BMCR 2005.06.26

Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures

, , Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messenia : histories, ideologies, structures. Hellenic studies ; 4. Cambridge, MA: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2003. vii, 314 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0674012232 $29.95.

In Spartan history, a field that already suffers from a paucity of evidence, the thorny topic of the helots especially has invited interpretation and re-interpretation. As Susan Alcock notes in her introduction to this volume, the helots’ uncertain origins, status, and agency have allowed scholars to treat them as a veritable “Rorschach test.” In a welcome departure from previous scholarship on the history of the helots, Alcock questions “the productive return on what seems too often an endless recycling and reshuffling of our scant textual sources in various forms of intellectual gymnastics” (p. 4). Building upon the scholarship that has radically transformed our understanding of Spartan society over the last twenty years, the contributors to this volume have instead opted “to recast approaches to the ‘helot problem'” from a variety of disciplinary angles.

Alcock and Luraghi ensured both a variety of approaches and pioneering methodologies in the composition of their 2001 workshop on the helots, where the papers in this volume were first presented. As they make clear in both their acknowledgements and introduction to the volume, they purposefully brought together scholars who hold opposing — and occasionally incompatible — views on many aspects of the history and sociology of helotage. The usefulness and strength of this volume lie in this diversity of approaches and opinions, which challenge the reader to delve deeply into the scholarly fault lines and grapple closely with competing methodologies and ideologies. The result is a volume that will appeal to those interested not only in Spartan history but also, more broadly, in Greek social, economic, and cultural history as well as cross-cultural and sociological studies of slavery.

Paul Cartledge, who has examined the helots at length in his landmark monographs and several articles,1 opens the volume with his paper, “Raising Hell? The Helot Mirage — a Personal Re-view.” After considering the role that the helot “mirage” has played in modern constructions of helotage, Cartledge addresses helot status, treatment, and revolt, which he describes as “the three major pressure-points of current and likely future scholarly discussions of the Helots and the Helot experience in the Classical fifth and fourth centuries” (p. 17). According to Cartledge, the most reliable ancient evidence (and here he privileges Thucydides and Aristotle) shows that the helots were enslaved as a nation to the Spartan state,2 that they received brutal treatment at the hands of their Spartan masters, and that their status and treatment — together with other factors, such as Spartan oliganthropia and the Messenian helots’ agglomerated settlements — help to account for their comparatively unusual revolts. Cartledge’s meticulous reading of the ancient evidence poses a formidable challenge to those scholars who have questioned either the uniqueness of the helots’ situation3 or the extent of the Spartans’ fear of the helots and the brutality that such fear entailed.4

Cartledge’s belief in the uniqueness of the helots’ predicament receives a challenge in Hans van Wees’ paper, “Conquerors and Serfs: Wars of Conquest and Forced Labour in Archaic Greece,” which examines Spartan helotage in a broader Greek context. Van Wees argues that many Greek communities, including Sicyon, Argos, Syracuse, Byzantium, Thessaly, and Crete, reduced their Greek or barbarian neighbors to the status of serfs or perioikoi c. 750-550 BCE. For van Wees, accordingly, “Sparta’s conquest of Messenia was no anomaly, but merely the most spectacular and best attested instance of a form of imperialism characteristic of archaic Greece” (p. 72). In an extension of his comparative methodology, Van Wees also notes several parallels between Spartan helotage and Spanish domination in Central America that should enrich our understanding of the Spartans’ ability to retain control over a large subjugated population. Van Wees has combed through a minefield of problematic sources and has assembled a striking accumulation of evidence that suggests that archaic Greek poleis regularly turned to conquest to gain dependent labor forces. Nevertheless, even van Wees admits that his fragile evidentiary base undermines the individual cases (p. 61).

The following paper, Nigel Kennell’s ” Agreste Genus : Helots in Hellenistic Laconia,” departs from the other papers in the volume in its focus on the status of helots in later Spartan society and the end of helotage in Laconia.5 Although Kennell’s evidentiary base is limited to fewer than ten sources (p. 82), his investigation sheds welcome light on the peculiar situation of the Laconian helots, who remained under Spartan domination for centuries after the Messenian liberation. Kennell concludes that, aside from the (perhaps temporary) conversion of the helots into a state-owned labor force after Cleomenes III’s reforms (cf. Strabo 8.5.4), the Laconian helots’ position did not substantially change during the Hellenistic period, even during Nabis’ reign,6 and only came to an end under Roman domination of Laconia (cf. Strabo 5.1.1). Kennell does not push his conclusions any further, given the obscurity that surrounds the helots, Spartan society, and this particular period in Greek history. While Kennell is right to conclude that “there will never be a definitive picture of the helots in later Sparta, since the evidence is so scarce, even in Spartan terms” (p. 103), he shows that careful reading can begin to fill in some of the gaps.

Nino Luraghi’s paper, entitled “The Imaginary Conquest of the Helots,” reflects the same careful reading, contextualization of the sources, and attention to the divergences between the Laconian and Messenian helots. Luraghi has recently argued against mass enslavement of an indigenous population as a plausible explanation for the origins of helotry.7 In this paper, Luraghi examines the relevant ancient sources on the origins of the helots and concludes that “the modern vulgata on the conquest of the Helots, envisaging the origins of Helotry as a parallel process of conquest of the land and enslavement of its inhabitants by the Dorian Spartans, is not based on the ancient sources, but rather on an idiosyncratic selection of details taken from some of them” (p. 135). Given this disjunction between the primary sources and secondary scholarship, Luraghi invites his reader to read the relevant works in light of their individual ideological and political contexts rather than to mine them for information on the origins of the helots. As Luraghi demonstrates, these sources can illuminate the ways in which political changes in the southern Peloponnese shaped different generations of Greeks’ views of the “time of the origins” (p. 135).

Jonathan Hall’s paper, “The Dorianization of the Messenians,” builds upon Luraghi’s consideration of the “politics of memory” (p. 109) by exploring the development of Messenian identity. Operating on the assumption of the fluid and discursive construction of group identity that is central to his other work on Greek ethnicity,8 Hall tries to locate the historical circumstances in which the Messenians forged and adapted their understanding of both their group identity and their relationship to “a broader Dorian ethnocommunity” (p. 142). His analysis of the literary and archaeological evidence on the Messenians’ and other Greeks’ construction of Messenian identity leads to several conclusions: (1) fifth-century literary and epigraphical references to “Messenioi” usually designate Messenians belonging to the diaspora population of the Messenians; (2) these diasporic Messenians are described and describe themselves as “Dorian”; and (3) the Messenian helots appear to have subscribed to a pre-Dorian or Achaean heritage. According to Hall, the “Dorianization” of the Messenians evolved in reaction to changing historical circumstances. In response to their Spartan enemies who trumpeted their Dorian superiority in the fifth century, the diasporic Messenians forged a Dorian identity. Messenian identity again changed in response to the Messenian liberation, as the newly united helots and diasporic Messenians created a myth of origins that located themselves in the Dorian Peloponnesian past. Hall’s analysis thus posits a dynamic and active relationship between the Messenians and their identity that enhances our understanding of the Messenians’ negotiation of their enslavement and exile.9

The next paper in the volume, Kurt Raaflaub’s “Freedom for the Messenians? A Note on the Impact of Slavery and Helotage in the Greek Concept of Freedom,” considers the impact of helotage on the development and institutionalization of a concept of liberty among the Greeks. Raaflaub opposes his approach to this issue — via the perspective of the free — to that of Orlando Patterson, who, he claims, prefers to look for the formation of freedom consciousness among the enslaved themselves. According to Raaflaub, slavery could elicit consciousness of the value of liberty only if the free members of a society, especially those in a position of power, integrated such consciousness into their system of values. After reviewing the evidence, Raaflaub argues that the helots aroused an exceptional level of interest among their fifth-century Greek contemporaries, but this concern neither affected views about slavery nor prompted Greeks to associate the helots’ condition with a demand for their freedom. Raaflaub’s reading of the Greek reactions to the helots’ subjugation thus supports his overall contention that the existence and awareness of slavery were not alone capable of eliciting a conscious conceptualization of freedom.

Tom Figueira’s paper, entitled “The Demography of the Spartan Helots,” considers the relative numbers of helots and Spartiates, an issue that is fundamental to any understanding of the Spartiate-helot relationship. Building upon his earlier groundbreaking study of Spartan demographics,10 Figueira attempts “to show that it is feasible to situate within useful limits the carrying capacity of the Laconian agrarian system for various social classes” (p. 193). Figueira begins with a general discussion of the nature of ancient demographic studies and then offers a synthesis of his own, Michael Jameson’s and Stephen Hodkinson’s analyses of the relationship between the Spartan agricultural economy and helot numbers.11 Based upon the common ground he uncovers in these works, Figueira hypothesizes that the average Spartiate kleros comprised approximately 18 hectares and that the amount of arable land available for kleroi lay between 115,000 and 145,000 hectares. These figures, when combined with the various factors that may have limited the Spartans’ exploitation of available land or the yields from such land, have led Figueira to offer lower estimates of the helot:Spartiate ratio (7:1 as an upper limit) and the helot population than previous scholars have suggested. While scholars will continue to disagree about these numbers, Figueira’s thorough treatment of the textual and topographical evidence provides a compelling case.

Walter Scheidel likewise supports a lower estimate of helot numbers in his paper, “Helot Numbers: A Simplified Model.” Scheidel, however, adopts a different approach to the problem that eliminates as many variables and premises as possible and draws on the smallest feasible amount of ancient evidence. In order to figure out how much food Spartan land could have produced and how many citizens and helots such land could have supported, Scheidel considers two variables, the likely levels of production and consumption, for which he employs ranges rather than notional averages. He concludes that “this method not only serves to minimise the degree to which aprioristic assumptions pre-determine the outcome but also highlights the very considerable width of the band of probability” (p. 241). Scheidel rightly questions the ancient evidence, such as Herodotus’ ratio of seven helots per Spartiate at Plataea (9.10.1, 28.2, 29.1). His stripped-down demographic analysis also has the advantage of providing “independent criteria by which to judge the plausibility of ancient testimonia without circuitously implicating the same texts in the designing of that standard” (p. 245). Neverthless, Scheidel goes too far in his rejection of the ancient testimonia and his severe limiting of both variables and assumptions. As the other papers in this volume demonstrate, the Spartan agrarian system cannot be studied in a manner that separates it from the other spheres of Spartan society and that privileges modern methodology over primary evidence.

While Stephen Hodkinson has devoted much of his career to grappling with the Spartan land system,12 this volume marks his move toward a new methodology and focus of research. Hodkinson’s paper, entitled “Spartiates, Helots, and the Direction of the Agrarian Economy: Towards an Understanding of Helotage in Comparative Perspective,” expands upon the comparative methodology employed by Hans van Wees in its consideration of the history and sociology of three modern systems of unfree labor: serfdom in rural Russia, slavery in the American South, and pre-colonial African slavery. Hodkinson, however, avoids global comparisons between Spartan helotage and these other systems. He instead looks at specific issues common to diverse systems of exploitation that can safely be viewed in broader historical perspective. In light of these other systems, Hodkinson considers a number of factors that shaped the social relations of production between Spartiates and helots: the nature of the helots’ obligations to their masters, the helots’ relationship to the land, the extent of Spartiate supervision over and absenteeism from their estates, the development of helot communities, and, in turn, the types of leadership that influential helots could exert in such communities. By means of this approach Hodkinson postulates a range of variations in helots’ treatment and agency that helps to account for the relative longevity of this particular form of exploitation.

Orlando Patterson’s “Reflections on Helotic Slavery and Freedom” concludes the volume by examining, from a comparative perspective,13 Spartan helotry’s origin, its relationship to slavery, and its role in the development of the concept of freedom. Patterson argues that “slavery,” a term that has elucidated in his earlier work,14 best describes the condition of both the Laconian and Messenian helots, though he hypothesizes that the former were slaves who gradually became semi-servile and that the latter were free persons involved in the Dorian invasions who gradually became enslaved by succeeding invaders. In the second part of his paper, Patterson notes that he and Raaflaub agree that slavery alone did not lead to the conceptualization and institutionalization of freedom. In opposition to Raaflaub, however, Patterson argues that freedom developed in Sparta, but the process of development differed from that in fifth- and fourth-century Athens. While the Spartans did not conceptualize freedom in terms of personal liberation, there developed in Sparta both the view of freedom as absolute power over (inferior) others and “a distinctive form of elitist, totalitarian democracy — what the world later came to call Herrenvolk democracy” (p. 306). Patterson’s conclusions suggest that the study of Spartan helotage may provide a richer picture of the relationship between slavery and the development of freedom consciousness in ancient Greece, where Athens may have been the exception rather than the rule.

Altogether, these papers provide a stimulating overview of the major questions, debates, and methodologies in current scholarship on helotage in one accessible volume. This collection of engaging and often provocative papers should realize its editors’ interest in promoting future research on the history of the helots.


1. In addition to Cartledge’s treatment of the helots in Sparta and Lakonia : A Regional History 1300-362 BC (London, 1979) and Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (London, 1987), see “Richard Talbert’s Revision of the Spartan-Helot Struggle: A Reply,” Historia 38 (1991), 379-81; “Early Lakedaimon: The Making of a Conquest-State,” in J. M. Sanders, ed., ΦΙΛΟΛΑΚΩΝ. Lakonian Studies in Honour of Hector Catling (London and Athens, 1992), 49-55; “Rebels and Sambos in Classical Greece: A Comparative View,” in Spartan Reflections (Berkeley, 2001), 127-52.

2. See also H. W. Singor, “Spartan Land Lots and Helot Rents,” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg et al., eds., De agricultura: In memoriam Pieter Willem de Neeve (Amsterdam, 1993), 41.

3. Cf. J. Ducat, Les Hilotes, BCH Supplément XX (Athens and Paris, 1990), esp. ch. III; S. Hodkinson, “Sharecropping and Sparta’s Economic Exploitation of the Helots,” in J. M. Sanders, ed., ΦΙΛΟΛΑΚΩΝ. Lakonian Studies in Honour of Hector Catling (London and Athens, 1992), 123-34; Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000), esp. ch. 4; and this volume; N. Luraghi, “Der Erdbebenaufstand und die Entstehung der messenischen Identität,” in D. Papenfu and V. M. Strocka, eds., Gab es das griechische Wunder? Griechenland zwischen dem Ende des 6. und der Mitte des 5. Jarhunderts v. Chr. (Mainz, 2001), 279-301; “Becoming Messenian,” JHS 122 (2002), 45-69 (hereafter Luraghi 2002a); “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered,” in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson, eds., Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (London, 2002), 229-50 (hereafter Luraghi 2002b); and this volume.

4. Cf. A. Roobaert, “Le danger hilote?” Ktema 2 (1977), 141-55; R. Talbert, “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta,” Historia 38 (1989), 22-40; M. Whitby, “Two Shadows: Images of Spartans and Helots,” in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson, eds., The Shadow of Sparta (London and New York, 1994), 87-126.

5. This focus is not at all surprising, given Kennell’s expertise in Hellenistic and Roman Sparta. See, inter alia, N. M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill and London, 1995); “From Perioikoi to Poleis: The Laconian Cities in the Hellenistic Period,” in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, eds., Sparta: New Perspectives (London, 1999), 189-210.

6. For the view that Nabis liberated the helots to enlarge Sparta’s citizen body, see P. Cartledge and A. Spawforth, Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: A Tale of Two Cities, 2nd ed. (London and New York, 2002), 69-70; Ducat (1990), 171-2.

7. Luraghi (2002b).

8. See, esp., J. Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge, 1997); “Contested Ethnicities: Perceptions of Macedonia Within Evolving Definitions of Greek Identity,” in I. Malkin, ed., Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity (Washington, D.C., 2001), 159-86; Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago, 2002).

9. See also T. Figueira, “The Evolution of Messenian Identity,” in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, eds., Sparta: New Perspectives (London, 1999), 211-44; Luraghi (2001), (2002a), and “Helots Called Messenians? A Note on Thuc. 1.101.2,” CQ (2002), 588-92.

10. T. Figueira, “Population Patterns in Late Archaic and Classical Sparta,” TAPA 116 (1986), 165-213.

11. T. Figueira, “Mess Contributions and Subsistence at Sparta,” TAPA 114 (1984), 84-109; M. H. Jameson, “Agricultural Labor in Ancient Greece,” in B. Wells, ed., Agriculture in Ancient Greece (Stockholm, 1992), 135-46; Hodkinson (2000).

12. In addition to his 2000 monograph and 1992 article cited above (cf. note 2), see also, inter alia, “Land Tenure and Inheritance in Classical Sparta,” CQ n.s. 36 (1986), 378-406; “Marriage, Inheritance and Demography: Perspectives Upon the Success and Decline of Classical Sparta,” in A. Powell, ed., Classical Sparta: Techniques Behind Her Success (London and Norman, Okla., 1989), 79-121.

13. O. Patterson, Freedom. Vol. 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York, 1991).

14. O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA, 1982).