Freedom for the Messenians? A Note on the Impact of Slavery and Helotage on the Greek Concept of Freedom

Kurt A. Raaflaub

1

In 371 the Thebans defeated a Spartan army at Leuctra and destroyed the myth of Spartan invincibility. [1] In the winter of 370/69 Epameinondas led an army of Thebans and allies into Lakonia, devastated parts of the country, and almost launched an attack against Sparta itself. During this campaign, the Theban leader separated Messenia from the Lakedaimonian state and proclaimed it an independent polis, centered in a newly founded town, Messene. This town was located at the foot of Mt. Ithome, site of a sanctuary of Zeus, which had long been a Messenian refuge and the center of long-lasting resistance against Sparta during the well-known revolt of the 460s. [2] It was populated not only by former helots, who had farmed the estates of their Spartan masters, but also by descendants of Messenians who had left their country during earlier conflicts with Sparta and formed a Messenian diaspora in various places of the Mediterranean, whether authentic or not. [3]
The creation of this new state, at the expense of Sparta, long the predominant military power in Greece, was a sensational event. One of its consequences was the emergence of a Messenian version of Messenian history or perhaps rather, of a Messenian mythology concerning the early Messenian wars. It was celebrated by various authors in works of formal Messenian history, Messêniaka. Much of this tradition found its way into the account of Pausanias which therefore needs to be considered with great critical caution. [4]
Probably around the time of Messene’s foundation, Alkidamas, a sophist and rhetorician, pupil of Gorgias, published an oration, presumably intended as a showpiece for recitation and teaching, in which he apparently recommended to the Spartans to liberate the Messenians. This “Messenian oration,” about which we know nothing otherwise, became famous because Alkidamas made in it a bold statement about the natural equality of slaves and free men: “God has set all men free; nature has made no man a slave.” Later in the fourth century, a comic playwright, Philemon, reiterated the universality of this principle: “Even if a man be a slave, he has the same flesh; no one was ever a slave by nature, though chance enslaves the body.” In his Politics, Aristotle, who vigorously opposed this view, refers to it: “Some hold that slave-ownership is unnatural. It is only by nomos (convention) that one is a slave and another free, for in nature there is no difference. Neither, then, is it just, for it is based on force.” [5]
If Alkidamas indeed published his speech, whatever its purpose, in the historical context of the creation of an independent Messenia, the liberation of the helots and thus of slaves here had a political connotation. The sentence that survives, however, is entirely unpolitical; it is part of a debate about a social and ethical problem, namely the question of whether or not slavery was reconcilable with laws of nature; if not, as Alkidamas postulated here, that is, if it contradicted nature, it was based entirely on human convention, power, and force, and as such theoretically and ethically unjustifiable. This debate was rooted in two strands of thought. On the one hand, it was related to discussions about the validity of other traditional social distinctions, such as elite vs. non-elite and Greek vs. barbarian, which were challenged vigorously in sophistic treatises of the late fifth century. [6] On the other hand, it was connected with the problem of whether the inferiority of slaves, observable in real life, was based on natural disposition, even on birth, or on the impact of conditioning by the institution itself; the latter idea, in turn, had a long history, visible in the emergence of a typology of slave behavior that is reflected already in the Odyssey and accentuated in the last third of the fifth century by medical or anthropological theories postulating a direct connection between, on the one hand, climate, fertility of the country, or a community’s constitution, and on the other, human physiology, character, and intelligence. Such discussions are echoed in Herodotus and Euripides. [7] Insofar as they touch upon political issues, however, they are concerned only with free persons and societies; the debate about slavery is limited entirely to social and anthropological aspects.
Until recently, the case of the helots (whether Lakonian or Messenian) was seen not as unique (because the status of slave populations in other parts of Greece, especially in Thessaly and Crete, was considered closely comparable already in antiquity) but as extraordinary, to be distinguished sharply from other forms of slavery (especially “chattel slavery”) that were common in large parts of Greece. The helots belonged, to use an ancient label, among various categories of dependent labor “between slaves and free” (metaxy doulôn kai eleutherôn), while chattel slaves were simply douloi. [8] To some extent, this distinction is still valid, but some of the presuppositions that determine such categorizations are in the course of being changed quite radically. The comprehensive reassessment of the development of Spartan society and institutions, carried on in patient and painstaking work on many aspects and details by Stephen Hodkinson and several other scholars over the last twenty years, has caught up with the helots as well. Due mostly to path-breaking studies by Jean Ducat, Thomas Figueira and, most incisively, Nino Luraghi, a different reality and development of helotage and a new understanding of Messenian identity and history are beginning to emerge. [9] I for one find the thrust and initial results of such recent work exciting and convincing. I summarize here the suggestions that seem most important for my present study.
However we imagine the Spartans to have conquered (and possibly reconquered) Messenia in the eighth and seventh centuries, [10] the stories we read in Pausanias and other late sources most likely contain very little authentic material, and helotage very probably was not the result of that conquest. Rather, this peculiar slave system, as we know it from the fifth and early fourth centuries, may well have emerged as the result of a conscious regulation and homogenization of various forms of dependent labor that co-existed in Archaic Sparta and in each case were paralleled in many other communities of Greece. This reform should probably be dated to the first part of the sixth century and connected with other reforms that produced the Spartan kosmos known from the classical period. The explanation of the helots’ origin as war captives, reflected in their name, is part of the foundation myth of the Spartan polity. Some forms of collective identity arose among those slaves in part because of their shared living and working conditions and in part (and perhaps considerably later) as the result of rituals of inferiority and alterity imposed on them by their Spartan masters.
Material and cult evidence suggests that the entire region controlled by Sparta was culturally homogeneous, “Lakonian”; a distinctly “Messenian” identity is unlikely to have survived, if it ever existed at the time of the original conquest. Such an identity might rather have developed among some of the perioikic towns in Messenia, one of which seems to have been located at the foot of Mt. Ithome, on the site of Epameinondas’ Messene. This identity broke powerfully into the open during the “earthquake revolt” of the 460s, when helots and perioikoi of at least two towns fought an extended war of resistance at Ithome against the Spartans and thwarted all their efforts at bringing them under control again. The survivors were finally evacuated under a truce and settled by the Athenians in Naupaktos. While the Spartans (and other Greeks adopting their perspective) considered this only and entirely a slave revolt, [11] the evacuees themselves maintained their newly found “Messenian” identity and developed it further. The myth of their Messenian origin and their claim to Messenia as their native land are parts of this new identity; they must thus be considered political rather than historical: the results of specific developments beginning in the 460s and greatly enhanced, of course, by the foundation of Messene a century later.
From at least the 450s, when the survivors of Mt. Ithome were settled in Naupaktos on the Corinthian gulf, and perhaps earlier, Messenian refugees thus lived outside of Messenia in a diaspora that formed communities with their own “Messenian” identity. This identity, it seems, was shared by both former perioikoi and former helots. Later tradition suppressed the memory of the role the perioikoi had played in all this—a crucial role in several respects, as Luraghi has suggested convincingly—just as late fifth- and early fourth-century writers on Sparta left them mostly out of the picture. [12] Rather, ancient writers on Messenian matters focused almost exclusively on the contrast and conflict between Spartiates and helots. The latter’s identity could be, and was, perceived and described in conflicting ways: they were seen as slaves, in some ways even representing the most radical form of slavery, because they enabled their Spartan masters to be more absolutely free than most other free Greeks, [13] but also as a collectivity with common ethnic traits and a common past and common claims. Moreover, the “Messenians” of Naupaktos participated actively in Athens’ war against Sparta and were used to some extent as instruments to undermine Spartan control over Messenia. [14]
For all these reasons, this was an exceptional case, in which the slave population of a specific Greek polis was an issue of intense public interest and even concern to many contemporaries. It was well known that these slaves or enslaved Messenians had fought a long and bitter war against the Spartans—once or perhaps several times. Hence there could be no doubt about their own awareness of the value of freedom and their yearning for freedom. Moreover, in this case the existence of slavery could have prompted—and, as Alkidamas’ Messenian speech seems to indicate, did in fact prompt—among other, free Greeks a demand for their liberation. Here, then, the experience of slavery could have resulted in the articulation of a concept of liberty, both among the slaves and the free.
It is the purpose of this chapter to examine this possibility. For the result may help us answer the important and more general question of whether the social experience of slavery could have produced in contemporaries an awareness of the value of freedom that was sufficiently explicit and marked to prompt them to develop a true and conscious concept of freedom. For the contrast between slave and free, and thus presumably an awareness of the potential or real misery of slavery and the corresponding value of freedom must have existed at least minimally in many slave-owning societies. [15] Among the Archaic Greeks this found expression in individual images focusing on the suffering caused by slavery and in the evolution of a contrasting typology of slave and free, mentioned earlier. This too was hardly unique. But only the Greeks, it seems, raised their consciousness of the value of freedom to a level that enabled them to create an explicit concept of freedom with a differentiated terminology and political emphasis.
Currently available evidence suggests that both the concept and terminology, reflecting political consciousness, emerged, and were prompted by, the confrontation of the Greek poleis with an eastern territorial state and authoritarian monarchy in the Persian Wars of the early fifth century. [16] At least the opposite of freedom, however, “slavery” or “servitude” (doulosynê), seems to have been conceptualized politically a good century earlier, when the citizens of some poleis were facing the threat or reality of “enslavement” by a tyrant. [17] The question is thus justified whether the positive concept too was already in existence long before the Persian Wars even if it did not leave a trace in the extant evidence. If so, we need to ask what prompted the development of this concept and whether the experience of slavery as such could have offered a sufficient impulse. In his widely acclaimed book on Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, Orlando Patterson gives to this question a very strongly positive answer. In my own earlier book on The Discovery of Freedom, I came to a negative conclusion. [18] Perhaps the helots can help us clarify the issue.
Now clearly, by the time the helots entered the brightly lit stage of history, in their revolt of the 460s, the Greeks had already developed a political concept of freedom and begun to use it extensively in political argumentation and propaganda, both locally and “internationally.” Supposedly 35,000 helots (and thousands of perioikoi) participated in some capacity or other in the battle of Plataea in 479 and perhaps even observed the victory celebration with the Spartan king’s sacrifice to Zeus Eleutherios (the god of freedom). [19] Luraghi points out that many of these same helots and perioikoi may have been among the rebels of Mt. Ithome—the selfproclaimed “Messenians”—only little more than a decade later, and suggests that “the possibility of a connection between the idea of political freedom, prompted by the Persian War experience, and the earthquake revolt is more than merely an audacious hypothesis.” [20] If so, unrest must have been brewing among helots and, apparently, perioikoi, and the earthquake, as the extant descriptions suggest, merely offered an unexpected and highly welcome opportunity to start the revolt. [21]
At any rate, the fact alone that a concept of freedom already existed and was used intensively makes it all the more likely that it would have been applied to the helots’ struggle against the Spartans if contemporaries had been used to connecting the phenomenon of slavery consciously with the idea of freedom. This likelihood would seem even greater—and might in fact falsify our examination—if the helots were indeed seen already at the time of the “earthquake revolt” not only as slaves but also as members of an ethnically distinct unit that had its own history, derived specific claims from it, and was fighting for its collective and communal independence. This seems more likely from the mid-fifth century onward—when the “Messenians” formed their own community in Naupaktos, side-by-side with, but separate from, the Naupaktians—and even then only in specific situations and under specific conditions. [22] If, on the contrary, the helot issue did not automatically trigger conscious concerns about liberty, or such concerns were consistently ignored, this might strengthen the conclusion that the slave-free contrast was traditionally viewed at a low level of consciousness or assigned low significance.
It is important to clarify what the issue is here. I am obviously talking of outside observers, that is, other Greeks who themselves were free. As pointed out before, it is absolutely clear what the Spartans thought about the “Messenian” rebellion, and there can be little doubt about what the helots among the “Messenians” fighting the Spartans thought about the freedom they hoped to achieve. The question is to what extent their hopes mattered to the outside world. By focusing on the perspective of the free, my approach differs starkly from that of Patterson who pays much attention to the point of view of the slaves themselves and considers it crucial for the formation of freedom consciousness in society at large. My reason—and at the same time my thesis—is that slavery as such was able to trigger high consciousness of the value of liberty in a society only if the free, and especially those among them who mattered because they controlled power and set the tone in the community, adopted such consciousness themselves and integrated it into their value system. This did not happen on the basis of consciousness among the slaves themselves or of sympathy with the fate of the slaves among the free, however strongly and sincerely such sentiments may have been felt or even expressed by however many individuals. It happened, I suggest, only if the freemen or citizens themselves were exposed to the threat of loss of liberty in a traumatic and broad or extended experience [23] or if, for whatever reasons, slavery as such became widely objectionable.

2

Before I examine the evidence concerning the helots, I need to substantiate my disagreement with some of Patterson’s arguments. I should say at the outset that I find his book most impressive and very important. The amount of new insight it offers, even in fields far removed from his own, is truly remarkable. I am neither a comparative sociologist nor an anthropologist; I am interested in social and political history, and my expertise is essentially limited to ancient Greece and Rome. I am thus not able to join the discussion on Patterson’s level of theoretical and comparative sophistication and breadth. What I can do is to question and examine some of his assumptions, approaches, and conclusions in an area that is of crucial importance both to the argument of his book and to my own work: early Greece.
Scholars interested in the beginnings and evolution of freedom can choose between various approaches; those Patterson and I have selected for our studies lie at the extremes of the spectrum. Patterson’s is, naturally, based on sociology and anthropology. It is, to some extent, speculative and imaginative, intending to (re)construct a social history of freedom. Patterson looks at the situations and experiences of various categories of persons in ancient societies, especially slaves, and asks how such persons might have reacted to certain conditions, what changes in consciousness might have occurred among them, and whether these reactions or changes might have prompted awareness of the value of freedom—whether or not the ancient peoples themselves used “freedom” or related words to describe this experience. This approach makes it possible to identify or postulate the existence of “freedom consciousness” long before the corresponding terminology existed—at all or at least in substantial or socially and historically effective forms. Terminological developments here offer useful confirmation but are not essential to the argument.
My own approach is more strictly historical, developed precisely for the study of the history of concepts (“Begriffsgeschichte”). [24] It assumes that ideas and concepts that were significant in a given time and society will be reflected in this society’s language. Developments in terminology thus offer important clues to changes in societal experiences and attitudes; absence of words is as illuminating as is their presence, and the full range of relations between terms as well as variations in a broader “conceptual field” need to be taken seriously. [25] One should therefore be reluctant to assume a high level of consciousness of a given value in a society that does not have a corresponding word to express it. From this perspective, it is significant, for instance, that a noun existed in Archaic Greece for the condition of slavery (douleia, doulosynê) but apparently not for that of freedom (eleutheria), and that other concepts, such as justice and equality, were expressed by nouns long before freedom was.
I will illustrate the difference between the two approaches with two examples, one unrelated, the other related to the present study. The Greek god Dionysos and the Roman god Liber were both connected with growth and fertility, vines and wine. In connection with the latter, they were believed to “liberate” their worshippers from the sense of oppression by all kinds of bonds, whether personal, psychological, or social. Each deity received a major sanctuary at the end of the Archaic period: Dionysos in Athens in the late sixth century, Liber in Rome in the early fifth. Liber is etymologically linked with libertas, freedom, and the Athenian Dionysos’ association with a village named Eleutherai might similarly have evoked eleutheria. Much later generations took these links literally and celebrated the deities as real liberators. Yet it is clear that this was a secondary association. Liber and eleutheros are both derived from an Indo-European root (*leudh-) denoting growth. Eleutheroi and liberi could thus describe the descent group and those belonging to the group, the insiders, as opposed to those not belonging to it, the outsiders. Since the latter included slaves, the two adjectives eventually came to mean “free.” Clearly, therefore, both words had their primary function in the sphere of fertility, and this applies to the two gods as well. In the case of Liber, this is still obvious in his cult (which he shared with his consort Libera and Ceres). Among Dionysos’ many bynames that of Lyaios (he who “loosens”) is prominent, that of Eleutherios (the god of freedom), well attested for other gods, is conspicuously absent. Hence it was the verb luein (“to loosen”) that was used to describe the god’s service to his worshippers. This verb in turn seems conceptually close to “saving” (sôizein): the god who loosens from bondage is also the “savior,” and the concept of “being saved and surviving” (sôtêria) is enormously important in Archaic Greece. To those using the sociological approach, these differences will seem insignificant: they will interpret the “loosening” function of the gods in question as an indication of freedom consciousness and a yearning for emancipation from bondage especially among the non-elite classes who worshipped these gods. To those favoring the historical approach, the differences matter greatly, not least by providing negative evidence; they might conclude that there may well have existed among the non-elite masses in archaic Greece and Rome (whether free or unfree) a desire for such emancipation but this desire was apparently not expressed by the word freedom, at least not in this particular context. Hence, whatever the reason, words related to eleutheria and libertas were apparently not yet used ad libitum or metaphorically. We should thus not assume, without explicit evidence, that these terms had assumed great significance in their societies around that time. [26]
The other example is directly pertinent in our present context. Patterson states, in the third chapter he devotes to Greek freedom, “Freedom, as a social value, was already well in existence by the end of the sixth century.” In fact, he maintains, all three categories of freedom into which he divides the concept (see below) had already been invented, at least in primitive forms. In this chapter, which deals with the experience and impact of the Persian Wars, his purpose is to examine “the means by which the language of freedom became fully attached to these three values, whatever they may have been called and however conceived at the end of the sixth century.” The experience of this war “was also the occasion for the imprinting of the language of freedom on the preexisting reality” of various elements of freedom (82-83). I find this difficult to accept. If the language and terminology of freedom were only at this point “attached to” or “imprinted upon” values that were up to that time perceived and described differently, it seems more logical to conclude that the value of freedom did not exist previously in a form or on a level of consciousness that prompted expression and formulation. Moreover, it would seem important to define and take seriously, on the one hand, what values were formulated expressly and thus did exist previously and, on the other hand, why important experiences that we perceive as conducive to freedom consciousness were apparently not described as such by Archaic Greeks. Citing my own argument, Patterson concludes that the “internal threat of tyrannies, combined with the external threat of invasion . . . and the need to avoid both, led to what Raaflaub calls a ‘breakthrough’ toward their own notion of freedom among the aristocrats. For the aristocrats, freedom meant power and political equality, among their class equals” (80-81, Patterson’s emphasis). [27] The well-documented fact that Archaic aristocrats vied above all for power and leadership and, in their conflicts with tyrants, discovered the value of equality, prompts me to draw a rather different conclusion. In that period, I suggest, the concepts of equality and power sharing predominated in the elite’s political consciousness, and freedom (which is not attested in any political context in the sixth century) had not yet entered political consciousness at all. This leaves open the question of whether it had done so in the personal or private realm, but Patterson’s context here clearly is political.
So much for methodology and approaches. Patterson’s main thesis is twofold. (1) Freedom “was generated from the experience of slavery. People came to value freedom, to construct it as a powerful shared vision of life, as a result of their experience of, and response to, slavery or its recombinant form, serfdom, in their roles as masters, slaves, and nonslaves” (xiii). “Freedom began its career as a social value in the desperate yearning of the slave to negate what, for him or her, and for nonslaves, was a peculiarly inhuman condition” (9; cf. 48 and often). (2) Women “played a decisive role in the Western social invention of personal freedom” (xv). “Freedom began its long journey in the Western consciousness of a woman’s value. It was women who first lived in terror of enslavement, and hence it was women who first came to value its absence, both those who were never captured but lived in dread of it and, even more, those who were captured and lived in hope of being redeemed . . .” (51).
Now Patterson is well aware that in later stages of the development, when there emerged two different but related forms of freedom, which he calls “civic” and “sovereignal” (3-4), this value became a men’s and a communal or civic issue, although there too, he insists, the experience of slavery was fundamental and indispensable (chaps. 4-5). I will focus here on his argument supporting the emergence of the first form: personal freedom (chap. 3), because it bears directly on reactions to the helot experience.
The first of Patterson’s two theses is certainly correct in a general and basic way: it is indeed the experience of and response to slavery that lies at the origin of the creation of freedom as a value and concept. But, I would object, what was decisive in this process was not the experience of the slaves themselves, nor that of women, but the perception and reaction of the free men in their society. The feelings of the slaves themselves, the fears of women enslaved or dreading this fate, and the yearnings, however formulated, of these categories of persons would have been insufficient to create a socially effective and accepted value and concept. If the development had ended there, it would have remained an evolutionary dead-end in the history of freedom, like so many others that Patterson describes acutely in his book (chaps. 1-2). Hence I am doubtful as well about his second thesis that women played a decisive role in the “making of freedom,” attractive though the idea is at first sight.
The first focal point of Patterson’s examination is the world of Homer and Hesiod. In this world, he argues, men were rarely enslaved (if defeated in war, they died, out of necessity or for the sake of honor), and if they were they had virtually no chance to be freed and returned to their own society. Hence accommodation in their master’s household (oikos) was their only and best option. Women, by contrast, were frequently enslaved after military defeat of their community. They were not burdened by their men’s obsession with the warrior’s honor; hence integration as wives into their master’s family and thus redemption from slavery were distinct possibilities. Women thus empathized with the fate of slaves and realized the value and desirability of freedom. Patterson sees this confirmed by the fact that in Homer virtually all references to slavery and all but one of the few references to the experience of freedom or its loss concern women (50-55).
This picture is correct in many ways but significantly incomplete. First, men too were enslaved, less as the result of war (although ransoming of male prisoners of war is attested) than of piracy. Hence male slaves are rarely mentioned in the Iliad but they form a major part of the story in the Odyssey. For example, two of three men who help Odysseus regain control over his oikos by defeating the suitors are slaves, and in Odysseus’ own fictitious life story the risk of the freeman’s enslavement and the possibility of his liberation from slavery is a prominent feature. [28]
Second, Odysseus rewards the two faithful slave-herdsmen not by explicitly liberating them but by promoting them within his oikos and moving them as closely as possible to his own and his son’s position: they will receive a wife and a house next to his own and be like brothers of Telemachos. [29] This, of course, de facto presupposes non-slave status, but will they be free? This, at any rate, is not what matters. In a world of undeveloped statehood, security, prosperity, and influence can be found only by being attached to a powerful master’s oikos, not by being independent outside of such an oikos. Promotion within the hierarchy of dependence on a master is thus preferable to complete independence. Typically, in this society the worst fate is not that of the slave but that of the day laborer (th ê s) who has no protector and is exposed to the whims and abuse of those who employ him and of anybody else who is more powerful than he is. [30]
Third, the same, I suggest, is true for women. Briseis is an exceptional case: a spear-won woman who might have become the wife of her captor, Achilles, a highly prominent elite leader. Something similar probably happened quite often on the level of the common soldiers but the normal fate of war captives was slavery and exploitation, illustrated by many examples, including the twelve servant women in Odysseus’ household who, whether voluntarily or out of necessity, play along with the suitors and share their fate after the master’s return. [31] To describe the war captives turned into wives as freed slaves, however, is hardly adequate. Homer’s world does not operate with sharply defined legal statuses. The Odyssey distinguishes numerous categories among the servants in an elite household, but by function rather than legal status (and doulos is relatively rare among them). [32] In other words, by becoming the leader’s wife, a woman like Briseis might not explicitly be set free but rise within the leader’s household to the highest position available to a woman. This, I think, is closely comparable to what happens to the two herdsmen in Odysseus’ oikos.
This does not mean, of course, that the misery of a slave’s life was not real or not clearly perceived by slaves and free alike. It just means that the slaves might not necessarily have perceived freedom as the best alternative available to them. What Patterson says of Eumaios, that there was no chance for him to return as a free man to his native community, is exactly true for Briseis whose parents apparently had died earlier, who had lost her brothers and city in one of Achilles’ raids, and who could not possibly yearn for restoration to her former life. [33] For both women and men, accommodation and promotion within the new power structure in which they found themselves may have been their best hope.
Fourth, what we hear in the epics on these matters is never a woman’s own voice and rarely the voice attributed to her by the (male) narrator; in most cases, it is the men who talk and think about the women’s enslavement. The conversation between Hektor and Andromache illustrates this vividly: she worries about his death that will make her a widow and her son an orphan; he describes in detail the suffering that, after his death and the fall of Troy, enslavement will cause for her. [34] In other words, whatever the women may have thought and said, slavery was a concern the men shared with them. Since, at least in war, enslavement was not a realistic outcome for themselves, they visualized it through the experiences (real, threatened, or imagined) of the persons who were closest and dearest to them. Hence, if slavery was conducive to creating freedom consciousness in the freemen themselves, opportunities were certainly not lacking. This was prevented from happening by factors on which Patterson and I are in full agreement: to the men who mattered in this society, other issues and values were far more important than the slaves’ experiences and even the fate of their womenfolk. To these men themselves, freedom was but a remote condition of their status and aspirations. [35]
Finally, Patterson’s claim that women were instrumental in fostering freedom consciousness is not supported well by his additional arguments. That women made up more than half of the population (55) would be relevant only if women’s views were able to impose themselves on men’s values (and this was not determined by sheer numbers). Everything we know about early Homeric and Hesiodic society argues against this—as much as men may have loved women and been considerate of their feelings. For the same reason, it is not relevant to this particular argument that women may have been “less oppressed” in Homeric and Archaic society than they were in democratic Athens, and that they may have asserted themselves in personal relations with husbands, lovers, and sons, as many certainly did at all times, even in democratic Athens. Telemachos knows how to remind his mother, Penelope, of her place in the hierarchy: the formula, “This is men’s business!” which he and others use on appropriate occasions in the epics, [36] illustrates the crucial point. Unless men accepted as “their business” what women told them, the latter’s feelings had little effect beyond the walls of their homes. On the communal level, peer pressure and tradition would overrule individual sentiment. In the end, what Patterson surmises about women’s assertiveness as the cause of men’s freedom consciousness, illustrated by Hesiod’s misogyny and Archilochos’ love poem (60—63), is highly imaginative but lacks any explicit confirmation in the sources.
Nor do I find the following scenario compelling: “When the average woman of sixth- and even fifth-century Greece saw a slave and paused to reflect on her or his condition, her musings must have run along the lines of ‘There but for the grace of the gods go I.’ By empathizing with the slave end of the master-slave relation, then, women became more conscious of freedom by the ever present experience of powerlessness, natal alienation, and dishonor.” In other words, since women were “excluded from the public household” and had no means of wresting concessions from the elite, they inevitably empathized with the slave condition (78). How oppressed women really were, and in what ways, is much debated. Moreover, evidence from the classical period suggests that they knew how to cope with their masters and were capable of creating their own space and network of relations. Unlike the slaves, very many of whom were not born as such, the women’s condition was not the result of a sudden, catastrophic change in their lives. Rather, they were used to this condition, which had prevailed for generations, and took it as a given. I consider it a priori more likely that they would decidedly empathize and identify with the master end of the master-slave relation. Despite the restrictions placed on them, they belonged to the master class and were astai, citizen women, and as such held a crucially important position in the oikos and the community. [37] I do not see, therefore, why free women, despite their inferior status, should have been in a substantially different position from free men when it came to deriving freedom consciousness from the observation of the slave condition—except of course that they were not able to draw from such consciousness political consequences. [38]
In sum, support for the thesis that the experience of slavery as such was the source of freedom consciousness and the foundation of an explicit concept of freedom seems less strong and clear than Patterson puts it. This is in part because in the early Archaic period, illustrated by Homer and Hesiod, slavery was but one category of personal dependence and not sharply defined only by reference to lack of freedom, and because freedom was not the only and not necessarily the best alternative available and imaginable to slaves or dependent persons. This changed gradually, as “chattel slavery,” supplied by slave trade and of foreign origin, became more predominant, and even more so, when other forms of personal dependence were abolished. At around the same time, in the late seventh and early sixth centuries, at least in Athens and probably far beyond, communities were confronted with a serious crisis, caused by the rapid spreading of debt bondage and its consequences, that was concerned directly with the loss of freedom of increasing numbers of citizens. In the same period, entire communities came under the power of tyrants and, as contemporaries put it, were “enslaved” by them. Finally, by the middle of the sixth century, the Greeks living on the western coast of Anatolia and, by the early fifth century, those in mainland Greece as well experienced an entirely new threat and reality: the subjection and “enslavement” of formerly free poleis by the authoritarian regimes of Eastern empires, the Lydians and especially the Persians.
These were the situations in which the free men of the polis were forced to consider “enslavement” as a serious threat they could not ignore: a threat partly to themselves, partly to communal peace, partly to the survival of the entire community as they had known it. In these situations the men who mattered in the community and who previously had found other issues (status, power and influence, justice, or equality) more important than freedom, realized the significance of freedom for themselves and for their community. Now freedom consciousness could and eventually did break through; now the men incorporated freedom into their own value system. Because this happened on the communal and political level, and this new value was embraced by the free, freedom quickly became a potent, explicitly formulated, and differentiated value concept. Slavery, I conclude, did lie at the roots of the concept, as a necessary but much more distant and much less sufficient condition than Patterson suggests.

3

We are now ready to return to the helots of Sparta. Virtually all the evidence available to us concerns reactions, at various times, to problems and tensions within the Spartan state by one other polis, Athens, or by Athenian writers. [39] The first of these occasions is the “earthquake revolt.” Details and chronology are unclear and much debated. Two issues, however, seem fairly certain. One is that, like other allies of Sparta, the Athenians had no qualms in supporting Sparta against the rebels, perhaps even twice. What may have been debated, before the large Athenian hoplite contingent set out, was certainly not which side was more deserving of support but whether it was advisable to support Sparta at all—at a time when relations between the former allies were less than harmonious and influential leaders were advocating a change from collaboration to confrontation with Sparta anyway. [40] In other words, the very polis, which claimed proudly to have saved the liberty of the Hellenes in the Persian Wars, always to have helped selflessly those who were oppressed and in danger, and thus to deserve preeminence and leadership in its growing sphere of influence, seems not to have viewed the cause of the helot rebels with sympathy or considered it to be anything but what the Spartans declared it to be: the revolt of slaves against their masters. [41]
The second issue that is fairly certain is that at some point, apparently at a later stage when the rebels were besieged on Mt. Ithome, the Spartans dismissed the Athenians under less than honorable circumstances. This unexpected turn of events caused angry and hostile reactions in Athens, discredited Kimon and accelerated his fall, and gave decisive support to those who favored a political realignment and confrontation with Sparta. What precisely caused the Spartans to make a decision that was certain to have grave consequences is unknown. The only explanation provided in the sources, that they feared the Athenians might change sides and aid the rebels, has been considered unlikely, perhaps spun out of the fact that the Athenians later in fact did support the refugees from Mt. Ithome, settling them in Naupaktos. However that may be, the Spartans must have had serious reasons to act as they did. They may have discovered only belatedly that even the hoplites and elite officers of the Athenians were ideologically infected by the “freedom virus,” and considered it dangerous to keep them around for too long. They may have heard about the democratic reform enacted under the leadership of Ephialtes (if it really took place while the army was away) and become suspicious of the Athenians at that point. The Athenians themselves may have become less enthusiastic about supporting the Spartans, having for the first time gained direct and intimate insight into the conditions prevailing in Sparta’s domain and perhaps having discovered only late that among the rebels were not only slaves but also large numbers of perioikoi—which changed the complexion of the affair considerably. [42]
Whether any of this is correct remains unknowable. What matters is that there is not a shred of evidence about a tradition surviving in Athens that the hoplites sent to Sparta under Kimon did in fact empathize with or support the rebels. Nor did whatever they saw and learned about the helots and their conditions in Messenia cause the Athenians to take a more active stance in this matter in later years, not even when they supported the “Messenians” in Naupaktos and collaborated with them. In 432, shortly before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans sent several embassies to Athens with demands that might have avoided the war. The last of these demands was, in Thucydides’ formulation, “Sparta wants peace. Peace is still possible if you will give the Hellenes their autonomy” (Thuc. 1.139.3, cf. 140.3). They referred, of course, to the Athenian allies, most of whom had long become subjects in the empire and for whose liberation the Spartans and their allies were about to go to war. [43] The Athenians, after intensive debates, responded, upon Pericles’ recommendation, that “we will give their autonomy to the poleis if they had it at the time that we made the treaty and when the Spartans also allow their own poleis to be autonomous not as is advantageous to the Spartans but to themselves as they want it” (1.144.2 with 145). Whom did Pericles mean by “the Spartans’ own poleis”? One might be tempted to think of the perioikic towns in Lakonia and Messenia but this is excluded by Pericles’ use of the same word for the Athenian allies; hence it must allude to Sparta’s allies in the “Peloponnesian League” and to the view, widespread at the time, that Sparta was promoting oligarchy in its sphere of influence and thus depriving its allies of constitutional autonomy, just as Athens’ opponents claimed was the case with democracy in the Athenian empire. We conclude, not surprisingly but importantly in our present context, that the Athenians in these diplomatic exchanges did not mention the issue of the helots nor, for that matter, that of the status of the perioikoi. Both were considered domestic affairs of the Spartans, too delicate and dangerous to be interfered with. This implies, I think, the recognition or at least acceptance of the Spartan view that the helots were slaves—the contrasting claims of the “Messenians” in Naupaktos notwithstanding. Slaves were slaves, and no Greek polis would have dared to tell another to let its slaves go, out of principle and fear of making itself vulnerable to the same demand.
To some extent, this changed during the war. In 425 Kleon won his surprise victory at Pylos and Sphakteria. The Athenians established a fortified camp at Pylos and used it to undermine Spartan control of Messenia. In these efforts “Messenian” contingents from Naupaktos played a significant role: speaking the native language and knowing the land and customs, they could operate with relative ease “behind the enemy lines” and serve as perfect undercover agents. The success of this operation, not least in enticing helots to defect, was considerable but, for various reasons, perhaps far from sensational, although it did contribute to increasing Spartan willingness to conclude a peace treaty. [44] As part of the agreements of the Peace of Nikias, Sparta insisted on the removal of the “Messenians” from Pylos, but the Athenians brought them back already in 419/18. In 413 Demosthenes created a second fortified refuge in southern Lakonia, “so that the helots might have a place to which they could desert, and so that raiding parties, as at Pylos, might have a base from which to operate.” The Spartans reciprocated when they occupied Dekeleia in Attica in 413, apparently with more success: supposedly, more than 20,000 Athenian slaves defected. [45] What matters here is that both sides confined themselves to attempts to induce slave defection and thereby to weaken the enemy economically. Neither side made any general proclamation concerning the liberation of slaves. Nor, apparently, did the Athenians, despite their collaboration with the “Messenians” from Naupaktos, who claimed polis status and were recognized as allies, think of the possibility of proclaiming as one of their goals the liberation of Messenia from Spartan rule, as Epameinondas did half a century later. The helots, it seems, were still considered Spartan slaves and nothing more; the Messenian identity, ideology, and related claims advanced by the free “Messenians” perhaps were too recent and too obviously partisan to be generally acceptable and easily usable as a tool of a political offense. As Simon Hornblower puts it, “It seems that the weapon of the bellum servile had yet to be thought of.” [46]
In a general way, all this is confirmed by a clause in the treaty of the Peace of Nikias in 421: “If the slave force rises up, the Athenians shall support the Spartans with all their strength according to their ability” (Thuc. 5.23.3, tr. Rhodes). All commentators point out that this is a one-sided clause, not balanced by a corresponding obligation of Sparta to support Athens in case of a slave revolt. The structural difference and volatility of the Spartan slave system was thus well known and publicly acknowledged but this did not make a difference. Again, the Spartan perspective prevailed, that of the “Messenians” was ignored: slaves were slaves and as such their masters’ and nobody else’s concern.
The evidence thus speaks very clearly. The general and traditional views about slavery remained unchanged even in the case of the helots and even when several factors might have encouraged a new assessment. The case of the helots was acknowledged to be different from that of other slaves. Former helots, now forming a free polis of “Messenians,” were promoting claims to a national identity, a history of former independence, and a homeland, with potentially far-reaching effects on Sparta’s occupation of Messenia and exploitation of the helots. “Freedom” had long been discovered as a crucial political concept and in the last third of the fifth century was at the center of an intense propaganda war in which both Athenians and Spartans claimed to be “liberators of the Hellenes.” Despite all this, to our knowledge, nobody associated the fate and condition of the helots even remotely with the idea that they should be freed, and the Athenians—in our view foolishly—failed to develop this idea into a successful military and ideological strategy against Sparta.
This corresponds to another fact, pointed out earlier. Even the scanty evidence that survives about sophistic ideas indicates that already in the fifth century some of them challenged, on the basis of the law of nature (phusis), the justification of the value attached to some traditional social or ethnic distinctions: elite versus commoners, Greeks versus barbarians; none of them, before Alkidamas, seems to have extended this to challenging, in principle, the justification of slavery. [47]
I am fully aware that the case of the helots is special in several ways—although perhaps less special than was long thought. The results of a case study focusing on how people thought of them and reacted to their situation in the fifth century, and in the context of foreign policy and diplomacy, can obviously not be used as evidence directly illuminating the thoughts and reactions to slavery of free Greeks several centuries earlier. But these results certainly fail to refute—and thus offer at least indirect support for—the conclusions I reached in my 1985 book, based on the examination of terminology and social conditions in Archaic Greece. Overall, then, I continue to believe that the existence and observation of slavery as such would have been insufficient to elicit freedom consciousness among the free on a level and in an intensity that would have been capable of triggering a conscious and explicit conceptualization of freedom.

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Footnotes

[ back ] 1. I thank the editors for inviting me to contribute this chapter. I keep references to a minimum; the problem I intend to discuss here has not received much attention in scholarship.
[ back ] 2. For the events of 370/69, see Roebuck 1941: ch. 2; Buckler 1980: 70-87; Demand 1990: 110-111; Hamilton 1991: 215-231. On the revolt of the 460s, see below n. 21.
[ back ] 3. See, e.g., Asheri 1983.
[ back ] 4. On this and the development of a “Messenian” identity, see recently Alcock 1999, 2001; Figueira 1999; Luraghi 2001, 2002a.
[ back ] 5. Alkidamas: Schol. Arist. Rhet. 1373b 6; Avezzù 1982: no. 3 (p. 36) with commentary on pp. 82-83. Isocrates’ Archidamus is a similar piece, representing the Spartan perspective. Philemon: fr. 95 Kock (not considered authentic by Kassel and Austin in Poetae Comici Graeci, vol. VII [concordance and p. 317]). Arist. Pol. 1253b 20. The translations are taken from Guthrie 1969: 159-160. For discussion, see, e.g., ibid., 155-163; further bibliog. on this issue is listed in Schütrumpf 1991: 234-235.
[ back ] 6. Esp. Lykophron 83 B4 Diels-Kranz; Antiphon 87 B44 B1-2 Diels-Kranz.
[ back ] 7. Od. 17.320-323; 24.249-253; see Raaflaub 1985: 31-32. Theories: esp. Hippocr. Airs, Waters, Places; echoes in Herodotus: Thomas 2000: ch. 2 and pp. 103-114; Euripides: Nestle 1901: 348-361; Synodinou 1977.
[ back ] 8. Pollux, Onomastikon 3.83; Lotze 1959; Finley 1982: chs. 7-9.
[ back ] 9. Ducat 1990; Figueira 1999; Luraghi 2001, 2002a, 2002b, and this volume. More generally on Sparta: Hodkinson 2000 (listing important earlier articles on pp. 462-463); see also, e.g., Nafissi 1991; Thommen 1996.
[ back ] 10. For detailed discussion, see recently Meier 1998: pt. 2; Luraghi, this volume.
[ back ] 11. See below n. 41 and, for detailed discussion, Ducat 1990: esp. pp. 137-142; Figueira 1999.
[ back ] 12. Xenophon’s Lak. Pol. is an obvious example. On the role of perioikoi, see Luraghi 2001: 297-301; on its suppression, ibid., 293.
[ back ] 13. See Kritias 88 B37 Diels-Kranz; Plut. Lyc. 28.
[ back ] 14. For details, see Ducat 1990: 135-137.
[ back ] 15. Patterson 1991: chs. 1-2 shows, however, that this must not be taken for granted.
[ back ] 16. See Raaflaub 1985: ch. 3.
[ back ] 17. Raaflaub 1985: 54-70.
[ back ] 18. Patterson 1991: ch. 3; Raaflaub 1985: ch. 2.
[ back ] 19. Helots at Plataea: Hdt. 9.10.1, 28.2, 29.1; for discussion, Welwei 1974: 120-141, esp. pp. 120-126; Hunt 1997, 1998: 33-39. Zeus Eleutherios: Raaflaub 1985: 126-128.
[ back ] 20. Luraghi 2001: 301.
[ back ] 21. For a careful evaluation of the sources and reconstruction of the events, see Ducat 1990: 131-135; Luraghi 2001 (with earlier bibliog.).
[ back ] 22. For details, see Figueira 1999; Luraghi 2002a.
[ back ] 23. If such an experience was temporary or limited, passed quickly, or was overcome with relative ease, it might have failed to achieve a deep and lasting impact on collective consciousness. Such may have been the result of Solon’s sweeping elimination of debt bondage (as I suggest in Raaflaub 1985: 54-70).
[ back ] 24. See Richter 1986.
[ back ] 25. It does seem significant, for example, that doulos, slave, stood in opposition not only to eleutheros, free, but also to despot ê s, master. Extant evidence suggests that the latter, but apparently not the former, was applied to the dynamics in the relationship between a tyrant and his subjects in the polis. We should try to understand and explain this rather than assuming that, of course, tyranny prompted in the “enslaved” citizens a strong consciousness of the value of freedom; see Raaflaub 1985: 65-68 and ch. III.2.
[ back ] 26. For a more detailed discussion, see Raaflaub 2000: 255-260; the opposite view is represented by Connor 1989; Wiseman 1998. On the concept of sôtêria, see Raaflaub 1985: 41-43.
[ back ] 27. This does not represent my view. My conclusion is, to the contrary, that freedom never was an aristocratic concept; see Raaflaub 1985: 112-118, 332-333.
[ back ] 28. See esp. Od. 14.199-359; on various aspects of slavery in “Homer’s world,” see esp. Lencman 1966; Gschnitzer 1976; Wickert-Micknat 1983.
[ back ] 29. Od. 21.214-216; cf. 14.62-66.
[ back ] 30. Od. 18.356-375; 11.489-491; cf. Il. 21.441-452. On all this and the larger context, see Finley 1977: esp. pp. 58-59; Raaflaub 1985: 36-46, 1997: 631, 638-639.
[ back ] 31. Briseis: Il. 19.287-300. Women: Od. 22.417-425, 457-473.
[ back ] 32. Ramming 1973; Gschnitzer 1976.
[ back ] 33. Il. 19.291-294.
[ back ] 34. Il. 6.407-465.
[ back ] 35. Raaflaub 1985: 38-41.
[ back ] 36. Od. 1.356-359; Il. 6.490-493. On the position of women in “Homeric society,” see the summary in Raaflaub 1997: 639-641 (with bibliog.).
[ back ] 37. Astai: Cynthia Patterson 1986. For bibliography on the women’s condition in classical Athens (and a brief summary of the debate), see Raaflaub 1998: 32-36.
[ back ] 38. I should mention that Patterson devotes an entire chapter (7) to “A Woman’s Song: The Female Force and the Ideology of Freedom in Greek Tragedy and Society.”
[ back ] 39. For a broader survey of Greek views on helotage, see Klees 1991-1992.
[ back ] 40. Plut. Kim. 16.9-10; see, e.g., Fornara and Samons 1991: 126-129.
[ back ] 41. Made abundantly clear by the condition in the truce, that the rebels should never set foot in the Peloponnese again; “if any of them was caught there in the future, he should be the slave of whoever caught him” (Thuc. 1.103.1); cf. Luraghi 2001: 293. Athenian self-presentation: Raaflaub 1985: ch. V. 1.
[ back ] 42. Thuc. 1.102.3. For discussion, see Fornara and Samons 1991: 127-128; Luraghi 2001: 287-288.
[ back ] 43. Thuc. 2.8.4-5; Raaflaub 1985: ch. V.3.
[ back ] 44. Actions from Pylos: Thuc. 4.41.2-3 (partly resuming 4.3.3), mentioning acts of brigandage, defection of helots as a result but apparently not a primary goal of the action, and Spartan fear of a helot revolt; see also 55.1; 80.2-4. Willingness for peace: Thuc. 5.14.3: “The helots were deserting, and there was always an expectation that even those who remained, relying on those outside, would take revolutionary action in view of their present circumstances, as they had before” (tr. P. J. Rhodes). On the general impact, see Gomme 1956; Hornblower 1996; Rhodes 1998: all at 4.41.2-3.
[ back ] 45. Thuc. 5.35.6, 56; 7.26.2, 27.5.
[ back ] 46. Hornblower 1983: 133-134 (cf. 1996: 197). I quote the preceding sentences: “Why Athens did not do more to promote servile insurrection in the war is a mystery: she could certainly have won it very quickly if she had. But the facts are clear: what Athens does is to establish bases to which (autose, vii.26.2) helots could desert; she does little actively to bring about such desertion.” For Spartan insistence during the Peace of Nikias that the “Messenians” and helots who had recently defected be removed from Pylos even before the fort was returned to Sparta, see Thuc. 5.35.6-7. In Sicily, the Athenians seem to have taken the first steps in the direction of encouraging slave revolt (Polyain. 1.43.1), and Kritias apparently pursued it more radically later in the war in Thessaly (Xen. Hell. 2.3.36).
[ back ] 47. Synodinou (1977) claims that Euripides did; I remain doubtful but cannot argue for this here. Klees (1991-1992: 1.45-50) emphasizes, rightly, that the rejection of the enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, voiced by Greek authors from the late fifth century, apparently was not applied to the helots and that Epameinondas freed the Messenians not for humanitarian reasons but in order to weaken Sparta.