Today we focus on the Helots, captive people of the Spartan regime. The word “Helot” is most likely the perfect past participle of the Greek word that means “captives” or “prisoners of war”.
We have discussed the fact that the Spartans adopted the Lycurgan system because they needed an army to control their Helot slaves, but why did the Spartans have Helot slaves in the first place? Why were the Messenians not made an ally, client state, or annexed? Why adopt this strange and rare version of pseudo-slavery?
The truth is we don’t know the reason. Herodotus says that Lycurgus visited Crete, observed their system of government, and brought the concept home. There is an alternate theory also from Herodotus, and later advanced by the Spartans themselves, that Pythia, the priestess at the Oracle of Delphi, told Lycurgus how he should construct his new governmental system. It’s hard to be attracted to either theory given that we do not know whether Lycurgus was a real person.
Toynbee considers both versions suspect because they each appear to support rival power factions in the evolving Spartan political system – the kings and the Ephorate. The kings would have advanced the Pythia story because that would create a link between Spartan royalty and the gods. The Ephors would have supported the story of Cretan origins because the Cretan system had a similar office.
Aristotle, himself, was a advocate of the Cretan theory. Here’s what he had to say:
“The Cretan institutions resemble the Lacedaemonian. The Helots are the husbandmen of the one, the Perioeci of the other, and both Cretans and Lacedaemonians have common meals, which were anciently called by the Lacedaemonians not 'phiditia' but 'andria'; and the Cretans have the same word, the use of which proves that the common meals originally came from Crete. Further, the two constitutions are similar; for the office of the Ephors is the same as that of the Cretan Cosmi, the only difference being that whereas the Ephors are five, the Cosmi are ten in number. The elders, too, answer to the elders in Crete, who are termed by the Cretans the council. And the kingly office once existed in Crete, but was abolished, and the Cosmi have now the duty of leading them in war. All classes share in the ecclesia, but it can only ratify the decrees of the elders and the Cosmi.”
There were, however, two major differences between the versions. While the Spartans kept no land under control of the government (it was 100% allocated), the Cretans kept some of their land for use in re-allocation. Secondly, the Spartan Homoioi were required to bring their share of food to the mess – food harvested from their private land. In Crete, the mess was paid for by the government.
If we accept Aristotle’s opinion on the origin of the Spartan system, we merely transfer our dilemma. That is we must now ask ourselves why the Cretans adopted such a system before we tackle the reasons why the Spartans did. It appears that the Dorian conquerors of the Minoans adopted the “Helot” practice to permanently prevent the Minoans from rising against them. This makes some sense given that Crete is an island that was completely inhabited by Minoans. Perhaps the Dorian conquerors had superior military skill but lacked equal numbers, or possibly the tidal wave produced at Santorini decimated the Minoan people and left them unable to resist an invader. In any case, if the Dorians had a smaller population, they would have lived in fear of an uprising that would leave them no escape.
There is no question that the Spartan version was more extreme, because the Spartans subordinated their entire culture for the singular purpose of holding down the Helots. It is odd though, as Aristotle points out, that the Spartan Helots revolted at every opportunity whereas the Minoan Helots never revolted. Aristotle attributed this to the isolation of Crete. The Minoans had no way to connect themselves to an ally who could help them because they were on an island. The Spartan Helots, on the other hand, had multiple ways to get help and did so every time the opportunity arose. Maybe this is why the Spartan system had to be more rigorous.
So we are still left with the question of the reason for Laconian Helots. My opinion is that when Sparta conquered portions of Messenia, she decided that the land was too valuable to give up. The Messenian population was several times larger, so Sparta was forced to import a system from Crete she was familiar with. After all, the Spartans were Dorians just like the conquerors of that island culture.