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CRYPTEIA

CRYPTEIA (κρυπτεία, called also κρυπτία or κρυπτή) was a system of secret police adopted by the Spartans in order to maintain their control over the Helots; perhaps, as Grote thinks, over the Perioeci also. As to the main features of this system there is no doubt. We learn that a number of active young Spartans were despatched every year by the Ephors, immediately upon their entry into office, to the different parts of the country. They were to post themselves as secretly as possible in convenient places from which to explore the neighbourhood and to make observations. If they found anything suspicious, they were either to report it or to suppress it themselves on the [p. 1.570]spot (Schömann, Antiq. 1.195, E. T.). The institution served not merely to break up organisation and to check the possibility of an outbreak among their oppressed subjects, but as a useful military training in habits of endurance suited to a dominant race. On the latter ground it is proposed by Plato for his ideal Cretan colony in the Laws, and his way of expressing himself shows that he is referring to a Spartan custom really existing (1.633 B ; 6.763 B; cf. Grote, 2.144, n.). The crypteia may thus be considered as to a certain extent a species of armed police force, and the young men who were ordered to undertake it appear also to have formed a special corps in the army; at least we read of a commander of the crypteia in the battle of Sellasia (Plut. Cleom. 28). To these undoubted facts later authors added some curious statements, which have been much criticised in recent times. According to Plutarch, who quotes Aristotle as his authority, the Ephors every year declared war formally against the Helots, in order that they might be killed without scruple; and they further, not every year as sometimes stated, but at intervals (διὰ χρόνου), sent young Spartans armed with daggers to assassinate such of the Helots as were thought formidable (Plut. Lyc. 28). The language of Plutarch is somewhat loose. In one sentence he states that the young men went out into the roads by night and slew all whom they caught (τοὺς ἁλισκομένους), implying that the Helots lived under a sort of “curfew” law, which confined them to their houses at night to prevent conspiracies; in the next sentence that they often ranged over the fields (? in the daytime) and despatched the strongest and bravest of them. The latter phrase, however, agrees with the account of Heraclides Ponticus, that they killed ὅσους ἂν ἐπιτήδειον (Fragm. 2.4 ap. C. Müller, 2.210). Otfried Müller, whose criticism habitually tends to soften the harsher features of the Spartan institutions, combats the notion that the Helots were annually hunted down and destroyed (Dorians, 3.3.4); and Schömann calls it “an exaggeration which is really too absurd to deserve serious confutation” (Antiq. l.c.). Grote, no friend to Sparta, rejects the annual or periodical massacre of the Helots, and the formal declaration of war against them, which, he justly observes, “would provoke the reaction of despair rather than enforce tranquillity” ; and even suggests a doubt as to the fact of Aristotle's having really made the statement ascribed to him by Plutarch, on the ground that he does not mention the subject in his Politics, where he speaks at some length both of the Spartan constitution and of the Helots. Grote admits, however, that the government would not be restrained by any scruples of justice or humanity. It is a well-known fact that, on at least one occasion, 2000 of the bravest of the Helots were massacred with the sanction of the Ephors, the manner of their death remaining an untold mystery (B.C. 424, Thuc. 4.80). And such an order would naturally be carried out with the aid of the crypteia or secret commission. (Müller, Dorians, 3.3.4; Thirlwall, Hist. Gr. 1.311 ; Grote, Hist. Gr. ch. vi., 2.142 ff.; Schömann, Antiq. 1.195, E. T.)

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