Chapter 5. The Imaginary Conquest of the Helots

Nino Luraghi
In a previous paper, I have questioned the idea that the Helots who worked the land of the Spartiates in Laconia and Messenia were the descendants of free populations who had occupied those areas before the Dorian conquest of Laconia and the Spartan conquest of Messenia, respectively, and had been enslaved en masse by the Spartans at the time of the conquest. This idea, with slight variations, can be fairly depicted as a communis opinio in modern scholarship. Only very few scholars separate conquest and enslavement, in this following in fact what most sources from the fourth century onwards say or imply, and fewer still have rejected the idea of the enslavement of the native population altogether. [1] Developing the insights of these few and building on the little that is known about the characteristics of Helotry in the classical period and on comparison with other slave systems, my previous contribution tried to show that mass enslavement of an indigenous population is an inherently unlikely explanation for the origins of Helotry. [2] The present contribution started as a discussion of the relevant ancient sources, in order to assess if and to what extent the communis opinio can be said to be based on their evidence, but it soon turned into an inquiry in ideology and the politics of memory. Since the connection between conquest and enslavement is a crucial point that has attracted discussion by ancient and modern historians, some early evidence on the Spartan conquest of Messenia that does not relate explicitly to the origins of Helotry will also be considered.
The ancient sources that deal directly or indirectly with the origins of Helotry and the Spartan conquest of Messenia have been discussed many, many times. However, most investigations are based on the assumption that, since all the sources reflect, in a more or less partial or distorted way, the same historical phenomenon, the goal of the student should be to highlight areas of consistency among sources and assess their relative trustworthiness in order to reconstruct real historical events or processes. Naturally, this involves devoting less attention to divergences than to convergences and discarding the less plausible or satisfactory details provided by the sources, a potentially dangerous process, when dealing with such a small corpus of evidence scattered over such a long period of time. The present paper will take a different approach. Rather than trying to reconstruct how Helotry really originated or how the Spartans really conquered Messenia, its aim will be to elucidate how these two events were conceived—imagined, in a neutral sense—at different points in time, [3] making sense of each source in its historical context rather than conflating it with the corpus. In order to prevent the later evidence from distorting the record, the sources will be scrutinized in their chronological order, without filling the gaps of the earlier sources with the fuller information provided by the later ones. In the best of cases, the result of such a process will be a history of perceptions and ideologies, rather than of structures and events. However, understanding the perceptions and ideologies that have left their mark in the sources, besides being a fruitful activity in its own right, is—or should be—an indispensable preliminary stage to any use of the sources for a reconstruction of events and structures.

1. Tyrtaeus and the Spartan conquest of Messene

Spartan expansion west of the Taygetos is documented much earlier than Helotry. Tyrtaeus, who composed his elegies probably in the mid seventh century or soon afterwards, thought that “spacious Messene, good to plough and good to plant,” had been conquered thanks to king Theopompus, dear to the gods (fr. 5,1-3 W.2). This had happened two generations before Tyrtaeus, if the “fathers of our fathers” he refers to are to be taken literally. Without contesting this assumption, shared by most readers of Tyrtaeus, ancient and modern, [4] it may be useful to keep in mind that archaic lyric poetry was composed in order to be re-performable, mostly in a sympotic context, and therefore the textual “I” or “we” were normally not fixed in time in a specific way, in order to be adaptable to the uttering person(s) [5] —although Tyrtaeus’ poems, or some of them, could be an exception in terms of performative context and therefore also of generic rules. [6]
According to Tyrtaeus (fr. 5,7-8 W.2), after twenty years of fighting the enemies had “abandoned their rich fields and fled from the high Ithomaean mountains”; in other words, the Spartans had conquered their land and driven them away. This point is important, in view of later versions that implied that the defeated Messenians had remained in their region, to be reduced to the status of Helots in due course. But even more important is to determine precisely what Tyrtaeus thought that the fathers of the fathers led by Theopompus had conquered. Later authors, like Strabo (8.5.8) and Pausanias (4.1.4), explain that before the foundation of Epaminondas’ Messene in 369 BCE, no city with that name had existed, while “Messene” in olden times had been the name of the whole region which in their own times was called “Messenia.” [7] This made it possible for ancient and modern readers to embed Tyrtaeus’ verses into a general representation of a “First Messenian War” which had brought to the Spartans control of the region, [8] a war that had ended with the Messenians surrounded and besieged in their fortress on Mount Ithome: the narrative that is found in the most comprehensive form in Pausanias. But none of this is really in Tyrtaeus, and it is not at all clear that “Messene” should have been for him the name of a region, [9] let alone that that region should have included the whole of later Messenia. The only other archaic source where the name “Messene” appears is a passage in the Odyssey (21.13 ff), which relates the encounter of young Odysseus and Iphitos in Lakedaimon (in dative), at Messene (ἐν plus dative), in the house of Ortilochos, where Iphitos gave Odysseus the famous bow as a present to establish guest-friendship. Although “Messene” in this passage has sometimes been interpreted as referring to a region rather than to a city, it is clearly more natural to interpret the second place-name as a specification of the first, as indicating something smaller than a region, that is, presumably a city, to the extent that it makes sense to speak of cities for the eighth century, or possibly a smaller territorial unit. It would be strange if all the geographic information conveyed in these verses were that Ortilochos’ place was somewhere south of the Neda and west of the Taygetus. [10]
In fairness to previous scholars, it must be emphasized that one reason for their readiness to accept Strabo’s and Pausanias’ views on the original meaning of the name “Messene” was the lack of archaeological evidence for an earlier settlement on the site of later Messene. [11] Now that new excavations have shown that a settlement existed at the foot of Mt. Ithome in the ninth and eighth centuries, [12] the case should be reconsidered. In the light of the new evidence, it seems preferable to think that Tyrtaeus’ Messene was the Geometric settlement at Mt. Ithome with its territory, extending perhaps southwards on the western side of the Pamisus, possibly as far as the sea (see below). The later interpretation of the name in fact reflects an attempt at projecting back in the past a regional unity that was really a result of Spartan expansion. As a matter of fact, there is no reason to believe that the whole region west of the Taygetos ridge and south of the river Neda, the region that later became Messenia, had been united in any way between the end of the Bronze Age and the Spartan conquest.
Although the Homeric poems are notoriously difficult to fix in time, it is also worth pointing out that they seem to reflect, and retroject to the age of the heroes, a rather developed stage of the process of Spartan westward expansion. The Messene of the Odyssey is a part of Lakedaimon, Menelaus’ kingdom, and it probably appears also, slightly disguised, in the mysterious city of Messe, mentioned in the Lakedaimonian portion of the Catalogue of Ships (II. 2.582), together with Sparte. [13] Furthermore, the six cities offered by Agamemnon to Achilles to convince him to return to the fight (Il. 9.149-53), insofar as it is possible to pinpoint them, were located along the gulf of Messenia, [14] while Homeric geography does not know of any independent entity between the kingdom of Pylos, roughly Triphylia, and Lakedaimon. [15] Interestingly, the only thing we learn about the Messenians from the Odyssey, apart from the fact that they were supposed to possess ships and have access to the sea (Od. 21.19), [16] is that they had a somewhat dubious reputation: Odysseus goes to Messene because Messenian raiders had stolen from Ithaca some cattle together with the herdsmen, while Iphitos was there looking for twelve mares of his that had been abducted. One wonders whether this should not be seen as the first trace of the Spartans’ attempt at justifying in front of a broader audience their violent conquest of Messene.
Besides talking about the conquest of Messene, Tyrtaeus may have also mentioned further fights against the Messenians in his own times. The relevant text (fr. 23 W.2) comes from a very fragmentary papyrus, but it clearly mentions the Messenians, fighting, and “us,” and the only verb in a finite form is in the future tense. [17] In fact, this would explain why later authors thought that Tyrtaeus had lived at the time of the “Second Messenian War” and fired up the Spartans with his poems. [18] Fifth-century authors’ ignorance about a “Second Messenian War” should however suggest some caution.
It has often been thought that Tyrtaeus also mentioned Helotry, but the evidence for this assumption is anything but straightforward. Two famous fragments quoted by Pausanias (4.14.5), not adjoining but presumably coming from the same poem, describe the harsh plight of unspecified people compelled to give up half of the produce of the fields and to mourn at their masters’ funerals (fr. 6 and 7 W.2). This has often been taken by modern scholars as a description of the conditions of the Helots; [19] however, Pausanias thought otherwise, since he quotes Tyrtaeus’ verses to corroborate his statement that the Messenians had not been reduced to the status of Helots after the “First Messenian War” (cf. 4.14.4). On balance, Pausanias’ use of this passage shows at the very least that Tyrtaeus did not call Helots the people he was talking about, [20] and probably also that later authors could not recognize Helotry in his description. [21] This is confirmed by a passage in Aelian (VH 6.1), also depending directly or indirectly on Tyrtaeus, where the conditions imposed on the Messenians are clearly not being interpreted as Helotry. [22]
If Tyrtaeus was not talking about Helots, whom was he talking about? Given the fact that these verses were used to buttress a particular position in a very sensitive controversy, one should probably be cautious in attributing to Tyrtaeus anything that is only in the surrounding sentences of Pausanias and not in the verses themselves. This means, in other words, that the assumption that the verses referred to the Messenians at all should not be regarded as a certainty, particularly since the conditions imposed to the Messenians after the first and the second war respectively were clearly an object of disagreement among later authors (see below), which would be surprising if among Tyrtaeus’ verses there had been an unambiguous testimony on this point. The obligation to come to mourn at the masters’ funerals finds an interesting parallel in the description of the conditions imposed by the Corinthian Bacchiads on the Megarians, [23] but in their case there is no hint of alienation of resources. Moreover, Tyrtaeus’ verses, in which different words for “masters” recur twice, [24] seem to describe people held in a relation of personal dependence, rather than a submitted community; they recall to some extent the “shameful slavery” imposed by some Athenians on others according to Solon (fr. 36.13-15 W.2). If they do not refer to a condition imposed on some part of the population of Messene, which they might, they should probably be seen as describing the plight of a dependant labor force working for the Spartiates. Be this as it may, in the end the only thing that Tyrtaeus does say explicitly about the Messenians, in the very few verses that are preserved, is that they fled from their country in consequence of the war. He may have had a lot more to say, for all we can tell, but this can only be the object of speculation.

2. Seen from the West: Antiochus of Syracuse on Helotry

Ironically, the earliest version of the introduction of Helotry found in the sources happens to be a somewhat eccentric one, one that does connect it to the conquest of Messenia, but in a very peculiar way. According to Antiochus of Syracuse (FGrHist 555 F 13 ap. Strab. 6.3.2), the Spartans who did not take part in the Messenian war were enslaved and called Helots. In other words, the original Helots would have been former members of the citizen body who had lost their rights because they had failed to comply with their military duties—a very Spartan idea, although even for Spartan standards these conscientious objectors fell very low. [25] The text does not specify that the disenfranchised were Spartiates, but the development of the story, particularly the revolt planned by the Partheniai for the Hyakinthia, the Spartan festival of Apollo at Amyclae, seem to imply just this. If this is the case, Antiochus is the only ancient author who considers Helotry to have originated from internal differentiation within the Spartiates. [26]
Before discussing this view of the origins of Helotry—if this is what it is (see below)—it should be pointed out that Antiochus, like his contemporaries Herodotus and Thucydides, does not seem to distinguish between a first and a second Messenian war. As has often been observed, in assessing the relevance of his testimony it is necessary to keep in mind that what Antiochus was really talking about was the foundation of Taras in Southern Italy in the late eighth century. To an extent that it is difficult to determine, his story is likely to have been concocted in order to make sense of the name Partheniai, traditionally considered to be the name of the group that sailed from Sparta to found the colony. Probably Partheniai was etymologized as “children of unmarried women,” and the fathers’ loss of citizen rights in Antiochus’ story could be a way of explaining that name.
The connection between Partheniai and Helots was certainly less than flattering for the Tarentines: it made of them the offspring of slaves and severed any blood ties between them and the Spartans. It is difficult to resist the suspicion that this version of the foundation of Taras might not come from Taras at all, but rather be a hostile distortion of what the Tarentines thought of their forefathers. [27] After all, if the Partheniai had been sons of freeborn fathers who became enslaved, they should have simply become slaves, too: [28] the enslavement of their fathers is not indispensable to explain their name and their predicament, and therefore is likely to be a spurious element. As a matter of fact, the next version of the story, by Ephorus (FGrHist 70 F 216 ap. Strab. 6.3.3), corrects precisely this point, making of the Partheniai the offspring of the young Spartan warriors who were fighting in Messenia but were not bound by the oath sworn by their senior comrades at the beginning of the war, not to come home until victory was achieved. [29] A further reason to suspect that Antiochus’ story might not reflect accurately what the Tarentines thought of their origin is the fact that Taras throughout its history had an untypically friendly and close relationship to its mother-city. Given that all foundation stories, being about the expulsion of a portion of the community, by their very nature involve a certain amount of conflict, one would rather expect the Tarantines to imagine a story in which that conflict was de-emphasized; after all, the name Partheniai could as well have had that very function. [30]
The idea that the fathers of the Partheniai did not take part in the war against the Messenians could reflect a precise historical context: the alliance between Taras and Rhegion in 473, at a time when Rhegion was particularly emphasizing its Messenian ancestry. [31] If the foundation story of Taras was reworked in connection with the alliance, which seems an extremely attractive conjecture, then it becomes also easier to understand the origins of the hostile touch in Antiochus, that is, the genealogical connection between colonists and slaves, and especially, slaves who had been enslaved because they had not fought against the Messenians: Syracuse was a traditional enemy of Rhegion, and this enmity had been particularly fierce in the first quarter of the fifth century, while its relations to Taras may also have been less than friendly for most of the fifth century. Antiochus may have either added the sting himself [32] or perhaps even more likely received it from some earlier Syracusan elaboration.
However one interprets his testimony, the introduction of Helotry was obviously not what Antiochus was really interested in. Therefore, when he describes the treatment meted out to the fathers of the Partheniai, the possibility should not be excluded that what he really meant was something much simpler and less specific than normally thought, something along the lines of e.g. “they were made slaves, and called Helots, as slaves are called at Sparta.” [33] Such a comment would make sense in the work of a western Greek historian, writing for an audience that was less familiar with Spartan institutions than a mainland audience could have been expected to be. Of course, if this is what the text means, than it does not deal with the origins of Helotry at all. But this cannot be ascertained, and in the end Antiochus' story is bound to generate in a modern interpreter the mixed feelings typical of a lectio difficilior.

3. The conquest of the Helots: emergence of a vulgata

With Thucydides, slightly later than Antiochus, we meet the first occurrence of what would later become the vulgata on the origins of Helotry. Relating the uprising against Sparta that exploded in Messenia after the earthquake in the sixties of the fifth century, Thucydides (1.101.2) says that the majority of the Helots who revolted were descendants of the “old Messenians,” who had been enslaved in the past (Thucydides simply says τότε, probably meaning “in that well known occasion”). [34] It is no accident that the first mention of the enslavement of the Messenians should appear in the context of the fifth-century revolt, given the central importance that the Messenian identity had for the rebels. Unfortunately, Thucydides’ allusion to the enslavement is rather vague, and he does not explain whose descendants the other Helots were, who also took part in the uprising, nor does he say explicitly whether the revolt was confined to Messenia or raged in Laconia, too. However, in so far as it is possible to pinpoint anything, every single element in Thucydides or other early sources on the revolt refers to Messenia: Thucydides says that the perioikic town of Thouria, located east of the Pamisos, joined the revolt (1.101.2), Herodotus mentions the defeat of a Spartan army in Stenykleros (9.64.2), [35] Aristophanes (Lys. 1141) and the Old Oligarch (Ath. Pol. 3.11) speak of Messene and Messenians as the Spartans’ foe. This justifies the assumption that the revolt was really confined to the Spartan territory west of the Taygetos. Evidence of unrest among the Helots in Laconia comes exclusively from later sources that, while admitting that the Messenians had been reduced to the condition of Helots, still treated Helots and Messenians as two different entities, and may therefore have deduced that the revolt had involved Laconia from the fact that Thucydides implied that not all the Helots who partook were of Messenian descent. But of course, Thucydides may as well have thought that not all the Helots living west of the Taygetos were descendants of the “old Messenians.” [36]
The emerging of Messenian ethnicity in the Peloponnese was an extremely conspicuous phenomenon in fifth-century Greece. The Spartans were unable to crush the uprising and the rebels, after ten years of fighting, were allowed to evacuate their stronghold on Mt. Ithome and founded an independent community of Messenians in the West-Locrian city of Naupactus, whence they sent their troops to fight on the Athenian side during the Peloponnesian war. Their contribution to the Pylos campaign was particularly significant. They were not only very active, but very vocal, too: the famous statue of Victory by the sculptor Paionios of Mende, that stood on a tall pillar in front of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, one of the most prominent monuments in the sanctuary, was dedicated by them, probably during the Peloponnesian war. [37] It would therefore be hardly surprising if the idea that (some of?) the Helots in Messenia were descendants of the formerly free local population had influenced general views of the origins of Helotry, producing an “ethnic” theory for the origins of the Helots in Laconia, too. The first traces of such a theory can be found in an admittedly problematic source, an entry from the medieval abridgment of a II c. CE lexicon (Harpokr. s.v. εἱλωτεύειν, with Hellan. FGrHist 4 F 188):
To be a Helot: to be a slave; Isocrates in the Panegyric. The Helots, in fact, were slaves of the Spartans, but not by birth. Rather, they were the first among the inhabitants of the city of Helos to be conquered by the Spartans, as, among many others, Hellanicus witnesses in book I.
The text of the entry is somewhat confusing, to say the least. The sentence “the first among the inhabitants of Helos to be enslaved” should most probably be taken to mean that the inhabitants of Helos, once enslaved, became the first Helots, as suggested also by the description of the Helots as “slaves but not by birth,” which of course is pure nonsense if applied to the Helots in general and can only be referred to the “first generation” of Helots. It is also possible, but much less likely, that the expression “the first inhabitants of Helos” was meant to differentiate them from people, perioikoi or Eleutherolakonians, who lived in Helos in later times. [38] It is difficult to say in which of his many works Hellanicus might have had a reason to discuss the origins of Helotry. The fact that he is quoted together with unspecified many others suggests that somewhere behind our garbled entry there was some fuller text, in which perhaps authors were listed who supported this view of the meaning of the name “Helots.” Very probably only the name of Hellanicus has survived because he was the first of the list, that is, the oldest. The one thing that can be said for sure is that this passage implies that the name Helots derives from Helos, in southern Lakonia, and that this idea existed in the second half of the fifth century.
Obviously, such a view of the origin of Helotry results from an a posteriori process consisting in interpreting the name “Helots” as an ethnic and then looking for a more or less suitable place-name in Laconia to combine it with. It is important not to forget that this explanation of the name is fictitious: in purely linguistic terms, “Helots” cannot be the ethnic of “Helos,” and this was clear already in antiquity. [39] Hellanicus’ view has the appearance of a learned speculation. The question is, what prompted this learned speculation in the first place. It seems highly probable that the interpretation of the Laconian Helots as descendants of the formerly free citizens of Helos, conquered by the Spartans, may have been concocted—probably not at Sparta—as a parallel to the other view we find in Thucydides, and that probably goes back to the age of the revolt, the one that made Helots in Messenia the descendants of the “old Messenians.” The fact that (some of?) the Helots of Messenia were recognized as descendants of an enslaved indigenous population may have drawn attention to the question of where the other Helots came from. In that perspective, it would have been natural to extend the same explanation to the Helots of Laconia, and of course the next step had to be to find a suitable native population; until more articulate reconstructions of the Dorian invasion of Laconia were formulated, such as those found in Ephorus and Theopompus, the most obvious thing to do was to look for a place-name that could be connected somehow to the name “Helots.”
It is possible that up to that point, no “historical” explanation of the origin of Laconian Helots had existed, except perhaps Antiochus’—again, assuming that Antiochus was really talking about the origins of Helotry. After all, for the Spartiates it was not very important to know who the Helots had been before being turned into Helots; it was enough to know who they were hic et nunc, and this the Spartiates knew well enough: inferior beings, who embodied all the characteristics that the Spartiates despised. By way of a number of practices of ritualized contempt, the Spartiates tried to inculcate this concept in the Helots, while at the same time reassuring themselves of their superiority. [40] They may have had a vague notion that their domination over the Helots was a result of military superiority, a notion without a specific historical context (see below), but on the other hand, they probably had positive reasons to oppose the notion that the Helots were descended from formerly free ethnic communities (see below). In this connection, it is worth noting that not even in later sources is any alternative view of the origin of Laconian Helots to be found.
Before moving on to the fourth-century sources, one point has to be underlined. While there is no evidence that the idea of a region called “Messene” or “Messenia,” comprising the whole of the Spartan territory west of the Taygetus, had existed at all during the archaic period, by the fifth century this idea was clearly emerging. It is implied by the tradition on the Dorian conquest and division of the southern Peloponnese, which is attested for the first time by Pindar in 462 and probably originated at Argos, perhaps in the early fifth century. [41] When Thucydides located Pylos in what had once been the Messenian land (4.3.2; 41.2), he was obviously assuming that more or less everything west of the Taygetos had been Messenian land. In this context, the name “Messene” apparently started to be used as the name of a region. [42] In due course, this shift in meaning would have its consequences for the way in which the Spartan conquest was imagined.

4. “Old Messenians” or new Messenians?

With the liberation of most of Messenia by Epaminondas in 369, both the original Spartan conquest of that region and the status of its inhabitants became hotly debated issues, tied as they were to conflicting claims, on the one hand the right of Sparta to control the region, on the other the right of the new Messenian polity to be recognized as legitimate. [43] The Spartan viewpoint on such issues is probably to be found in a speech written by the Athenian orator Isocrates, a speech in which the speaker purports to be the Spartan Archidamus, son of Agesilaus and future king of Sparta. In spite of its being fictitious, the speech, composed probably in the mid-sixties, is very likely to reflect the Spartan “party line,” which was certainly known in Athens. [44] Isocrates’ Archidamus had a very clear-cut view of how and why the Spartans had taken control of Messenia (always called “Messene” in the speech) and, indirectly, of the origin of the Helots living in Messenia. In his view, Messenia had come under Spartan control very early, because the Messenians had killed their Heraclid king, Cresphontes, and exiled his children; these fled to Sparta, also ruled by Heraclid kings, and entrusted their land to the Spartans, begging for revenge. The Spartans, after asking the oracle of Apollo, had accepted the gift and the task and conquered the land (Archid. 22-3). In short, their claim to Messenia was founded on the ancestral rights of the Heraclids, on Apollo’s will, and on armed conquest, and was therefore as unimpeachable as their claim to Laconia itself (Archid. 25). Clearly, this story cancels any Messenian claim to independence based on the story of the division of the Peloponnese among the Heraclids.
It is not clear how exactly Isocrates-Archidamus envisioned the Spartan conquest (Archid. 31). The idea that the siege of the Messenian stronghold that concluded the war (Archid. 23) lasted twenty years (Archid. 57) is obviously taken, directly or indirectly, from Tyrtaeus (fr. 5 W.2). [45] Isocrates’ description of the long war includes more details that later sources would refer to the “First Messenian War,” such as the fact that both sides turned to the oracle of Delphi, which recurs, with a different bias, in Pausanias’ narrative of that war (4.12.1-4). On the other hand, the oracle’s answer, explaining to the Spartans where they should seek help, might be considered an allusion to the tradition according to which during the “Second Messenian War” the Spartans had been told by the Delphic oracle to ask for a leader at Athens and the Athenians had sent Tyrtaeus, a tradition that was apparently known to Plato (Laws 1.629a-b) and is explicitly attested for the first time by Callisthenes (FGrHist 124 F 24). [46] But this is far from certain, and some uneasiness might be felt about assuming that Isocrates was mixing up things to this point. [47]
What happened to the Messenians after the war, Isocrates-Archidamus does not explain precisely, except for saying rather casually that the Spartans had conquered the land and expelled those who were guilty of murdering Cresphontes (Archid. 32). For Isocrates-Archidamus, the citizens of the new polity founded by the Thebans in 369 were not, as he says, “the true Messenians,” that is, descendants of the people the Spartans had fought against, but rather Helots, former slaves of the Spartans (Archid. 28 and 87-8). [48] In other words, the Messenians were not there any more, and the Helots living in Messenia and forming, in the Spartan perspective, the citizen body of the new Messene were not the descendants of the free Messenians of old. Therefore they had no legitimate right to the land the Thebans had given them. As Giulia Dipersia put it, the Spartan view voiced by Isocrates was meant to reduce the “Messenian question” to a conflict between slaves and masters, thereby projecting over the Thebans the image of the subverters of the traditional order and attracting to the Spartans the sympathy of the other Greeks. [49]
Who the Helots of Messenia really were, is a question on which one would very much like to have Archidamus’ answer. However, the answer might be disappointing. As noted above, although the Spartiates were very careful to devise a collective identity for the Helots and impose it on them, they do not seem to have been interested in the question of where the Helots came from in the first place. On the contrary, the Spartans consistently refused to recognize the Messenian identity of the fifth-century rebels, even after they allowed them to leave Ithome, as shown by the clause of the treaty which allowed anybody to enslave any of the former rebels if caught in the Peloponnese. [50] Archidamus’ position on the identity of the Helots living in Messenia confirms that considering the Helots an ethnic group was not something the Spartans were very fond of, and understandably so. [51] To the Greeks, an ethnic group, especially if Greek, had an implicit right to its own land and to its freedom, and of course the Spartans were not particularly prone to acknowledge such rights in the case of their own slaves.
Isocrates’ speech is the only preserved text that comes from the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Messenia. The Theban-Messenian point of view can be reconstructed only tentatively and indirectly, based on later sources. Rather surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the Theban “party line” seems to have agreed with the Spartans’—as identifiable based on the Archidamos—on a crucial point: the assumption that no Messenians were living in Messenia at the time of the liberation by the Thebans. Where the Theban-Messenian version of course sharply disagreed from the Spartan one, was in maintaining that the citizens of the new Messenian polity were indeed Messenians, the descendants of the “old Messenians” who had been exiled to various places at various points in time, and returned to their old fatherland, freed by Epaminondas. Or at least, this is what is found the sources such as Pausanias (4.26.5) and Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas (24.5), [52] who may be expected to reflect more or less closely the Theban-Messenian viewpoint. More importantly, this way of conceptualizing the foundation of the new Messene is implied by the text of the epigram that accompanied Epaminondas' statue at Thebes (Paus. 9.15.6): “By my counsels was Sparta shorn of her glory /and holy Messene received at last her children.” [53] This last piece of evidence is not as decisive as one could think, however, since the inscription and the statue will hardly have survived the destruction of Thebes by Alexander in 335; in the form in which Pausanias saw it, this monument was probably later than the refoundation of the city by Cassander in 316. [54] At any rate, based on the available evidence the assumption that the Thebans and their allies depicted the foundation of the new independent Messenian polity as a return, not liberation, of the Messenians is extremely likely. As for the citizens of the new polity, whoever they were, wherever they came from, to be associated with former slaves would not have been very attractive for them. In the dawn of the new Messene, the supposed Messenian origin of the Helots west of the Taygetos seems to have been forgotten by all and everybody.

5. Systematizing the past: Ephorus and Theopompus

The mid and late fourth century was a very important period for the elaboration by Greek historians of more consistent and detailed views of the distant past. For us, this process of (re)construction is connected mainly with two figures, the historians Ephorus and Theopompus, both allegedly pupils of Isocrates. [55] The works of both are lost, but remarks by later authors show that they were regarded as highly authoritative and influential, both as models of style and historiographic technique, and as sources. Ephorus' Universal history in particular was to become the standard work of reference on archaic and classical Greek history for centuries to come. They both seem to have had very clear ideas about early Spartan history and the origins of Helotry.
Ephorus systematized the more recent part of the mythic past, after the return of the Heraclids to the Peloponnese, connecting different plots, narratives and local traditions and casting them into a consistent whole. [56] His views of the Spartan conquest of the Helots—as we can reconstruct them based on fragments and passages by other authors who used his work as their source—are to some extent the result of a development probably set in motion by the revolt after the earthquake, and certainly accelerated by the new Messenians' quest for their past, which started after the foundation of a free Messenian state in 369. At the same time, his narrative shows visible signs of an attempt to create a plausible early history of the Peloponnese based on parallels and inferences derived from later periods. According to Ephorus, the early histories of Laconia and Messenia had been remarkably similar. In both cases, the incoming Dorians were not so numerous as to fill the land they had conquered. In Laconia (FGrHist 70 F 117 ap. Strab. 8.5.4), after the Achaeans had left, the Heraclids Eurysthenes and Procles divided the region into six districts in which they founded six cities. They kept Sparta as their residence, assigned Amyklai to the man who had helped them get rid of the Achaeans, designated kings for the other four districts and gave the right of citizenship on an equal footing with the Dorians to whoever wanted to settle there. [57] A generation later, king Agis, the son of Eurysthenes, decided to tighten up Sparta’s control on the region, imposing a tribute on the—non-Dorian or mostly non-Dorian—inhabitants of the five districts. [58] Most of them yielded, but the Heleioi, inhabitants of Helos, did not. Therefore the Spartans besieged and conquered them and reduced them into slavery at particular conditions: they could neither be freed nor sold outside the Spartan territory. This war came to be known as the war against the Helots—so ends Strabo’s excerpt from Ephorus. [59] The concluding sentence seems to suggest that Ephorus, while calling the free inhabitants of Helos “Heleioi,” accepted the connection between Helos and the name “Helots” established probably by Hellanicus. He may have thought, as Theopompus seems to have thought, too, that “Helots” was a twisted form of the correct ethnic of Helos. It should also be noted that Ephorus’ story assumed an ethnic discontinuity not only between Spartiates and Helots, but also between Spartiates and perioikoi. [60]
In Messenia, things had started in a similar way. The Heraclid king Cresphontes divided the land into five districts and founded five cities, chose Stenykleros as his residence and sent kings to the other four cities, also giving equality of rights to Dorians and non-Dorians, who in this case seem to have been indigenous, presumably Achaeans. [61] But since the Dorians resented his decision, Cresphontes tried to take it back, concentrating all the Dorians in Stenykleros (FGrHist 70 F 116 ap. Strab. 8.4.7). Nicolaus of Damascus’ account, clearly based on Ephorus, [62] gives further details (FGrHist 90 F 31): Cresphontes tried to use the argument, that had been used in Lakedaimon, too, that it was not fair that the Dorian conquerors should share their privileges with the previous inhabitants, but he ended up dissatisfying both sides. The Dorians resented his initial overture to the locals and generally disliked his political course, [63] and finally decided to get rid of him and his offspring. Only one child escaped murder, little Aepytus, who was saved by his maternal grandfather king Cypselus of Arcadia and regained his father’s throne. Comparison with fifth-century versions of the story shows that this Arcadian detour is probably a result of the friendly relations between Arcadians and Messenians after 369. Aepytus’ return, however, did not put a stop to the conflicts between kings and their subjects in Messenia. Aepytus himself survived an attack, and conflicts between his successors and their subjects continued until finally the Spartans conquered the region and enslaved its inhabitants. The excerpt from Nicolaus (FGrHist 70 F 34) does not give a clear chronological framework for this concluding phase, so that one could see here an allusion to the enslavement of the Messenians as a result of the “First Messenian War.” However, a passage in Diodorus’ Historical Library (15.66.2), also drawing on Ephorus, completes the picture and makes it virtually certain that in Ephorus’ view the Spartans had taken control of Messenia well before the murder of Teleclus and the “First Messenian War.” [64] Accordingly, that war, caused by the rape of the Spartan maidens and the murder of king Teleclus by the Messenians, was in a sense a rebellion.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to say with certainty at which point, in Ephorus’ reconstruction, the conquered Messenians were turned into Helots. The excerpt from Nicolaus seems to suggest that that happened as soon as the Spartans took control of the region, but one should probably not put too much weight on this, since the enslavement is mentioned in the very last sentence of the excerpt, which may well be telescoping a longer process. In the passage from Diodorus, which covers more evenly the whole history of Messenia from Nestor to Epaminondas, a clear distinction is visible between the period when the Spartans were Kupioi of Messenia, after the descendants of Cresphontes lost the kingship (15.66.2), and the situation that obtained after the “First Messenian War,” when the Messenians became slaves of the Spartans (15.66.3). Furthermore, in Ephorus’ version of the story of the foundation of Taras, reported by Strabo (FGrHist 70 F 216 ap. Strab. 6.3.3), reference is made in passing to the fact that after the “First War” the Spartans apportioned the Messenian land among themselves. It seems more likely on the whole that in Ephorus’ view the Messenians had been Helotized as a result of the “First Messenian War.” [65]
Interestingly, Ephorus’ version of the Spartan conquest of Messenia bears an important similarity to Isocrates’, in that it presupposes a very early date for the Spartan takeover. [66] Of course, Ephorus had a much more precise reconstruction of the stages of this process, based in part on a more scrupulous use of Tyrtaeus’ poems as evidence. One obvious result was assigning to the final conquest a significantly lower date than the one implied by Isocrates’ rather confused hints. Moreover, Ephorus accepted the idea, introduced by Callisthenes and perhaps again based on Tyrtaeus, that there had been two Messenian wars, one in the age of king Theopompus, the other in Tyrtaeus’ own times. [67] Later sources, though, more friendly to the Messenians, would down-date the conquest of the region to the “First War,” while keeping Ephorus’ separation of conquest and enslavement: in their perspective, as we will see in more detail in a moment, the enslavement was the consequence of the “Second Messenian War.”
The other “Isocratean,” Theopompus, seems to have discussed Helotry in the framework of a general reflection on the origins and development of slavery in the Greek world. In a retrospective excursus, probably in his Philippic histories (FGrHist 115 F 122 ap. Athen. 6.265b-c), Theopompus contended that the Chians had been the first among the Greeks to make use of purchased slaves. Thessalians and Spartans, according to Theopompus, did not acquire their slave populations by way of slave trade, but rather by enslaving Greeks who had formerly inhabited their territories, Perrhaebians and Magnesians and Achaians, respectively. Unlike Spartans and Thessalians, the Chians did not enslave Greeks, but used barbarians. [68] This passage represents the earliest and only explicit instance of the theory that dominates modern scholarship on the origin of the Helots of Laconia, according to which they were the descendants of the pre-Dorian inhabitants of the region. It is important to underline that Theopompus is absolutely unique in making of the Helots the descendants of the Achaeans of Laconia. Ephorus, as we have just seen, distinguished both Helots and perioikoi from the Spartiates, but considered neither the ones nor the others indigenous. [69]
But apparently, Theopompus’ views were more complex, and more similar to Ephorus’, [70] than this fragment would lead one to think. In another passage, from his earlier work Hellenics (FGrHist 115 F 13 ap. Athen. 6.272a), describing, perhaps in conjunction with Cinadon’s conspiracy, [71] the hard plight of the Helots, Theopompus specifies that they had been subject to the Spartans for a very long time and were in part Heleatai, who had formerly inhabited a place called Helos, in Laconia, and in part from Messene. [72] The strange form Ἑλεάται, which is not very obvious as an ethnic of a place called Ἕλος, is probably the product of an attempt at narrowing the gap between Ἕλος and εἵλωτες, [73] an attempt that underlines the nature of erudite construct of the whole connection Helots-Helos.
This second fragment poses some problems, both in itself and in relation to the first one. Certainly nobody would object to merging them to the extent of admitting that the enslaved Achaeans mentioned in the Philippic histories are the same as the Heleatai of the Hellenics. It is less clear whether the merging should be carried one step forward to include the Messenians. That Theopompus admitted an Achaean presence in early Messenia would not be too surprising. However, the fragment from the Philippic histories is to some extent focused on chronology, so it would be understandable if Theopompus had in mind at that point only the first Greeks Helotized by the Spartans, that is, the Helots of Laconia, all the more so since he speaks of enslavement of the Greeks who originally possessed the lands that Thessalians and Spartans have “now,” and Messene was free at the time he was writing. In the end, it is probably safer to admit that we do not have any evidence of how Theopompus imagined the ethnic composition of Messenia at the time of the Spartan conquest.
After Theopompus, sources on the conquest of Messenia and the origins of Helotry are virtually non-existent for almost three centuries. From the Hellenistic period, which was certainly decisive for the construction of a Messenian past, and saw dramatic transformations in the Spartans’ views of their past, too, no explicit evidence has survived to document how that crucial cluster of events was being conceptualized. The next evidence that is preserved dates to the late first century BCE and comes from the works of Diodorus Siculus, Pompeius Trogus, Nicolaus of Damascus, and Strabo. However, these authors mostly reflect—and, as we have seen, often explicitly refer to—the views of mainstream fourth century historiography, particularly of Ephorus, who clearly enjoyed a very high prestige in their age. [74] Therefore, first-century sources are on the whole more useful to reconstruct the views of earlier historians. To find an identifiably new stage in the development of ancient perceptions on the origins of Helotry we have to reach the second century CE.

6. Pausanias’ views on Helots and Messenians

The second century CE was arguably a crucial phase for the Greeks’ definition of their cultural identity, a process that involved massive engagement with their past by figures of the caliber of a Plutarch. Pausanias’ Periegesis belongs fully in that cultural climate. His summaries of early Laconian and Messenian history represent by far the most comprehensive corpus of information on the subject in ancient literature. In his work, and only in his work, events and processes that are only alluded to in earlier sources appear as elements of a consistent narrative, together with a remarkable amount of information found in no earlier source. As a matter of fact, all detailed modern reconstructions of Spartan and Messenian history of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, and especially all reconstructions of the Messenian wars, depend to a significant extent on Pausanias. [75] His texts are so much more detailed and consistent than anything else that has been preserved from antiquity that they have often dominated the interpretation of the earlier authors as well, deluding some scholars into recognizing in the fragmentary early evidence the elements of a vulgata and often distracting their attention from the surviving signs of conflicting views.
As it is often the case with post-classical authors, Pausanias has in the past been taken as a mere compiler, whose work mainly provided evidence on those of earlier lost historians. In the case of Messenia, Eduard Schwartz formulated the thesis, successively developed by Jacoby, that Pausanias abridged a regional history of Messenia dating to the early imperial age, without consulting the works of any earlier author and basically replicating the bias of his immediate source. [76] Recent scholarship has moved away from this reductive interpretation, and with good reason, since the Messenian narrative in Book 4 provides many telling examples of Pausanias’ actively and creatively engaging with earlier sources and traditions, showing that his work cannot be seen as anything else than a carefully thought-out narrative, with a precise, if sometimes elusive, agenda. [77] In the absence of external evidence, Pausanias should therefore be treated as an author sui iuris, contemporary with his own age. [78] And of course, it is necessary to remember that in his age the political map of the southern Peloponnese had changed dramatically since the fourth century BCE.
Pausanias has answers to all the questions we have been discussing so far. On the origins of Laconian Helots, he accepts the connection with Helos, both in etymological and in historical terms, that is, he takes “Helots” as the ethnic of Helos (3.2.7 and 20.6) and says that the inhabitants of Helos were the first to be Helotized by the Spartans (3.20.6). To round things off, according to Pausanias the Argives, Sparta's archenemies, had helped the Helots of Helos against the Spartans (3.2.7). However, Pausanias dates the conquest of the town much later than previous authors did, during the reign of king Alcamenes, the successor of Teleclus, while attributing the conquest of most of Laconia to Teleclus himself (3.2.6). In his view, up to that point the Dorians had occupied only Sparta itself, while the neighboring settlements were still inhabited by Achaeans, who were then expelled by the Dorians. Before embracing this view of the growth of the Spartan state, which might sound inherently plausible to a modern interpreter, it should be underlined that in Pausanias' times the former perioikic settlements were independent from Sparta; they had been separated from Sparta in 195 BCE, after Flamininus' war against Nabis, and later joined to form a league that took the name of League of the Eleutherolaconians, or Free Laconians, in the age of Augustus. [79] Pausanias' downdating of their conquest by the Spartans is perhaps more likely to reflect and retroject this situation than to preserve a genuine memory of early Spartan history—a memory, it should be remembered, that somehow would have escaped all earlier extant authors.
In Pausanias' chronology, Helotry would have been introduced in Laconia in the generation of the “First Messenian War,” which he dates to the generation of the kings Alcamanes and Theopompus. In his prodigiously detailed narrative (4.713), that war ended, after Tyrtaeus' twenty years, with those Messenians who had guest-friends in other places, mostly in the Peloponnese, leaving their fatherland, and the others surrendering to the Spartans (4.14.1). Pausanias' description of the hard conditions of the surrender imposed on the Messenians by the Spartans is based on some verses of Tyrtaeus discussed at the beginning of this paper (4.14.4-5). One important element mentioned by Pausanias that is not found in Tyrtaeus' verses is the oath not to revolt against Sparta. This hard and humiliating plight was not yet Helotry, and Pausanias uses Tyrtaeus to make this point. Two generations after the first war, the fathers' fathers' war, the Messenians revolted under the leadership of their national hero, Aristomenes, and were defeated again after a long struggle (4.15-22). This time, exile brought them farther away, to southern Italy and Sicily, and those who stayed behind were finally reduced to the condition of Helots, or rather “merged with the Helots,” as Pausanias says (4.16.1 and 24.5), while the Spartans divided the land among themselves. [80] These enslaved Messenians revolted against the Spartans after the earthquake, left the Peloponnese under a truce (4.24.5-7), and after further wanderings their descendants came back for the grande rentré e promoted by the Thebans in 369 (4.26.5).
Thus, Pausanias separated the conquest of Messenia from the enslavement of the Messenians and their transformation into Helots. In a sense, in so doing he replicated the sequence of the Spartan subjugation that we found in Ephorus, except that Pausanias down-dated the first phase to the “First Messenian War” and the final enslavement to the “Second.” He was certainly not the only ancient author to do so, and probably not the first. As we have seen, the idea that after the Spartan victory in the “First War” the Messenians had become dependant without being enslaved is found also in Aelian (VH 6.1), in a passage that reflects the same verses of Tyrtaeus quoted by Pausanias, but cannot depend on Pausanias himself. Unfortunately, it is impossible to locate in time the ultimate source of Aelian’s passage, nor to say with any certainty if Pausanias depends on the same source.

7. The war on the Helots: a Spartan tradition?

Before moving towards a conclusion, a point should be emphasized. Of all the sources discussed so far, only a tiny minority can be connected tentatively with views held by the Spartans themselves. Nevertheless, these few bits and pieces suggest a reflection that could explain a central aspect of almost all the sources. Very much in keeping with classic Spartan ideology, Tyrtaeus’ verses confirm that the Spartans liked to think that whatever they possessed, they had conquered with their strength and courage: their land in Laconia, under the leadership of the Heraclids, and their land in Messenia following their king Theopompus; the same concept, in a more articulate form, is attributed by Isocrates to Archidamus. These same Spartans, at least since the sixth century—but most scholars would date this much earlier—peacefully kept the Helots as a self-reproducing slave population and were fed by them, instead of acquiring new slaves by way of trade or, more like Spartans, of war. At the same time, Aristotle tells that every year the Spartan ephors upon entering their tenure declared war on the Helots (fr. 543 Gigon ap. Plut. Lyc. 28.7). The reason for this famously odd custom, according to Aristotle, was that the declaration allowed the Spartans to kill Helots, if appropriate, without incurring into ritual pollution. One wonders if the Spartans could not have simply purified themselves after killing a Helot, just like an Athenian would do for killing a slave; [81] was it because the Spartans were killing Helots much more frequently than other Greek slave-owners killed their slaves? Perhaps, but perhaps the declaration of war could also serve a further function: it allowed the Spartans to conceptualize their domination on their slaves as a result of their military superiority, affirmed by an ongoing victorious war. In a society like the classical Spartan one, so strongly based on the performance of public rituals, this sort of permanent state of war could have had a more explicit symbolic meaning than the memory of a war fought in the distant past by their ancestors. One wonders whether the strange expression “war against the Helots” that recurs in Ephorus (FGrHist 70 F 117 ap. Strab. 8.5.4) [82] might not be the trace of a misunderstanding, a Spartan institution transformed by later authors into an event that had happened once in the past, according to a pattern well-attested in Greek historiography, particularly but not only in the case of religious rituals (incidentally, the murder of Teleclus at Limnae could belong to the same category). [83]

8. Conclusions

Some interesting lines of continuity emerge from the sources. First of all, there does not seem to have been a Spartan tradition on the origins of Helotry, or perhaps more cautiously, there are no traces whatsoever of such a tradition, not even in works inspired by the lively reworking of Spartan tradition that took place in the late third century BCE, such as Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus. [84] From Tyrtaeus to Isocrates, the Spartans seem to have thought that they had conquered their land and evicted its previous occupants, particularly on the Messenian side. They apparently accepted no distinction between Helots west or east of the Taygetos: they were all their slaves; as one could say, to the Spartans a Helot was a Helot was a Helot.
From a more general perspective, an interesting point that deserves emphasizing is the separation and difference in quality between accounts of the origins of Laconian and Messenian Helots. The reflection on the origins of the latter cannot be separated from the reflection on the Spartan conquest of Messenia, and was obviously triggered by political conflicts, the revolt in the fifth century and then the birth of independent Messene in the fourth. Although neither Thucydides nor Ephorus are likely to reflect precisely what the Messenians themselves thought of their past, [85] their views on the enslavement of the old Messenians were certainly and deeply influenced by the claim to freedom staked by the Messenians of their times. Instead, all sources on the origins of Helotry in Laconia, with the problematic exception of Antiochus, accept the connection Helots-Helos, a connection that was obviously the result of erudite speculation; in other words, narratives on the origins of Laconian Helotry are more likely to have originated on the desk of some historian than to be a product however mediated of political conflicts. [86] In their attempt at explaining Laconian Helotry in ethnic terms, ancient historians were clearly applying to it an explanatory scheme developed for Messenian Helotry. Incidentally, this remarkable readiness to assume parallel developments in the early histories of Laconia and Messenia worked both ways, and finds its most accomplished expression in Ephorus’ narrative of the two Doric kingdoms.
A further parallel between ancient views of the origins of Laconian and Messenian Helotry pertains to how the enslavement of the local populations came about. Most or all ancient authors saw the enslavement in both Laconia and Messenia as the result of defeat in war, but the defeated community, as far as it is possible to tell, was considered to have been already in a relation of more or less strict dependency from the conqueror at the time of the war. [87] Therefore, in both cases the war itself was a sort of rebellion: both the people of Helos and the Messenians were reduced to Helotry after they had rejected some less heavy imposition. It is difficult to say exactly where this idea came from. It is moderately pro-Spartan, in that it implies that somehow the would-be Helots had drawn the punishment upon themselves, but it was entrenched enough for a pro-Messenian author like Pausanias not to discard it outright. Even in this case, in all likelihood it was Messenia that set the pattern: in the fourth century, Plato seems to have seen an obvious association between Messenian Helots and revolt. [88] Incidentally, the connection between Helotry and revolt underlines an interesting fact: although the liberation of Messenia certainly triggered a certain amount of pro-Messenian reworking of the past, mainstream Greek historiography seems to have kept a moderately pro-Spartan stance. Fourth-century Messenians’ views of their past remain rather obscure.
The idea of an incoming conquering group that appropriates the land of the indigenous inhabitants and enslaves them is nowhere explicitly attested in ancient sources on Helotry. [89] Even in Theopompus’ version, the only one that bears a significant resemblance to the modern vulgata, there was certainly a precise explanation for the fact that only the Achaeans of Helos had been enslaved. Thucydides’ view of the enslavement of the Messenians may also have been similar to the modern vulgata, but his text is too laconic to decide either way, and there are strong reasons to think that even here, the ancient source might allude to a more complex process. In other words, what I called the modern vulgata on the conquest of the Helots, envisaging the origins of Helotry as a parallel process of conquest of the land and enslavement of its inhabitants by the Dorian Spartans, is not based on the ancient sources, but rather on an idiosyncratic selection of details taken from some of them. This does not mean that it is wrong, but only, that it cannot claim for itself the authority enjoyed among classicists by anything written in Greek.
More importantly, this investigation of sources draws attention to the fact that ancient ideas on the origins of Helotry did not exist in a scholarly vacuum. On the contrary, even though some of the texts that have been discussed are certainly to some extent the product of erudite speculation, they all show more or less clear signs of 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: first and foremost, 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 generations of Greeks to rethink the crucial “time of the origins,” compelling them to revise critically previous notions and adapt them to new viewpoints and new agendas. [90]


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———. 2002a. “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered.” In A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (eds.), Sparta: Beyond the Mirage. London: 229-250.
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[ back ] 1. Recently, only Jean Ducat; Ducat 1978: 44-45. But he has illustrious predecessors: see the refreshing remarks of Eduard Meyer (1937: 258-259).
[ back ] 2. Luraghi 2002a.
[ back ] 3. This approach has been championed particularly by Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1981: 223-248) and applied most extensively by J. Ducat (1990: 3-100); see his reflections, p. 6.
[ back ] 4. It forms in fact the backbone of the chronology of the First and Second Messenian Wars in ancient historiography (Jacoby 1943: 114). Schwartz (1899: 429) suggested that the expression ‘fathers of our fathers' could be taken in a more general way, to mean simply ‘our ancestors'; see also Nafissi 1991: 37 n. 26.
[ back ] 5. On the meaning of the first person in archaic lyric, see Slings 2000: esp. 26-28. For a nice case of misunderstanding that involves Tyrtaeus, see Strab. 8.4.10, where Strabo discusses Tyrt. fr. 2 W.2 taking the first person in the verses as a reference to the poet’s biography and using the fragment as an argument against those who made Tyrtaeus an Athenian; Strabo’s way of deducing historical information from these verses should be kept in mind whenever a later source is used as evidence on an early period based on the assumption that it could depend on Tyrtaeus.
[ back ] 6. On the contexts in which archaic lyric poetry in general and Tyrtaeus’ elegies in particular were performed, see Bowie 1986: 13-35, esp. 30-31, and 1990: 221-229, esp. 224-229.
[ back ] 7. Ironically, it was in the fourth century and in the Hellenistic period that the name ‘Messene’ oscillated between indicating the Messenian polity, which included the lower Pamisos plain and most of the Akritas peninsula, and the main settlement of that polity, which was called Ithome at least until the end of the fourth century. See Roebuck 1941: 37, confirmed by SEG 43.135, on which see Matthaiou 2001: 221-227.
[ back ] 8. With an important difference: as Jacoby (1943: 112) has correctly emphasized, all ancient sources say or imply that Messenia had been completely conquered by the Spartans as a result of the ‘First Messenian War.’ The notion that the Spartans conquered only part of Messenia, e.g. the Pamisos valley and the Stenyklaros plain, during this war, and completed their conquest during the ‘Second Messenian War,’ appears only in modern research; it has been argued especially by Franz Kiechle (1959: esp. 65-70) and accepted e.g. by Clauss (1983: 20) and Cartledge (2002: 103).
[ back ] 9. The epithets associated with it in Tyrt. fr. 5 W.2 can refer to both cities and regions.
[ back ] 10. For the identification of this Messene as a place rather than a region, see Visser 1997: 485-486. His further suggestion that this place should be located in Laconia rests on no argument.
[ back ] 11. Cf. e.g. Meyer 1978: 137.
[ back ] 12. During the excavations started by Petros Themelis in 1987 at Mavromati, the site of Epaminondas’ city, Geometric pottery has been found at various locations: around the later temple of Asklepios (see Themelis 1987: 87), close to the Klepsydra fountain in the modern village of Mavromati (Themelis 1988: 45) and to the naiskos of Artemis Orthia (Themelis 1991: 95). To this has to be added the fragment of a leg of a geometric bronze tripod, found on Mt. Ithome itself (Maaß 1978: 33-34, n. 57 and pl. 67).
[ back ] 13. Discussed in Visser 1997: 483-486; cf. Shipley 1997: 253. The possibility that Messe should be identified with Messene occurred already to the ancient readers of Homer (mentioned by Strab. 8.5.3). Tellingly, the only author who appears to know a location for Messe is the philo-Messenian Pausanias; his Messe of course is in Laconia (3.25.9).
[ back ] 14. See Hope Simpson 1966: 113-131, and Visser 1997: 492-501.
[ back ] 15. On the location of Pylos and the situation in southwestern Peloponnese in Homeric geography, see Giovannini 1969: 28-30 and Visser 1997: 508-531.
[ back ] 16. Probably for this reason it has been thought that the Messene of Od. 21.15 should be identified with Pherai, where Telemachus met Diocles, son of Orsilochos, on his way from Pylos to Sparta and back (Od. 3.486-488 = 15.185-188); however, even if one adheres to a strictly realistic reading of Homer’s geography, there is no reason to exclude that Messene could have a harbor, presumably west of the mouth of the Pamisos or in the area of Kyparissia.
[ back ] 17. For the interpretation of this fragment see West 1974: 188.
[ back ] 18. Most explicitly Aristot. Pol. 5.1306b37-1307a2; Philochorus FGrHist328 F 216; Diod. 8.27.1; but this is also implied by the story that made of Tyrtaeus an Athenian, on which see below. Tyrt. fr. 9 W2 also mentions a battle against the Messenians, but without any chronological reference.
[ back ] 19. See e.g. Lotze 1959: 28 and 32-33; Oliva 1971: 108-112; Link 1994: 1 n. 6; Hodkinson 2000: 126-127; Cartledge 2002: 303.
[ back ] 20. As Ducat astutely points out (1990: 61 n. 21), if Tyrtaeus had mentioned by name the Helots later sources would certainly not have failed to refer to him.
[ back ] 21. See Kiechle 1959: 61 and Ducat 1990: 60-61.
[ back ] 22. For more detailed arguments in support of the interpretation presented here, see Luraghi 2002a.
[ back ] 23. According to the Atthidographer Demon (FGrHist 327 F 19), writing probably in the late fourth century, the Megarians were compelled to go to Corinth to mourn at the funerals of the Bacchiads. The parallel with Tyrtaeus has been noticed by Bockisch (1985: 44-45) and is developed by Hans van Wees in this volume.
[ back ] 24. Notice particularly δεσπόσυνοι (fr. 6.2 W.2), possibly a Doric word, cf. Plut. Lyk. 28.10 and SGDI 4334.
[ back ] 25. As Vidal-Naquet’s comparison with the τρέσαντες, the Spartans who lost their full political rights because of cowardice, makes clear (1981: 238 and 279; see also Moscati Castelnuovo 1991: 64-79, esp. 72-74).
[ back ] 26. See Ducat 1990: 67. A process of internal differentiation is envisaged also in Plat. Resp. 8.547b-c, which however does not have to refer specifically to Spartan history; see Vidal-Naquet 1981: 240 and Ducat 1990: 75-76.
[ back ] 27. On this, I follow Nafissi 1999: 251-258. The hostility in Antiochus’ story is surprisingly overlooked by most scholars, but it becomes clear if one compares it with Ephorus’ version (FGrHist 70 F 216 = Strab. 6.3.3). Musti’s view (1988: 156 and 158), according to which Antiochus found the servile origin in the tradition and did his best to tone it down, is not very convincing; Antiochus could well have passed over the servile origin of the colonists completely in silence, had he so wished: after all, Ephorus did just that (see below).
[ back ] 28. As noted by Moscati Castelnuovo 1991: 69-70. It is rather puzzling that Antiochus should not say who the ‘unmarried’ mothers of the Partheniai were; in any case, the very name of the Partheniai will probably have prevented him from considering them bastard sons of the wives of the Spartans who were fighting in Messenia.
[ back ] 29. Ephorus, who wrote a universal history from the return of the Heraclids, unsurprisingly has a version of the foundation of Taras that shows a much closer familiarity with Spartan history and institutions than Antiochus’; see now Lupi (2000: 172-176) who shows elegantly that Ephorus’ version implies a rather precise knowledge of Spartan marriage customs. Furthermore, Ephorus clearly goes out of his way to clear every trace of blame on Partheniai or Spartans (Nafissi 1999: 254).
[ back ] 30. The word parthenios is used in the Iliad to refer to Eudorus, one of the leaders of the Myrmidons, a son of the god Hermes and of the maiden Polymele, who after his birth married a mortal man, Echecles; Eudoros was then reared in the house of Polymele’s father, Phylas (Il. 16.179-92).
[ back ] 31. On the alliance between Rhegion and Taras in 473, see Hdt. 7.170.3 and Diod. 11.52 with Vallet 1958: 370-372. The idea that the alliance could have influenced the narrative of the foundation of Taras as found in Antiochus was first put forward by Georg Busolt (1893: 407 n. 1), and has been accepted by many other scholars: see Pais 1922: 124 n. 1; Ciaceri 1928: 225; Cordano 1995: 54. On the emphasis on Messenian heritage in early-fifth century Rhegion, see Luraghi 1994: 200-202.
[ back ] 32. Antiochus' hostility to Taras: Nafissi 1995: 299-300 with further references.
[ back ] 33. This has been suggested by Pierre Leveque (1979: 114-119 at 115); contra, Ducat 1990: 7-8 and 67. Both possibilities are admitted by Musti (1988: 155 n. 7), who opts cautiously for seeing in Antiochus a reference to the introduction of Helotry. Garlan (1995: 101) leaves the problem open.
[ back ] 34. See Ducat 1990: 132 and Whitby 1994: 116 n. 38. The interpretation of this passage is discussed in Luraghi 2002b.
[ back ] 35. Cf. also 9.35.2, where Ithome may be mentioned in conjunction with the revolt, if one accepts Paulmier’s emendation of Ἰσθμῷ in Ἰθώμῃ; the rebels, at any rate, are called Messenians.
[ back ] 36. See Ducat 1990: 132-134. Whitby (1994: 115-116 n. 38) thinks that the participation of Laconian Helots is implied by Diod. 11.63.6-64.1 and Plut. Cim. 16.4, describing Archidamus’ prompt reaction that saved Sparta from a direct attack. The interpretation of the revolt outlined here is argued in detail in Luraghi 2001a: 285-290.
[ back ] 37. Figueira 1999: 215, speaks of ‘a virtual blitzkrieg of self-assertion by the Messenians spanning about a generation from c. 460’. On the Nike, see Holscher 1974; the dedicatory inscription, mentioning Messenians and Naupactians, is IvO 259.
[ back ] 38. A detailed discussion of this passage is found in Ducat 1990: 77, with further references. Helos was probably a perioikic settlement in the fifth century; see Shipley 1997: 252-253; on the status of Helos see also Kiechle 1963: 271-272.
[ back ] 39. Cf. Steph. Byz. s.v. Helos and Ducat 1990: 9, and see below on Theopompus’ version of the ethnic of Helos.
[ back ] 40. On such practices see Ducat 1974: 1451-1464, and 1990: 105-127. Cf. Figueira 1999: 221, who stresses the absence of ethnic symbolism in them.
[ back ] 41. The relevant sources are discussed in Luraghi 2001b.
[ back ] 42. The first instance of this usage is Eur. fr. 1083 ap. Strab. 8.5.6, from the lost tragedy Temenos, which narrated the division (see Harder 1991: 133-134): Strabo uses ‘Messenia,’ except when he introduces line 10 of the fragment, where his ‘Messene’ in highly likely to reflect Euripides’ terminology.
[ back ] 43. The recognition of Messene as a sovereign state was a stumbling block of attempts at renewing the common peace in the sixties; see Jehne 1994: 80-85 and 96-97. The sources on the foundation of the new Messene have been collected by Dipersia 1974: 54-61.
[ back ] 44. See Jehne 1994: 11 n. 21 with further bibliography.
[ back ] 45. Note that because of the shift in meaning of the toponym ‘Messene,’ fourth-century readers were bound to deduce from Tyrtaeus that the Spartans under king Theopompus had conquered Messenia, i.e. the region, rather than a settlement in that region.
[ back ] 46. See Mazzarino 1966: 462. The story is also in Diod. 8.27, on which see Jacoby 1943: 114, lines 1921. The version of the story found in Justin (3.5.5-6) and Pausanias (4.15.6), according to which Tyrtaeus was lame and the Athenians had sent him because they did not want to help the Spartans, is clearly an attempt at excusing Athens, and as such certainly a later concoction.
[ back ] 47. Massimo Nafissi reminds me that oracles are endemic in traditions on the Heraclid conquest, and some oracle might well have been linked to the conquest of Messenia, too.
[ back ] 48. The same view of the citizens of Epaminondas’ Messene may be reflected in the proverbial expression δουλότερος Μεσσήνης (notice the form of the place-name: since the late third century BCE at the latest, ‘Messene’ was—again—the name of the city at the foot of Mt. Ithome, it did not indicate the region any more), later misunderstood by the paroemiographers and connected to the harsh conditions imposed on Helotized Messenians (Macarius 3.35, Zenobius 3.39). Unless, that is, the proverb really refers to the Messenians who revolted in the fifth century, which is possible.
[ back ] 49. Dipersia 1974: 58.
[ back ] 50. See Thuc. 1.103.1 with Figueira 1999: 234-235.
[ back ] 51. See Figueira 1999: 221-222.
[ back ] 52. Cf. also Plut. Ages. 34.1. Plutarch depends largely on Callisthenes’ Hellenics, a work composed in the late forties of the fourth century and characterized by a strong bias in favor of the Thebans; see Fuscagni 1975: 31-55.
[ back ] 53. Interesting observations on the text of the epigram in Dipersia 1974: 60.
[ back ] 54. On Cassander's motives, see Bearzot 1997: 265-276; if her interpretation is correct, the statue seen by Pausanias could well date back to this moment.
[ back ] 55. On the tradition that made Ephorus and Theopompus pupils of the Athenian orator, see Nicolai (1992) who explains it as the result of speculation based on similarities in style.
[ back ] 56. See the interesting analysis of Ephorus FGrHist 70 T 8 ap. Diod. 4.1.2-3 by Parmeggiani 1999: 107-125.
[ back ] 57. This story may have something to do with the classic topos of the Spartan oliganthropia, as suggested by Figueira 1999: 217.
[ back ] 58. Ephorus must have been mostly retrojecting conditions he was familiar with from his own time, and this reference should probably be connected to the mysterious basilikos phoros paid by the Lacedaemonians according to Plat. Alcib. I 123a, and perhaps also to Xenophon’s statement (Lac. Pol. 15.3) that the Spartan kings owned choice land in perioikic territory. See Oliva 1971: 60-61 and Cartledge 2002: 155 (both skeptical); but cf. Cartledge 1987: 16.
[ back ] 59. On the extension of the excerpt from Ephorus, see Jacoby’s edition of this fragment and Hodkinson 2000: 117-118.
[ back ] 60. This does not seem to have been the most common view: Herodotus’ ethnic map of the Peloponnese (8.73) seems to exclude it, except in the case of the Dryopians of Asine, while Isocrates in the Panathenaicus, in the late forties of the fourth century, considers the periokoi Dorians like the Spartiates (Panath. 178-179, on which see Ducat 1985: 99-100).
[ back ] 61. No source calls them such, but one does not see what other ethnic definition they could have had; cf. Diod. 15.66.2, where Orestes is king of Messenia (and Laconia).
[ back ] 62. See already Niese 1891: 2-3.
[ back ] 63. ‘Were suspicious of his μετακόσμησις τῶν καθεστώτων,’ as Nicolaus puzzlingly puts it. It is possible that Ephorus already depicted Cresphontes as a demagogue, as did Pausanias (4.3.7), whose account is much more favorable to Cresphontes than Nicolaus’ and eliminates any trace of conflict between Dorians and indigenous inhabitants.
[ back ] 64. pace Stylianou 1998: 439, who does not consider Nicolaus FGrHist 90 F 34. Cf. the analysis of Diod. 15.66 by Jacoby 1930: 424-425 (ad 124 F 23-24).
[ back ] 65. See Kiechle 1959: 60.
[ back ] 66. This has been noted already by Niese 1891: 6.
[ back ] 67. Jacoby 1943: 113-114. The distinction between a first and a second war had probably been introduced by Callisthenes; see FGrHist 124 F 23 and Jacoby 1943: 118.
[ back ] 68. See Vidal-Naquet 1981: 223-230. Chios and Sparta are singled out for having particularly many slaves already by Thucydides (8.40.2). On Thessaly, see Ducat 1994. Both Shrimpton (1991: 49-50) and Flower (1994: 81-82) suggest plausibly that Theopompus was critical of the enslavement of Greeks by the Spartans, and probably also of the latter’s brutal treatment of the Helots (cf. Theop. FGrHist 115 F 13 discussed below).
[ back ] 69. Herodotus’ map of ethnic groups in the Peloponnese (8.73) does not mention any non-Dorians living in Laconia, but this point should not be pressed too far, since it is perfectly possible that Herodotus simply ignored the Helots, qua slaves.
[ back ] 70. As noted by Ducat 1990: 69.
[ back ] 71. As suggested by Jacoby 1930: 357.
[ back ] 72. Quite puzzlingly, in both fragments Theopompus speaks in the present tense. If Jacoby was right in attributing the first fragment to Theopompus’ Philippic histories, then the two fragments would reflect two different authorial presents, but even the earlier Hellenics, from which the second fragment comes, can hardly have been written earlier than 369, when Sparta lost control of Messenia. In other words, Theopompus’ use of the present tense cannot be seen without qualification as an argument against the conclusion that the first fragment (FGrHist 115 F 122) refers to Helots both in Laconia and Messenia. Also noteworthy is the fact that Theopompus in F 13 does not speak simply of enslavement of the Messenians, but says that some Helots were ‘from Messene.’ Perhaps, he thought that the Helot population had been mixed up or relocated by the Spartans, so that some Helots ‘from Messene’ were still serving their Spartan masters in Laconia after the liberation of Messenia?
[ back ] 73. As suggested by Ducat 1978: 9 n. 16.
[ back ] 74. For Diodorus’ use of Ephorus, particularly for the history of mainland Greece in book XV, see Stylianou 1998: 49-50. For Nicolaus, see Jacoby 1926: 233-234.
[ back ] 75. A particularly egregious example is Huxley 1962.
[ back ] 76. Schwartz 1899, developed by Jacoby 1943, esp. 19-20.
[ back ] 77. The Schwartz-Jacoby theory was challenged by Pearson 1962: 397-426. For an analysis of book IV as reflecting Pausanias’ own intent, see Alcock 2001: 142-153. Of course, once the alleged local source is done away with, the pro-Messenian and anti-Spartan bias in Pausanias’ book IV, easy to explain if it reflected the use of a local history of Messenia, becomes problematic. For some precious indications of Pausanias’ agenda, which might help explain his antipathy for the Spartans, see Goldmann 1991, and Dalfen 1996.
[ back ] 78. The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a massive revival of Pausanian studies, triggered by the Italian edition and commentary in the series of the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla (see Domenico Musti’s extensive introduction to the first volume, Musti and Torelli 1982: ix-lv), and by Christian Habicht’s Sather Lectures (1985). Another milestone in this revival was the entretien the Fondation Hardt devoted to Pausanias in 1994 (Bingen 1996). Two very rich volumes have appeared very recently: Knoepfler and Pierart 2001; Alcock, Cherry and Elsner 2001.
[ back ] 79. On the perioikoi after 195 BCE, see the groundbreaking contribution of Kennell 1999; on the extension of Spartan territory thereafter, see Shipley 2000.
[ back ] 80. In another passage (3.20.6), Pausanias says that the enslaved Messenians came to be called Helots, although they were Dorians. This does not probably mean that Pausanias thought that Messenia was inhabited only by Dorians at the time of the Spartan conquest: in book IV, he tells how in Messenia the Dorians did not expel the previous inhabitants, that is, the Achaeans (4.3.6).
[ back ] 81. See Fisher 1993: 63-64. For modern interpretations of Aristotle, see Link 1994: 8-9 with further references.
[ back ] 82. Cf. also ὁ εἱλωτικὸς πόλεμος in Plut. mul. virt. 8 (=mor. 247a).
[ back ] 83. See Strab. 6.1.6 and 8.4.9, and Paus. 4.4.2-3; cf. now Leitao 1999.
[ back ] 84. Plut. Lyk. 2.1, given its chronology, is probably simply a short allusion to the Helos story; see Ducat 1990: 70.
[ back ] 85. Thucydides’ perspective, that follows neither the Spartan nor the Messenian viewpoint but is on the whole more sympathetic to the former, has been investigated very convincingly by Figueira 1999: 213.
[ back ] 86. This tentative conclusion keeps account of the possibility, suggested to me by Massimo Nafissi, that interest in the ethnic identity of the Helots of Laconia was triggered by the Athenians’ attempt at destabilizing Laconia moving from Cythera during the Peloponnesian war (Thuc. 5.14).
[ back ] 87. Even in Laconia, the perioikic cities, of which Helos was one, albeit receiving equality of rights with the Dorians of Sparta, accepted to obey them, according to Ephorus (FGrHist 70 F 117).
[ back ] 88. See Plat. Leg. 6.777b-c and Ducat 1990: 83-89.
[ back ] 89. That no ancient source explicitly states a direct connection between conquest and enslavement, and particularly between conquest by the Dorians and mass enslavement of the pre-Dorians, has been emphasized particularly by Ducat 1990: 69.
[ back ] 90. Besides the debt to the participants in the Workshop at Harvard in 2001, this article owes a great deal to the careful reading and competent remarks of Susanne Ebbinghaus, Massimo Nafissi and Eric Robinson. While ultimate responsibility for the views expressed here is the author’s, their help has done much to improve the present text.