, “whatever the details”, “despite a lack of detail”. This simple observation underlines something those interested in the problem often loudly deplore, but perhaps have not sufficiently internalized: the fact that—in detail—we don’t know a great deal about helots.
That may seem a maximally bathetic statement to make about a well-known, much bewailed gap in our sources. Yet the situation does govern the essential framework of our debate about this ancient group, and it requires a care in analysis that perhaps has not always been met. Sins of commission and omission in past (and present) scholarship could easily, if undiplomatically, be cited, as some individuals push and stretch our fragile and entirely non-indigenous sources for all that they are worth (and perhaps a bit more), while others accept silence as justification for neglect.
Nor is it simply the holes in our evidence that leave the helots so invitingly open to interpretation and re-interpretation. What we know, or what we think we know, is also caught up in wider webs of attitudes and contradictions. Helots appear betwixt and between: between free men and slave, akin and yet not akin to those who rule them, of uncertain and debated origin, arguable remnants of a more energetic, admirable diaspora population. Willing (on occasion) to fight for those who despise them. A passive-aggressive people; long-term losers who ultimately triumph. No wonder different scholars, working within different intellectual and political paradigms, react to different aspects of these formulations. And thus schools develop, of continualists versus discontinualists, maximalists versus minimalists, those pro-the worker versus those pro-the establishment … More than most topics in ancient history, the helots can become a kind of Rorschach test. We report what we see in sometimes uncomfortably revealing, and often quite personal, ways.
That propensity, obviously, will never disappear, and—equally obviously—the helots merely lie at the far end of a spectrum we travel all the time. Yet what a lack of detail demands, it can be argued, is a more careful and appropriate selection of targets for investigation. Some long-engaged controversies will remain forever opaque: the historicity and chronology of the “Messenian Wars”, for example, is one apt candidate. In general, one could question the productive return on what seems too often an endless recycling and reshuffling of our scant textual sources in various forms of intellectual gymnastics, trying to solve mysteries unsolvable with our problematic evidence.
A perceived need to recast approaches to the “helot problem” is one theme that connects all the contributions to this volume. Each author, however, does this in his own way. Paul Cartledge, for one, explicitly embraces that “personal” quality of response to the helots, while also reviewing how a mirage-like image has allowed their use in a variety of seemingly inappropriate, but emotionally powerful, situations—from Spartacus to South African apartheid. His own visceral reaction to the helot predicament leads him to query other, revisionist views that either reconsider the uniqueness of that predicament or that minimize the scope of its horrors. [1] Issues of status, treatment, and revolt, he no doubt rightly forecasts, are “three major pressure-points of current and likely future scholarly discussions of the Helots and the Helot experience in the Classical fifth and fourth centuries” (p. 17).
Nigel Kennell advances things in a quite different direction by not focusing, as is the scholarly wont, on those same fifth and fourth centuries BC. Kennell instead explores the later years of helotage in Laconia, offering (as far as is possible) a reconstruction of affairs following the Messenian liberation by scrupulously tracing the vicissitudes of Hellenistic history in Sparta. [2] Evidence is hardly richer for this period than for earlier times: the Laconian helots remain “on the shadowy margins of a society famous for its obsession with secrecy” (p. 103). Still, attention paid to these frequently neglected stages in the history of helotage is welcome. The distinctions, or similarities, between helot life in Laconia and Messenia are increasingly emerging as a point for fruitful analysis; Kennell’s piece is salutary for any who thought the dynamics of the Spartan-helot relationship ended with Epaminondas.


Other contributions to the volume pioneer alternative ways to research (re-search?) the helot problem. One strategy is not merely to recycle the sources, but to read them far more stringently, to assess them as socially and temporally contextualized, as ideological and imaginative products. Indeed, almost all of the authors do just that, most visibly perhaps Luraghi and Hall. Here Luraghi directly takes on past tendencies to “flatten” our sources to fit what has become the generally approved vulgata on the origins of helotry. He reviews (with a fine-tooth comb) the extant relevant texts in their particular contexts and as
reacting to the cultural and political environment in which they were composed. In this perspective, the ancient sources themselves preserve all their importance as evidence … not for the origins of Helotry and the early history of Laconia and Messenia, but rather, for the way in which the changing political map of the southern Peloponnese challenged subsequent Greeks to rethink the crucial “time of the origins” … (p. 135)
This rigorous exposure of our data, Luraghi believes, allows critical (in every sense) revision of the communis opinio, not least in regard to notions such as the existence of early Messenian ethnic identity and solidarity, and the standard “mass enslavement” model of helot origins.
This last position manifestly sets a collision course between Luraghi and the contribution of Hans van Wees, “Conquerors and serfs: wars of conquest and forced labour in archaic Greece”. Setting these two, side by side, is an ample and intriguing demonstration of how radically divergent conclusions can still be reached with (approximately) the same limited data set. Van Wees, picking up on a point also raised by Cartledge about the general invisibility of ancient dependent populations, sees nothing peculiar about the Messenian helots. Indeed, he argues for a similar, if even more badly documented, phenomenon of “conquest serfs” in several parts of the Greek world (e.g. Sicyon, Argos, Thessaly, Crete, the colonial world). Van Wees sums up his argument coolly—“Sparta’s conquest of Messenia was no anomaly, but merely the most spectacular and best attested instance of a form of imperialism characteristic of archaic Greece” (p. 72)—and blames both poor sources and disciplinary disinclinations for our failure to recognize this fact before. Readers can sample both Luraghi and van Wees, observe the methodological rules followed and fundamental assumptions revealed, and draw their own conclu-sions—which may be to remain agnostic on the “truth” of helot origins.
Central to van Wees’ argument is his refusal to view helots in isolation, but to keep them aligned with other dependent peoples. Part of his paper employs parallels from outside the ancient world, from the Spanish domination of the land, labor and lives of Central American populations, to inform his thinking. This explicitly comparative methodology is being taken to another level by Stephen Hodkinson’s project, “Sparta in comparative historical perspective, ancient to modern”, of which his paper here is a first salvo. [3] Hodkinson begins by acknowledging our evidentiary problems, and proposes turning to the history and sociology of certain other systems of unfree labour (particularly serfdom in Russia, slavery in the American South, and slavery in pre-colonial Africa) “to map out some plausible broad contours for the operation of helotage, even if much of the detailed topography must necessarily remain obscure” (p. 249). The focus of this particular discussion revolves around Spartiate-helot relations within the agrarian economy, in particular trying to investigate how helotry worked “on the ground” along dimensions such as relationships to the land, supervision and absenteeism, residence and communities, and leadership and politics. The emphasis here is on using comparative evidence to suggest and support likely possibilities, not to shoehorn the ancient case into identikit solutions. Data from a variety of sources, however individually scanty, are then employed to see what fits, and what fails to fit, those “plausible broad contours”. This methodological stratagem promises one significant way to escape the trap of our evidence and to season our understanding of helots and their masters. In a divergent fashion, Raaflaub’s dialogue with Orlando Patterson’s Freedom in the Making of Western Culture—about the possible impact of slavery and helotage on the rise of the “freedom ethos” in Greece (Raaflaub remains unconvinced)—also engages the helots in wider intellectual and social arguments. [4]
Another very positive visible development is the growing body of relevant archaeological data. No individual paper deals first and foremost with the material world of the helots, but a gratifying number (indeed virtually all of the papers in the volume) not only cite, but actively employ, recent archaeological discoveries in their analysis. “Helot archaeology”, in any rounded sense, still lies some distance in the future with the excavation of their homes and their graves, the study of their bones, the analysis of their diets. Material studies of other dependent populations make clear what could some day be ours. [5]
What is beginning to emerge, however, is a kind of regional perspective on the world of the helots. Archaeological survey projects have been conducted in both Laconia and Messenia, and the resulting settlement and land use patterns are highly provocative about, among other things, the potential differences between helot life in those two regions (or at least the parts intensively explored by the Laconia Survey and the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project). [6] Hodkinson pushes the evidence hardest; the difference between the nucleated settlement of Messenia and the more dispersed patterns visible in Laconia, for example, allows significant inferences about the structure, relative “autonomy”, and operation of these different communities “on the ground”. In addition to this regional perspective, archaeological evidence for tomb cult at various ancient Messenian sites is also successfully drawn into the picture. [7] These interpretive forays into the archaeology of historical Messenia may do much to encourage additional work, balancing out the trend either to emphasize the prehistoric occupation of the region or to focus on postliberation Messene. [8]


In another context, I commented on how our paucity of sources, combined with (as several other authors here note) their usual peripheral appearance on the edges of Spartan history, tends to leave helots “a largely undifferentiated mass whose inner workings seem hidden and unknowable”. [9] Without getting into the debate, actively stirred up here, about the inception and nature of helot (especially Messenian helot) identity and corporate unity, it is essential to avoid the (unstated) assumption that helots were not active social agents, who—possessing their own attitudes and memories, invisible as these are to us—at least attempted to direct their own fates. Silence on the part of our ancient sources about such attempts (Pausanias is a remarkable culprit) cannot be allowed to render helots as faceless and passive—or perhaps even as “understudies”, in Figueira’s interesting term for the Neodamodeis. [10]
All the papers in this volume, in their various ways, contribute to repelling this danger. Figueira and Scheidel, in their discussions of helot demography, serve to improve understanding of the parameters of the Spartiate-helot relationship in one very fundamental way—their relative numbers and the inferences for interaction that can be based upon that foundation. Both concur in moving toward a lower estimate for the helot population than was once the norm (neatly laid out by Figueira). Despite that shared substantive conclusion, the papers operate in very different fashions. In a dense web of argument, Figueira weaves together as much of the textual evidence as possible with other relevant factors, while also reviewing, very helpfully, other recent assaults (including his own) on this problem. Scheidel, by contrast, prefers a “simplified” model, stripping the elements in his calculations down to the barest of bones and cautiously allowing for wide “bands of probability” in his answers. The pair make for a wonderful methodological comparison. The fact that their conclusions are (hearteningly) rather similar, while reducing somewhat the looming “menace” of the helot threat, still leaves us to understand a system of exploitation—operative over a significant territory and within particular social and ideological constraints—where masters were outnumbered.
A more intimate view into the agency of the helots of Messenia, and of the diaspora population of the Messenians, is given by Hall. Allowing for shifting constructions of group identity, he seeks “to account for the possible historical circumstances in which the Messenians gained, maintained and chartered cognizance both of their own identity and of their affiliation to a broader Dorian ethnocommunity” (p. 142). Open acceptance of such strategic dynamism, over time and between groups, empowers both the diaspora—who (Hall suggests) claimed Dorian ancestry as a counter to Spartan superiority—and the helots, who may have allied themselves with a proud Akhaian heritage. The completed “Dorianization” of the reunited group came about in the changed circumstances of post-liberation Messenia. [11] Whether one accepts all of Hall’s contentions, introducing such flexibility and mobility into the self-imaging of the Messenians is surely correct.
It is unlikely that the helots will ever shed that quality of Rorschach test, and indeed it might be a shame, given their evocative history, that they ever should. Still, this volume directs us towards new ways of analyzing and of envisioning these people. In part, this involves the nature of our questions: accepting our lack of detail about helots and helot life should discourage grand and totalizing narratives. Instead, the way forward seems to be through encouragement of alternative methodologies, such as the use of comparative data sets or of archaeology, to unpick more nuanced questions, in more localized fashions. Perhaps most fundamental of all is the need to reconsider our own starting assumptions, to grant the helots both capacities and hopes that the usual suspects of our sources have steadfastly denied to them.
Such reconsideration—recasting the terms of debate about helots and helotage— was the point of the original workshop organized by the editors, and remains the point of this volume. It is certainly a methodological puzzle. It is inescapably a political challenge. It is arguably a moral obligation. [12]


Alcock, S. E. 2001. “The Peculiar Book IV and the Problem of the Messenian Past.” Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece, ed. S. E. Alcock, J. F. Cherry, and J. Elsner, 142-153. Oxford.
———. 2002a. Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscape, Monuments and Memories. Cambridge.
———. 2002b. “A Simple Case of Exploitation: The Helots of Messenia.” Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece, ed. P. Cartledge, E. E. Cohen, and L. Foxhall, 185-199. London.
Cartledge, P. 1991. “Richard Talbert’s Revision of the Sparta-Helot Struggle: A Reply.” Historia 40:379-381.
———. 1993. “Classical Greek Agriculture: Recent Work and Alternative Views.” Journal of Peasant Studies 21:127-136.
———. 2001. “Rebels and Sambos in Classical Greece: A Comparative View.” Spartan Reflections 127-152. London. Orig. pub. 1985.
Cavanagh, W., J. Crouwel, R. W. V. Catling and G. Shipley. 1996. The Laconia Survey: Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape. Vol. 2, Archaeological Data. Annual of the British School at Athens Supplementary Volume 27. London.
Davis, J. L., S. E. Alcock, J. Bennet, Y. G. Lolos, and C. W. Shelmerdine. 1997. “The Pylos Regional Archaeology Project. Part I: Overview and the Archaeological Survey.” Hesperia 66:391-494.
Davis, J. L., ed. 1998. Sandy Pylos: An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino. Austin.
Ducat, J. 1990. Les Hilotes. Bulletin de correspondance hellenique Supplement 20). Athens.
Ferguson, L. G. 1991. “Struggling with Pots in Colonial America.” The Archaeology of Inequality, R. H. McGuire and R. Paynter, 28-39. New York.
———. 1992. Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800. Washington, D.C.
Figueira, T. J. 1999. “The Evolution of the Messenian Identity.” In Hodkinson and Powell 1999:211-244.
Hodkinson, S. 1992. “Sharecropping and Sparta’s Economic Exploitation of the Helots.” OIAOAAKWN: Lakonian Studies in Honour of Hector Catling, ed. J. M. Sanders, 123-134. London.
———. 2000. Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta. London.
Hodkinson, S., and A. Powell, eds. 1999. Sparta: New Perspectives. London.
Kennell, N. 1999. “From Perioikoi to Poleis: The Laconian Cities in the Late Hellenistic Period.” In Hodkinson and Powell 1999:189-210.
Luraghi, N. 2001. “Der Erdbebenaufstand und die Entstehung der messenischen Identitat.” Gab es das griechische Wunder? Griechenland zwischen dem Ende des 6. Und der Mitte des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. , ed. D. Papenfufi and V. M. Strocka, 279-301. Mainz.
———. 2002. “Becoming Messenian.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 122: 45-69.
McDavid, C. 1999. “From Real Space to Cyberspace: Contemporary Conversations about the Archaeology of Slavery and Tenancy.” Internet Archaeology 6 (
Orser, C. E., Jr. 1988. “Toward a Theory of Power for Historical Archaeology: Plantations and Space.” The Recovery of Meaning: Historical Archaeology in the Eastern United States, ed. M. P. Leone and P. B. Potter, Jr, 313-343. Washington, DC.
Patterson, O. 1991. Freedom. Vol. 1, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. New York.
Raaflaub, K. 1985. Die Entdeckung der Freiheit. (Vestigia 37). Munich.
Roobaert, A. 1977. “Le danger hilote?” Ktema 2:141-155.
Singleton, T. A., ed. 1985. The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Orlando.
Singleton, T. A., and M. D. Bograd. 1995. The Archaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas. (Guides to the Archaeological Literature of the Immigrant Experience in America 2). Ann Arbor.
Spencer, N. 1998. “The History of Archaeological Investigations in Messenia.” In Davis 1998:23-41.
Talbert, R. 1989. “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta.” Historia 38:22-40.
Whitby, M. 1994. “Two Shadows: Images of Spartans and Helots.” The Shadow of Sparta, ed. A. Powell and S. Hodkinson, 87-126. London.


[ back ] 1. See, for the first, aspects of Ducat 1990; Hodkinson 1992; Luraghi 2001, 2002; for the second, Roobaert 1977; Talbert 1989; Whitby 1994; contra Cartledge 1991, 1993 (with Hodkinson’s response, 2000: 116-117), 2001.
[ back ] 2. See also Kennell 1999.
[ back ] 3. Hodkinson, rightly, acknowledges the early example of comparative work provided by Cartledge’s ‘Rebels and Sambos (2001, originally published in 1985).
[ back ] 4. Patterson 1991; see also Raaflaub 1985.
[ back ] 5. See, for example, Ferguson 1991, 1992; McDavid 1999; Orser 1988; Singleton 1985; Singleton and Bograd 1995.
[ back ] 6. Laconia: Cavanagh et al. 1996. Pylos: Davis et al. 1997; Davis 1998; The Pylos Regional Archaeological Project: Internet Edition (
[ back ] 7. See also Alcock 2002a: 132-75, 2002b.
[ back ] 8. Spencer 1998.
[ back ] 9. Alcock 2002a: 137, referring specifically to the Messenian helots.
[ back ] 10. Figueira 1999: 226. On Pausanias, see Alcock 2001.
[ back ] 11. For another view of the ‘evolution of Messenian identity’, see Figueira 1999.
[ back ] 12. As Cartledge notes, ‘a faint and distant echo of that battle cry of freedom lies behind the present scholarly project’ (p. 15).