Some Greek states had servile populations which were not privately owned chattel-slaves or douloi (see slavery), but, because their status seemed superior in important respects, came to be categorized as ‘between free men and (chattel) douloi’ (Pollux 3. 83). Unlike the latter, they were not imported individually from outside but enslaved collectively as a national group. Very little is known about any of them except the helots of Sparta, but the evidence even for the helots is such that scholars have come to diametrically opposite conclusions both as to the timing of their enslavement and as to the nature of their servitude.
The name helots (heilōtai) is probably derived from a root meaning ‘capture’, and according to the usual view first the Laconian and then the Messenian helots (see laconia; messenia) were reduced to servitude by conquest between about the 10th and the 7th cents. bce; it was at any rate as a conquered people that the Spartans treated the helots in the historical period, actually declaring war on them annually by proclamation of the ephors. Greek writers stressed Spartan brutality towards the helots (e.g. Thuc. 4. 80), and the krypteia system of helot control, which also served as a manhood initiation ritual for would-be Spartiates, was nothing if not brutal. But not all helots wanted to eat their Spartan masters, even raw, as one disaffected Spartan agitator claimed (Xen. Hell. 3. 3. 6); indeed, some of them established close working relationships with them, and it was these—mainly Laconians, presumably—who were employed on a large scale in the army and, especially during and after the Peloponnesian War, liberated in substantial numbers (thereby becoming known as neodamōdeis). By contrast, the helots of Messenia seem to have nursed a permanent hostility born of ‘national’ cohesion, and the great helot revolts of the 7th, 5th, and 4th cents. were largely if not wholly Messenian affairs. See nationalism.
Actual figures for helots are unavailable. Herodotus (9. 10, 29) implies an unacceptably high 7:1 ratio, and Xenophon (Hell. 3. 3. 4–11) confirms that they outnumbered their masters by some way. Perhaps they even outnumbered the total free population of Laconia and Messenia, a balance unknown in communities with a chattel-slave population. Unlike such slaves, too, the helots reproduced themselves through family relations, albeit under threat of dissolution by murder, and were granted some property rights. But they were like slaves in being also themselves property—of the Spartan community rather than individual Spartan men and women. The Spartan assembly alone had the power to manumit them, which it exercised exceptionally—and duplicitously—in particular to compensate for the dearth of citizen manpower (oliganthrōpia) that became ever more apparent from about 450 on. They survived as a self-perpetuating body until Epaminondas freed the Messenians in 369, and Nabis the remaining Laconian helots early in the 2nd cent. bce.
Apart from their military obligations to the community as a whole, the main responsibility of the helots was to provide their individual Spartan masters and mistresses with a fixed quota of natural produce (either a percentage or an absolute amount, depending on which sources are followed). From that contribution—or tribute—the Spartan citizen paid over to his mess (sussition) the amount required to maintain his citizen standing. The helots thus ‘enjoyed’ the ambivalent position of being both the bedrock of the entire Spartan polity, and the enemy within.
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