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Helot Revolt at Sparta

The pressure to reform the judicial system reached the boiling point when a crisis in foreign affairs heated up Athenian politics. The crisis began in 465 B.C. with a tremendous earthquake in Laconia, the territory of the Spartans in the Peloponnese. It killed so many Spartans that the helots in Messenia instigated a massive revolt.1Messenia2 was the large region of the Peloponnesus bordering Spartan territory on the west, which the Spartans had conquered in the eighth and seventh centuries and whose formerly free inhabitants they had enslaved as helots to farm the land for the benefit of the Spartans. By 462 B.C. the revolt had become so serious that the Spartans, swallowing their considerable pride, appealed to Athens for military help, despite the chill that had fallen over relations between Athens and Sparta since the days of their cooperation against the Persians. The tension between the former allies was caused by rebellious members of the Delian League like the Thasians, who had received at least moral support from the leaders at Sparta.3 Spartan leaders apparently felt that Athens, as the head of the Delian League, was growing powerful enough someday to threaten Spartan interests in the Peloponnese. Cimon, the hero of the Delian League's campaigns, marshalled all his prestige to persuade a reluctant Athenian assembly to send hoplites to help the Spartans in 462 B.C. Cimon, like many Athenian aristocrats, had always admired the Spartans, and he was renowned for registering his opposition to proposals in the assembly by saying, “But that is not what the Spartans would do.”4 (This quotation is attributed to the fifth-century author Stesimbrotus) His Spartan friends let him down, however, by soon changing their minds and sending him and his army home. The Spartans feared that the democratically inclined Athenian soldiers might decide to help the helots (who were fellow Greeks) escape from Spartan domination.

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