Helots and The Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures

  Luraghi, Nino, and Susan E. Alcock, eds. 2003. Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures. Hellenic Studies Series 4. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_LuraghiN_AlcockS_eds.Helots_and_Their_Masters.2003.

Chapter 2. Raising hell? The Helot Mirage—a personal review [1]

Paul Cartledge

Byron’s philhellenism took the shape of a fairly uncomplicated admiration of a heroic and exemplary ancient Greek past. References to Marathon and Thermopylae tripped easily from his silver tongue. On the eve of another, less glorious war, the professional classicist Louis Macneice produced one of the most striking and jarring poems of the last century, the long and meditative Autumn Journal of 1939. It was, he wrote there of the ancient world, “all so unimaginably different/ and all so long ago”. The larger immediate context (the end of section IX) from which those two familiar lines are taken bears full citation:

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers of Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

“[A]nd lastly . . . the slaves”: it is probably never otiose, in an intellectual sense, to be reminded of them and their key role in making Greek culture, especially in connection with “the dummies of Sparta”. [
7] But against Macneice’s hard-boiled and essentially pessimistic invocation it is at any rate intriguing to set another much less well known poem of the 1930s, “Spartacus” by James Leslie Mitchell, who is better known, as a novelist, under his pen name Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Here is part of the poem’s apostrophe to the eponymous rebel slave leader: {14|15}

From out the darkling heavens of misty Time
Clear is thy light, and like Ocean’s chime
Thy voice. Yea, clear as when unflinchingly
Thou ledst the hordes of helotry to die
And fell in glorious fight, nor knew the day
The creaking crosses fringed the Appian Way—
Sport of the winds, O ashes of the strong!
But down the aeons roars the helots’ song . . .

Perhaps it was the assonance of “Sparta” and “Spartacus” that prompted Mitchell’s poetically forceful but historically deeply misleading assimilation of two very different sorts of unfreedom, the chattel slavery of Spartacus and his gladiators and the Helotage imposed by the Spartans.

In the remainder of this necessarily very brief Helotological tour dhorizon, I shall focus on what I see as the three major pressure-points of current and likely future scholarly discussions of the Helots and the Helot experience in the Classical fifth and fourth centuries. In order to do so, I shall be privileging very deliberately the contemporary evidence of Thucydides and Aristotle, who have—or in my view ought to enjoy—a better than average reputation for empirical reliability and analytical acuteness (though not necessarily, in all respects, for moral sensitivity).

1. Status

Thucydides at 5.34 makes it unambiguously clear that at least some Helots were then (421 BCE) manumitted, not through private sale or gift by individual {17|18} masters (or mistresses), but publicly by formal act of the collective entity that we usually call the Spartan State: [16]

The Spartans decreed that the Helots who had fought with Brasidas should be free and allowed to live where they liked, and not long afterwards settled them with the Neodamodeis at Lepreion, which is situated on the border between Lakonike and Eleia; Sparta being at this time at enmity with Elis.

This is far from being the only evidence for the fact of the manumission of Helots, which, indeed, was practised by the Spartans with considerable managerial art and skill. I would argue, furthermore, that it was precisely because (at least some) Helots were collectively, centrally and publicly manumitted that a group of freedmen like the Neodamodeis could come into existence uniquely here. For although the Helots, while they were Helots, might intelligibly be lumped together with some other Greek and non-Greek servile collectivities such as the Penestai of Thessaly, as they are by Aristotle in a fragment from his lost Lakedaimonion Politeia, [
17] the Neodamodeis would appear to have no analogues elsewhere whatsoever, and no ancient source compares them in any respect to any other collectivity of manumit- tees. They were, to adapt the label “between free people and douloi” applied by the second-century CE Greek lexicographer Pollux (3.83) to the Helots and other supposedly comparable servile peoples Greek and non-Greek, between full citizens and Helots. Practically speaking, in other words, whatever the technical legal position may have been, the Neodamodeis were liable for collective public duty on their ex-masters’ terms and at their ex-masters’ pleasure, and so suffered collectively, for military purposes of various sorts, something like the condition of paramone imposed on certain individual ex-chattel slaves in the Hellenistic period. [18] It remains to consider Aristotle Politics 1263a31-7:

Such a system [sc. of private acquisition/possession (ktesis), but use in common among friends] exists even now in outline in some cities . . . : for example, in Lakedaimon they use each other’s douloi almost as if they were their own, and horses and dogs likewise, and similarly with produce in the countryside if they require provisions on a journey. {18|19}

Isn’t Aristotle making it clear that ktesis—acquisition, and so possession or ownership—of Helots was private, but use of them, ideally among friends, common? He is indeed, though unfortunately he does not state explicitly how in his view the ktesis was effected or maintained. But I note, first, that this is stated in the present tense; he may therefore be talking about Lakonian Helots only, since he is writing well after the liberation of Messenia, and about conditions when the ancien regime was on the slide or at least being relaxed. And I note, second, another passage of the Politics a little later on (1264a8-11):

In the upshot no other regulation will have been introduced [in the ideal Kallipolis of Plato’s Republic] except the exemption of the Guardians from farming—a measure that even now [or now too] the Spartans are undertaking/attempting to introduce (poiein).

This formally implies that at least some Spartans were in practice farming, despite the (legally enforceable?) attempt to exempt them from that (otherwise peculiarly Helot) function, in the same way that the ruling philosopher Guardians of Plato’s ideal Kallipolis were supposed to be likewise exempted. Again, that situation would not comport with the continued enforcement of a strict “Lykourgan” regime at Sparta. In other words, how far can we legitimately press Aristotle on the individual ownership as opposed to communal control of Helots? Beyond him, there is no other usable and directly relevant ancient testimony.

2. Treatment

Much hangs, in this debate, on one’s reading of Thucydides 4.80.3, which irritatingly is not unambiguous:

Fear of their numbers and obstinacy prompted the Spartans to take the action which I shall now relate. For [either] Spartan policy had always been determined by the necessity of taking precautions against the Helots [or] in the Spartans’ relations with the Helots the central issue had always been to keep them under surveillance.

Either, then, Thucydides is saying that, as a general principle of governance, Spartan policy had always been determined by the necessity of taking precautions against the Helots. Or he is making a more restricted claim, about the centrally and fundamentally precautionary nature of the Spartans’ dealings with the Helots. Whichever of those readings is correct, the ambiguity must not be allowed to obscure the fact that his usage of “always” is deliberately emphatic: the Greek word aiei appears first in the sentence. This gives a special significance to the circumstance that it is in this same passage that Thucydides goes on to relate as an illustration of that general state of affairs an instance of extreme Spartan surveillance involving, allegedly, the calculatedly {20|21} duplicitous slaughter of a round 2000 Helots. Those modern scholars who wish to play down the importance of the Helot “danger” to Sparta or the determining influence of that perceived danger on the whole Spartan regime tend mostly to favour the second, more minimal translation of Thucydides 4.80.3 given above, though even that is a concession too far in the eyes of those who are prepared even to deny the historicity of that reported massacre. [
24] In the sharpest possible contrast Thucydides, the contemporary historian himself, not only believed the massacre to have happened but deemed it to be and presented it as an illustration of a general rule of Spartan behaviour towards the Helots: “always”, as—e.g.—in this particular instance. So, not only is the fundamental and essential nature of the Spartan regime at scholarly stake here, but so too are Thucydides’s judgment and reputation.

In short, I—still—see no good reason not to believe the authenticity of the report of the massacre at Thucydides 4.80.2-4, and every reason to regard this extreme and typically deceitful precautionary measure as powerful evidence of an all too vivid perception, on the part at least of the Spartans, of the genuine existence of a Helot “danger”.

3. Revolt


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Berent, M. 1994. “The Stateless Polis”. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge.

Bloch, E. 1959. Das Prinzip Hofnung. 3 vols. Frankfurt am Main.

Cartledge, P. 1987/2000. Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta. London.

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Christ, K. 1986. “Spartaforschung und Spartabild” Sparta (Wege der Forschung 622), ed. K. Christ, 1-72. Darmstadt.

Christien, J. 2000. “Sparte: les annees de gloire.” Le regard des Grecs sur la guerre. Mythes et réalités, ed. M.-C. Amouretti, J. Christien, F. Ruzé, and P. Sineux, ch. 7. Paris.

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–––. 1997a. “La cryptie en question.” Esclavage, guerre, economie en Grece ancienne. Hommages h Yvon Garlan, ed. P. Brule and J. Oulhen, 43-74. Rennes.

–––. 1997b. “Crypties.” Cahiers du Centre Gustave Glotz 8:9-38.

–––. 2002. “The Obligations of Helots.” In Whitby 2002:196-211. English translation of Ducat 1990: ch. 6.

Figueira, T. 1999. “The Evolution of the Messenian Identity.” Sparta: New Perspectives, ed. S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, 211-244. London.

Garnsey, P. 1996. Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge.

Genovese, E. D. 1979. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge.

Griffith, M. 2001. “Public and Private in Early Greek Education.” Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. Y. L. Too, 23-84. Leiden.

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Hanson, V. D. 2000. The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny. New York

Hesk, J. P. 2000. Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens. Cambridge.

Hobsbawm, E.J. 1973. Revolutionaries. London.

Hodkinson, S. 2000. Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta. London.

Hornblower, S. 2000. “Sticks, Stones and Spartans: The Sociology of Spartan Violence.” In H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece. London: 57-82.

Hunt, P. 1998. Slaves, Warfare and Ideology in the Greek Historians. Cambridge. Jeanmaire, H. 1913. “La cryptie lacedemonienne.” Revue des etudes grecques 26: 121-150.

Jeanmaire, H. 1913. “La cryptie lacédémonienne.” Revue de études grecques 26:121-150.

Klees, H. 1991-1992. “Zur Beurteilung der Helotie im historischen und politischen Denken der Griechen im 5. und 4. Jh. v. Chr.” Laverna 2: 27-52; 3: 1-31.

Koliopoulos, K. 2001. Ἡ ὑψηλὴ στρατηγικὴ τῆς ἀρχαιας Σπαρτης (750-192 π. Χ.). Athens.

Kunstler, B. L. 1983. “Women and the Development of the Spartan Polis: A Study of Sex Roles in Classical Antiquity”. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Boston University.

Levy, E. 1988. “La kryptie et ses contradictions.” Ktema 13: 245-252.

Lotze, D. 1959. Μεταξὺ ἐλευθέπων και δούλων. Studien zur Rechtsstellung unfreier Landbevolkerungen in Griechenland bis zum 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Berlin.

–––. 1985. “Zu neuen Vermutungen uber abhangige Landleute im alten Sikyon.” Antike Abhängigkeitsformen, ed. H. Kreissig and F. Kuhnert, 20-28. Berlin. Repr. in Lotze 2000: 57-68.

–––. 2000. Bürger und Unfreie im vorhellenistischen Griechenland. Ausgewählte Aufsätze. Ed. by W. Ameling and K. Zimmermann. Stuttgart.

Luraghi, N. 2002. “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered.” Sparta: Beyond the Mirage, ed. A. Powell and S. Hodkinson, 229-250. London.

Manso, J. C. F. 1800-1805. Sparta. Ein Versuch zur Aufklärung der Geschichte und Verfassung dieses Staates. 3 vols. Leipzig.

Oliva, P. 1971. Sparta and her Social Problems. Amsterdam.

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Richer, N. 1998. Les Éphores. Études sur l’histoire et sur l’image de Sparte (Vllle-IIIe siècles avant Jésus-Christ). Paris.

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Schulz-Falkenthal, H. 1986. “Die spartanische Helotie als Gegenstand der Forschung vom Anfang des 16. bis zum Ende des 17. Jahrhundert.” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Martin-Luther-Universitat Halle- Wittenberg. Gesellschafts- und Sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe 35.3:96-107.

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[ back ] 1. The original version of this paper was delivered as a curtainraising address on 16 March 2001 before the workshop held the following day. I have tried to retain something of the original’s oral flavour in this printed version. To the directors of the workshop, Sue Alcock and Nino Luraghi, I am deeply indebted for their invitation, hospitality and constant intellectual provocation (in the best possible sense). To my fellow-participants, especially perhaps Orlando Patterson, I am most grateful for comradeship and lively interchange. Of other living fellow-labourers in the vineyard of Lakonian studies, apart from those present at the Workshop and in this volume, I owe most to Anton Powell, who is the dedicatee of Cartledge 2002c. See now Powell 2002: ch. 6 (‘Life in Sparta’).

[ back ] 2. In August 2001 I delivered a paper on the Helots at the California State University at Fresno, thanks to the kind invitation of Victor Hanson; I used as my visual prompts a selection of Gonick’s cartoons, a source apparently unfamiliar even to a Californian audience. Of course, Gonick, a non-specialist, sometimes gets his ‘facts’ wrong, but more often than not he is faithful at least to the spirit of the original sources, and he has clearly done a great deal of effective background homework. For further recognition, see now Alcock 2002: 139 n. 13 and Fig. 4.3.

[ back ] 3. The issue of Spartan women’s sexuality and alleged sexual liberality, as presented in the ancient sources (visual as well as verbal) and interpreted by modern historians, is addressed in Cartledge 2001d; cf. now Pomeroy 2002 (though unfortunately, at pp. 159-161, she misrepresents my position rather grossly). On the Partheniai see, e.g., Kunstler 1983.

[ back ] 4. In the ancient ‘mirage’ (the term is originally that of Ollier 1933-43) the Helots may be conveniently traced and tracked through the index to Rawson 1991: s.v.; cf. for the fifth and fourth centuries, Klees 1991-1992. The first scholarly modern study of ancient Sparta as a whole was by J. C. F. Manso; his 3-volume opus (Leipzig, 1800-1805) contains a typically sober appendix on the Helots (vol. I, Beylage 10, pp. 135-155). For pre-1800 ‘Forschung’, see Schulz-Falkenthal 1986, 1987. For an excellent general overview of scholarly Sparta research, see Christ 1986. Recent highlights include Oliva 1971, together with his 1986 review of the literature onthe Helot question, Ducat’s outstanding synthetic study (1990), and Hodkinson 2000: ch. 4 (‘Helotage and the exploitation of Spartan territory’). [ back ] To give some indication of the pace of current research and level of current interest, I note that in the time that elapsed between my delivering the original oral version of this paper and my writing up this version for publication the sixth chapter of Ducat 1990 appeared in English translation with some editorial comment (Ducat 2002); my ‘Rebels and Sambos’ article (originally 1985) was reprinted with a new introduction and supplementary bibliography (Cartledge 2001a—see further section II below); and major new discussions of Messenian Helot settlement patterns, arising out of the collaborative Pylos Regional Archaeology Project (PRAP) that she co-directs (see below, text and n. 40), were published by Susan Alcock (2002a, 2002b: esp. ch. 4). See also her study of Pausanias’s ‘Messeniaka’ (book IV of the Periegesis): Alcock 2001. Disappointingly, though, Koliopoulos 2001 in his study of Spartan ‘high strategy’ manages to overlook the Helots almost completely.

[ back ] 5. Ste. Croix 1981: 149 does properly emphasise this.

[ back ] 6. The Byron passage is cited and documented in Cartledge 1998: 106. The Plutarch passage is translated as text D8a in Appendix 4 of Cartledge 2001b: 305. That Appendix contains translations of only ‘some’ ancient sources; some others not included there will be translated and/or discussed below. On Spartan education, see now Griffith 2001 passim.

[ back ] 7. Cartledge 1993.

[ back ] 8. Shaw 2001: esp. 14-24.

[ back ] 9. Vidal-Naquet 1986. Victor Hanson (2000: 17-120) has recently, and I think rightly, celebrated Epameinondas as one of history’s great liberators. Further on the historiography of Greek slavery, ancient and modern: Hunt 1998; Cartledge 2002a.

[ back ] 10. Alkidamas = Text E1 in Garnsey 1996: 75-76. Garnsey 1996: 107-127 is a useful discussion of the notoriously difficult Aristotelian defence of a doctrine of ‘natural’ slavery, on which see also Cartledge 2002b: 135-141.

[ back ] 11. The story is best told in one of the greatest achievements in the field of ancient Greek history of the last generation, Guy Griffith’s study of the reign of Philip II of Macedon, his contribution to Hammond and Griffith 1979: see esp. pp. 616-619.

[ back ] 12. Arrian Anabasis I.16.7. C. P. Cavafy, no less brilliantly, picked up on and indeed developed that trope for his own age in one of his very best poems, ‘In the Year 200 B.C.’ (1931). In case it should be wondered why Alexander dedicated precisely 300 suits of armour, surely this was because he was intending a calculatedly cruel reminder of Sparta’s long past glory days of resistance to Persia at Thermopylae in 480 BCE led by King Leonidas and his 300 (on which, incidentally, Cavafy also wrote hauntingly).

[ back ] 13. Ducat 1990: esp. ch. III (‘La relation de propriete’); Hodkinson 2000: esp. ch. 4, and this volume; Luraghi, this volume, and 2002. I do not discuss here the question of the origins of Helotage, whether in Lakonia or Messenia, but I note Luraghi’s confident assertion, this volume, that ‘mass enslavement of an indigenous population is an inherently unlikely explanation’ (p. 109).

[ back ] 14. The texts are respectively Cartledge 2001b: 303 (C.11) and 301 (B.7b).

[ back ] 15. See ch. 4 of Cartledge and Spawforth 2001 (a bibliographically updated reissue of the corrected 1991 paperback reprint of the 1989 original).

[ back ] 16. For once, ‘state’ is probably an accurate enough term. Sparta, odd in this as in so many ways, was not entirely or straightforwardly a ‘stateless political community’, as all other Greek poleis probably were (on this I agree with my former pupil, Dr. Moshe Berent: see Berent 1994).

[ back ] 17. Arist. fr. 586 Rose: ‘[the Kallikyrioi at Syracuse] are like the Spartans’ Helots, the Thessalians’ Penestai, and the Cretans’ Klarotai’. See generally Lotze 1959 and 1985. See also van Wees, this volume.

[ back ] 18. Cartledge, Der Neue Pauly 8 (2000) 823, s.v. ‘Neodamodeis’; cf. Christien 2000: 147-149.

[ back ] 19. Figueira 1999.

[ back ] 20. That is, to be more precise, revolt again; but the legal basis of the Athenians’ assistance to the Spartans during the Helot revolt of the 460s is obscure, and, besides, that aid had been unhappily repudiated (see esp. Thucydides 1.102.3), which may perhaps partly explain the attempt at unilateral quasi-legal codification in an otherwise bilateral treaty of defensive alliance.

[ back ] 21. On the Penestai, see comprehensively Ducat 1994.

[ back ] 22. Singor 1993: 41.

[ back ] 23. What follows is an adapted and, I hope, strengthened version of my new introduction to Cartledge 2001b. Manso (1800: 146) claimed the credit for being the first to appreciate the true significance of Thuc. 4.80.

[ back ] 24. For instance, Roobaert 1977; Talbert 1989 (to which I replied in Cartledge 1991); and Whitby 1994. Whitby’s new collection (2002, index s.v. ‘helots’) does not seriously reopen this particular issue.

[ back ] 25. As he put it, ‘No one ever knew how each of them perished’. For the chilling significance of the phrase ‘each of them’, see Vidal-Naquet 1992: 102-109. On the deceitfulness involved, see Hesk 2000: 31 n. 39.

[ back ] 26. Such fugitive Helots had two main routes of escape from Sparta’s own home territory potentially open to them: either via the fortified position occupied by the Athenians at Pylos in Messenia since 425 (it was the capture of this that in 424, according to Thuc. 4.80.3, provoked the Spartans to extreme fear of Helot ‘obstinacy’ skaiotSs and numbers), or via the ‘sort of isthmus’ in the Malea peninsula in Lakonia opposite the island of Kythera that the Athenians occupied and fortified in 413, precisely as a place ‘to which the Helots might desert’ (Thuc. 7.26.2).

[ back ] 27. On this big issue see now Powell 2002: 436-448 (Appendix, in successful rebuttal of E. Badian, entitled ‘Did Thucydides write ‘pure fiction’? Ancient history and modern passion’).

[ back ] 28. Thucydides on the Helots is perhaps something of an exception to the rule, convincingly identified by Peter Hunt (1998), that all the major Greek historians underemphasised the role of slaves and the unfree in Greek warfare.

[ back ] 29. On the sources for the Krypteia, see Levy 1988; cf. Jeanmaire 1913; Ducat 1997a, 1997b; Cartledge, Der Neue Pauly 6 (1999) 872, s.v.; Handy 2001. Griffith (2001: 51 n. 92) rightly distinguishes between the Krypteia’s Helot-policing function, restricted perhaps to a specially selected elite squad, and the test in survival skills applied to all immediate pre-adults. On the Ephors in general, and specifically their annual declaration of war on the Helots (Aristotle fr. 543 Gigon), see Ste. Croix 1981: 48, 149; and now Richer 1998: 249-251.

[ back ] 30. At 2.67.3, the Spartans reportedly murdered neutrals as well as Athenian and allied traders at the outset of the war; at 3.68.2, they massacred at least 200 Plataians in 427; and at 5.83.2, they killed all available freemen of Peloponnesian Hysiai in 419 (on this last, see Dover 1973: 39).

[ back ] 31. Hornblower 2000.

[ back ] 32. Cartledge and Harvey 1985. What follows here is partially based on my new introduction to Cartledge 2001b; see also Cartledge 2002a.

[ back ] 33. Ste. Croix on slavery: see items 9 and 40 of the ‘Select Bibliography’ in Cartledge and Harvey 1985: viii-xii, in addition to Ste. Croix 1981 (op. cit., item 45) passim. For the influence of Jones on Ste. Croix, see ‘Editors’ Preface’, ibid. xv.

[ back ] 34. See Cartledge 2002a.

[ back ] 35. Genovese 1979; Patterson 1982.

[ back ] 36. The story is told briefly in Cartledge 1987/2000: 384-385.

[ back ] 37. Esp. Alcock 2002a.

[ back ] 38. Though, as Alcock (1999: 337) rightly observes, ‘It is possible . . . that the ‘Messenians’—as a unified entity, with a self-awareness of group identity—were only created with conquest’ (italics in the original); cf. Figueira 1999; Hall, this volume.

[ back ] 39. Plato Laws 776c = Cartledge 2001b: Appendix 4, Text A2a. Aristotle Pol. 1269a36-b5 = Cartledge 2001b: Appendix 4, Text E2a.

[ back ] 40. Cartledge 2001b: ch. 14, at 266.

[ back ] 41. Alcock 2002: 143, from a section, ‘Spartan Messenia’ (pp. 134-152), of chapter 4 (‘Being Messenian’).

[ back ] 42. This was a fact remarked on by the late and much lamented Elizabeth Rawson in her splendid work on ‘The Spartan Tradition in European Thought’ (1991: 366).

[ back ] 43. On Bloch’s two-volume work (1959), see briefly Hobsbawm 1973: ch. 14.