SPARTIATES, PERIOIKOI, AND HELOTS
IN ONE OF THE RICHEST CITY-STATES OF ANCIENT GREECE
Lacedaemon was one of the richest
city-states in ancient Greece.
The Spartan economy was dependent not
on chattel slaves, as were the other Greek city-states, but on the
non-Doric population of Laconia and the subject population of Messenia.
These were divided into free but non-citizen perioikoi and
semi-free, serf-like helots.
citizens were prohibited from pursuing any profession other than that
of arms, perioikoi held a monopoly on all lucrative businesses and
helots could accumulate wealth.
Sparta was the capital of the
city-state of Lacedaemon. The land area of Lacedaemon was
larger than that of most Greek city-states, covering the bulk of the
southern Peloponnese. It was an extremely rich territory with
considerable natural resources, including copper and tin mines,
quarries, forests, and good ports giving access to the Aegean and
Ionian Seas. The fertile valleys of the Eurotas (Laconia
itself) and Pamisos (Messenia) were suitable for the production of all
essential foodstuffs of the ancient world, from olives to wine, as well
as providing good pasture land for cattle, sheep, and goats.
It was known for the variety of its garden vegetables,
including cucumbers and lettuce, which were considered distinctly
Laconian. It was famed for its horses and its Kastorian
hounds, both of which were valuable exports, while the horses
frequently brought Sparta victories at the Olympic Games.
More important, however, unlike Athens and Corinth,
Lacedaemon was self-sufficient in grain rather than being dependent on
imports of this vital commodity – a critical political
advantage. In short, Sparta's power did not rest on its
military might alone, but was a function of its economic independence
To understand the Spartan economy, however, it is
necessary to go back
to the origins of the city. The Spartan citizens – often
called Spartiates – were the descendants of Doric invaders
who came to the Peloponnese in the 9th century BC. Although
there is no written record, it is evident that rather than
exterminating or enslaving the native population, as was more common at
the time, the Spartans allowed the conquered inhabitants to continue to
live and work in Laconia. While they were not citizens and so
not politically enfranchised, they enjoyed far more rights and higher
status than chattel slaves. These peoples were divided into
two broad categories: the residents of other towns, who enjoyed a free
but dependent status as perioikoi,
and the peasants, who endured a far more restricted status as helots.
The perioikoi had their own laws and customs, could pursue any
profession or trade they liked, and had their own local officials and
dignitaries. They were restricted only with respect to
foreign and military policy, being subject in these areas to the
government of Lacedaemon, run by the Spartiates. Perioikoi
cities presumably paid taxes to Sparta, and were certainly required to
provide troops for the Lacedaemonian army and to support Sparta in time
However, because Spartan citizens were prohibited by their laws from
engaging in any profession except that of arms, the perioikoi had a
monopoly on trade and manufacturing throughout Lacedaemon.
The perioikoi were the manufacturers, merchants, and craftsmen of
Lacedaemon. They also built and manned most of Lacedaemon's ships,
thereby contributing significantly to Sparta's political and economic
reach, and – when the confrontation with the sea power Athens
came in the 5th century – contributing to
Lacedaemon's military capability as well.
Furthermore, perioikoi were not restricted by Sparta's laws
and traditions to an austere lifestyle, nor were they prohibited from
hoarding gold and silver. In short, they not only had a
monopoly on all lucrative businesses and professions, they were free to
enjoy the fruits of their labor as well.
The helots, or rural population, had a significantly worse
status. Helots were tied to the land and were officially the
property of the Lacedaemonian government. As a result of at
least one revolt, they were regarded with increasing suspicion and
subjected to ever harsher laws. In fact, the Lacedaemonian
government regularly declared war on the helots to enable quick
retribution against any "unruly" helot without the tedious business of
Helots were not,
however, routinely murdered or raped by the Spartiates, as some modern
commentators claim and many novelists depict. No economy can
function for an extended period of time on the basis of brutal coercion
– certainly not an economy in which the elite is tiny in
comparison with the oppressed. Sparta enjoyed the prosperity
it did over hundreds of years (at the least from the 7th to the
5th century BC) because a high degree of internal harmony and a
system of mutual benefit for all segments of the society had been
established. It was not until the second half of the 5th
century, when the Spartiate population shrank to roughly one-eighth of
what it had been at the time of Thermopylae, that serious incidents of
brutality against helots are reliably recorded. There is only
recorded incident of an organized mass murder of helots without due
cause, and this incident resulted from a crisis in Spartiate society.
In fact, the deteriorating relations between the Spartiates
and the helots can be seen as both a symptom and a cause of the
disintegration of archaic Spartan society.
Many of the ancient commentators who remarked on the exceptional
the Spartan system not only date from this later period, but are
engaged in outright political propaganda. The only Spartan
source for the status of helots is the 7th-century poet Tyrtaios, who
describes the helots ‘like
asses exhausted under great loads to bring their masters full half the
fruit their plowed land produced.’
This statement tells us two significant facts often
overlooked in shock at the image. Namely, that helots only
of the fruits of their labor – slaves all over the rest of the ancient
world surrendered 100% – and that even half the harvest was a heavy
burden; i.e., Lacedaemon's agricultural land was so productive that even
half the yield was a burden. The latter element is further
underlined by the fact that no less than 6,000 Spartan helots were able
to save up so much money from the 50% of the harvest they retained that they could
pay the enormous sum of 6 Attic minas to buy their freedom in 223/222
Any discussion of helots and
their lot in life must be made in the context of a world in which a
functioning economy without slave labor was considered
inconceivable. Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were no
exceptions. The status of helots is thus not fairly compared
to that of Spartiates, but only to that of other unfree populations.
The helots of Lacedaemon, when compared to chattel slaves in other
Greek city-states, were very privileged indeed. Chattel
slaves could, as the name implies, be bought and sold.
They were not allowed to live in family units, often did not
know who their parents were, were not allowed to engage in any sexual
activity other than that sanctioned by the master, and any offspring
shared their status (that is, were automatically slaves) and belonged
to the master. The master decided if a child would
be allowed to live, and if so, at what age and to whom the child would
be sold. Chattel slaves worked entirely for their master's
benefit, and all earnings derived from their activities –
whether prostitution, creating works of art, or agricultural labor
– benefited the master. In Athens, slaves could be
tortured in any legal suit against an Athenian citizen, because it was
believed that only statements obtained by torture were valid!
Helots, in contrast, could not be bought or sold. They lived
in family units, knew their parents, chose their wives, and raised
their own children. They retained 50% of the fruits of their
labor and could sell what they did not consume on the open market,
while a Spartiate who tried to extract more
than his fair share from the produce of his estate was subjected to
public curse. Helots could also engage in cottage industries
to earn extra money, and hence helots could accumulate wealth and spend
it as they pleased.
So why the revolts? The revolts probably resulted from the
of Sparta's territory beyond the Eurotas valley into neighboring
Messenia. Sparta invaded and tried to conquer Messenia. The
Messenians either won this first war or were reduced to perioikoi
status, since they were able to field a hoplite army half
a century later, something peasants could not do. At
the end of a the Second Messenian War, which the Spartans won, the
Messenians were "helotized." This means they turned men who
been free, rich, even aristocratic, into peasants or serfs.
It also means that they helotized not pre-Doric peoples, but Greeks.
This explains why the terms "Messenian" and "helot" are often
used interchangeably by the time of the Peloponnesian War. It
explains why the Lacedaemonian government declared war on the helots,
and it explains why the helots continued to revolt until they finally
won their freedom, with foreign help, and re-established an
independent, free Messenia in the 4th century BC. It also
explains why other helots were loyal supporters of the Lacedaemonian
government and could even be trusted to provide logistical support to
the army. Presumably the Laconian helots were grateful for
their relatively privileged status, whereas the Messenian helots
resented the loss of their freedom and independence.
By far the best source on the origins and status of helots and
perioikoi is Paul Cartledge's Sparta
and Lakonia: A Regional
History 1300 to 362 BC (Routledge, London and New York,
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