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Εἱλῶται), and Helōtes (Εἵλωτες). The Helots or bondsmen of the Spartans. The common account of the origin of this class is, that the inhabitants of the maritime town of Helos were reduced by Sparta to this state of degradation, after an insurrection against the Dorians already established in power. This explanation, however, rests merely on an etymology, and that by no means probable. The word Εἵλως is probably a derivative from ἑλεῖν in a passive sense, and consequently means “a prisoner”—a derivation known in ancient times. It seems likely that they were an aboriginal race, which was subdued at a very early period, and which immediately passed over as slaves to the Doric conquerors. In speaking of the condition of the Helots, their political rights and their personal treatment will be considered under different heads, though in fact the two subjects are very nearly connected.

The first were doubtless exactly defined by law and custom, though the expressions made use of by ancient authors are frequently vague and ambiguous. “They were,” says Ephorus, “in a certain point of view public slaves. Their possessor could neither liberate them nor sell them beyond the borders.” From this it is evident that they were considered as belonging properly to the State, which to a certain degree permitted them to be possessed by individuals, reserving to itself the power of enfranchising them. But to sell them out of the country was not in the power even of the State; and such an event seems never to have occurred. It is, upon the whole, most probable that individuals had no power to sell them at all, as they belonged chiefly to the landed property, and this was inalienable. On these lands they had certain fixed dwellings of their own, and particular services and payments were prescribed to them. They paid as rent a fixed measure of corn; not, however, like the Perioeci, to the State, but to their masters. As this quantity had been definitely settled at a very early period, the Helots were the persons who profited by a good, and lost by a bad, harvest, which must have been to them an encouragement to industry and good husbandry, as would not have been the case if the profit and loss had merely affected the landlords. In fact, by this means, as is proved by the accounts respecting the Spartan agriculture, a careful cultivation of the soil was kept up. By means of the rich produce of the lands, and in part by plunder obtained in war, they collected a considerable property, to the attainment of which almost every access was closed to the Spartans. The cultivation of the land, however, was not the only duty of the Helots; they also, at the public meals, attended upon their masters, who, according to the Lacedaemonian principle of a community of property, mutually lent them to one another (Rep. Lac. vi. 3; Aristot. Pol. ii. 2, 5). A large number of them was also employed by the State in public works. In the field the Helots never served as hoplites, except in extraordinary cases; and then it was the general practice afterwards to give them their liberty. This seems first to have occurred under Brasidas in B.C. 424. (Cf. Thuc. iv. 80, vii. 19.) On other occasions they attended the regular army as light-armed troops (ψιλοί); and that their numbers were very considerable may be seen from the battle of Plataea, in which 5000 Spartans were attended by 35,000 Helots. Although they did not share the honour of the heavy-armed soldiers, they were in turn exposed to a less degree of danger; for, while the former, in close rank, received the onset of the enemy with spear and shield, the Helots, armed only with their slings and javelins, were in a moment either before or behind the ranks, as Tyrtaeus accurately describes the relative duties of the light-armed soldier (γυμνής) and the hoplite. Sparta, in her better days, is never recorded to have unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of her Helots. A certain number of them were allotted to each Spartan (Herod.ix. 28; Thuc.iii. 8). At the battle of Plataea this number was seven. Those who were assigned to a single master were probably called ἀμπίτταρες. Of these, however, one in particular was the servant (θεράπων) of his master, as in the story of the blind Spartan, who was conducted by his Helot into the thickest of the battle of Thermopylae, and, while the latter fled, fell with the other heroes (Herod.vii. 229). It appears that the other Helots were in the field placed more immediately under the command of the king than the rest of the army ( 80, 81). In the fleet they composed the large mass of the sailors (Hist. Gr. vii. 1, 12), in which service at Athens the inferior citizens and slaves were employed. It is a matter of much greater difficulty to form a clear notion of the treatment of the Helots, and of their manner of life; for the rhetorical spirit with which later historians have embellished their views has been productive of much confusion and misconception. Myron of Priené, in his account of the Messenian War, drew a very dark picture of Sparta, and endeavoured at the end to rouse the feelings of his readers by a description of the fate which the conquered underwènt. “The Helots,” says he, “perform for the Spartans every ignominious service. They are compelled to wear a cap of dog's skin (κυνῆ), to have a covering of sheep's skin (διφθέρα), and are severely beaten every year without having committed any fault, in order that they may never forget they are slaves. In addition to this, those among them who, either by their stature or their beauty, raise themselves above the condition of a slave, are condemned to death, and the masters who do not destroy the most manly of them are liable to punishment.” Myron's statements, however, are to be received with considerable caution.

Plutarch relates (Lycurg. 28) that the Helots were compelled to intoxicate themselves, and to perform indecent dances, as a warning to the Spartan youth. Yet Helot women discharged the office of nurse in the royal palaces, and doubtless obtained the affection with which the attendants of early youth were honoured in ancient times. It is, however, certain that the Doric laws did not bind servants to strict temperance; and hence examples of drunkenness among them might well have served as a means of recommending sobriety. It was also an established regulation that the national songs and dances of Sparta were forbidden to the Helots, who, on the other hand, had some extravagant and lascivious dances peculiar to themselves, which may have given rise to the above report.

It was the curse of this bondage, which Plato terms the hardest in Greece, that the slaves abandoned their masters when they stood in greatest need of their assistance; and hence the Spartans were even compelled to stipulate in treaties for aid against their own subjects (Thuc.i. 118; Thuc. v. 14; cf. Aristot. Pol. ii. 6, 2). A more favourable side of the Spartan system of bondage is seen in the fact that a legal way to liberty and citizenship stood open to the Helots. The many intermediate steps seem to prove the existence of a regular mode of transition from the one rank to the other. The Helots who were esteemed worthy of an especial confidence were called ἀργεῖοι; the ἀφέται were probably released from all service. The δεσποσιοναῦται, who served in the fleets, resembled probably the freedmen of Attica, who were called “the out-dwellers” (οἱ χωρὶς οἰκοῦντες). When they received their liberty, they also obtained permission to dwell where they wished (Thuc. iv. 80; Thuc. v. 34), and probably, at the same time, a portion of land was granted them without the lot of their former masters. After they had been in possession of liberty for some time, they appear to have been called νεοδαμώδεις (Thuc. vii. 58), the number of whom soon came near to that of the citizens (Plut. Ages. 6). The μόθωνες or μόθακες were Helots, who, being brought up together with the young Spartans, obtained freedom without the rights of citizenship.

The number of the Helots has been estimated by K. O. Müller and Schömann as having been some 225,000 at the time of the battle of Plataea, as against an estimated total population of 380,000 or 400,000 (Müller, Dorians, vol. ii. p. 30 foll., Eng. trans.). See Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, i. 309-313; Gilbert, Staatsalterth. i. 31-36; and the article Crypteia.

hide References (12 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (12):
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1263a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1269a
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.80
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.229
    • Herodotus, Histories, 9.28
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.118
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.8
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.80
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.14
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.34
    • Thucydides, Histories, 7.58
    • Plutarch, Agesilaus, 6
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