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The Helots of Messenia

When the arable land of Laconia, which was predominately held by aristocrats, proved too small to support the full citizen population of Sparta, the Spartans attacked their Greek neighbors to the west in the Peloponnese, the Messenians1. In the First Messenian War2 (c. 730-710 B.C.) and then in the Second (c. 640-630 B.C.), the Spartan army captured the territory of Messenia, which amounted to forty percent of the Peloponnese, and reduced the Messenians to the status of helots. With the addition of the tens of thousands of people in Messenia, the total helot population now more than outnumbered that of Sparta, whose male citizens at this time amounted to perhaps between 8,000 and 10,000. The terrible loss felt by the Messenians at their fate is well portrayed by their legend of King Aristodemus3, whom the Messenians remembered as having sacrificed his beloved daughter to the gods of the underworld in an attempt to enlist their aid against the invading Spartans. When his campaign of guerrilla warfare at last failed, Aristodemus is said to have slain himself in despair on her grave. Deprived of their freedom and their polis , the Messenian helots were ever after on the lookout for a chance to revolt against their Spartan overlords.

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