Chapter 9. Helot Numbers: A Simplified Model

Walter Scheidel
The actual size of the Helot population at any particular point of Spartan history will forever remain unknown. The best we can hope for is a rough estimate of the number of Helots the klêroi of Lakonia and Messenia could have supported alongside a given number of Spartiates and their families. In the absence of ancient statistics, parametric models of production and consumption enable us to define the boundaries of the possible and arguably even of the probable. This approach helps avoid or minimise many of the pitfalls of more inductive reconstructions that are necessarily premissed on the reliability of information gleaned from ancient literary texts. These hazards are much in evidence in Figueira’s complex and sophisticated edifice of interlocking arguments concerning the number and average size of Spartiate klêroi, the extent of the recirculation of rents back to the primary producers, and additional variables. In its bid to accommodate and draw on the largest possible number of ancient testimonia that can be shown to be mutually reconcilable, the resulting reconstruction of Helot demography is inevitably rendered vulnerable to criticisms of its various underlying assumptions. What if there were no standardised klêroi in the fifth century BC after all? How can we determine the ratio of agrarian to domestic Helots? In the following, I follow a different route by deliberately eliminating as many variables and premises as possible and by drawing on the smallest feasible amount of ancient evidence and probabilistic postulates. In a second step, individual data or assumptions may then be “plugged into” this simple model in order to assess their inherent plausibility. To some extent, at least, this procedure should inure my estimates to old controversies about the utility of certain pieces of evidence and provide an independently derived framework or template for further discussion.
On this occasion, I will limit my analysis to the conditions during the supposed apogee of the Spartan system in the early fifth century BC. The key questions are straightforward: how much food could have been produced on land owned by Spartans, and how many citizens and Helots could it have supported? Both of these questions may be addressed without considering extrinsic problems such as rent quotas (one-half with or without seed grain?), the share of rents ultimately retained by the Helots, and the percentage of Helots not residing on klêroi. [1] Instead, only two assumptions are required, regarding the likely levels of production and consumption. In order to account for the uncertainties surrounding either variable, I will employ ranges rather than notional averages and compute results for every single combination of different ranges. This method not only serves to minimise the degree to which aprioristic assumptions pre-determine the outcome but also highlights the very considerable width of the band of probability.
In keeping with Figueira’s work and other previous studies, the average yield of barley can be put at low, intermediate and high rates of 650, 775, and 900 kg per ha per harvest, respectively. [2] In order to convert these gross figures into estimates of net availability, we need to subtract seed (at one-sixth of the harvest) and spoilage, conservatively set at 10 per cent although much higher percentages are in fact attested even today. [3] For the sake of simplicity, biennial fallow is posited throughout (but see below). [4] I follow Figueira in estimating the total amount of arable land available for klêroi at between 115,000 and 145,000 hectares. [5] The resultant range of projections is set out in Table 9.1.
Arable (in ha)650Yield (in kg/ha) 775900
115,000 28.03 (18.69) 33.42 (22.28) 38.81 (25.86)
145,000 32.63 (21.75) 42.14 (28.09) 48.94 (32.63)
*The figures in parentheses are based on a higher spoilage rate of 40%.
TABLE 9.1 Annual total of consumable barley produced on klêroi in Lakonia and Messenia (in million kg)*
While partial suppression of biennial fallow would raise consumable yields, rates of spoilage in excess of 10% would cause them to drop. Both conditions are likely to have applied simultaneously but would tend to cancel each other out. Thus, by accommodating the possibilities of more intensive cultivation and more serious spoilage, the ranges in Table 9.1 provide a sufficiently robust basis for estimates of carrying capacity. However, food transfers between Spartan and Perioecic households represent another potential confounding variable which cannot be properly quantified. If Spartans converted grain rents into goods and services provided by Perioeci, the amount of barley available for Spartan and Helot consumption would have been correspondingly smaller. This factor, together with the possibility that not all cultivable land was actually put to good use, means that the estimates in Tables 9.1-4 should best be understood as probable maxima rather than realistic averages.
Average dietary requirements for Helots probably fell in a range between a minimal intake of 2,000 calories per day and a more adequate diet of 2,500 calories per day. [6] In an impoverished and exploited Mediterranean population such as the Helots, cereals must have accounted for a large share of total caloric intake: if barley satisfied 70% of the Helot’s energy needs, net per capita consumption stood at between 193 and 241 kg/year. [7]
Notwithstanding our considerable ignorance about ancient age structures, a total of adult male Spartans of 8,000 to 9,000 may reasonably be thought to imply the existence of 6,000 to 6,800 men between ages 20 and 50, a figure that seems compatible with the reported turnout of 5,000 Spartan citizen soldiers at Plataea in 479 BC. [8] The application of a conventional model life table yields a total Spartan population of around 30,000 (or, to be spuriously precise, of between 27,880 and 31,365). [9] At 2,500 calories/day, they would dispose of 6.72 to 7.56 million kg of barley per year, and of 10.08 to 11.34 million kg/year at 172 times that intake. (Not all of this barley had to be actually consumed by Spartans; some may have been exchanged for other foodstuffs or left to spoil.) In my simplified model, the remaining consumable grain was absorbed by Helots, either on the klêroi or in Spartan households (Table 9.2). As shown in Table 9.3, the estimated maximum size of the Helot population is contingent on four separate variables, viz., land yields, total acreage, citizen consumption, and Helot diet. Again relying on a conventional model life table, the number of adult male Helots can be extrapolated accordingly. (I should repeat that my reconstruction is concerned with the peak period of the Spartan citizenry: fewer rentiers might translate to higher rates of recirculation and therefore larger Helot numbers.)
Arable (in ha)650Yield (in kg/ha) 775900
115,000 16.69-21.31 22.08-26.7 27.47-32.09
145,000 21.29-25.91 30.8-35.42 37.6-42.22
TABLE 9.2 Annual total amount of barley available for Helot consumption (in million kg)
Arable (in ha/cals)650Yield (in kg/ha) 775900
115,000/2000 86,477-110,415 114,404-138,342 142,332-166,269
115,000/2500 69,253-88,423 91,618-110,788 113,983-133,153
145,000/2000 110,311-134,249 159,585-183,523 194,819-218,756
145,000/2500 88,340-107,510 127,801-146,971 156,017-175,187
TABLE 9.3 Total number of Helots according to different estimates of carrying capacity
Arable (in ha/cals)650Yield (in kg/ha) 775900
115,000/2000 24,512-31,297 32,428-39,213 40,344-47,129
115,000/2500 19,630-25,063 25,969-31,403 32,308-37,742
145,000/2000 31,268-38,053 45,234-52,020 55,221-62,006
145,000/2500 25,040-30,474 36,225-41,659 44,223-49,657
TABLE 9.4 Total number of adult male Helots aged 20 to 50 according to Table 9.3 and Model West Males Level 4 (r=0)
The share of able-bodied individuals in the adult male Helot population is difficult to ascertain. The ranges plotted in Fig. 9.1 are based on the optimistic assumption that no more than 10% of Helots in that age group were physically incapable of participating in military campaigns. However, estimates of Disability Adjusted Life Expectancy (DALE) in the Third World today point to substantially higher levels of infirmity in high-mortality populations. [10] All we can say is that a higher disability rate could be offset by more generously defined age limits for Helot military support service, such as from 15 to 60 years as envisaged by Figueira. [11] In the end, the estimates in Fig. 9.1 cannot be wide of the mark.
Figure 9.1 Number of able-bodied adult male Helots (aged 20 to 50) according to different estimates of carrying capacity (see Table 9.4)
More than anything else, Figure 9.1 underscores the dramatic spread of estimates derived from a small number of underlying variables. The highest total of 55,800 exceeds the lowest figure of 17,700 by 215%. Even the trend line extends from about 20,000 to over 45,000, compared to a composite mean of approximately 30,000 for all ranges combined. These findings are a powerful reminder of the fragility of population estimates from carrying capacity and of the hazards of settling for streamlined “averages” that obscure the true margins of error.
Yet even a range of different estimates as wide as this one can help us gain a better perspective on ancient testimonia. Herodotus’ ratio of seven Helots per Spartiate implies the presence of 35,000 Helots at Plataea. [12] Only one in three of the ranges in Fig. 9.1 consistently exceeds this threshold whereas half of them fail to reach it at all. In other words, the most optimistic assessment of crop yields must be coupled with the most pessimistic assumptions about consumption levels (for both Spartans and Helots) to salvage the notion that as many as 35,000 Helots could indeed have accompanied the Spartan hoplites to Boeotia. Although this scenario cannot be ruled out, it is hardly the most economical or plausible option. In any case, there is no good reason to allow Herodotus’ claim to constrict modern estimates of Helot numbers: more often than not, casual numerical references in this or other ancient authors cannot bear much weight. [13] This is true not only for patently fantastical figures such as the ancient estimates for Greek slave populations mentioned by Figueira but may well also hold for seemingly innocuous specimens. [14] Aristotle’s assertion that Sparta’s territory could have supported 1,500 cavalry and 30,000 hoplites is an obvious example. [15] How could he tell? He did not even pretend to report an actual number, merely a potential total. Was Aristotle an ancient Beloch, multiplying acreage with yields and dividing the result by caloric needs in order to establish some maximal carrying capacity? Hansen concludes in his study of Athenian population size that “thirty thousand is obviously a conventional figure and of little or no value whenever it is found.” He adduces sources according to which the Athenian citizen body numbered 30,000, 30,000 Athenians attended the ekklesia and the theatre of Dionysios seated 30,000, and notes that Menander took 30,000 to be the normal population of a polis. [16]
This is not to say that individual numerical references are necessarily worthless. As it happens, two pieces of information on which Figueira builds his reconstruction are readily compatible with my model projections. If 8,000 to 9,000 Spartan households had each received 82 medimnoi of barley, and depending on whether this amount had equalled 2,493 or 3,740 kg, [17] rents would have totalled between 20 and 33.7 million kg/year, compared to between 18.7 and 32.6 million kg/year (i.e., one-half of gross harvest) in my own model. What matters here is that it is perfectly possible but unnecessary to assume that the Helots handed over one-half of the harvest and that Spartans were entitled to 82 medimnoi in order to estimate Helot numbers. Rather, the model provides independent criteria by which to judge the plausibility of ancient testimonia without circuitously implicating the same texts in the designing of that standard. Given the doubtful quality of several of the key testimonia, this is surely the safest route to take.


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[ back ] 1. For rent quotas and seed grain, see Figueira in this volume, p. 199-200; for recirculation, p. 207; for Helots in Spartan households, see Hodkinson 1997.
[ back ] 2. For 650 and 900 kg/ha, see Figueira in this volume, p. 203, 208. Garnsey 1998:204 reckons with 770 kg/ha for barley in classical Attica. My intermediate estimate of 775kg/ha splits the difference between Figueira’s low and high rates.
[ back ] 3. For a 1:6 seed/yield ratio, see Garnsey 1998:204. In the modern world, spoilage affects 40% of all agricultural output, according to recent estimates by the FAO.
[ back ] 4. This traditional view is being increasingly challenged by proponents of the “New Model” of ancient Greek agriculture who envision more intensive mixed farming without universal fallow. For the debate, see, e.g., Halstead 1987; Hodkinson 1988; Gallant 1991:34-59; Isager and Skydsgaard 1992:108-114; Cartledge 1993; Morris 1994:363-365; Garnsey 1998:206-211.
[ back ] 5. See Figueira in this volume, p. 216. Hodkinson 2000:383 reckons with 135,000 ha.
[ back ] 6. For average intakes around 2,000 cals/day in developing countries, see Clark and Haswell 1970. Foxhall and Forbes 1982 envision 2,583 cals/day for ancient Greek farmers.
[ back ] 7. Cf. Gallant 1991:68 (65-70%); Foxhall and Forbes 1982; Garnsey 1999:19 (70-75%).
[ back ] 8. For 8-9,000 Spartan men, see Figueira in this volume, p. 208. Scheidel 2001 explores the questionable relevance of model life tables for ancient populations.
[ back ] 9. Model West Males Level 4 (r=0; e0=25.3) (Coale and Demeny 1983:108).
[ back ] 10. In the most advanced western countries today, 7-8% of the average life is spent disabled, compared to up to 30% in the worst-off countries of Subsaharan Africa. Hansen (1985:20) guesses that (at least) 20% of Athenian adults may have been unfit for military service. Figueira (1991:208)—rightly in my view—cautions against this “liberal classification of disability” with regard to formal exemption from any form of military service. Even so, more demanding undertakings (such as a march from Messenia to Plataea: see in the text below) may well have been beyond the physical capacity of a significant number of sick or malnourished (but at other times able-bodied) Helots.
[ back ] 11. See Figueira in this volume, p. 220.
[ back ] 12. Hdt. 9.10.1, 9.28.2, 9.29.1. See Figueira in this volume, p. 219.
[ back ] 13. For Herodotus’ use of numbers, see Fehling 1990. Cf. Dreizehnter 1978 on the use of multiples of 7. Hunt 1998:33-37 interprets Herodotus’ seven-to-one ratio as a schematic multiplier based on the depth of the phalanx.
[ back ] 14. See Figueira in this volume, p. 194.
[ back ] 15. Aristot. Pol. 1270a29-31; see Figueira in this volume, p. 196-7.
[ back ] 16. Hansen 1985:26. Cf. also the reference to 30,000 Perioecic allotments in Plut. Lyc. 8.3 cited by Figueira in this volume, p. 213. For a similar preference for the figure 30,000 in a different context, compare Scheidel 1996.
[ back ] 17. See Figueira in this volume, pp. 215, 199, and 201 for the volume of the medimnos in question.