Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Class Struggle in Ancient Sparta

“For the Helots were both the ultimate foundation of Spartan might …and Sparta’s Achilles heel.  ‘Most Spartan institutions’, as Thucydides famously put it, ‘have always been designed with a view to security against the Helots’.  The history of Sparta, it is not too much to say, is fundamentally the history of the class struggle between the Spartans and the Helots.”[1]

This statement made by Cartledge points towards a Sparta that was not the Utopia that the Spartan contemporary historians tried to record.  It hints at internal struggles between two or more demographics and classes of citizens, and suggests that these struggles were fundamental in the bringing down of Sparta.  Indeed, it would appear that Ober’s observation could be correct.  He stated that Xenophon adopted a stance in his writing that was that of a knowledgeable insider that was explaining how different things actually were to a naïve and possibly incredulous non-Athenian reader, whilst Thucydides’ Corinthians took the approach of knowledgeable experts as well, but did so from the point of trying to explain to the Spartans what was new and so different about Athens.[2]  How does this relate to Sparta and the internal struggles between classes?  It signifies that there was an attitude in Sparta of superiority, and with this type of attitude or mindset, there inherently follows an elitist viewpoint that turns then to the subservience of some for the benefit of others.  This type of subservience usually also ends up weakening a government through infighting.

Something that should be considered right at the beginning of any discussion concerning Sparta and the Helots is that there is very little clearly recorded on the lives and the status of the Helots in ancient Sparta.  The closest term to conveying what the Helots were in Sparta is that of ‘state-surf’, meaning that they were a poor class and that they were, as most things in Sparta were, communally owned by the state.[3]  Being subservient to the Spartans, the Helots were required to turn over certain amounts of belongings and crops to the state.  Plutarch records that this was a portion measuring 70 medimnoi of barley for men, and 12 for a woman.  Further, they also had to turn over the oil and wine that they produced in a quantity suiting a warrior and family or a widow, depending on the circumstances.[4]  But why would a civilization that was supposed to be Utopia, and have all things common among the citizens make a class of people poor and subservient?

As Ridley pointed out by quoting Cook, “It is not likely that at any time in the archaic period Spartans worked at the aesthetic crafts or Helots either.  If so, since the strong continuity of style precludes casual immigrants, it is very likely that the practice of the arts was left to perioeci.”[5]  This means that the Spartans were just the rulers and the fighters, and all other classes were there so that they could continue in that fashion.  Finley explained why this was the case.  “The production and distribution of weapons remain something of a puzzle.  I think we can take it that the procurement of metals and the manufacture of arms were the responsibility (and also the privilege) of the perioeci.”  The reason behind this practice is obvious when examined: it was too dangerous to allow the Helots to manufacture the arms, and if the Spartiates thought that manual labour was beneath them, then only the perioikio remain to do it.[6]  This type of development in the governing of a people would have brought about interesting changes, both in practices and in attitudes of the people.  As Redfield commented, throughout the long history of these types of processes in Greece, this economic development will have given rise to different thematic tensions, of which politically speaking would be the tension between an ideal of citizenship and the actuality of the class-conflict within the citizen body.[7]

Ridley makes the point that a starting point needs to be where Lycurgus banned Spartans working in the trades.  This is the beginning of the belief in Spartan elitism.  He goes on to quote Herodotos (II 167) as saying: “Men who learn trades and their descendants are held in less regard that other citizens, while any who need not work with their hands are considered noble, especially if they devote themselves to war.  At any rate, all the Greeks have learned this: the Lakedaimonians scorn manual workers most, the Corinthians do so least.”[8]  Indeed, Ducat also made the observation that Spartan treatment of the Helots was a type of ideological warfare for the strict purpose of demoralising and brainwashing the Helots into the mindset that they were an inferior and subservient race to the Spartans.[9]  This brainwashing and convincing of the Helots that they were to be the servant class to the Spartans appears to have been successful, and as Pausanias recorded, “Its inhabitants became the first slaves of the Lacedaemonian state, and were the first to be called helots.”[10] 

According to Redfield, Sparta didn’t start out with the class problems that have been recorded.  He says that the Spartans heroes The Spartan heroes became the land owners instead of just the land caretakers.  This then created a shift in the politics and the social structure of Sparta.  Quoting Max Weber: “It is the most elemental economic fact that the way in which the disposition over material property is distributed among a plurality of people… in itself creates specific life-chances.  According to the law of marginal utility… this mode of distribution monopolises the opportunity for profitable deals for all those who, provided with goods, do not necessarily have to exchange them… This mode of distribution gives to the propertied a monopoly on the possibility of transferring property from the sphere of use as a “fortune” to the sphere of “capital goods”; that is, it gives them the entrepreneurial function and all chances to share directly or indirectly in the returns on capital… “Property” and “lack of property” are, therefore, the basic categories of all class situations.”[11] 

Helots were much less likely than any of the other Greek-state slaves to have their families disbursed and broken up.  Because of this, the Helots were able to, and even afforded the right to in Sparta, marry and have their own family.  Even though the Helots had a significant number of people to begin with, their population was able to increase despite the losses from the annual slaughtering, group massacres, and war which will be discussed below.[12]  On the subject of the Helot versus the Spartan population, it is interesting to note that from the classical ear the number of Spartans were much less than the number of Helots.  It is curious how a larger population can become the poor servant class of a smaller population, but Thycydides potentially sheds some light on this by saying that “most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security against the Helots.”[13]  Thus, it can be construed that both skill and fear were important factors for the Spartans keeping the ability to govern the Helots.  As Xenophon pointed out, the Equals always carried their spears, undid the straps of their bucklers only when at home lest the Helots decided to seize them.[14] 

Plutarch remarked that the treatment of the Helots by the Spartans was not good.  He said that the Spartans were harsh and cruel to the Helots, making them drink pure wine[15] “and lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs” while the Spartans had their banquets.[16]  This was not the only mistreatment that the Spartans gave the Helots, however.  Aristotle, as recorded by Plutarch reported that the ephors had an annual ritual where they would declare the Helots a type of enemy and allow the Spartans to kill them without fear of any political or religious ramifications.[17]  This was done as a way to kill ‘legitimately’ the strongest and most able of the Helots, because they were not technically property and as such could not just be removed.  This seems like a strange practice since the Spartans also encouraged the same eugenics practice among all classes of people that they themselves observed, and as such meant that the strong Helots that they would kill as a threat would not exist except for their own edicts. 

There was also a time that the Spartans took even more drastic measures to try and control the Helot population.   According to Thucydides, after the Spartans and the Helots were engaged in a battle, the Spartans informed the Helots that they needed to choose from among their own ranks the people that they felt did the best service to Sparta on the campaign.  They implied that they were being thus selected so that they could be granted their freedom from the Helot class.  Contrary to this, however, the Spartans were using this exercise to discover who among the Helots were the strongest and most spirited, and therefore most probably to rise against Sparta in a revolt.  After 2000 of the Helots were chosen, they put on garlands and went from temple to temple under the misconceived notion that they were being honoured and given their freedom.  The Spartans then took the Helots and secretly killed all 2000 of them.[18]  Is it any wonder that Aristotle described the Helots as “an enemy constantly sitting in wait of the disaster of the Spartans”?[19]

Talbert commented that the liquidation of the 2000 Helots that were chosen as the most outstanding was not a reflection of any threat that the Helots posed in actuality, but much more a reflection of the fears that Sparta had of a revolution.[20]  It does appear that the Spartan constitutional developments were brought into the mainstream of Greek constitutional history when they were viewed as an effort to eliminate the ongoing class conflict within the entire Spartan citizen body.  As Redfield stated, against the background of this type of analysis of the Spartans, it is possible to view the Spartan eunomia as an early, radical, and highly successful response to the disorder generated within the state, and further to that, that the basic socio-economic structure was preserved at the same time that it was also denied.[21] 

Further evidence that there was a class struggle between the Spartans and the Helots comes from Talbert discussing the role of the Helots and the eventual downfall of the Spartan state.  Talbert believes that Spartas problems and the eventual cause of its downfall lay somewhere other than with the class struggle, and that the tensions and inequalities within the Spartiate class were more serious, and that by the 400BC the Helots were an insignificant element in the Spartan class struggle.  He further believes that the Helots were the main class that was trying to uphold the Spartan ideals while they were lapsing in the Spartiate class themselves, but that in the end none of it mattered and the state dwindled away.[22]

An observation that Ober made while looking at the Spartans and the Athenians seems appropriate to sum up the situation of the Helots and the Spartans.  “The conflict between modernity and traditionalism thus produced socio-political pathologies that proved capable of infecting and ultimately destroying polis communities.  The fact that the dynamic conflict was contested by two opposing political systems (democracy and oligarchy) offered distinct socio-economic groups (the rich and the poor) within a given city the opportunity to identify their particular and factional interests with much larger processes, with complex systems (in the form of the Athenian and the Spartan alliance) promoting, variously, modernity and tradition.”[23]  It would seem that the history of Sparta is made up of the cause and effect cycles of the Helots and the Spartans struggling with their respective class structures, just as Cartledge stated.


Aristotle.  The Politics.  Trans. T. A. Sinclair, (1981).  Penguin, Middlesex, England

Cartledge, P.  (1987).  “The Origins and Organisation of the Peloponnesian League”, in Sparta, edited by Whitby, M. (2002).  Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh. 

Cartledge, P.  (2002).  Sparta and Lakonia. A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC. (2nd Ed.)  Routledge, New York. 

Ducat, J.  (1990).  Les Hilotes.  Bulletin de Correspondence Hellenique, suppl. XX.  Ecole francaise d’Athenes, Athenes. 

Ober, J.  (2005).  “Thucydides and the invention of political science”, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics.  Ver 1.0.  Princeton University. 

Pausanias, Description of Greece, Volume 1: Books 1-2 (Attica and Corinth).  Trans. W. H. S. Jones, (1918).  Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London.

Plutarch. The Life of Lycurgus, in The Parallel Lives, Vol. 1, trans. (1914).  Loeb Classical Library.*.html

Redfield, J.  (Dec. 1977 – Jan. 1978).  “The Women of Sparta”.  The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2, pp. 146-161. 

Ridley, R. T.  (1974).  “The Economic Activities of the Perioikoi”.  Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 27, Fasc. 3, pp. 281-292.

Talbert, R.  (1989).  “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta”.  Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte.  Bd. 38, H. 1, pp 22-40. 

Thucydides.  The Peloponnesian War.  London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton, trans Richard Crawley, (1910). 

Xenophon.  Constitution of the Athenians in Marchant, E., and Bowersock, G., trans. (1925), Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7, Harvard University Press.

[1] Cartledge, ‘The Origins and Organisation of the Peloponnesian League’, p. 229
[2] Ober, “Thucydides and the invention of political science” p. 7
[3] Talbert, “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta”, pp. 22-23
[4] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 8.7, 24.2
[5] Ridley, “The Economic Activities of the Perioikoi”, p. 286
[6] Ibid, p. 285
[7] Redfield, “The Women of Sparta”, p. 148
[8] Ridley, “The Economic Activities of the Perioikoi”,  p. 283
[9] Ducat, Les Hilotes  p. 124-126
[10] Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.20.6
[11] Redfield, “The Women of Sparta”,  p 152
[12] Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, p. 141
[13] Thycydides, The Peloponnesian War,  4.80.3
[14] Xenophon, Constitution of the Athenians, 12.4
[15] Wine was usually watered down as the ‘norm’.
[16] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 28.8-10
[17] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 28.7
[18] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War,   4.80.3-4
[19] Aristotle, The Politics, 1269 a 37-39
[20] Talbert, “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta”, p. 25
[21] Redfield, “The Women of Sparta”, p. 153
[22] Talbert, “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta”, p. 40
[23] Ober, “Thucydides and the invention of political science” , p. 9

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