Spartan Helmet





















Spartan helmet left


Economy title


bullet Lacedaemon was one of the richest city-states in ancient Greece.

bullet 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.

bullet Because Spartan 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 as well.

Greek FamilyTo 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 of war.
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 a trial.

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 one 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 harshness of 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 surrendered 50% 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 BC.

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 extension 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 had previously 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, 1979).


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