Now in all this there is no trace of injustice or arrogance, which some attribute to the laws of Lycurgus, declaring them efficacious in producing valour, but defective in producing righteousness. The so-called
‘krupteia,’ or secret service
, of the Spartans, if this be really one of the institutions of Lycurgus, as Aristotle says it was, may have given Plato also1
this opinion of the man and his civil polity.
This secret service was of the following nature. The magistrates from time to time sent out into the country at large the most discreet of the young warriors, equipped only with daggers and such supplies as were necessary. In the day time they scattered into obscure and out of the way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet; but in the night they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught.
Oftentimes, too, they actually traversed the fields where Helots were working and slew the sturdiest and best of them. So, too, Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian war,2
tells us that the Helots who had been judged by the Spartans to be superior in bravery, set wreaths upon their heads in token of their emancipation, and visited the temples of the gods in procession, but a little while afterwards all disappeared, more than two thousand of them, in such a way that no man was able to say, either then or afterwards, how they came by their deaths.
And Aristotle in particular says also that the ephors, as soon as they came into office, made formal declaration of war upon the Helots, in order that there might be no impiety in slaying them.And in other ways also they were harsh and cruel to the Helots. For instance, they would force them to drink too much strong wine, and then introduce them into their public messes, to show the young men what a thing drunkenness was. They also ordered them to sing songs and dance dances that were low and ridiculous, but to let the nobler kind alone.
And therefore in later times, they say, when the Thebans made their expedition into Laconia,3
they ordered the Helots whom they captured to sing the songs of Terpander, Alcman, and Spendon the Spartan; but they declined to do so, on the plea that their masters did not allow it, thus proving the correctness of the saying:
‘In Sparta the freeman is more a freeman than anywhere else in the world, and the slave more a slave.’
However, in my opinion, such cruelties were first practised by the Spartans in later times, particularly after the great earthquake,4
when the Helots and Messenians together rose up against them, wrought the widest devastation in their territory, and brought their city into the greatest peril. I certainly cannot ascribe to Lycurgus so abominable a measure as the
‘krupteia,’ judging of his character from his mildness and justice in all other instances. To this the voice of the god also bore witness.5