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The Contribution of Helots

Their labor made helots valuable to the Spartans. Laconian and Messenian helots alike primarily farmed plots of land that the state had originally allotted to individual Spartan households for their sustenance. Some helots also worked as household servants. By the fifth century, helots would also accompany Spartan hoplite warriors on the march to carry their heavy gear and armor. In the words of the seventh-century B.C. poet Tyrtaeus, helots worked “like donkeys exhausted under heavy loads; they lived under the painful necessity of having to give their masters half the food their ploughed land bore.”1 This compulsory rent of fifty percent of everything produced by the helots working on each free family's assigned plot was supposed to amount to seventy measures of barley each year to the male master of the household and twelve to his wife, along with an equivalent amount of fruit and other produce. In all, this food was enough to support six or seven people. The labor of the helots allowed Spartan men to devote themselves to full-time training for hoplite warfare in order to protect themselves from external enemies and to suppress helot rebellions, especially in Messenia. Contrasting the freedom of Spartan citizens from ordinary work with the lot of the helots , the later Athenian Critias commented “Laconia is the home of the freest of the Greeks, and of the most enslaved.”

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