Sparta's Helot 'Wars'

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
#1
Traditional history would tell us that the Spartans declared war on the 'Helots' on a yearly basis at random, sending parties of young men to murder them. Was this a real custom? What do we know about its specifics? Did the Helots ever stage an organized revolt or try to defend themselves?
 

okamido

Forum Staff
Jun 2009
29,885
land of Califia
#2
"War" was declared on them annually to avoid blood stains/ guilt in the event one or more was killed. As to the "roaming bands" that hunted them...no one actually knows. The krypteia is often cited as the group that would carry this out, and was composed of young men of the agoge. Some theorize that the krypteia acted as a secret police that would hunt down the most unruly of the helot class, thus keeping them docile and without leadership. The problem is of course, that this is only a theory. Unfortunately, nobody knows what the krypteia was, only agreeing that in order to move up in Spartan politics, you needed to have been a member. It is also unlikely that it was a 'secret police', as this function seemed to be exclusively carried out by the hippeis.

As to revolts of the helots, there were several. An interesting side to these revolts, is the indication from Plato, that the reason the Spartans were late to Marathon was nothing to do with celebrating the Karneia, but was in fact due to the quelling of a helot revolt. This flies in the face of accepted history, but Plato would have gotten the information from somewhere, most likely a text or history (either written or oral), that is currently lost to us. I always found it somewhat believable due to the fact that it falls right in line with Spartan subterfuge that they engaged in with their allies...in this case, the Athenians at Marathon. The evidence that actually points to Plato possibly being correct is really interesting, two of which revolve around the problems created by Kleomenes, and/ or the renaming of Zankle, to Messene....around 490/89bce.
 
Sep 2011
24,135
------------
#5
Okamido pretty much said it all. Imagine that you have the Helots but they highly out number each Spartan citizen. They tended to pick out the trouble causers, for obvious reasons.
 

beorna

Ad Honoris
Jan 2010
17,473
-
#6
"War" was declared on them annually to avoid blood stains/ guilt in the event one or more was killed. As to the "roaming bands" that hunted them...no one actually knows. The krypteia is often cited as the group that would carry this out, and was composed of young men of the agoge. Some theorize that the krypteia acted as a secret police that would hunt down the most unruly of the helot class, thus keeping them docile and without leadership. The problem is of course, that this is only a theory. Unfortunately, nobody knows what the krypteia was, only agreeing that in order to move up in Spartan politics, you needed to have been a member. It is also unlikely that it was a 'secret police', as this function seemed to be exclusively carried out by the hippeis.

As to revolts of the helots, there were several. An interesting side to these revolts, is the indication from Plato, that the reason the Spartans were late to Marathon was nothing to do with celebrating the Karneia, but was in fact due to the quelling of a helot revolt. This flies in the face of accepted history, but Plato would have gotten the information from somewhere, most likely a text or history (either written or oral), that is currently lost to us. I always found it somewhat believable due to the fact that it falls right in line with Spartan subterfuge that they engaged in with their allies...in this case, the Athenians at Marathon. The evidence that actually points to Plato possibly being correct is really interesting, two of which revolve around the problems created by Kleomenes, and/ or the renaming of Zankle, to Messene....around 490/89bce.
correct, the krypteia is a controversy subject of historians. Interesting is, that Platon, around 400 BC, doesn't mention the killing of helotes by Spartans. Different to this Plutarch, around 100 CE, appealing to Aristoteles (ca. 350 BC), claims, that they killed helotes during the krypteia, just for terrorising them.
First of all helotes are not helotes. We have, I hope i don't forget an incident, no revolts reported in lakonia by helotes. Well, we have later even helotes within the spartan army. This is completely different to messenia. here we have revolts and a draconic regime of the spartans.
So it seems, that the helotic rebellions are against the spartan occupator.

So some believe Platon, some Plutarch. my former professor Stefan Link tried to combine both stories and believes in two different formes, an older of platon-style and after the battle of leuktra a younger Plutarch-style.
 

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