This article is part of the series:
Laws of Lycurgus
List of Kings of Sparta
Spartan army • Other Greek city-states •
The helots (/ˈhɛləts, ˈhiːləts/; Ancient Greek: εἵλωτες,
heílotes) were a subjugated population group that formed the main
Laconia and Messenia, the territory controlled by
Sparta. Their exact status was already disputed in antiquity:
according to Critias, they were "slaves to the utmost", whereas
according to Pollux, they occupied a status "between free men and
slaves". Tied to the land, they primarily worked in agriculture as
a majority and economically supported the Spartan citizens.
The number of helots in relation to Spartan citizens varied throughout
the history of the Spartan state; according to Herodotus, there were
seven helots for each Spartan at the time of the
Battle of Plataea
Battle of Plataea in
479 BC. Thus the need to keep helot population in check and
preventing rebellion was one of the main concerns of the Spartans.
Helots were ritually mistreated, humiliated and even slaughtered:
every autumn the Spartans would declare war on the helots so they
could be killed by a member of the
Crypteia without fear of
repercussion. Uprisings and attempts to improve the lot of
the helots did occur, such as the Conspiracy of Cinadon.
2.1 Treatment by Spartans
Helots and klēroi
2.6 A special case: mothakes and mothones
3.1 The Pausanias plot
3.2 Massacre at Taenarus
3.3 Third Messenian War
3.4 Athenian outposts
4 See also
7 External links
Several theories exist regarding the origin of the name "helot".
According to Hellanicus, the word relates to the village of Helos, in
the south of Sparta. Pausanias thus states, "Its inhabitants became
the first slaves of the Lacedaemonian state, and were the first to be
called helots". This explanation is however not very plausible in
Linguists have associated the word with the root ϝελ-, wel-, as in
ἁλίσκομαι, halískomai, "to be captured, to be made
prisoner". In fact, some ancient authors did not consider the term
ethnic, but rather an indication of servitude: Antiochus of Syracuse
writes: "those of the Lacedaemonians who did not take part in the
expedition were adjudged slaves and were named helots", while
Theopompus (fragment 122), cited by
Athenaeus (VI, 416c), states,
"...and the one nation called their slaves helots and the others
called them penestae..." 
In all of these texts, the christening of the group as helots is the
central and symbolic moment of their reduction to serfhood. By this
name they are thus institutionally distinguished from the anonymous
Certainly conquest comprised one aspect of helotism; thus Messenians,
who were conquered in the Messenian Wars of the 8th century BC, become
Herodotus with helots.
The situation seems less clear in the case of the earliest helots,
who, according to Theopompus, were descended from the initial
Achaeans, whom the
Dorians had conquered. But not all Achaeans were
reduced to helotism: the village of Amykles, home of the Hyacinthia
festival, enjoyed special status, as did others.
Contemporary authors propose alternative theories: according to
Antiochus of Syracuse, helots were the Lacedaemonians who did not
participate in the Messenian Wars; for
Ephorus of Cyme, they were the
perioeci ("dwellers in surrounding communities") from Helos, reduced
to slavery after a failed revolt.
Treatment by Spartans
From at least the classical period, the number of Spartans was very
small in comparison to that of the helots. In a celebrated passage,
Thucydides stresses that "most Spartan institutions have always been
designed with a view to security against the Helots". Aristotle
compares them to "an enemy constantly sitting in wait of the disaster
of the Spartans". Consequently, fear seems to be an important
factor governing relations between Spartans and Helots. According to
Spartiates always carried their spears, undid the
straps of their bucklers only when at home lest the
Helots seize them,
and locked themselves in their homes. They also took active
measures, subjecting them to what
Theopompus describes as "an
altogether cruel and bitter condition".
According to Myron of Priene, an anti-Spartan historian of the
middle 3rd century BC:
They assign to the
Helots every shameful task leading to disgrace. For
they ordained that each one of them must wear a dogskin cap (κυνῆ
/ kunễ) and wrap himself in skins (διφθέρα / diphthéra) and
receive a stipulated number of beatings every year regardless of any
wrongdoing, so that they would never forget they were slaves.
Moreover, if any exceeded the vigour proper to a slave's condition,
they made death the penalty; and they allotted a punishment to those
controlling them if they failed.
In keeping with the laconic phrasing of the ephors, this may simply
have been a requirement that if a person keeps slaves, they must be
clothed, beaten irrespective of whether or not it is deserved, on
penalty of death for the owner - perhaps anti-slavery ideals dressed
in the language of sarcasm.
Plutarch also states that Spartans treated the
Helots "harshly and
cruelly": they compelled them to drink pure wine (which was considered
dangerous —wine usually being diluted with water) "... and to lead
them in that condition into their public halls, that the children
might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low
dances, and sing ridiculous songs..." during syssitia (obligatory
banquets). However, he notes that this rough treatment was
inflicted only relatively late, after the 464 BC earthquake.
Some modern scholars advocate a reevaluation of ancient evidence about
helots. It has been argued that the kunē was not actually made of
dogskin, and that the dipthera (literally, "leather") was the
general attire of the poor peasant class. The obligation of
masters to prevent
Kwashiorkor (fatness) amongst their helots is
deemed implausible: as the
Spartiates lived separately, dietary intake
could not be rigorously controlled; as manual labour was an
important function of the
Helots (for example, being used to carry
their master's arms and armour on campaign), it would make sense to
keep them well nourished. Besides, the rations mentioned by
Thucydides for the
Sphacteria are close to normal.
Myron's evidence is interpreted as an extrapolation from actions
performed on symbolic representatives. In short, Grote writes that
"the various anecdotes which are told respecting [Helot] treatment at
Sparta betoken less of cruelty than of ostentatious scorn". He has
been followed recently by J. Ducat (1974 and 1990), who describes
Spartan treatment of the
Helots as a kind of ideological warfare,
designed to condition the
Helots to think of themselves as inferiors.
This strategy seems to have been successful at least for Laconian
Helots: when the Thebans ordered a group of Laconian helot
prisoners to recite the verses of
Terpander (national poets
of Thebes), they refused on the grounds that it would displease their
Other modern scholars consider then, "although the details may be
fanciful, [Myron's evidence] does reflect accurately the general
Spartiate attitude towards helots". It has also been stressed that
contempt alone could hardly explain the organized murder of Helots
mentioned by several ancient sources. According to Aristotle, the
ephors annually declared war on the Helots, thereby allowing Spartans
to kill them without fear of religious pollution. This task was
apparently given to the kryptes, graduates of the difficult agoge who
took part in the crypteia. This lack of judicial protection is
confirmed by Myron of Priene, who mentions killing as a standard mode
of regulation of the Helot population. Thus, 2,000 helots were
massacred in 425 BC in a carefully staged event:
"The helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their
number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the
enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object
being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their
freedom would be the most high spirited and the most apt to rebel. As
many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves
and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The
Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever
knew how each of them perished."
Paul Cartledge claims that "the history of
Sparta (...) is
fundamentally the history of the class struggle between the Spartans
and the Helots".
Helots and klēroi
Helots were assigned to citizens to carry out domestic work or to work
on their klēroi, or portions. The klēroi, were the original
Messenia after its conquest by Sparta. Various
sources mention such servants accompanying this or that Spartan.
Plutarch has Timaia, the wife of King Agis II, "being herself forward
enough to whisper among her helot maid-servants" that the child she
was expecting had been fathered by Alcibiades, and not her husband,
indicating a certain level of trust. According to some authors, in
the 4th century BC, citizens also used chattel-slaves for domestic
purposes. However, this is disputed by others. Some helots were also
servants to young Spartans during their agoge, the Spartan education;
these were the μόθωνες / móthōnes (see below). Finally,
helots, like slaves, could be artisans or tradesmen.
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They were required to hand over a predetermined portion of their
harvest (ἀποφορά / apophorá), with the helots keeping the
surplus. According to Plutarch, this portion was 70 medimnoi of barley
for a man, 12 for a woman, as well as a quantity of oil and wine
corresponding to an amount reasonable for the needs of a warrior and
his family, or a widow, respectively. The existence of the
apophorá is contested by Tyrtaeus: "Secondly, though no fixed tribute
was imposed on them, they used to bring the half of all the produce of
their fields to Sparta.... Like asses worn by their great burdens,
bringing of dire necessity to their masters the half of all the fruits
the corn-land bears." Pausanias is describing the period
immediately after the first Messenian War, when conditions were
probably more severe.
Having paid their tribute, the helots could often live rather well;
the lands of
Messenia were very fertile, and often
permitted two crops per year. It seems they could enjoy some
private property: in 425 BC, some helots had their own boats.
A certain amount of wealth was achievable: in 223 BC, 6,000 helots
purchased their freedom for 500 drachmas each, a considerable sum at
Helots lived in family units and could, at least de facto, contract
unions among themselves. Since helots were much less susceptible
than other slaves in Greek antiquity to having their family units
dispersed, they could reproduce themselves, or at least maintain their
number. Probably not insignificant to begin with, their population
increased in spite of the crypteia, other massacres of helots (see
below), and losses in war. Simultaneously, the population of Spartiate
The absence of a formal census prevents an accurate assessment of the
helot population, but estimates are possible. According to Herodotus,
helots were seven times as numerous as Spartans during the Battle of
Plataea in 479 BC. The long
Peloponnesian War drained
Sparta of so
many of its citizens that by the time of the conspiracy of Cinadon,
the beginning of the 4th century BC, only forty Peers, or citizens,
could be counted in a crowd of 4000 at the agora (Xenophon, Hellenica,
III, 3, 5). The total population of helots at that time, including
women, is estimated as 170,000 – 224,000.
Since the helot population was not technically chattel, their
population was reliant on native birth rates, as opposed to prisoners
of war or purchased slaves.
Helots were encouraged by the Spartans to
impose a eugenics doctrine similar to that which they, themselves,
practiced. This would, according to Greek beliefs of the period,
ensure not only genetic but also acquired favourable characteristics
be passed along to successive generations. Tempering these selective
factors was the crypteia, during which the strongest and fittest
helots were the primary targets of the kryptes; to select soft targets
would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. This theoretically removed
the strongest and most able potential rebels while keeping the general
populace fit and efficient.
What is more, the Spartans used helot women to satisfy the state's
human personnel needs: the 'bastards' (nothoi) born of Spartan fathers
and helot women held an intermediary rank in Lacedaemonian society
(cf. mothakes and mothones below) and swelled the ranks of the citizen
army. It is difficult to determine whether these births were the
results of voluntary liaisons (at least on the part of the father) or
part of a formal state program. Girls born of such unions, serving no
military purpose, were likely abandoned at birth and left to die.
According to Myron of Priene, cited by Athenaeus, the emancipation
of helots was "common" (πολλάκις / pollákis). The text
suggests that this is normally associated with completion of military
service. The first explicit reference to this practice in regards to
the helots occurs in
Thucydides (IV, 26, 5). This is on the occasion
of the events at Sphacteria, when
Sparta had to relieve their
hoplites, who were besieged on the island by the Athenians:
"The fact was, that the Lacedaemonians had made advertisement for
volunteers to carry into the island ground corn, wine, cheese, and any
other food useful in a siege; high prices being offered, and freedom
promised to any of the helots who should succeed in doing so".
Thucydides reports that the request met with some success, and the
helots got supplies through to the besieged island. He does not
mention whether or not the Spartans kept their word; it is possible
that some of the helots later executed were part of the Sphacterian
The second such call came during the Theban invasion of Laconia.
Xenophon in Hellenica (VI, 5, 28) states that the authorities agreed
to emancipate all the helots who volunteered. He then estimates that
6,000 heeded the call, leading to some embarrassment for the Spartans.
All the same, in 424 BC, the 700 helots who served
Chalcidice were emancipated, and they were henceforth known as the
"Brasidians". It was also possible to purchase freedom, or achieve it
by undergoing the traditional Spartan education. Generally,
emancipated helots were referred to as "neodamodes"
(νεοδαμώδεις / neodamōdeis): those who rejoined the
δῆμος / dễmos (Deme) of the Perioeci.
Moses Finley underscores that the fact helots could serve as hoplites
constituted a grave flaw in the system. In effect, the hoplite system
was a strict method of training to ensure that discipline was
maintained in the phalanx. The Spartans gained considerable reputation
as hoplites, due to tactical capabilities developed through constant
training. In addition to this military aspect, to be a hoplite was a
key characteristic of Greek citizenship. To introduce helots to this
system thus led to inevitable social conflict.
A special case: mothakes and mothones
Phylarchus mentions a class of men that were at the same time free and
non-citizens: the μόθακες / mothakes, who had undergone the
'agoge', the Spartan educational system. Classical historiography
recognizes that the helots comprised a large portion of these
mothakes. Nevertheless, this category poses a number of problems,
firstly that of vocabulary.
The classical authors used a number of terms which appear to evoke
μόθακες / mothakes: a connotation of freedom, Phylarchos
affirmed that they were free (eleutheroi),
Claudius Aelianus (Varia
Historia, 12, 43) that they could be citizens;
μόθωνες / mothōnes: a connotation of servility, the word
designates slaves born to the home;
τρόφιμοι / trophimoi: pupils, adopted children, whom Plutarch
classified among the xenoi (strangers);
σύντροφοι / syntrophoi: literally, "they who were raised
with", that is to say, milk-siblings, given by
equivalent to mothakes;
παρατρέφονοι / paratrephonoi : literally, "those who
were fed near you", signification rather different from the preceding
(this word also applied to domestic animals).
The situation is somewhat complicated by a gloss of Hesychios of
Alexandria which attests that mothakes were slave children
(δοῦλοι / doũloi) raised at the same time as the children of
citizens. Philologists resolve this quandary in two ways:
they insist on reading μoθᾶνες / mothãnes, as a hapax for
μόθωνες (Arnold J. Toynbee);
the hypothesis that douloi has been interpolated by a copyist who
confounded mothakes and mothônes.
In any case, the conclusion needs to be treated carefully:
the mothônes were young servants charged with domestic tasks for
young Spartans during their education (Aristotle, I, 633c), they
remained slaves on reaching adulthood;
the mothakes were an independent freeborn group of helots.
The Pausanias plot
The first helot attempt at revolt which is historically reported is
that provoked by general Pausanias in the 5th century BC. Thucydides
Besides, they were informed that he was even intriguing with the
helots; and such indeed was the fact, for he promised them freedom and
citizenship if they would join him in insurrection, and would help him
to carry out his plans to the end.
These intrigues did not however lead to a helot uprising; Thucydides
indeed implies that Pausanias was turned in by the helots (I, 132, 5 -
...the evidence even of the helots themselves.) Perhaps the promises
made by Pausanias were too generous to be believed by the helots; not
even Brasidas, when he emancipated his helot volunteers, offered full
Massacre at Taenarus
The massacre of Cape Taenarus, the promontory formed by the
southernmost tip of Taygetus, is also reported by Thucydides:
The Lacedaemonians had once raised up some helot suppliants from the
temple of Poseidon at Taenarus, led them away and slain them; for
which they believe the great earthquake at
Sparta to have been a
This affair, recalled by the Athenians in responding to a Spartan
request to exile Pericles—who was an
Alcmaeonid on his mother's
side—is not dated. We know only that it happened before the
disastrous earthquake of 464 BC.
Thucydides here is the only one to
implicate the helots: Pausanias speaks rather about Lacedaemonians who
had been condemned to death. Nor does the text allow us to
conclude that this was a failed uprising of helots, only that there
was an attempt at escape. Additionally, a helot revolt in
unlikely, and Messenians would not likely have taken refuge at Cape
Third Messenian War
The uprising coincident with the earthquake of 464 BC is soundly
attested to, although Greek historians do not agree on the
interpretation of this event.
According to Thucydides, the helots and perioeci of Thouria and
Aithaia took advantage of the earthquake to revolt and establish a
position on Mt.Ithome. He adds that most of the rebels were of
Messenian ancestry—confirming the appeal of
Ithome as a historical
place of Messenian resistance—and focuses attention on the perioeci
of Thouria, a city on the Messianian coast. Conversely, we can deduce
that a minority of the helots were Laconian, thus making this the one
and only revolt of their history. Commentators such as Stephanus of
Byzantium suggest that this Aithaia was in Laconia, thus indicating a
large-scale uprising in the region. The version of events given by
Pausanias is similar.
Diodorus Siculus (XI, 63,4 – 64,1), probably influenced by Ephorus
of Cyme, attributed the uprising equally to the Messenians and the
helots. This version of events is supported by Plutarch.
Finally, some authors make responsibility for the uprising with the
helots of Laconia. This is the case of
Plutarch in his Life of
Cimon: the helots of the Eurotas River valley want to use the
earthquake to attack the Spartans whom they think are disarmed. The
intervention of Archidamus II, who calls the Lacedaemonians to arms,
simultaneously saves them from the earthquake and the helot attack.
The helots fold, but revert to open warfare joined by the Messenians.
It is difficult to reconcile these versions. It is nevertheless clear
that in any case the revolt of 464 BC represented a major traumatic
event for the Spartans.
Plutarch indicates that the
Crypteia and other
poor treatments of the helots were instituted after this revolt. If
there is any doubt in these affirmations, they at least underscore the
immediate Spartan reaction: allies are gathered and war ensues with
the same Athens that would be faced later in the Peloponnesian War.
During the same war and after the capitulation of the Spartans
besieged in Sphacteria, the Athenians installed a garrison in Pylos
composed of Messenians from Naupactus.
Thucydides underlines that they
had hoped to exploit the patriotism of the latter in order to pacify
the region. Though the Messenians may not have triggered
full-blown guerrilla warfare, they nevertheless pillaged the area and
encouraged helot desertion.
Sparta was forced to dedicate a garrison
to controlling this activity; this was the first of the
ἐπιτειχισμοί / epiteikhismoí ("ramparts"), outposts
planted by the Athenians in enemy territory.
The second such outpost was at Kythera. This time, the Athenians set
their sights on the helots of Laconia. Again, pillaging and desertion
did occur, but not on the scale hoped for by the Athenians or feared
by the Spartans: there was no uprising like that which accompanied the
Slavery in Ancient Greece
^ Apud Libanios, Orationes 25, 63 = Frag. 37 DK; see also Plutarch, Li
hi Lycurgus 28, 11.
^ Pollux 3, 83. The expression probably originates in Aristophanes of
Byzantium; Cartledge, p.139.
^ Herodotus. Histories, 8, 28-29.
^ Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7.
^ Herakleides Lembos Fr. Hist. Gr. 2, 210.
^ Athenaeus, 657 D.
^ Hellanicos, Frag. 188 J.
^ Trans. by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod (1918), Accessed: 11 June
2006. Pausanias. Description of Greece, 3, 20, 6.
^ P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, s.v.
^ Geography Trans. by H.L. Jones (1924), Accessed: 11 June 2006. Apud
Strabo 6, 3, 2.
Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The Deipnosophists, or
Banquet of the Learned, of Athenæus. Accessed: 11 June 2006.
^ Ducat (1990), p.7.
^ Trans. by Cartledge, Annex 4, p. 299; The sentence can also be
translated quite differently: "as far as the
Helots are concerned,
most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to
security" (ibid.). Thycydides 4, 80, 3.
^ Politics 1269 a 37-39.
^ Critias, Frag. B 37; see also Xenophon, Rep. Lac. 12, 4.
^ FGH 115 F 13.
^ a b Talbert, p. 26.
^ Apud Athenaeus, 14, 647d = FGH 106 F 2. Trans. by Cartledge, p.305.
^ Life of Lycurgus 28, 8-10. See also, Life of Demetrios, 1, 5;
Constitution of the Lacedemonians 30; De Cohibenda Ira 6; De
Commmunibus Notitiis 19.
^ The word κυνῆ / kunễ is used in Greek literature, especially
Homer in the Iliad, to mean a helmet; in Athens, and in the Odyssey
(XXIV, 231), it also means a leather or skin hat.
^ Pollux (7, 70) defines it as a "thick chiton with a hood". Ducat
(1990), p. 114; Lévy, p. 122.
^ a b Ducat (1990), p. 120.
^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 4, 6, 1.
^ Ducat (1990), p. 120. The besieged Spartan hoplites on Sphacteria
received two khoinikes of barley flour, two kotyloi of wine and an
unquantified portion of meat. The helots were on half-rations. An
Attic koinix is 698 gr. which, according to calculations (L. Foxhall
and H. A. Forbes, "Sitometria: The Role of Grain as a Staple
Food in Classical Antiquity" in Chiron Number 12 (1982), pp. 41–90),
was far from miserable: it corresponds to 81% of daily nutritional
needs for a moderately active man, according to FAO standards.
Complemented with the wine and meat, it can be considered as close to
normal, given that the fighting had subsided and that the said helots
were only attending to their domestic duties.
^ Ducat, pp. 119-121.
^ Quoted by Cartledge, p. 151.
^ Partially followed by Lévy, pp. 124–126.
^ Lévy, p. 12, with a warning that this evidence should not be worked
^ Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 28, 10.
^ P. Cartledge, review of Ducat (1990), Classical Philology, Vol. 87,
No. 3 (July 1992), pp. 260-263.
^ Aristotle, frag. 538 Rose = Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 28, 7 = frag.
^ Herakleides Lembos, Frag. 370,10 Dilts = Frag. 538 Rose.
^ a b c d Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. London, J. M. Dent; New
York, E. P. Dutton. 1910. Online at the Perseus project. Accessed: 11
^ Cartledge. Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, p. 13.
^ Sarah B. Pomeroy et al. Ancient Greece. Oxford University Press,
1998: pp. 68 & 148.
^ Plutarch. Life of Agesilaus, 3, 1.
^ Lévy, p. 119.
^ Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 8, 7 and 24, 2.
^ Apud Pausanias 4, 14, 4–5.
^ Lévy, pp. 120-121.
^ Lévy, p.121.
^ a b Cartledge, p.141.
^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 4, 26, 6.
^ Plutarch. Life of Cleomeles, 23.
^ Tyrtaeus, Frag. 7.
^ Herodotus. Histories, 8, 28-29.
^ Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta. London: Johns
Hopkins University, 1994, p. 174.
^ (in French) J. Tregaro, "Les bâtards spartiates" ("Spartan
Bastards"), in Mélanges Pierre Lévêque, 1993.
^ Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists, VI, 271F.
^ Apud Athenaeus, 6, 271e.
^ Thucydides, 1.132, 4.
^ Ducat (1990), p.130.
^ Thucydides, 1.128, 1.
^ Pausanias, 4, 24, 5.
^ Ducat (1990), p.131.
^ Thucydides, 1.101, 2.
^ Diodorus Siculus, 11.63, 4-64,1.
^ Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus, 28, 12.
^ Plutarch. Life of Cimon, 17, 8.
^ Thucydides, 4.41, 2-3.
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BC. Routledge, New York, 2002 (2nd edn). ISBN 0-415-26276-3
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(in French) Les Hilotes. Athènes : École française d'Athènes,
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Sparta and her Social Problems, Academia, Prague, 1971
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Talbert, R.J.A. "The Role of the
Helots in the Class Struggle at
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Plutarch, Lycurgus 28
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Helots by Jona Lendering
A Prosperous Economy: Spartiates, Perioikoi, And
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