Helots of Sparta: episode notes.

Helots of Sparta – some information.

I hope you enjoyed my latest episode on the helots – don’t forget to rate or review on the platform you use!

You can find the episode below and others on my Podcast site. As you might expect Ancient History Hound is on most platforms – so check it out!

Maps of Sparta.

In the southern Peloponnese you can see both Laconia and Messenia.

Within Messenia an important location which I mentioned was Mount Ithome.

View from ancient Messene with Ithome in the background.

Nike of Paionios

Phot by Carole Raddato

This famous sculpture was located at Olympia, not just anywhere but on a column in front of the temple to Zeus. This was a very important spot. It was a great piece of PR, I expect any Spartan gave it a wide berth. I wrote a piece on this which you can read here.

Walls of Messene

The walls of Messene have survived in sections to this day. They were impressive and stamped the authority of the new city across southern Greece. 

Photo by Chatzidakis 2019.

Reading List.


Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Herodotus. Histories

Pausanias. Guide to Greece

Plutarch. Lives.

Xenophon. Hellenica


Cartledge P. The Spartans

                       Raising hell? The Helot Mirage – a personal re-view*

Cavanagh, W. Settlement structure in Laconia and Attica at the end of the Archaic Period: The fractal dimension.

Figueira, TJ. The demography of the Spartan helots.*

Hall, JM. The Dorianization of the Messenians.*

Hawkins, C. Spartans and perioikoi: the organization and ideology of the Lakedaimonian army in the 4th century BCE.

Jordan, B. The Ceremony of the Helots in Thucydides IV 80.

Hodkinson, S. Spartiates, helots and the direction of the agrarian economy: towards an understanding of helotage in comparative perspective.*

                          Was Sparta an exceptional polis?

                          New approaches to classical Sparta.

Kennell, NM. Agreste Genus: Helots in Hellenistic Laconia.*

Luraghi, N. The imaginary conquest of the helots.*

                      Helotic slavery reconsidered.

                      Helots and barbarians: historiography and representations

Patterson, O. Reflections on helotic slavery and freedom.*

Rusch, SM, Sparta at War

Scheidel, W. Helot numbers, a simplified model.*

Van Wees, H. Conquerors and serfs: wars of conquest and forced labour in archaic Greece.*

*Found in Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messian. ed Luraghi and Alcock.


Spartans, dusty feet, earthquakes and rebellion. Join me as I try to unwrap the mystery of the helot on the Ancient History Hound podcast.

Hi and welcome, my name’s Neil and in this episode I’ll be trying to bring some much needed clarity to the subject of the helots. These were the agricultural labourers of Sparta and as you’ll hear they were essential to the Spartan state.

I’ll be examining what the sources said about them and even why we need to weigh these accounts. But I’ll also be considering where they came from, what they did, how they did it and how it ended.

You can find episode notes on my ancientblogger.com website – these include a reading list with all the sources I have used, a transcription and maps, images and anything else which will help you get a bit more out of the episode. And if you’re listening to this on a platform where you can give a rating or review then please do. For example Spotify allows you to rate this show and also leave a review for the episode. I say it on each episode but this is crucial for an indie podcaster such as myself. Any spare change I have goes into new books and sometimes upgrading equipment. Marketing is pretty much over to you.

And if you’re a returning listener, thanks. Really appreciate you coming back and if you are new – well there’s a bit of a back catalogue and I hope you find something else to listen to.

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Right, let’s try and answer the riddle of the helot.

There’s a a sadistic coincidence that the helot, a figure which at some points possesses somewhat ambiguous qualities, existed in Sparta. The Spartans weren’t known for their diary keeping or keeping much of anything and so we are met with the challenge of a seemingly non standard demographic and a very opague lens to observe them through. Yet there is still room for us to draw lines between dots and weigh up what we have.

I’ll start with a certainty, a rarity with the helot, and this concerns where the helot was to be found.

I’ll put a map up on the episode notes to help by the way but we are focused on the southern Peloponnese. Here you had two regions with the Taygetos mountain chain dividing them. On the eastern side was a region known as Laconia, it was a large river valley with the Eurotas river and the famous city of Sparta. On the western side of the mountains was Messenia, or rather a region which later became known as Messenia and I phrase it that way because prior to the 5th century BC it’s not clear what it was called. We first meet a city called Messene in Homer’s Odyssey when a young Odysseus travelled there to collect a debt, apparently men from Messene had taken 300 sheep from Ithaca. And it was in Messene that Odysseus received the bow he became famous for. But in this context Messene isn’t a region, it was a city. This has caused a bit of head scratching because there was a city called Messene which was built much later and which I’ll mention. Recent work has identified a possible site which may have been the original Messene. In any case, I’ll refer to the region as Messenia just to keep things simple.

The combined area of Messenia and Laconia is estimated to have been 8,500 km2, that’s with the caveat of the exact boundaries not being fully known. And that’s no small amount of land, Attica, the region which Athens controlled was around 2,500km2. Just to give some perspective if the land area the Spartans controlled was a state in the US it would come in at 49th largest. A bit bigger than Delaware and twice the size of Rhode island.

What this gave the Spartan state was between 115,000 and 145,000 hectares of farmable land, according to one estimate. This land was divided into kleroi, the estates the Spartan citizens owned and on which the helots worked. It’s easy to forget how crucial agriculture was – a poor harvest could have dramatic consequences. Having good arable land and lots of it gave any city state a distinct advantage.

It was in these two regions of the southern Peloponnese which is where we found the helot and specifically working on those kleroi, or estates.

The next question is how Sparta acquired the helots? Well, this seems easier to answer in the case of Messenia, or rather I should say we at least have something more tangible to consider. These are the so called Messenian Wars where it’s been argued that Sparta invaded the region and subdued it. We have a source, a Spartan poet by the name of Tyrtaeus of the 7th century BC. He commented that King Theopompus had fought a 20 year war and finally won. Following this the Messenians now had to give half their farmed crop to Sparta and take part in mourning for senior Spartans. Certainly the first comment reflects a characteristic of helotry  – namely that helots created produce for their Spartan masters.

However, Tyrtaeus didn’t use the word helot though with that said we don’t have much of his work which has survived.

Later sources, such as Ephorus in the 4th century supplied a more complex narrative involving uprisings and civil tension with the same result, military conquest of Messenia by Sparta. However, there is little we actually know of the mechanics to it all. Did Sparta fight against a singular entity or was this really a gradual absorbtion of parts of Messenia over time. We just don’t know. But what the sources offer up is that Sparta had acquired Messenia by force. Exactly how you get from that point to a subjegated population working the land is left to guesswork. The often cited conclusion – that suddenly the conquered people were turned into helots – isn’t as practical as it sounds. But as I said we don’t have much in the way of evidence to help us draw more detailed conclusions.

Messenia wasn’t the only place where we find helots, there were Laconian helots as well. The notion of Laconian helots might seem odd almost counter-intuitive. If the Messenian helots had been sourced through the conquering of their lands, as was understood at the time, how did they explain the Laconian ones?

Antiochus of Syracuse, who dated to the late 5th century BC, provided an account which linked both Laconia and Messenia. Prior to the invasion of Messenia by the Spartans there had been a refusal by some in Laconia to join and as a consequence they paid with their freedom. Where in Messenia there had been a theme of conquest resulting in the helots, in Laconia it was one of rebellion.

The account of Ephorus is a good example of this. When Laconia had been divided up into 6 districts one eventually rebelled. The city in the district was called Helos, the population was reduced to slavery. Helos was a place in Laconia and Ephorus wasn’t the only one to try and link the word ‘helot’ and ‘Helos’, for example Pausanias did so as well.

Others tied the name to the verb meaning ‘to take or seize’. However, modern linguistical analysis has put paid to the idea of Helos being the origin for helot – though they sound the same they are not related in any way. But it’s a good example of the later sources seeing a possible link and then creating a backstory for it. In case you wonder where the word came from it’s been suggested that it was initially a localised variation of a word which mean slave or similar and then became the designated term.

We have our own version of this, the word ‘slave’ is derived from ‘Slav’ these were a people who were forced in large numbers into slavery in the Middle Ages. They became so associated with slavery that their name became the word used.

Before I move on there is one final theory about how the helots came to be which I find very tempting. Rather than the helot resulting from conquest the helot was just a common demographic in the Archaic period. In the early 6th century BC Athens experienced a crisis involving its tenant farmers, many of which were in a type of debt slavery where they were now owned by their landowner. In theory they could pay their debt off, but many were trapped in an existence of a worker tied to the land and obliged to the landowner. In Athens this had been solved through the reforms of Solon. What’s argued is that this reform never happened in Sparta. The poor tenant farmer who was locked in to an existence of working off an impossible debt remained as just that. This was, or became the helot. An advantage this argument has is that it doesn’t oppose the idea that Messenia was conquered by Sparta. This could have been a situation across both regions and without a political reform such as the one at Athens they just became full time indebted farm workers.

This brings me neatly to the social structure of Sparta of the 5th century BC which I’ll briefly cover before moving into the topics of what the helots did and how they lived. At the top of the social and political pyramid there were the Spartiates, these were elite male citizens who had the power. Being a Spartiate wasn’t just about being born one, an essential requirement was a contribution you made to your syssitia which has been translated as something approaching a military mess. It was a group which you belonged to where you spent most of your time and where you ate. In order to become a Spartiate you needed to qualify to join a syssitia and one of the requirements was that you could contribute to it from your kleros. This was an ongoing requirement, if at any point you were unable to keep up the contributions your membership was void. You were out and therefore you were no longer a Spartiate.

It’s important to note that helots were therefore vital for these elite citizens and this perhaps why they occupied the Spartan mindset and why Sparta was so concerned about them.

Estimates are always very tricky but numbers have been calculated using the kleroi, the estates of the Spartans. From these it has been estimated what could be supported. One figure is that there were in total 8 – 9,000 Spartiates in the early 5th century BC. The number of helots, however, is given at between 60-70 thousand with other figures as high as 118 thousand.

The helots sat under the Spartiates and alongside another group, the wonderfully named perioikoi. This translates as something close to “dwellers around” and this group, also subservient were the merchants, the craftsmen and the pretty much everything else. Thucydides gave a great example of this when he recorded how the perioikoi effectively ran an island called Kythera which was just off the coast of Sparta. This island had a harbour which acted as a main trading hub. A Spartan garisson was present to keep an eye on things but the perioikoi managed everything else.

I appreciate that this is a very basic overview of Sparta, for example I haven’t mentioned the ephors. But what we see are an elite citizens, the Spartiate and the somewhat ambiguous perioikoi. And of course the helots.

When it comes to what a helot could do we have very limited source material but we do have some basics to build a picture. As you have heard they more or less exclusively worked the estates and supplied the agricultural produce for themselves and for the estate owner who would have been a Spartan citizen. Helots could marry and in fact this was probably encouraged as this meant an ever renewing resource of workers. A child from a union between a Spartan man and a helot woman was a mothax, this was a lower class Spartan citizen. A mothax was free and raised as part of the Spartan’s family. Gylippus and Lysander, both famous Spartan generals, were said to have both been a mothax.

Helots have been referred to as slaves, but this classification isn’t an easy fit. For example, slaves were generally commodities to be sold as and when. Helots could not be sold outside Sparta and whilst they may have been traded within it the likelihood is that they stayed on the estates for as long as the estate functioned. After all it would be best to have a helot working on land that they knew well.

But in many ways the helot ticked the box as a slave, first and foremost they weren’t free and as a population they were under strict supervision. Perhaps what is required is a nuanced category for the helot. In the modern period they have been seen as an early form of the serf, a type of worker who was indebted to a Lord and supplied labour to him. Though serfs and serfdom were a widespread thing in later history helots have been considered a unique type. But closer inspection reveals that this may not have been the case and there is evidence for other groups who seemed to operate as a type of serf or helot in much the same way.

In Thessaly there were the Penestai, agricultural workers who could also serve in the army and who were compared to helots in antiquity. Likewise a people in Crete who worked on estates and who couldn’t be sold abroad, though interestingly they could marry citizen women.

Plutarch mentioned people who worked outside Epidaurus on the farms, they were named konipodes, which translates as ‘dusty-feet’ as they were easily recognised by their dusty feet when they visited the city. Beating the konipodes in the name-game were the gumnetes or gumnestioi or ‘naked people’ of Argos. Finally there were the Mariandynians of Heraclea on the Black Sea. Aristotle and Plato reported how they cultivated the land, served in the army but were excluded from citizenship.

It’s more than plausible that helots weren’t an unique demographic in ancient Greece. They were simply the most famous. Some of the examples I just mentioned involved military service and this was also true of the helot. Exactly what they did isn’t clear, an obvious thought is that they performed the duties akin to that of a squire who served a knight. However, they may well have fought as lightly armed infantry. At the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC Herodotus described how each of the Spartiates was accompanied by seven lightly armed helots. There were 5,000 Spartiates that day on the field and it’s difficult to think of the 35,000 helots not being involved in the fighting as well.

The topic of warfare is something which I’ll be discussing later but the main role of the helot, as mentioned, was the agricultural labourer. But here we meet an enduring question, how were the helots overseen in their daily roles. The kleroi upon which they worked weren’t novelty allotments for the village fair. They were crucial, as previously mentioned a Spartiate whose kleros failed to provide the necessary produce could lose membership to his syssitia. It almost seems nonsensical that you’d entrust the keys to your elite status to those who you were actively oppressing.

In Laconia we could suppose that the possibility of a surprise inspection kept helots on their toes given that this was the region where Sparta was located. The furthest kleroi may have been up to 30km (18 miles) to the south, a plausible trip and there’s also the sense fostered that Laconia had a more loyal helot base or at least those who understood their responsibilities and accepted their situation even if they weren’t happy. It’s easy to project a modern heroic film narrative backwards and question why they didn’t rebel, but I suspect the reality made this a far more difficult option. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage.

But Messenia was different. The kleroi in the west could be as far as 70km (43 miles) and this also involved going over the mountains or through a pass. This was a very different proposition.

The logical assumption would be that the Spartans either trusted the helots completely or had a system which contained a mix of goodwill from the helots and some supervision. This leads me to a word I’ve dreaded saying  – mnoionomoi. It’s argued that this word translates as ‘leaders of the helots’. It’s posited that here we have some hierarchy which provided a level of oversight.

If we didn’t have this word available I’d expect there to be a case made for such a position and it also aligns with the survey work done in Messenia. According to the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project the helot communities which worked on the kleroi were grouped together. The picture we get is not of scattered communities but of large farmsteads supporting communities, in one instance the size of the settlement was estimated at least four figures. Some level of what is neatly termed ‘differential prosperity’ has been found in Messenia and in fact in Laconia. One helot location revealed some imported fine pottery.

What we may have in Messenia is something akin to the Spartan carrot, not just the stick. Helot families might do better for themselves if they worked and lived in accordance with expectations. Creating such a hierarchy benefitted the Spartans because it meant that they could exert a better level of control. They had the leading helots to keep everyone in check and if one failed to do so the rewards, perhaps freedom from military service or a better standard of living, would certainly appeal attract the interest of others to step up and take their place.

A similar archaeological project was undertaken in Laconia, the Laconia Survey. The notable contrast was that in Laconia the estates, or rather those helot communities, were scattered and didn’t form large communities. If we think of those more structured communities in Messenia as an enhanced form of control then it may have been that these just weren’t needed in Laconia. Helots there perhaps realised that a Spartan force could be upon them far quicker and this, as well as possible incentives, kept them controlled.

How then were helots treated, how were they controlled?

Thucydides’ reported on a horric action taken by Sparta against its helots. Following a defeat at Pylos, which I’ll come to shortly, Sparta put out a proclomation asking for those helots who thought they had served Sparta best on the battlefied to come forward and receive freedom. Two thousand helots were said to have responded to the call and these were executed. Thucydides fails to explain how this happened and it’s easy to see this as an anti-Spartan tale, but not unbelievable. There’s a horrific logic to it all – Sparta was concerned that the helots would rebel and those who had military experience would pose the most danger. Why not find a way to identify them? It also would reveal those who wanted their freedom. In one fell swoop Sparta could be rid of potential troublemakers with the capacity to make real trouble.

Elsewhere Sparta had helot-controls built into its social apparatus. Each year the ephors at Sparta declared War on the helots. It may have been more a token exercise, to remind the Spartan state of its rightful dominance but as Aristotle noted it may have also allowed for the killing of helots without the risk of pollution.

And then there was the krypteia, an organisation of young Spartiates who were chosen by virtue of their cunning. The tradition was that members would act as a sort of intelligence service, keeping the helots in check and dispatching any which were seen as dangerous in some way.

On a lighter note Plutarch recorded how the Spartans would make the helots drink wine and then exhibit them drunk to warn off the dangers of excess. However, the caveat with Plutarch here is that he was happy to record things about the Spartans which he wasn’t sure about and many centuries later. But, again, it’s not exactly an incredulous idea.

A final check may lie within another group residing in Sparta – the Periokoi. It’s been argued that, particularly in Messenia, the settlements of the perioikoi acted as buffers between the borders and kept an eye on the helots. Perhaps some acted in place of the helot supervisor on an estate? Or they acted on behalf of a Spartan watching the helot supervisor on his estate. I make this link here between the perioikoi and the helots because I’m going to turn to one infamous event in Spartan, and helot history. The rebellion of 464 BC.

This doesn’t seem to have been a planned uprising, more the case of an opportunistic one. In 464 BC there was a large earthquake which is thought to have caused widespread damage in Messenia. The local helot population, or at least some of them, rebelled and took a fortified position on Mount Ithome. Thucydides mentioned that some of the perioikoi settlements had also joined in and here we meet that point I made a few moments ago about the perioikoi exerting some control over the helots and when there wasn’t that control the helots could rise up.

The earthquake and helot revolt was to have huge implications for Sparta and for the rest of Greece. In the case of Sparta, well, it was their greatest fear come true. Worst still was that the helots couldn’t be winkled out of their fort on Mount Ithome. The ancient Greeks were not well versed at siege warfare. At this point there weren’t siege towers or large catapults available to them. Warfare tended to be seasonal and on the rare occurrence of a siege type event the tactic was to encircle the city and wait it out or hope that someone inside the city would betray it.

The Athenians sprang into action and under Cimon, a leading politician of the day, sent a force of around 4,000 hoplites to aid Sparta in the siege. Cimon was very pro-Spartan and what better way to show continued support than to help put this nonsense to rest. But Sparta snubbed the offer and sent the Athenians home. Thucydides’ account of this concluded that the Spartans were worried that the longer the Athenian force spent time around Ithome the stronger the chance that it might change its mind and support the helots. Thucydides commented that this was the first open quarrel between Sparta and Athens and it had consequences. The immediate ones were that Athens allied with Argos, Sparta’s bitterest enemy it also brought down Cimon and his pro-Spartan faction at Athens. Replacing Cimon was Ephialtes who was pro-democracy and anti-Spartan. Incidentally he pushed through reforms which democratised Athens even further and alongside him was a chap you may have heard of, a politician called Pericles.

The helots lasted years within the safety of their fort and eventually only left when Sparta offered terms which involved their leaving and promising never to return. They were rehomed by the Athenians in the city of Naupactia on the Corinthian gulf. In 421 BC this city dedicated a statue of Nike, the goddess of Victory, in front of the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Known as the Nike of Paionios it stood on a tall column and must have been seen by the thousands who attended the sanctuary. Any Spartan may have given it a wide berth because the inscription on the column explained that this was dedicated by the Naupactians and Messenians from the spoils won over their enemies.

The victory mentioned here doesn’t seem to have been the rebellion against Sparta, instead it probably refers to a much more recent victory and one which again was the stuff of Spartan nightmares but also involved helots in a slightly different way.

In 425 BC Sparta and Athens were at war, the famous Peloponnesian War, technically the second Peloponnesian War which Thucydides wrote a history of. The action took place on the island of Sphacteria off the west coast of Messenia. A Spartan force on the island was blockaded by the Athenian navy, however, the attempts to starve the Spartans out wasn’t proving that successful and according to Thucydides this was due to the local helots breaking the blockade in small boats or swimming across the bay carrying supplies.

Thucydides didn’t seem able to reconcile this. Why would the helots wish to help the Spartans? According to him it was the promise of money and freedom. But it’s unclear if this was genuinely the case, for example, how would either work? In fact if this is true then it raises more questions – one being what did a helot spend money on and presumably this couldn’t have been money as coinage in Sparta wasn’t in place. Perhaps it was true, but perhaps this was Thucydides trying to avoid the awkward notion of some form of helot loyalty. It’s also plausible that the helots weren’t helping the Spartans out of any sense of duty. Instead they feared the common outcome for a commoner in times of war when a foreign power invades. Namely indiscriminate killing and destruction of farms, it would of course be the helot who would be in the front line.

Athens eventually succeeded in taking the island and the capture of Spartan soldiers left a hairline fracture in the reputation Sparta had for its military. And of course there was now an opportunity for the Athenian base on the island to rouse helots to leave, possibly employing the Messenians from Naupactia either directly or just their knowledge of the land.

Though Sparta and her allies won the Peloponnesian War it had placed a huge drain on the numbers of Spartiates it had. The inflexibility of the Spartan system to admit new members had always been an issue and continued to be a big problem.  It’s some irony that the social system Sparta had, geared for war as we are told, was very inefficient at dealing with wartime attrition.

Yet Sparta could still mobilise helots, albeit in a slightly different way. In 424 BC we meet the neodamodeis, helots who could earn their freedom through military service. These were first employed by the general Brasidas who recruited 700 of them to take north on campaign. Following their service they were settled at Lepreon on the Spartan border. This doesn’t seem to have been a random choice of location. Lepreon was on the border with Elis and disputed, you can either see it as a good place to have veteran soldiers or somewhere that a recently freed set of helots with military service might cause the least trouble to Sparta.

After the Peloponnesian War this policy continued. When the general Thibron took 5,000 troops to fight Persia in Ionia his force contained 1,000 soldiers described by Xenophon as ‘emancipated helots’. Offering helots freedom through military service may have been both a practical military policy but it could also have value as a social valve. It was the possibility of freedom at a huge price for a helot but it was better than nothing. As an added bonus it might have appealed to the type of helot who would consider taking up arms  – in a sense get them fighting for Sparta before they get any silly ideas.

The threat, however,  still remained as it always probably had and the threat of helots rebelling took on a different hue with a conspiracy around 400 BC. It was led by a character named Kinadon who seems to have been Spartan but certainly not from the elite class. The account, solely from Xenophon, is that given by an informer who Kinadon confided in and was ultimately betrayed by.

The stuff of nightmares for any Spartan was embodied by a sojourn between Kinadon and the informer who Kinadon thought was an ally of his. Walking around the market Kinadon asked him to count the number of Spartiates he could see. The informant replied “40”  – Kinadon replied that these were the enemy and the allies at the market numbered over 4,000. The implication was that it was the Spartiates versus pretty much everyone else and this included the helots. Kinadon even referred to them on the estates and again pointed out their numbers versus those of the enemy.

It wasn’t just the helots then, it was the peroikoi and even other Spartans who weren’t Spartiates. The numbers may have been scary and picked at the seam of the big nightmare the Spartan state had  – but what came next was chilling. Kinadon commented that amongst those groups the hatred of the Spartiates was strong, in fact whe you mentioned a Spartiate to them they could barely conceal that they would happily eat a Spartiate raw.

We only have Xenophon’s account of this and Xenophon was not objective, so perhaps a pinch of salt or two are needed and not just for seasoning. Xenophon was hugely pro-Spartan so perhaps this account went some way to justify the means which Sparta used to keep its population, and the helots, under control. But we have to consider that it could have been true, perhaps exaggerated, after all the account was Kinadon trying to recruit the eventual informer to his side. What it certainly does is provide a near perfect sketch of the Spartan boogeyman. The sort of thing which the Spartan state feared the most.

Though Sparta feared the enemy within the real danger sat far from their borders. The early 4th century BC was a mish-mash of alliances and squabbles amongst the city states of Greece. This eventually resulted in war for Sparta and in 371 it suffered a devastating defeat at Leuctra. This ended Sparta as a military power and the roll call of the dead underlined how weakened it had become.

Sparta fielded 10,000 infantry and one thousand cavalry – made up mainly of its allies. This force only contained 700 Spartiates and if that seems few – well consider that it’s estimated that there were only a pool of 1,000 remaining. Of these four hundred were killed, in a day Sparts lost over a third of its precious Spartiates. This didn’t just have a military consequence, the Spartiates were those with the political power and one that very theme Sparta also lost one of its Kings. This was the first time a king had died in battle since Leonidas at Thermopylae.

This defeat is considered as the end of the Spartan state, though it continued to operate it was only a bare shadow of its former self. But the battle was only the first part, worse was to come. A Theban army moved south, the peroikoi now happy to defect. Thebans waltzed past the city of Sparta and headed south to Gytheum where they burned its docks. They then went past it again. Perhaps the ultimate insult was that taking Sparta was an irrelevance, instead the Theban army under the famed general Epaminondas headed westwards over the Taygetus mountain range and into Messenia.

Sparta had issued a proclamation, that any helot who wanted their freedom could earn it with a spear in hand and Xenophon reported that this drew in 6,000 volunteers. However, we have to be very careful with Xenophon as he was very biased towards Sparta and perhaps this was an exaggeration or invention. But as ever I should counter this point. Perhaps it was true because those helots who volunteered were, as I mentioned earlier, taking up arms because they feared the Thebans and what they might do to their farmlands and families.

What Thebes did was the opposide of what the helots may have feared, they freed them. Or at least they freed the helots in Messenia. To add insult to injury Epaminondas had a city built on Mount Ithome called Messene. It had a circuit of 9 kilometres of walls and Messenians from all over Greece and even from north Africa returned to it.

For the helots in Laconia things were never the same. The whole social structure had been reduced to gaps. We know that helots still worked there as there is mention of them when the general Pyrrhus passed through. But given their main function it’s easy to see how they were now even more invisible.

And likewise Sparta, the once great city state, faded into obscurity. The 3rd and 2nd centuries BC witnessed a sort of tribute act, rebrands and relaunches. But time had passed by and perhaps most crucially Sparta lacked Messenia and its fertile lands.

The establishment of Messene in 369 BC brought with it a new fascination of the helot, and some of the sources of this time, such as Ephorus, wrestled with how it had all come about. It’s interesting that the sources from earlier, the likes of Thucydides, Herodotus, Tyrtaeus didn’t concern themselves with this. Perhaps for them the helot was a thing like many other things which didn’t need explaining and weren’t that important. In the 4th century BC you have an understandable shift in the context of interest about the helot. It’s been argued that the 4th century was when the backstory of the helot and the Messenian identity were invented.

This creates an issue when trying to understand the helot. Sources in the 4th century BC and later may pick up what they knew of the helot in their own times and reasoned that this is as it always had been. I go back to the example of the sources trying to place the settlement of Helos in the back story of the helot because, well, they thought there had to be a link.

This was added to in the later centuries, Pausanias, another source who dated to the 2nd century AD may have incorporated versions of the helot which existed in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC in his works. With all this considered we have lots of opinions and ideas and possibly some using sources we don’t know of. But what’s missing is something concrete from the archaic period or even a discussion of the helot from the Classical about where they came form, what they did you know, the stuff we are missing.

As ever, perhaps one day we’ll have something discovered which can fill the many gaps we have.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this episode. I don’t know how much people listen to the end parts of episodes, you might be


















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