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Spartan Neighbors and Slaves

Some of the conquered inhabitants of Laconia, the territory of Sparta, continued to live in self-governing communities. Called “those who live round about” (perioikoi ), these neighbors were required to serve in the Spartan army and pay taxes but lacked citizen rights. Perhaps because they retained their personal freedom and property, however, the perioikoi 1 never rebelled against Spartan control. Far different was the fate of the conquered people who ended up as helots 2, a word derived from the Greek term for “capture.” Later ancient commentators described the helots as “between slave and free” because they were not the personal property of individual Spartans but rather slaves belonging to the whole community, which alone could free them. Helots had a semblance of family life because they were expected to produce children to maintain their population, which was compelled to labor as farmers and household slaves as a way of freeing Spartan citizens from any need to do such work. Spartan men in fact wore their hair very long to show they were “gentlemen” rather than laborers, for whom long hair was an inconvenience.

In their private lives, helots could keep some personal possessions and practice their religion, as could slaves generally in Greece. Publicly, however, helots lived under the threat of officially sanctioned violence.3lived under the threat of officially sanctioned violence. Every year the ephors formally declared a state of war to exist between Sparta and the helots, thereby allowing any Spartan to kill a helot without any civil penalty or fear of offending the gods by unsanctioned murder. By beating the helots frequently, forcing them to get drunk in public as an object lesson to young Spartans, marking them out by having them wear dogskin caps, and generally treating them with scorn, the Spartans consistently emphasized the otherness of the helots compared to themselves. In this way, the Spartans erected a moral barrier between themselves and the helots to justify their harsh treatment of fellow Greeks.

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  • Cross-references in notes to this page (1):
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, The Archaic Age
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