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Helotage and the Spartan Economy
Thomas Figueira
The system of servile labor at Sparta was nothing less than the central axis around
which the social and economic structure of archaic and classical Lakōnikē was organized. The transfer of resources inherent in the system of helotage comprised – to
change the metaphor – the alimentary canal of Laconian society. Classical Sparta was a
brilliant realization of a state built to excel at warfare by a hoplite phalanx, with its
polity embracing the damos (‘common people’), one that integrated an archaic vision
of dikē (‘justice’) by suppressing intra‐communal anxieties over status differentiation
(Figueira (2002a) 153–9).
To appreciate the discussion below, some themes deserve emphasis. First, Spartan
society had entered on a divergent evolutionary path by c.600. For those believing Sparta
was an atypical polis, the challenge is not only to detail its deviations, but also to explain
how Laconian development diverged from a shared Dark Age or early archaic order.1
This is complicated by the paradigmatic nature of classical Sparta as a counter‐model to
democratic Athens, or point of departure for theoreticians. Complicating as well is the
Spartan historical vision, where change was envisaged either as illicit departure from, or
as restoration of, the Lykourgan political program. In turn, Lykourgos, a mythical prehistoric legislator (on whom see Nafissi, this work, Chapter 4), was held to have built on
the nomoi (‘laws’) of a primordial Dorian community. Social evolution was, therefore,
disguised as reversion to Sparta’s past, and significant divergences drop into silences in
our record or become so transformed conceptually as to emerge in entirely different
ideological registers. Second, interpreting Spartan society, while mindful of its divergence, requires us to muster the full body of source material (including the works of
A Companion to Sparta, Volume II, First Edition. Edited by Anton Powell.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Thomas Figueira
Plutarch), which needs to be deciphered with care to avoid anachronism. Dealing with
the Spartan ‘mirage’ (the idealizing image of Sparta in later works) demands adjustment
of our perspective, rather than blanket rejection of later evidence as fabrication.2 Third,
an important goal of archaic Spartan lawgiving was to homogenize differences of political
and economic behavior. The famous austerity of the classical Spartans emerged from
homogenization. Austerity increased over the late archaic period (after 600) as rules
against the use of coinage were set, craftsmanship stagnated, and Lakōnikē (Spartan
territory) became more isolated from international commerce.
22.1 Helotage: The Basic Features
Helots were servile agricultural workers who supported Spartan full citizens, called
Spartiates or Homoioi ‘peers’, freeing them from working or managing property.3 With
the exception of the seventh‐century poet Tyrtaios, our sources derive from after the
mid‐fifth century and from non‐Spartans. Authors (e.g., Herodotos, Thucydides)
describe helots as historical actors (without, however, ever naming a single individual
helot) only insofar as they involve Spartan policies and actions. Except for material
derived contextually, our understanding of helotage is influenced by the works of
Plutarch. Concerning the origins of the helots, our earliest commentators are fourth‐
century authors such as Hellanikos (FGrH 4 F 188), Ephoros (FGrH 70 F 117), and
Theopompos (FGrH 115 F 13). Laconian helots were those enslaved first, many from
southern Laconia in the eighth century, while Messenian helots were subjugated between 750 and 600, in struggles traditionally called the Messenian Wars. Cultural (and
even status) variations between Laconian and Messenian helots can be hypothesized,
although distinctions are elusive. Thucydides believed that their identity as Messenians
was dominant (1.101.2). In the classical period, some helots undoubtedly self‐identified
as Messenian and aspired to liberation; others manifested assimilation to Spartan culture
and eventually aspired to elevation to free citizen status through military service (e.g., as
The helots, established on klēroi (‘allotments’), contributed rents; some sources
indicate large amounts of natural products, and others 50 percent of production
(e.g., Plut. Lyk. 8.7; Tyr. fr. 6W). Rents subsidized dues of the Spartiates to syssitia
(‘common messes’), a prerequisite of citizenship. Helots were later described as lying
between free and slave (e.g., Pollux 3.83), but it could also be concluded that the
Spartiates were the most free of Greeks and helots the most enslaved (Kritias D‐K
88B37). Young helots, either favorites or the mixed progeny of Spartiates, were
sometimes educated as Spartans and achieved citizenship as mothakes (e.g., Hesych.
s.v. mothakes). Individual Spartiates did not own helots, but, as full citizens, enjoyed
the prerogative of sharing their labor. Thus, despite anachronism, ancient commentators could call them public, not private, slaves (e.g., Strabo 8.5.4 C365; Paus.
4.20.6; cf. Aris. Pol. 1263a35–7). Helots could only be manumitted by the state; the
best known freed helots were the soldiers called Neodamōdeis. As long as they fulfilled their obligation of labor and rents, helots enjoyed some protections. If a
Spartiate attempted to take more than the monthly rent, he might be punished by a
public curse (Plut. Mor. 239e). Helots were able to have families, and they could not
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
be sold abroad. They were also allowed their own religious practices and asylum
(Thuc. 1.128.1: the sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Tainaron).
Notwithstanding these protections, the helots were treated harshly, by being punished
for getting fat or through having a number of blows prescribed for them annually (e.g.,
Myron FGrH 106 F 2). The citizen messes were one setting for degradation (e.g., Plut.
Lyk. 28.8–9). Besides the customary rule that Spartiates should act as mutual protectors
against the helots (e.g., Kritias D‐K 88B37), several mechanisms were implemented to
check helot disaffection. The krypteia (‘seclusion’) was both most notorious and obscure
(Plut. Lyk. 28.1–4). This institution had youths ending their agōgē (‘upbringing’) by
being sent into the countryside with daggers and limited rations. Hiding themselves by
day, they captured and killed helots whom they encountered at night, especially the most
enterprising. Such police measures are correlated with the annual declaration of war on
the helots by the ephors, so that those shedding their blood could escape pollution (Plut.
Lyk. 28.4; Aris. fr. 543 Gigon). Thucydides (4.80) also records a brutal murder of 2,000
helots, ones freed and enfranchised for military service.4 They fell under suspicion
because of their willingness to claim distinction.
Although helotage freed Spartiates from work, Aristotle (Pol. 1269a34–b12) believed
it a problematic system, and its probity was contested (cf. Alkidamas fr. 3A). Thucydides
also emphasizes the centrality of the helot threat to Spartan policy‐making (4.80.2–3).
Similarly, Plato (Laws 6.777c) observes the frequency of Messenian revolts, and Aristotle
notes the intractability and vulnerability associated with the institution, stating that the
helots lie in wait to exploit Spartan misfortunes (Pol. 1269a37–b12). The earliest revolt
was perhaps c.660 in upper Messenia (i.e., the Second Messenian War); Plato (Laws
698d–e) implied a Messenian revolt in 490, preventing aid at Marathon (although the
revolt is unmentioned by Herodotos). The most prominent revolt in c.465, sometimes
called the Third Messenian War, followed directly on a devastating earthquake and perhaps lasted ten years. Helots of Laconia also joined, along with some perioikoi, second‐
class citizens, of southern Messenia. (On the perioikoi in general, see Ducat, this volume,
Chapter 23). A requirement to suppress helot rebellion was a provision of the Spartan‐
Athenian alliance of 421 (Thuc. 5.23.3). Similar obligations may be suspected in the
oaths of the Hellenic League (480) and constituent treaties of the Peloponnesian League.
After Sparta’s defeat by Thebes at Leuktra in 371 and the foundation of the Arkadian
Confederacy, Lakōnikē was invaded, and the independence of Messene established by
the Theban leader Epameinondas. Whereas the conquest and continued subjection of
Messenia secured for Sparta the material and human resources for its social regime, its
liberation after 371 greatly reduced Spartan territory and servile labor force, and relegated Sparta to a second‐class power. Nonetheless, helotage in reduced form lasted into
the Roman period.
22.2 Beginnings
In the eighth century, the core of the Spartan state in the Eurotas valley, namely its four
villages and outlying Amyklai, was quite like other early archaic southern Greek societies.
Sites with access to sufficient land for population growth in situ underwent economic
differentiation and growth in non‐agricultural production. Craft specialization could
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proceed only where sufficient demand was concentrated. Thus, Sparta was well positioned to adopt polis organization, especially since sufficient smallholders retained
enough social autonomy to force the elite to form institutions that included the common
people. A larger population of smallholders offered the proto‐polis the possibility for a
broadly based army. The hoplite phalanx emerged as a dynamic convergence of weapon
technology, primitive tactics, and communal values and solidarity.
Such a hoplite army was essential in preserving polis core territory. As on Euboia or at
Argos or Corinth, the early polis attracted or compelled smaller, peripheral communities
into its orbit. For Laconia,5 it helps for comprehending these circumstances that inhabitants of these communities were called perioikoi (lit.‘dwellers‐around’).6 Their slippage
under domination naturally entailed territorial adjustments, surrender of rights of transit
and access to resources like pasturage, neutralization as threats, and willingness to assist
in protecting militarily the interests of the dominant center. If the Argolid and Euboia
provide models, religious leagues could be vehicles for subordination. Subjugated communities tendered offerings and ‘tithes’ to a prestigious common cult. The estates of the
Spartan kings in perioikic towns appear a vestige of such dispensation (Xen. Lak. Pol.
15.3). As the elite of the dominant community extracted or redistributed goods in a
ritual setting, ‘cult’ leagues supported an aristocratic polity. Efforts to express regional
domination over smaller communities generated captives not otherwise ransomed or
redeemed (as in Homeric epic). The Laconian helots were douloi (‘slaves’) since the
Greeks did not make the distinctions in forms of servitude that modern observers have
Nonetheless, unfortunate Laconian perioikoi were not the main source of helots.
Traditions on the origins of helot status are helpful in reaching this conclusion, even if
not all that illuminating in establishing actual early history. We possess a series of origin
accounts deriving from fifth‐ and fourth‐century authorities.8 These are not only contradictory, but also appear to be attempts, by the historians concerned, to evoke various
phenomena that they associated with classical helotage. These traditions imagine the
helots as prisoners of war, members of pre‐Dorian ethnicities, inhabitants of community
margins, persons reduced in status for rebellion, populations of mixed extraction, and
groups who failed in military obligations. Previous scholars applied a calculation of probabilities regarding these causations,9 choosing a likely scenario, or some combination,
such as imagining a conquest and reduction to serfdom, by Dorians, of an Achaean relict
population. While it is hard to replace such ancient hypotheses, they should be condemned for their literalism, in which ideological aspects of the later helot situation are
transcribed into actual events; for instance, persons who are marginal in social status
must derive from ancestors inhabiting geographical margins, the marshes of southern
In contrast to an unworkable single scenario for helot origins, it is more attractive to
note other early archaic modes of exploitation (e.g., kidnapping, acquisition through
barter, indebtedness) in order to supplement the traditional origins for helot lineages
(e.g., conquest, status demotion, ethnic heterogeneity) because explications of the
later institution cannot account for the origins of all its victims. A principle of economy
of social control limits early Iron Age communities to one, or at most two, forms of
exploitation, because prevailing levels of output cannot support structures for more
variable exploitation. For example, helots were acculturated to inferiority by ritual
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
degradation in the messes; they were policed by arbitrary cruelties of young men
­serving their year of the krypteia; they were probably rewarded for subservience by
food recirculated through the messes. These and other methods of controlling the
exploited expended scarce resources, including not least Spartan time and energy.
Consequently, the origin of exploited persons is less significant than their social
placement. One might decide to add to the ancestors of classical helots persons from
other vulnerable groups, such as debt bondsmen. People deriving from outside
Lakōnikē, e.g., captives in conflicts, gifts from allies, and persons received in trade –
people becoming chattel slaves almost everywhere – could perhaps become helots at
Sparta. Thus we turn from particular ancient theories of origination to analyzing the
value of helotage for the exploiting class.
It is helpful to distinguish between perioikoic‐land and perioikoi and also between
helot‐land and helots. By observing the placement of perioikic towns vis‐à‐vis helot holdings, it is manifest that the latter were generally sited on more fertile land than the former
(Figueira (1984a) 102–4; (2003b) 203–7). Intensive exploitation of servile labor (as
here, where payments were 50 percent of cereal production) is only viable in favorable
ecological settings. As some perioikoi possessed productive land, however, there were
likely other conditions defining territory cultivated by helots. The communities of those
reduced to helotage had been relatively delayed in developing polis structures, one reason
for which was the distance of southern Laconia and Messenia from external models that
might be discovered through connections between archaic elites.10 Nonetheless, the
Spartans probably distinguished between the targets of eighth‐century raiding: poorer
victims were enlisted as allies while victims with superior access to productive assets
became helots. Mere vulnerability was not, however, the only major characteristic of
those who became helots. The elites of perioikic communities were also characterized by
a capacity for achieving détente with the Spartans. The perioikoi were skilled in using
resource sets typical of second‐tier agrarian sites (like those at higher elevations), of
places with extractive activities (like mining, timbering, and associated crafts), or of sites
like Gytheion where the sea provided subsistence. Moreover, no evidence exists of
administration of helot labor – for example, how workers were matched with necessary
tasks – and we have no trace of any officials, procedures, or institutions managing helot‐
land. Encouragement of migration by perioikoi and helots to territories suitable to their
respective utilization served in the absence of actual management. Therefore, a churning
of the demographic components of Lakōnikē is likely. Finally, our distinction between
helot‐land and helots is also enlightening because it promotes skepticism over whether
specific helots in the classical period were the descendants of the initial inhabitants of
their home fields.
The Penestai of Thessaly or Hektēmoroi of Attike illustrate one characteristic of
archaic rural servile populations: indenture to an elite of wealthy landowners. A singularity of Spartan society is that the class of beneficiaries was expanded to the entire primary civic body of Spartiates. Many scholars envisage that a distribution of conquered
land occurred,11although they differ as to its scale and how far the resultant property
system deviated from elsewhere in Greece. It is improbable that conquered land was
equally distributed when Dorian war bands first entered the Eurotas valley in the tenth
century, perhaps enticed by uncultivated descendants of vast Mycenaean plantings of
olives. Sparta could mean ‘sown [land]’,12 suggesting that the area had been so
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systematically cultivated in the Mycenaean period that barley fields continued to grow
naturally. To infiltrating Dorian bands, provision of olive production and grain crops
without human intervention would have seemed providential, the basis for a sacral
contract with gods and ancestral heroes. The myth of an early allocation became central
to the later history of property in Lakōnikē. The transition to a ‘special’ property regime
occurred by stages.
The distribution of the Peloponnese among Heraklid kings was relevant as an allocation between aristocratic lineages and their armed bands (Luraghi (2008) 48–61). That
it entailed equal division among Dorian tribesmen, which in the fourth century Isokrates
(6.20; 12.179, 259) and Plato emphasize (Laws 3.684D–E; 5.736C–E), seems an anachronism that was formulated under the influence of the tradition of Spartan equality.
While not indicative of tenth‐century reality, these references establish the classical
association between Spartan land tenure and equality (Figueira (2004b) 52–3). Eighth‐
century Laconia probably experienced a Homeric‐style distribution, in which basileis
(‘kings’) received a disproportionate share, approximating preferential shares of plunder,
elite estates in conquered communities, and exactions made for cults at the disposition
of priestly families. Under this regime the Spartans first seized territory in the Eurotas
valley and began to raid Messenia, drawing income thence. Claiming heroic descent,
their elite fashioned a mythological pedigree for exploitation of weaker populations by
citing Herakles’ rights over the lineages of Neileus and Hippokoon.13 Tyrtaios (late
seventh century) visualizes his audience as Herakleidai when he exults in helot subservience and mourning over their masters’ deaths (fr. 2.12–13, 11.1–2W). In classical Sparta,
the right to govern as Herakleidai and compulsory helot mourning are reserved for the
royal dynasties (Hdt. 6.58.2–3). That narrowing of privilege is significant. Archaic Sparta
saw an elevation both of the royal dynasties as the genuine embodiment of Heraklid
legitimacy and of the common Spartiate as full participant in the allocation of the communal assets.14
Scale was an essential feature of classical helotage. The conquest of Messenia was
a watershed in establishing its viability. This large territory could only be secured by
driving off the resistant groups. The Spartans acted to disrupt existing Dark Age settlements, like Nichoria in lower Messenia.15 In Messenia, canonical helotage entailed
successive depopulations (Figueira (2003b) 221–5). Remaining helot workers in any
locale were remnant populations after protracted resistance played itself out (the
so‐called Messenian Wars: traditionally c. 735–715, c.668–625 or 660–600).
Although the Messeniaka, local histories of the region, are notoriously untrustworthy
as factual documentation, they do offer traditions of resistance punctuated by the
departure of various intractable groups.16 The Spartan conquest of the Messenians
was contemporaneous with the Greek colonial movement – notably both Spartiate
holdings, cultivated by helots, and the land granted to colonists were called klēroi
(‘allotments’). The existence of colonies such as Zankle in Sicily (a known destination17) as possible refuges for the most resistant Messenians spared Sparta from confronting die‐hards for whom no other options for survival existed. Sometimes
scholars have envisaged these displacements as removal of the Messenian elite, whom
some would imagine as Dorians ruling a pre‐Dorian or Achaean common people.
Such a view, however, may require a more settled cultural matrix than is likely for late
eighth‐ or seventh‐century Messenia.
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
22.3 The Helot Allotments and Rents
The foundation of the Spartan social system lay in the klēroi ‘allotments’,18 that comprised arable land and the helots to cultivate it. One assumes the klēroi were named on
analogy with allotments made in apoikiai (‘colonies’) and in other occupations of conquered land.19 Our evidence seems to vouch for a principle of equal shares among peer
colonists.20 The same principle of equal division of the Spartan politikē khōra (‘land of
the polis’) is specified by Polybios,21 and Spartan equality is a well‐attested tradition
(Figueira (2004b) 49–51). The ultimate origin of the klēroi may well have existed in
lands given to Laconian aristocrats in eighth‐century raids in the lower Eurotas valley
and Messenia. The size of the late archaic or early classical klēroi has been a matter for
scholarly speculation, but c.14.4–17.2 ha. is a likely magnitude.22 Therefore, the huge
territory of Lakōnikē permitted an agrarian regime in which klēroi exceeded the estates
of average farmers elsewhere (c.3.6–5.4 ha.). Klēroi not only exceeded median Attic
landholdings, but they also generated output surpassing that of Athenian Zeugitai
(notional hoplites), or 200 agricultural measures, and approximating that of Hippeis
(‘Knights’) at Athens (300 measures). All Spartiates possessed holdings comparable to
the lower range of the affluent elite in other poleis. No other mechanisms are known
from Greek evidence for sustaining this high mean in property distribution other than
the sort of limitations on alienation (i.e., sale or conveyance to someone else) that our
testimonia attribute to Sparta. Furthermore, the disincentives to productivity and inefficiencies of servile labor ensure that the klēros‐system can only have been implemented
on unusually productive land.
My reconstruction of the klēroi endeavors to account for the full range of evidence on
the Spartan regime of subsistence and includes the indications that Sparta had an atypical
property system for a Greek polis. This picture reflects the account of Polybios and the
traces of a ‘constitutional’ tradition on Sparta that begins with Aristotle and his students
and is preserved in Plutarch, not only in his Lykourgos, but also in his Agis, Instituta
Lycurgi, and Dicta Lycurgi.23 Our sources speak of the creation of thousands of klēroi
(3,000, 4,500, 6,000, 9,000) by Lykourgos and perhaps also by King Polydoros, and
imply various divisions of klēroi between Laconia and Messenia (Plut. Lyk. 8.5–6;
Agis 8.2). The number of 4,500 klēroi associated with the third‐century reforms of Agis
IV suggests an equal split between Laconia and Messenia. That seems unlikely when one
considers the extent of the two regions and their number of perioikic communities. That
Polydoros created an additional 3,000 to a Lykourgan 6,000 might indicate the creation
of a second 3,000 in Messenia to supplement an earlier 3,000/3,000 interregional division. Estimates of arable land put at least two‐thirds of the klēroi in Messenia (Figueira
(1984a) 101–2; (2003b) 203–11).
Nevertheless, all the ancient figures for the klēroi merely render as design or hold as
canonical the number 9,000. The testimony of Aristotle and Herodotos (on the mobilization for the battle of Plataia, in 479) indicates a highest level for the Spartiates c.9,000–
10,000 (Aris. Pol. 1270a36; Hdt. 7.234.2, 9.10.1, 28.2). Consequently, the 9,000 klēroi
represent an estimate of a maximum number of adult male Spartiates that was reached
479–466. At some point in archaic Spartan history, the primordial Dorian occupation of
Laconia started to be considered a distribution of equal shares, probably under the
influence of contemporary equal allocations in the colonies. Perhaps the archaic (late
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seventh‐century?) agrarian reform tried to accommodate 2,000 Spartans as klēros holders,
contending that this was the size of the Dorian host occupying Laconia. Isokrates reports
this traditional figure.24 If this hypothesis is valid, the ascent of the Spartiates from
c.2,000 to c.10,000 from perhaps 630 to 465 (at the extremes) would stand as a remarkable testimony to the vitality of Spartan social arrangements.
In envisaging the klēros‐system, anachronistic categorization must be avoided. Klēros‐
land constituted the politikē khōra (‘land of the polis’) of Sparta (Polyb. 6.45.3–4). Yet
to describe it as public property is erroneous, because this could only invoke private
property as its counterpart. The creation of the klēros‐system preceded the emergence of
private property, as the individual as an economic actor had not fully separated himself
from his lineage, nor had a market in land developed. The klēroi were collective property
as the common acquisition of the community, but no public apparatus existed to exert
control over or to manage them. Quite different are the collective farms of modern communism that adapt either the work regimen of nineteenth‐century European factories or
of Asian village communes of subsistence farmers. Rather the klēroi were only ‘political’
for their falling within the authority of the community to establish the suitability of their
holders and set the rules for their transfer. Similarly, Strabo (8.5.4 C365) describes the
helots as dēmosioi (‘public [property]’), a revealing expression although it introduces
again an anachronistic distinction between ownership of public and private property.
Certain landholdings were excluded from this politicized regimen, and this exemption
was realized within a conventional early archaic social structure.25 Sparta never became a
completely egalitarian community; the distinction between aristocrats and damos
continued. Tempted to denominate land held apart from reallocation as private property,
we again recall that such a category was not yet viable. Original holdings, however,
which were not perceived as conquests of the proto‐polis acting collectively, appear to
have been excluded from the klēros‐system. This land was presumably concentrated in
the core territory of the Spartan villages and Amyklai. This reservation much favored the
traditional aristocracy because it perpetuated an early archaic agrarian regime. The failure
of an early market in land to develop meant that reserved land was also inalienable. There
may even have been helots working such estates, the descendants of people subjugated
before Sparta’s great expansion (from the late ninth and early eighth centuries). Thus,
features of the Spartan polity, such as the choice of the gerontes (‘senators’) from a few
families, were natural outgrowths of the preservation of an early archaic aristocracy.
Hence came Sparta’s international athletes, its dedicators at panhellenic sanctuaries, and
the wealthy lineages with whom the kings intermarried. Yet remarkably at Sparta, the
physical appurtenances of landed wealth and the manifestations of behavioral
differentiation accorded the rich elsewhere were denied to descendants of the old landed
elite. This homogenization created the Homoioi (‘peers’), full Spartan citizens or
Spartiates, who were isodiaitoi (‘equal in lifestyle’) (Thuc. 1.6.4–5). Yet, notwithstanding
its concessions in behavioral opportunities, the old elite survived.
The success of the klēros‐system is demonstrated by the expansion of Sparta. Such success probably turned the old core territory into a mosaic of estates and tiny plots of
non‐klēros‐land. By intermarriage and dowering, the elite would try to preserve its estates
just as wealthy landholders did in Attike and elsewhere. Limits on elite display and consumption, by excluding many misadventures that befell the wealthy elsewhere, promoted
stability. The stability for the privileges of the elite excluded the necessity for expensive
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patronage that might otherwise have led aristocrats to squander their estates. In contrast,
the archaic Spartan damos grew unrestrictedly because the state assured possession of
klēroi to all who completed the agōgē.26 Thus, ever smaller holdings of the damos in
non‐klēros land – plots too small to manage through family planning and marital status
strategies – would have been created through partible inheritance, so that many ordinary
Spartiates must have come to possess a klēros as their only significant holding.27 As long
as Lakōnikē was free from rebellion and external attack and helot numbers were rising,
the heavy dependence of common Spartiates on their klēroi was not problematic. The
social order would later come under stress only when manpower shortages afflicted
Tradition reports two sorts of levy or rent from the helots – in kind, naturally, in the
Spartan barter economy – a proportion of 50 percent (Tyrtaios fr. 6W; cf. Paus. 4.14.4–5;
Ael. VH 6.1), and a fixed number of medimnoi (‘bushels’) of barley (Plut. Lyk. 8.4, 12.2;
cf. Myron FGrH 106 F 2), 72 for the Spartiate and 12 for his wife,29 and scholars have
generally chosen one of these alternatives. However, the 50 percent levy and a fixed rent
were possibly aspects of a single system (Figueira (2003b) 199–203). The one‐half exaction embodies a Dark Age pattern of even division between a superior and an inferior
group, as confirmed by test of battle (Figueira (2003b) 199; Link (2004) 2–4). The
fixed amounts, however, ensured generous support for a Spartiate soldier. Enough grain
to support about 4–8 people at subsistence was left after the Spartiate paid his mess dues.
Spartan officials, perhaps even the ephors, allocated helots and land to Spartiates by
observation of their productivity, with an eye toward estimating a klēros in which 50 percent of the output of a particular group of helots on a certain extent of land approximated the needed amount of the main crop of barley.30 The focus on the grain yield
probably left some incentive for the helots to produce certain products (like livestock?)
that may not have been subject to the 50 percent rule. That the relations between
Spartiate and helot were not monetized until the Hellenistic period reveals the archaic
and conservative character of Spartan exploitation. This absence of monetary exactions
occurred within the framework of a barter economy.
Perhaps the Spartans also had a rough formula by which to reckon the number of
helot males appropriate for supporting a single Spartiate. In the mobilization for the
Plataia campaign in 479, each mustered Spartiate brought along seven helots (Hdt.
9.10.1, 9.29.1). These 35,000 helots were a significant proportion of all male helots.
The rationale behind this levy was the security of Lakōnikē, because a mass of untrained
and potentially disloyal followers had little military value.31 The justification of the ratio
of seven to one might lie in a preexisting rule of thumb about administering the klēroi
rather than in some strategic or demographic calculation.
Once the Spartiate’s income from this main constituent of his diet was assured, products other than grain were either subject to their own specific rents (unfortunately
unknown) or left to the 50 percent rule. Allocating production of the grain crop was
thus consequential for klēros demarcation. Hence we appreciate the anecdote in which
Lykourgos supposedly first viewed reordered Lakōnikē at harvest time, comparing it to
an inheritance divided equitably between brothers (Plut. Lyk. 8.4; cf. Mor. 226B). Let
us recall that the Spartans are never described as managing the helots or klēroi. Such a
commitment of time would have worked at cross‐purposes with their exclusion from
ordinary economic involvements. It would have introduced status differentiation, as
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their individual managerial skills would have varied considerably. The klēros‐system was
truly absentee ‘ownership’, initially without direct supervision. Supervision would have
entangled the economic fortunes of single Spartiates with their own individual helots
and transformed helotage into a congeries of dependent relationships, rather than the
balanced confrontation of two economic castes as presented in our sources.
Such an agrarian regime is reconcilable with the absence of a state administration for
supervising the helots. Annual review during harvests sufficed. As the helot population
rose through natural increase, the number of klēroi could rise accordingly. An ample
stock of fertile land, especially in Messenia, permitted the helots to increase numbers by
allowing them to cultivate idle fields around their holdings and vacant tracts or to farm
more intensively land already under cultivation.32 The evidence for holding possible
klēros‐land in reserve is provided by the Thyreatis after its seizure from Argos in c.546,
because it was left sufficiently vacant to accommodate several settlements of the fugitive
Aiginetans in 430 (Thuc. 2.27.2, 4.56.2). Most distributed klēros‐land lay in the interior
of Lakōnikē and was insulated by perioikic towns from the northern border and from
some points of best access to the sea. Helot losses to war and flight were probably low.
Thus, personal security from hostilities was another incentive toward helot compliance.
As the klēros‐system expanded, the Spartans possessed another powerful tool for maintaining helot cooperation. They could offer young helot males early and risk‐free opportunities to marry and form their own oikoi without their waiting to inherit. As already
noted, Spartan control of Messenia had only been solidified through successive depopulations that left behind the more tractable. Surplus production of the main products of
the klēroi was probably not left for appropriation by their helot producers, but was subject to the 50 percent levy. Even if this rent could not be practically raised on all output,
it served as an important buttress of the Spartan class system, since it minimized licit
opportunities for helot upward mobility. An ambitious, successful helot could not amass
resources openly and permanently.33 Unlike at Athens or elsewhere, land tenure with
‘private’ property and equal partition among heirs did not prevail on klēros‐land, but a
dispensation where a Spartiate’s connection with particular fields and with certain helots
was more conditional and communally determined. Hypothetically, the simplest mechanism is that vacant klēroi, intact and indivisible, passed to sons and nearest heirs without
klēroi. Any males not thus afforded klēroi, like younger sons of klēros‐holders and those
with surviving antecessors, were given new klēroi, created by demarcation.
The record of military power and the human resources underwriting its success tend to
corroborate this reconstruction, because they indicate that Sparta had a strikingly different social order from contemporary poleis. Nonetheless, this reconstruction depends
admittedly on an indispensable postulate, namely that a redistribution of land and
dependent laborers had occurred sometime in the archaic period. In this social reconfiguration, there was no total restructuring, because core land holdings of the Spartiates
were apparently preserved, and an early archaic wealth and status disparity between elite
and damos was maintained. The accessions to the communal core, acquired by collective
action of the politai, i.e. mainly territory in the lower Eurotas valley and in Messenia, were
now equally divided in principle among all Spartiates as Homoioi. During the late‐seventh‐
century suppression of the Messenians, affording equal shares may have constituted a
pledge tendered by the Spartiates to each other. With the gradual subjection of Messenia,
this pledge was implemented in an emplacement of the klēros‐system over several decades.
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
We should therefore seek the inauguration of the klēros‐system in the so‐called Second
Messenian War. Aristotle noted that the poems of Tyrtaios – remember that he had a
more complete dossier than our survivals – reveal political pressure for land redistribution (Pol. 1306b26–1307a2 with fr. 1W). Our reconstruction proposes that such an
anadasmos (‘re‐division’) actually took place outside the field of view now offered by the
Tyrtaian corpus. Tyrtaios seems to show a polis dependent on a hoplite army, but one
with a more conventional aristocratic elite, self‐identifying as Heraklids, who interrelated
in symposia and did not yet interact with the damos in syssitia. The helots already existed,
the klēros‐system may not have. Some citizen fighters were not hoplites, as gumnētai
(‘light armed troops’) also fought in the Spartan army (POxy #3316). Tyrtaian exhortations to young fighters in the forefront of the phalanx or even in its vanguard (sometimes
perhaps as mounted infantry in a corps of Hippeis: (Figueira (2006) 67–70) reveal tensions between age groups that the educational system would later address (Tyr. 10.1, 21,
30; 11.4, 12; 12.16, 23W). If we accept the implication of Aristotle that Tyrtaian poetry
resisted agitation toward redistribution, such poetic gestures would harmonize with the
generally conservative and conciliatory thematic of the corpus. At the same time, Tyrtaios
reveals a strong impetus toward a hoplite polity and a more austere regimen.
The klēros‐system was, then, a creation of the late seventh or early sixth century, not
a vestige of a primordial Dorian order or the result of the legislation of a mythical
Lykourgos before 750. Its prehistory represents fabrication of earlier history in order
to consolidate a false collective memory. While the klēros‐system was created in an
interlocking group of changes, Spartan austerity was not legislated in a single program.
Rather, the strong tendency toward egalitarianism and against elite ostentation
inherent not only in the klēros‐system but also in the messes suppressed conspicuous
consumption by stages. Recourse to the practice of xenēlasia (‘expulsion of foreigners’) and prohibition on residence abroad accentuated inhibitions against outward expression of different grades of material status. These manifestations of
xenophobia decoupled the Spartans symbolically from elite mores prevalent elsewhere
and practically from trade exchanges supporting conspicuous consumption (Figueira
(2003a) 62–6). The existence of a barter economy, where open ownership of gold
and silver had been prohibited (probably in the sixth century), protected the evolution toward austerity (Figueira (2002a) 153–5).
The Sparta of my reconstruction does not possess a tendency toward demographic
decline unlike the Sparta which others have surmised. For instance, Hodkinson has
imagined a large body of equal klēros‐holders, the size and number of whose estates
declined under the influence of differential procreation that was filtered through partible
inheritance.34 That would entail an impossibly large hoplite army for c.600 (or whenever
one supposes that the klēroi were created). It is better to hypothesize a relatively small
complement of initial klēros‐holders that grew steadily into the fifth century until the
Great Earthquake of c.465. Concomitant with our hypothesis is the existence of some
mechanism that acted against the division of the klēroi. Such a prohibition against division and alienation was a provision of the ‘communist’ system of land tenure in the Lipari
islands c.560 (Diod. Sic. 5.9.3–5; see Figueira (1984b)) and was certainly a feature of
fifth‐century Athenian klēroi that were held by cleruchs (Figueira (1991) 176–85). In
some form, it may have been a feature of much early colonization as well (cf. Aris. Pol.
Thomas Figueira
The reconstruction of equivalent helot‐cultivated klēroi that were not initially divisible
greatly differs from the treatment of Spartan land tenure in the Politics of Aristotle
(1264b6–1271b19). Viewed in terms of historiography, this confrontation embodies
two forms of political inquiry among the Peripatetics, the school of Aristotle. One form
can be called the ‘constitutional’ tradition as it was presented in the Politeiai (constitutional treatises on Sparta) of Aristotle and his pupil, Dikaiarchos (Figueira (2016,
15–17)). In contrast, the treatment in the Politics conveys observations on the social
realities of mid‐fourth‐century Sparta. Both modes of interpretation imbibed the essentially achronicity of Spartan historiography, as the constitutional treatises presented a
system legislated by Lykourgos while the Politics cite an anonymous lawgiver. The
dimension of time needs to be added to both forms of Peripatetic investigation to create
a coherent social evolution. Accordingly, we might synthesize these visions of Sparta by
offering a de‐idealized form of the ‘constitutional’ picture as an archaic social order and
by accepting the testimony of the Politics as reflecting an altered set of arrangements
affecting Sparta’s agrarian regime in the classical period. As seen below, the period after
the Great Earthquake of c.465 will be proposed as the tipping point for the revisions of
the archaic economic dispensation.
22.4 Messes and Dues
The other pole of the axis of production in Lakōnikē comprised the syssitia (‘messes’),
which played a unique role in the Spartan economy.35 The messes existing at Tiryns and
in Crete differed significantly, despite a common origin.36 At Tiryns, the meals were
more elite gatherings than at Sparta. The scale of such transfers was limited by number
of recipients or by the occasions for the transfers. On Crete messes did include the body
of citizen families, but the messes were supported directly from public revenues (including
income from dependent communities). At Sparta, however, a vast engine for the cycling
of production was established. Tendering of the mess contributions and membership in
a mess were prerequisites for the maintenance of full citizenship, so that commensality
encompassed the entire civic body. Embodying egalitarianism, and bound with strict
rules limiting displays of wealth‐based status differentiation, the messes inculcated a regimen of austerity.
The messes were the focus of male life, and daily attendance was mandatory. The dues
were set high, as seen from the enumerations of their components in Plutarch’s Lykourgos
(12.3) and in Athenaeus (Athen. 4.141; cf. ΣPlato Laws 633A.), who cites Dikaiarchos’
Tripolitikos (fr. 72 [Wehrli]). These authorities may have used different sources, but
clearly the dues were an element in the constitutional treatises of Aristotle and Dikaiarchos.
The monthly amounts were 1.5 Attic medimnoi or 1 Laconian medimnos of alphita
(‘barley groats’), eight Laconian or 11/12 Attic khoes (‘quarts’) of wine, five mnai
(mna = c. 431 gr.) of cheese, two‐and‐a‐half mnai of figs, and opsōnion (‘side‐dishes’)
worth 10 Aiginetan obols. The use of a monetarily‐denoted amount is incongruous
because using coinage was forbidden to Spartiates. Therefore, this practice was probably
first adopted as a military procedure on campaign, where Spartans dealt with merchants
conducting business in Aiginetic standard currency. The quota of 10 obols in the messes
at home was an act of ‘domestication’ of the military messes of the army on campaign.
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
Indeed the syssitia themselves institutionalized the syskēnia (‘military messes’) by importing into life at home the simplicity and shared lives of infantrymen serving in the field
(Hdt. 1.65.5; Polyain. 2.3.11). The late archaic and early classical Spartan army used the
civic messes as basic units.
Since mess membership was virtually limited to men who passed through the agōgē
and was a criterion of citizenship (Aris. Pol. 1271a26–37; 1272a13–16), the high dues
threshold practically tied retention of citizenship to the possession of a klēros and support
by helot workers. The definition of klēros rents and the enumeration of dues were thus
conjoined acts of social design. Furthermore, mess dues far exceeded the foodstuffs
necessary to sustain a well‐nourished man in his daily main meals (being five to six times
minimum annual subsistence).37 This superfluity is especially striking in the surplus of
dues in wine, since Spartiates were notoriously abstemious about wine consumption in
their messes.38 Some recipients of this additional wine were helots, who were permitted
to imbibe to intoxication and to embarrassment for their buffooneries, which indignities
were staged before the Spartiate mess members.39 The messes were, then, a mechanism
that acculturated Spartiates to superior sociopolitical roles and helots to their status of
social and moral inferiority.
I have wished to go further and theorize that this dispensation of wine was part of a
broader usage of the messes as channels for redistribution, for giving back to the helots
a portion of the helot rents they paid in kind.40 An exaction of 50 percent of production
is at the upper limit of practical rents among near‐subsistence agriculturalists. Such rents
diverted so much output of foodstuffs that they left the helots particularly susceptible to
an incentive mechanism that offered food as a reward for displays of compliance.41 Wine
as a foodstuff and an intoxicant is especially relevant in food recirculation, since it was
universally in demand, readily consumable, and relatively portable (even for transferring
large amounts of calories). Just as Appalachian farmers converted surplus grain into
moonshine whiskey to transport agricultural output in mountainous terrain, wine recirculated
in the messes avoided some costs of a redistributive system.
Furthermore, another argument in favor of the hypothesis of considerable redistribution to the helots is that some such mechanism is needed to reconstruct a viable demographic and economic model for Lakōnikē (Figueira (1984a) 100–4; (2003b) 217–20).
The exemption from gainful labor of the entire Spartiate population built into Spartan
agriculture a shortage of manpower. Without redistribution, it is hard to posit appropriate amounts of helot labor to man the klēros‐system and to provide the required
mess dues. Also difficult is explaining how 35,000 male helots were available for the
expeditionary force to Plataia in 479. At that time, Spartiate adult males (18+) exceeded
8,000 and total holders (or potential holders) of klēroi approximated 10,000. Estimates
of the arable land in Lakōnikē sharpen this dilemma as they imply that Laconia and
Messenia were fully utilized to support 10,000 klēroi.
The lack of managerial or administrative structures for the system of klēroi reveals why
the syssitia were the context for food redistribution in the archaic Spartan economy.
Spartiates may well have bartered with fellow Homoioi, perioikoi, and helots, but keeping
recirculation in the quasi‐public setting of the mess discouraged individual Spartiates
from developing multifaceted relationships with the helots supporting them, interactions
in which the Spartiate might provide incentives for higher output of which the helot
might receive a share. Rather, the communal setting of the mess linked material advantage
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for the helot with acceptance of abuse. Thus the incentives toward cooperation did not
serve the interests of the individual Spartiate, but engendered compliance with the whole
civic body. Indeed, analysis of the helots as a class often fails us because Spartan practice
acted to forestall the emergence of intra‐class integration not only through incentives
(noted above), but also through threats. In conjunction, these means constitute a policy
of ‘divide to rule’. Thus, beneficiaries of recirculation could not be numerous at any one
time. Rather the few favored were well positioned to act as patrons of the other helots
through allotting food to those cooperative toward the Spartiates and themselves. The
shadowy mnoionomoi, described as arkhontes (‘leaders’) of the helots, may be relevant in
this connection (Hesych. s.v.).
The ‘carrot’ of recirculated food was balanced by the ‘stick’ of repressive measures.
The ephors declared war on the helots annually (Aris. fr. 543 Gigon with Plut. Lyk.
28.4); the helots submitted to a regimen of arbitrary abuse with a quota of blows (Myron
FGrH 106 F2); and the youths of the krypteia meted out extra‐legal violence toward the
helots as though enemies (Plut. Lyk. 28.1–4 with Aris. fr. 543; Aris. apud Heracl. Lembos
373.10D; Myron FGrH 106 F2). Nevertheless, after the Spartiate population declined
so that a smaller civic body had access to more land, it may well be that inhibitions
against management of the klēroi weakened. Increased opportunities for specific supervision may have devolved upon Spartan women.
22.5 Population and Land Tenure
The wealth and military power of Greek poleis are often a direct reflection of population
growth.42 The analysis of the Spartan pattern of dependent labor outlined above indicates how Sparta emerged as one of the most powerful archaic poleis through demographic vitality (Figueira (1986) 170–5). Spartan control over Messenia could only be
achieved through a series of depopulations in which those most resistant to reduction to
helotage were driven into exile, and a remnant population remained as helots. When the
klēroi‐system consolidated in the late seventh century, the klēroi perhaps only numbered
a few thousand. Then Spartan power was restricted by the limit of helot workers and not
by shortages of fertile land. As late as the struggle with Tegea in the 570 s, it was labor
and not land for which Sparta made war. The Spartans brought fetters for the Tegeans
to symbolize reduction to servitude, although they doubtless expected to annex for
klēroi the best arable Tegean land (Hdt. 1.66.1–4). The resistance offered by the
Arkadians, based on their linguistic, ethnic, and political solidarity, rendered vain this
dream of a new stock of subject laborers. Hence the decision to bind the Spartans’
neighbors by a series of alliances had as its internal corollary opting for a policy of slow
growth in the complement of Spartiates. Notably this shift can also be traced for the
perioikoi, because no further groups of refugees from elsewhere in Greece were accommodated before the Peloponnesian War.
Sparta experienced steady growth over the sixth century. As noted above, the Spartans
could offer young helot males an early, easy opportunity to form their own households,
because there was still much good land available when the Spartiates numbered but a few
thousand. Some helot flight may have occurred but fugitives had to run a gauntlet of
perioikic towns and allied poleis (as suggested by the treaty with Tegea: SVA #112), as
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
well as to defy the vigilance of the kryptoi. Compared to the losses of young men for
other poleis in war and invasion, reduction of helot laborers through flight was probably
insignificant. If suppositions about the mixed origins of the helots are correct, the
Spartans may even have supplemented their natural increase through importation of captives and slaves.
The Spartiates themselves had little motivation toward family limitation. A klēros was
guaranteed each male who completed the agōgē. While partible inheritance probably prevailed over non‐klēros land, possessing a little more or less of it had no practical effect on
social standing when compared with success in the agōgē and on campaign. The granting
of dowries was probably forbidden (Plut. Mor. 227F), a provision which excluded a tool
of social mobility used elsewhere, and the kings awarded heiresses on the basis of Spartiate
aretē (Hdt. 6.57.4). Access to the aristocracy was barred by custom and lacked the cachet
of exclusivity known elsewhere, since conspicuous expression of elite status was suppressed. The annual high office of the ephorate was open to the entire damos: this was a
powerful compensation balancing the retained privileges of the old elite.
It is inconceivable that an early Greek polis could have a population policy. Rather, the
Spartans created conditions where the number of helots grew; thus there was a growing
reservoir of helot workers to support a rising number of Spartiates. This buoyancy is
illustrated by various events. Circa 546, the Spartans were willing to risk, and, in the
event, sacrifice, their entire corps of elite troops, the Hippeis, in a duel with the Argives
(Hdt. 1.82.1–8). As the sixth century advanced, Sparta became more aggressive, ranging
farther afield militarily to the Isthmos and to its north, and even sallying into the Aegean
to strike at Naxos and Samos. Dorieus, brother of Kleomenes, may have taken as many
as 1,000 Spartans off as colonists c.514–512 (Hdt. 5.42.2). The Laconia Survey vouches
for at least one new perioikic community being founded at Sellasia through deliberate
occupation by internal settlers.43 In the small clusters of helots scattered on klēros‐land,
it would not have been feasible to match young men and women or to ensure that their
most likely places for living were in the vicinity of kinsmen. Spartan ritual activities were
exposing the helots to the dominant Spartiate culture, and helot rural cult practices were
bringing them into contact with their fellows. Therefore, two kindred cultural processes
were advancing: all inhabitants of Lakōnikē were converging in fundamental behavior,
such as common dialect, religious practices, and high culture, and there was a churning
of demographic components, as intermarriage and exogamy between families and among
small communities, as well as internal colonization, affected both perioikoi and helots. In
particular, the helots felt integrative and differential cultural forces, as illustrated by a
later episode from the Theban invasion of Lakōnikē (370). Captured, or is that ‘liberated’?, helots refused to perform the poetry of archaic Spartan poets Terpandros, Alkman,
and Spendon, on the grounds that their masters forbade it (Plut. Lyk. 28.5). However,
it appears that they could have done so; they knew the poetry in question.
As Sparta entered the fifth century, its population was reaching its apogee. The expeditionary corps that appeared at Marathon (490) looks like a picked force of the first ten
age classes.44 Leonidas faced the loss of his expeditionary force of three hundred Spartiates
at Thermopylai (480) with relative equanimity.45 The 5,000 Spartiates at Plataia (479)
were perhaps the normal two‐thirds levy (men aged twenty to forty‐nine) out of a
complement of men aged twenty to sixty exceeding 8,000. At that time, then, all male
Spartiates totaled c.10,000. Yet it is in fact difficult to accommodate 10,000 klēroi on the
Thomas Figueira
arable land of Laconia and Messenia. With so many Spartiates, it is also hard to explain
how the 35,000 helots conscripted for the Plataia campaign were fed. Indeed, if, on the
basis of the arable land of Laconia and Messenia, we calculate the upper limits of the
klēros‐system to provide food, high estimates for helot numbers, common in earlier
scholarship, become doubtful.46 The number of helots, male and female of every age, lay
between 85,000 and 115,000. Even these numbers probably entail the existence of
channels (in my view, through the messes) by which food was recirculated to the helots.
Nonetheless, the servile population of Spartan territory was very large ([Plato] Alcib.
1.122d; Plut. Solon 22.2), as confirmed by its comparison with the Chian slave population
by Thucydides (8.40.2).
Circa 479, therefore, in its utilization of Laconia and Messenia, the klēros‐system was
reaching its practical limit, which was not only imposed by available land, but also by the
challenge of mobilizing a sufficient labor force under a 50 percent rent. However, Sparta
possessed additional land in the Thyreatis, later granted to Aiginetan refugees, but still
available for creating klēroi in 479. Potentially, the Spartans also possessed a powerful
tool for extending the ability of any number of klēroi to support Spartiates: a delay after
birth in initial assignment of klēroi made 9,000–10,000 klēroi, for example, support a
larger population because mortality was heavy in the first years of life and boys could
easily be supported by their parents up to age seven, the beginning of the agōgē (Figueira
(1984) 96–7, and n. 26 above). Therefore, any attempt to model flows of output in the
Spartan economy inevitably works from this ‘snapshot’, one which reflects the demographic highpoint of the political economy of Lakōnikē.47
This is the demographic profile of a self‐confident power, one not unduly troubled by
Attic promotion of the Delian League, however unwelcome the transfer of the hegemony at sea appeared. During the 470s, this Sparta saw off threats to its Peloponnesian
supremacy in Arkadian dissension and a revived Argos. Nevertheless, the homogenization and mixture of elements of the helot population, which expansion and even the
basic operation of the klēros‐system entailed, nurtured the seeds of challenge for Sparta’s
social order. Because Spartan ideology necessitated that helot cultural identity manifest
the converse of civic identity, it is unsurprising that the helots fashioned a self‐image in
an inversion of Spartan myth‐history that embodied aspirations to escape from their
exploited status. Their raw material comprised folk memories of early resistance to Sparta
that accreted around the charismatic hero Aristomenes and a peasant religiosity that
encompassed fertility rituals.48 A central theme was a purported descent from the citizens
of a subjugated polis, Messene, which had occupied the region west of Mt. Taygetos until
destroyed by Sparta. Thucydides states that the helots were generally called Messenians
by virtue of the descent of their majority from the ancient Messenians (1.101.2).49 Thus,
if they chose a path of resistance regarding their status, the helots throughout Lakōnikē
could claim that they were Messenian (and not entirely unreasonably on our hypothesis
of demographic mixture). This Messenian persona, however, was not adopted by all
helots. Some staked their aspirations on cooperation with the Spartiates and sought
opportunities for upward mobility within the dominant ideological system and not in
opposition to it.
The next stage of Spartan demography is punctuated by an exogenous event of enormous impact. In c.465, an earthquake convulsed Lakōnikē, its epicenter near Sparta
itself. Perhaps 20,000 free Laconians perished and Sparta was laid waste. This natural
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
disaster was understood by many helots as a providential signal for armed resistance. The
ensuing revolt lasted ten years, although the Spartans soon pacified Laconia itself and
later confined the rebels to the environs of Mt. Ithome in Messenia. The Spartan victory
came only at the cost of a further loss of manpower in which the surviving rebels with
their families were accorded the right of withdrawal. When the Spartan army is next
glimpsed during the Peloponnesian War, it is substantially smaller. Rather than accept an
inexplicable change in procreative patterns, one should assign this reduction of 50–60
percent of all Spartiates to the effects of the earthquake and rebellion.50
Thucydides notes the presence in 431 of a large number of Peloponnesian young men
who were both without experience of war and enthusiastic for hostilities (2.8.1). If
Sparta was included in this phenomenon, as appears likely, a large cohort of men had
matured since the Thirty Years Peace of 446/5, the oldest of whom had been sired right
after the earthquake. Thus Sparta had probably returned during the years 465–31 to its
typical demographic growth of the archaic period. However, the earthquake permanently changed Sparta (Figueira (2004b) 51–2.). The more fearful community of 431 is
clearly a legacy. But more important for our purposes is a hypothetical change in land
tenure. Aristotle speaks of a situation where land sale was discouraged but other transfers
by gift, dowry, and testament were possible (Pol. 1270a18–21). Another tradition refers
to an arkhaia moira (‘ancient portion’) that could not be alienated.51 As Myron of
Priene implies, this moira was not merely land, but included obligations from the helots
bound to that land. Another tradition, which appears in Plutarch’s Agis (5.3), describes
a one‐heir system in which klēroi descended from fathers to single sons in unbroken
succession. That was a biological impossibility, but its likely appearance in Peripatetic and
Stoic constitutional writing about Spartan traditions may indicate its role in classical
Spartan discussion about how to manage inheritance.
In interpreting these testimonia, one should envision where land tenure must have
stood after the earthquake and helot revolt (Figueira (1986) 184–7). Klēros‐land was
damaged significantly by the death or flight of its helots. Losing helot men threatened
the Spartan economy, because the high rents at 50 percent of output kept the labor
needs for cultivation of the klēroi dangerously near a level of insufficiency (Figueira
(1984) 104–6). Subsistence agriculture is always dependent on work inputs from adult
males, those most likely lost in rebellion. Moreover, there were now many vacant klēroi
because their beneficiaries had died. It is perhaps inevitable that such klēroi passed to the
next in line of property succession. That was the easiest means to handle a stock of vacant
klēroi, some with insufficient labor, and it guaranteed that any uneven distribution of
helots was offset by multiple klēros‐holdings for many Spartiates. The original klēros
of each Spartiate, apparently called the arkhaia moira, was declared indivisible and
These provisions were perhaps enacted during the revolt itself, 465–55, when rent
extraction and worker availability were most unpredictable. The Spartans may still have
felt obligated to provide a klēros for anyone completing the agōgē. The growing reservoir
of helot laborers that had once allowed such provision had vanished, however. Spartiates
could only provide for younger sons out of land acquired through the deaths of so many
fellow citizens during the earthquake and revolt. Concomitantly, the treatment of heiresses changed as the nearest kinsman played a central role. That he was called a klēronomos
(usually ‘inheritor’ but here probably ‘guardian’) implies that his function was to
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preserve a klēros, probably the arkhaia moira, of the heiress’ father (Aris. Pol.1270a26–9).
Furthermore, a manipulation of communal memory served to promote the ‘single‐heir’
system (Plut. Agis 5.3 cf. [Plut.] Mor., Comm. in Hes. 37). The ‘single‐heir’ system
placed the onus on the individual Spartiate to procreate his heir, but also discouraged
fragmentation of holdings through engendering multiple male successors, who might be
a challenge to equip with sufficient estates. Such policy defied procreative reality, where
families failing to raise sons to adulthood must be offset by those with multiple sons. The
single heir appears as ‘Lykourgan’ legislation in later historiography, admittedly an
impossible designation, so that the important questions become the date of its inception
and its purpose. It belongs to a moment when family planning was a sensitive issue. Did
the single‐heir practice originate in the period after the earthquake and revolt, as patriotic exhortation for ordinary Spartiates? In politicized economies, invocations of civic
duty, relying on high degrees of conformity, clash with opportunistic behavior.
Yet the demographic situation of Sparta after the withdrawal of the rebels from Mt.
Ithome to Naupaktos in 455 was not desperate. Sparta still had many Spartiate hoplites,
comparable to mid‐sixth-century levels, and its perioikic levy was much less affected by
earthquake and revolt. The perioikoi were vulnerable only to catastrophic and military
casualties, and not to an economic threat of losing servile laborers. What differed, after
hostilities with Athens in the First Peloponnesian War ended (446), was the balance between social gradations within the Spartiate class. The massive reallocation of property
and helots attendant upon a 45+ percent fall in the Spartiate population must have been
quite uneven in its incidence. Some of those unlucky in the deaths of their kinsfolk
became lucky in inheritance. Were there not families that suddenly found themselves
heirs to land and labor equivalent to three or four klēroi? If so, Sparta may have confronted for the first time non‐elite persons who possessed holdings approximating those
of members of its old aristocracy. Such persons might now have aspired to leading places.
Nonetheless, the Spartan economy appears to have stabilized. Thucydides vouches for
a mass of young men in 431 eager for war. Spartiate numbers had probably been growing,
and there was no sign of an inability either to extract sufficient rents from the klēros‐land
or to tender the required mess dues. We may date after the Thirty Years Peace (446/5)
an initiative Thucydides notes, ostensibly intended to reward helots who had aided
Sparta ‘in the wars’.52 Two thousand eventual honorees who made a circuit of Laconian
sanctuaries – presumably entering the damos and freed from their servile obligations –
were then secretly eliminated by the Spartans. Thucydides notes that the Spartans especially feared the neotēs (‘young of military age’) and plēthos (‘large number’) of the helots
(4.80.3). This affair indicates that the available helot labor force had again achieved a
satisfactory level. Eliminating workers by elevation, followed by assassination, seems
inexplicable if many Spartiates possessed non‐viable klēroi.
The Peloponnesian War, however, brought disastrous changes (Figueira (1986) 175–87).
There were naturally attritional casualties, possibly not replaced by maturing youths in
the war’s early years. Our first demographic conclusion depends on calculating the size
of basic military units (enōmotiai, ‘platoons’) during the Pylos campaign (425).53 A likely
size‐range for the enōmotia indicates a whole army smaller by 22–9 percent. This decline
had been restricted to the Spartiates, now 45 percent fewer and only 38–41 percent of
the army (50 percent at Plataia). This shows the lingering effects of the much earlier
earthquake and revolt. Population decline had necessitated a major army reorganization.
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
The mobilization for Pylos also allows a comparison with the Spartan army at Mantineia
(418). Yet the size and organization of Spartan forces there is a notorious crux because
Thucydides’ order of battle (5.68.2–3) appears to yield a smaller force than the circumstances and other evidence permit. Our solution is to double the size of the whole army
by inserting morai (‘regiments’) above Thucydides’ lokhoi (‘battalions’). Thus the
Spartans at Mantineia number 35 percent less overall than at Plataia and the Spartiates
58 percent fewer (considering the same ages). If one does not correct Thucydides, his
smaller Spartan army at Mantineia would mean that the continuing damages from earthquake and revolt amounted to c.71 percent of total Spartan manpower.
Even with Thucydides corrected, the reduction from Pylos to Mantineia was
significant at c.18–25 percent.54 This reconstruction does coincide with other evidence from Thucydides, who stressed the damage of Attic raids and Messenian forays
from Pylos, later from Kythera, and still later from Cape Malea.55 The strong Spartan
desire to achieve peace with Athens reflects this economic crisis.56 Beyond direct
damage to the productivity, the main effect of these raids was to draw off vigorous
helot workers, especially young men, indispensable for the workload of the klēros‐
system. So long as the traditional rents (for grain, at least, at the 50 percent rate) had
to be levied to pay for Spartiate mess dues, the klēros‐system did not have a large
safety margin (Figueira (1984a) 105–6). Mantineia also reveals another negative
trend, increasing dependence on the perioikoi: rising from 47–50 percent at Plataia
to 72 percent at Mantineia. Inasmuch as their conditions of service approximated the
Spartiates, perioikic infantrymen bore heavier burdens than hoplites in other poleis.
A higher proportion of perioikoi meant that some had to stand further forward in the
phalanx. As Sparta began to mobilize more year‐classes for more intense service,
perioikic hoplites had greater costs and dangers to bear without helot labor subsidizing them.
Aristotle notes how Spartiates lost their status on failure to pay their mess dues (Pol.
1271a26–37; 1272a13–16). Such disfranchised persons were termed hypomeiones (‘inferiors’).57 Disruption of agricultural production was the principal cause for such arrears in
mess contributions. The Spartiates appear adamant in their determination not to relax
these requirements. One cause was perhaps the tendency in servile economies to trace
problems with laborers to inadequacies of individual masters rather than to systemic
flaws in dependency. If that were operative at Sparta after Pylos, it would suggest how
far, under the influence of mid‐fifth‐century changes in land tenure, relations between
helots and the owners of klēroi had evolved beyond the depersonalized exploitation
described above. Second, our surviving sources are mute on what happened to the helots
of persons losing mess membership and Spartiate status. Hypomeiones probably did not
retain their helots, because that would breach the monopoly of the Homoioi, earned by
martial aretē, over benefits from land and laborers. If their klēros‐land and helots passed
to their heirs, one can envisage why the less vulnerable disregarded the plight of the
downwardly mobile. Those sympathetic would presumably have intervened to help
tender mess dues of their kindred and friends before the crisis of default, so that those
falling into arrears had already lost the safety net offered by others. Furthermore, Sparta
began to use liberated helots as hoplites during the Archidamian War, not only to supplement manpower, but also as surrogates for citizens whom it preferred not to risk
overseas.58 Thus, for each Hypomeiōn there were potential Neodamōdeis, as manumitted
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ex‐helot soldiers were eventually called, no matter whether these soldiers were enrolled
from helots released by Hypomeiones or from volunteers from their masters’ most
devoted, strongest dependents, who were replaced by the helots of degraded Spartiates.
Some such hypothesis is required to explain how Sparta in the 420s could be short of
helot workers and yet at the same time be enlisting helots as soldiers.59
Hypomeiones were potentially a dangerous component of the community, as illustrated
by the conspiracy in c.399 of Kinadon, a Hypomeiōn of considerable ability who continued
to serve the state after his degradation (Xen. Hell. 3.3.4–11). The Hypomeiones were
probably ranked lower than perioikoi as second‐class citizens, since the latter preserved
rights in their communities, but the Hypomeiones could serve militarily, perhaps for
compensation. Unknown is the scale of Kinadon’s plot, which was uncovered by an
informant in Kinadon’s recruiting efforts.60 Clearly he hoped to establish a political order
with full participation by a wider circle than the Spartiates and with improved status for
the helots, whom he expected to assist him.
Another controversy involves the rhētra (‘law’) of the ephor Epitadeus, a legislative act
that supposedly freed Spartans from restrictions in alienation and bequest of property.61
Some consider it a fabrication (being in my view too skeptical).62 Plutarch mentions the
rhētra as a cause for the social crisis prevailing (244–42) during the reign of a reforming
Hellenistic king, Agis IV. Plutarch derived his treatment from a Hellenistic politeia of
Sparta, perhaps that of the Stoic Sphairos.63 Epitadeus’ proposal is accorded a selfish
motivation, estrangement from his son, and Plutarch correlated the rhētra with an
upsurge in self‐interested behavior, including intensified competition for status
differentiation. A ‘single‐heir’ system was supposedly discarded. Such lack of fidelity
toward traditional mores and self‐aggrandizement brought Sparta down. In the naive
view that the causes of Spartan decline ran current with their most dramatic manifestations, some scholars date the rhētra to the fourth century. Yet a fourth‐century rhētra
cannot explain the problems of disfranchisements and of accelerating inequality in late‐
fifth‐century Sparta.
The only Epitadas (the Laconian variant of Epitadeus) known is a Spartan commander
who fell at Pylos in 424.64 Yet a personalized explanation for the rhētra fails to account
for its passage. Fathers disowning sons can never have been a substantial factor in the
crisis. The ‘single‐heir’ system of succession was a fantasy. It could only have been a dangerous aspiration – if applied, a chief result could have been a lowered birthrate – and
never a genuine recollection of past ‘family planning’. Rather than precipitating the
decline of the klēros‐system and the Lykourgan order, the rhētra of Epitadeus was probably meant as a remedy to early manifestations of inequality of property in the generation
before Pylos. The rhētra served to free Spartiates to deploy their assets so as to ensure
the status of all of those in affinity with them by managing division of inheritances, by
dowering, or by gift giving. The practice of mentoring of poorer citizens as mothōnes also
occurred in this period.65
The size of dowries may already have been perceived as problematic, as Aristotle would
later note (Pol. 1270a24–6). The social competition expressed by increasing dowries was
the result of contention for the most elite husbands by upwardly mobile Spartiates, who
benefited from the huge shift of assets after the earthquake (c.465) and ensuing rebellion. Not only was the rhētra of Epitadeus a failure as a reform, but it may also have
sharpened the emergent contention for upward mobility by putting more utensils in the
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
toolkit of the ambitious (Figueira (1986) 193–5). Such aspirations toward upward
mobility were out of harmony with the rigidity of the klēros‐system.
The Peace of Nikias (421) and the shift of Athenian energies elsewhere, first in offense
to Sicily and then defensively in the Aegean, superficially brought respite to Sparta. The
army mobilized at the Battle of the Nemea River in 394 retrospectively illuminates
Spartan losses after 421 (Figueira (1986) 199–206). That force indicates a 12 percent
decline in Spartan numbers, a substantial reduction but one reflecting a slowing of the
damage to the Spartan economy as Athens also weakened. The early fourth century saw
intense military activity in the Greek homeland, so that many indications exist of deployments that illuminate the size of various units and their battle order. A major reorganization halved the number of enōmotiai, basic units, from 192 to 96 (Figueira (1986)
200–1), because Spartan numbers were inadequate for manning the larger number and
carrying out a full range of tactical dispositions. The reorganization and preserved evidence on the size of Spartan morai (‘regiments’) are consistent with a period of stability
followed by accelerated decline owed to fourth‐century attrition. The Messenians – the
liberated helots and their descendants – suffered a corresponding disaster, since they
were uprooted not only from the Athenian‐controlled enclaves in Lakōnikē, but even
from Naupaktos, a haven since 455. They were scattered around Greece, with some
withdrawing to Sicily.
The account by Xenophon of Spartan forces at Leuktra (371) is particularly valuable
for containing an enumeration of the total forces and of the Spartiates in the four morai
present.66 The twenty‐three years since the Nemea River marked another major decline
in Spartan numbers, 36 percent since 394. The years after Mantineia (418) reveal a
Spartiate decline of an astounding 58 percent. This reduction necessitated that five more
age‐classes were regularly mobilized. It turned the army into a force largely composed of
perioikoi (about 70 percent), although the soldiers from the perioikoi were themselves
much fewer, dropping 37 percent between Mantineia and Leuktra.67 Manifestly, the early
fourth century witnessed a continuation of Spartiate degradations, presumably through
the widespread failure to tender mess dues. To achieve stability Spartiates not only
needed to produce enough male offspring to replace themselves, but also to match that
next generation with a sufficient supply of two inputs, land and helot workers, that
themselves had to balance each other. And this goal had to be achieved without an
administrative superstructure and without the application of management techniques.
Attrition from continual fighting played its role in the absence of any single disaster.
Yet the acceleration of decline exhibits another demographic trend. The rate of Spartiate
decline increases c.390 at just the point at which the proportion of men born after 424
exceeded 50 percent of all males of an age for service. Thus Spartan family limitation
probably factored alongside casualties and loss of citizenship (Figueira (1986) 203–4;
(2003b) 224–7). Spartan parents may have feared for their sons’ prospects in a Lakōnikē
under Attic pressure. Whether deliberately or instinctively, they reacted by applying the
‘single heir’ rule, of which the result was a population incapable of replacing itself. Any
cushion that was provided by money and precious metals accumulated during the Ionian
and Corinthian Wars would now have been exhausted. Simultaneously, the Spartans
were using perioikoi more intensively, exposing them to greater mortality and damaging
them economically. Naval war with Athens also affected the perioikoi since they suffered
losses as trireme crews and marines. Population loss almost always means output loss in
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ancient poleis. The shrinkage of perioikic economies inevitably harmed even the more
affluent of those bearing hoplite duties. Moreover, some helots were freed and elevated
in status for naval service (Myron FGrH 106 F 1).
Leuktra was a battlefield manifestation of the manpower shortage that was affecting
Lakōnikē (oliganthro ̄pia: Aris. Pol. 1270a34; cf. Xen. Lak. Pol. 1.1) and included its servile population. Our only datum on helot numbers is the 35,000 helots marched off to
Plataia over a century earlier. In light of continuous reductions during the next hundred
years through earthquake, revolt, withdrawal, flight, battle losses, and enfranchisements,
the helots probably never again approached their acme of 479–65. The Theban general
Epameinondas prevailed against a smaller Spartiate contingent in a smaller Spartan army
at Leuktra (371), and would hardly have won at all or, at least not decisively, against the
Spartans of Mantineia (418), let alone Plataia (479). So too his establishment of Messene
would have had to surmount the resistance of many more Spartans, and he would have
been challenged to integrate a larger indigenous population of liberated helots; instead
Laconia seemed ‘deserted’ at the time of the first Theban invasion (Xen. Hell. 6.5.23, 25).
Some Messenian helots and perioikoi rallied to refounded Messene, but Epameinondas
gathered ‘Messenians’ and ordinary volunteers from abroad.68
By the time of Leuktra, the natural, barter‐based economy of archaic and early classical
Lakōnikē lingered as nothing more than an ideological fiction. The Spartans managed
logistics in Aiginetic coins that had even infiltrated the mess dues. Sparta had administered the costly Ionian War in monetary terms, largely Attic owls and associated coins of
Attic allies (Figueira (1998) 469–76). After victory, the Spartans decided to maintain a
state treasury for hegemonic purposes.69 The notorious avarice exhibited by Spartan
commanders and harmosts abroad was associated by observers such as Xenophon with
the breakdown of the traditional ‘Lykourgan’ diaita, the self‐denying and egalitarian
pattern of consumption fostered by the traditional mess system (Xen. Lak. Pol. 14.1–7).
Yet acquisitiveness overseas was a logical response to the uncertainties of the domestic
servile economy, where inequalities of land holding and access to laborers could be complicated by helot flight and noncompliance (Figueira (1986) 202). Spartiates were barred
from licitly accumulating income by gainful activities within Lakōnikē, and were practically unable to work to supplement the production of their klēros‐land. Reserves of
coined money provided status insurance for themselves, sons, relatives, and friends. The
reference by Theopompos (FGrH 115 F 178) to a xenēlasia in the 340 s serving to
remedy a crop failure demonstrates that a single market for foodstuffs had replaced the
old politicized distributive system (Figueira (2003a) 68–70). Spartiates were using coins
and other goods in an informal or ‘black’ economy, to cope with mess dues which were
largely expressed in agricultural measures.
Leuktra imposed heavy casualties70 and opened the path for the Thebans to attack
Laconia, maul the klēros‐system, and liberate many Messenian helots. Paradoxically,
however, this catastrophe did not signify an immediate decline in manpower. The
economic impact of an independent Messenian state lay not in further curtailment in
Spartiate numbers, but rather in setting a ceiling for any demographic recovery (Figueira
(1986) 207–10). The immediate reduction in Spartan forces after Leuktra was around
10 percent, and Sparta appears to have recouped in available troops in the next few years.
This demographic resilience may be owed to the existence of many Hypomeiones, who
continued to reside in Lakōnikē. With the loss of many Spartiates at Leuktra, these
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
‘Inferiors’ regained sufficient land to resume payment of mess dues and recover active
citizenship. The components of the Spartan army facing Thebans and Arkadians in the
years down to Second Mantineia (362) are not well attested. Yet Sparta apparently
mounted forces comparable to its pre‐Leuktra mobilizations. Sparta settled into the role
of a secondary power after Mantineia, and focused on maintaining its boundaries with
Argos, Arkadia, and Messene. Its overarching aspiration was to recover Messenian klēros‐
land. Reoccupying central Messenia, an enormous enterprise, would not, however, have
permitted reinstallation of thousands of klēroi there, as fourth‐century conditions would
not have provided an appreciable mass of laborers. The great reservoir of helot labor of
archaic and early classical Sparta was irrecoverable.
The mid‐fourth century provides a backdrop for Aristotle’s negative remarks in the
Politics. His criticism of the conditions of land tenure and arrangements for subsidizing
the messes (where he contrasts the Cretan practice of drawing on public revenues) misses
how the traditional system had integrated the agōgē, rents, mess dues, and redistribution
(1270a15–39, 1271a26–37). Yet his critique was surely valid for the fourth‐century
messes, where loss of civil rights accompanied an invidious game of upward mobility for
the survivors amid intensifying inequality. Aristotle criticized the laxness of rules
controlling the alienation of property. He does not reflect that contemporary arrangements were probably designed, albeit unsuccessfully, to compensate for the unevenness
both in access to and control of klēros‐land and in the supply of helot workers.
Disequilibrium emerged when the archaic agrarian regime was unbalanced by the Great
Earthquake (c.465).
Aristotle cites the scale of dowries and competition for heiresses, observing that
40 percent of Spartiate property was in women’s hands. He stressed the oliganthrōpia
(‘shortage of manpower’) of a state with vast arable lands which he thought capable of
supporting 1,500 cavalry and 30,000 hoplites, but which in his day sustained a tiny
population of less than 1,000 citizens (1270a29–31) (cf. Cawkwell (1983)). Certainly,
high fourth‐century mortality in battle was a factor here. It generated many female
inheritors in high demand by suitors. Nonetheless, it is also conceivable that other factors
promoted a movement of property into women’s hands. Except for the mess dues, no
evidence survives on the mechanisms by which the Spartan government assigned taxes
and liturgies based on agricultural production. Some advantage for female property
holders may well have existed.71 Women did not pay mess dues, so that they did not risk
loss of citizenship over arrears. If helots were stripped from those dropping out of the
messes, women could have safely preserved their holdings. Aristotle puts much blame on
Spartan women for the decline of Lykourgan austerity. In terms of our reconstruction,
they were important agents in the sharpening drive for upward mobility that started in
the mid‐fifth century. The tools for this competition probably included family limitation,
amassing and pursuing large dowries, and marriage politics.
The later fourth century saw Sparta continue on its downward spiral. Its kings adopted
the pretensions of Hellenistic monarchy; they presided, with a small elite, over a
community comprising various strata of the disfranchised, including helots. Only seven
hundred adult male citizens remained, of whom only one hundred eventually possessed
a klēros by the period of Agis IV (Plut. Agis 5.4). That meant sufficient land and
helots to contribute traditional mess dues. The traditional syssitia no longer operated,
and their Hellenistic counterparts were mechanisms by which the elite patronized the
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impoverished damos with subsidies (Phylarchos FGrH 81 F 43) (Figueira 2004b.57–59).
Each ephor may have presided over one of a handful of large messes. There is some evidence that the kings exercised special control of the helots, whom they could grant to
foreign allies for the cultivation of gift estates (Stephanos, fr. 1, PCG 8.614–15). This
was the situation in the 240s when Agis IV was contemplating his reforms (Marasco
(1981/83) 1.211–16).
22.6 Conclusion
The Spartan sociopolitical dispensation has wielded enormous influence over western
ideas on constructing a just social order. Despite our admiration for Spartan accomplishments, it is probably fairer to judge this influence a pernicious legacy, deserving a
place alongside chattel slavery. One needs, however, to transcend a ready, if justified,
condemnation of Spartan cruelty toward, and exploitation of, the helots to appreciate
this fully. In the late seventh century, the Spartans created an innovative polity that dealt
with prevailing tensions over the social and political predominance of an inherited aristocracy, over how far different social groups might vary in their lifestyles, and over the
legitimacy or even feasibility of social mobility. Their response was to suppress
differentiation, re‐stage mobility in the circumscribed social spaces of the agōgē, messes,
and army, and politicize acquisition and consumption. The Spartans integrated their
body politic by reducing material life to formulae of extraction and redistribution.
Klēroi were allotted and reallocated, rents collected from the helots, contributions paid
into syssitia, and surplus food either circulated from the messes or were used to barter
in a vast exercise in suppressing manifestations of individualistic and opportunistic
behavior. Through the creation of the Peloponnesian League, this system was progressively insulated politically from more differentiated, less static societies emerging elsewhere, and isolated economically through prohibition of precious metals, iron money,
and the recourse to xenēlasia (‘expulsion of foreigners’). When Sparta was crowned
with an unlikely total victory over Athens in 404, the stage was set for its empire in
political theory. That hegemony over theory distorted contemporary political options
and tainted recollection of archaic social integration. It lasted much longer than the
military hegemony won at Aigospotamoi in 405, for it appeared to have conquered not
only the Athenians, but homo oeconomicus himself.
Helotage inspired Plato and Aristotle to favor polities with caste‐like divisions, between those fulfilling merely economic roles and the military and political segments of
society. Theorists were accordingly less welcoming of the market economy, economic
differentiation and integration, democracy, and more individually‐centered visions of
civic life. Furthermore, theorists could promote their more truly communistic systems by
adducing the communally mediated flows of material goods in Lakōnikē, the public‐spiritedness of the earlier Spartans, and the principle of interchangeability in which any
citizen could be replaced by his fellow. Such hints fell on fertile soil among modern
thinkers. Naturally, the technological and social circumstances differed so radically between Sparta’s politicized economy and Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist command economies that the real relevance of ancient Sparta to these modern totalitarian regimes may
be slight. Sparta does, however, provide some important parallels in its defiance of
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
market forces and its masking of incentives toward more efficient uses of resources.
Finally, it is in the politicization of Spartan life and not in ‘communism’ per se that the
grounds to explore such convergences may be found.
A careful reading of Spartan demographic history indicates that the injuries dealt
Sparta in the 420s by Athenian military activity, coming as they did only a generation
after the shocks of the earthquake and helot revolt, mortally wounded this political
economy. The process of disfranchisement amid intense conflict was promoted by a reignited struggle for upward mobility. Modest initiatives toward liberalization of the
Spartiate oikonomia, however intended, such as the rhētra of Epitadeus, were bound to
fail as half‐measures because they adjusted a thoroughly politicized economy only at its
margins. Sparta was unlucky in having Athens as adversary, because any opening toward
reform threatened a plunge toward a democratic, money‐based society. Disfranchisement
worsened the oliganthrōpia that rendered Sparta incapable of sustaining hegemonic
ambitions. That the Athenians failed to discern the extent of the wounds they had dealt
and subsequently embarked on foreign policy adventures (not only profoundly risky, but
also extraordinarily unlucky) qualifies as one of history’s great ironies.
However, it must stand alongside another irony that the final assessment of helotage charts its impact most clearly on the Spartiates, not on the helots themselves.
That historiographical displacement is a product of the exploitation that left them
nameless and largely unattested, save for the record of their victimization and the
inverted image of the Spartiate ethos that was imposed on them. Those helots who
found voice for themselves did so through an exercise in ethnogenesis as Messenians.
Those who achieved liberation from servility through elevation as Spartans are totally
‘Lykourgan’ Sparta was, nevertheless, a remarkable social experiment, albeit an outlier
in Greek institutionalization, and one that proved a dead end in terms of applied paradigm. Laconizers may well have paraded their adherence to Spartan values and behavior
and on the level of the individual such imitation had psychological relevance. But such
Laconism was a contradiction in terms, because true adaptation could only be enacted
on the polis level, and not on that of the individual politēs. One could never truly be individually Spartan. Moreover, the archaic Spartans would have had little in common in
spirit with the anti‐democratic partisans who were the most ardent supporters of classical
Sparta, such as the factionalists so vividly portrayed in Thucydides’ description of the
stasis on Kerkyra or the die‐hards among the followers of the Thirty Tyrants at Athens.
What common ground exists here would lie between those exploiting earthquake and
revolt to climb upward or the greedy harmosts and the allied extremists whom Lysandros
installed as decarchs.
1 Figueira (2004b) 47, 66 (n. 1). For those envisaging a Sparta that diverged from the institutions
of other city‐states, see, e.g., Manso (1800–5) 1.118–28; Toynbee (1969) 201–2, 223–5, 230–3,
301–9. For those who emphasize Spartan convergences with other poleis, see, e.g., Grote
(1872) 2.310–36; Hodkinson (2000) 187–208.
2 See Figueira (2004a) and Figueira (2016), also see below.
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3 For brief overview, see de Ste. Croix (1972) 89–95. Ducat (1990) represents the most thorough
4 This massacre is often dated in the 420s: e.g., Harvey (2004) 200–2; for the period 451–47:
Figueira (1986) 186; (2003b) 224–5.
5 For Sparta: Huxley (1962) 13–25; Kiechle (1963) 95–115.
6 See Ducat (this volume, Chapter 23).
7 E.g., Finley (1973) 63–4; Austin and Vidal‐Naquet (1977) 86–90; Wiedemann (1981) 36–44.
8Antiochos FGrH 555 F 14; Hellanikos FGrH 4 F 188 = 323a F 29; Ephoros FGrH 70 F 117;
Theopompos FGrH 115 F 13, cf. F 122a; cf. Paus. 3.20.6; ΣPlato Alkib. I.122d; EM s.v.
Eἵλωτες 300.7–15 Gaisford.
9 See, e.g., Chrimes (1949) 284–5; Huxley (1962) 75; Ducat (1990) 7–18; Cartledge 2002, 83–4.
10 Xenia ‘guest/gift friendship’ was the characteristic form of Dark Age/Early Archaic (850–600)
inter‐community relations that were mediated through inherited friendships among elite
males who visited or hosted each other and exchanged gifts as tokens of mutual honor.
11 E.g., Chrimes (1949) 285–7; Toynbee (1969) 199, cf. 210, 223–4; Hodkinson (1986) 388–89;
Nafissi (1991) 99–108.
12From spartós ‘sown’, but with a change in accent. Compare the Spartoí (‘sown men’) who are
known from Theban mythology as the aristocratic lineages arising from the earthborn men
who grew from the dragon’s teeth sown by the founding hero Kadmos. The myth supported
a claim of autochthonous or indigenous status for elite Thebans.
13Sosibios FGrH 595 F13 with Paus. 3.10.6, 3.15–2–9, 3.19.7; cf. 2.2.2, 3.26.6, 5.3.1,
Apollod. Biblio. 2.7.3–4. Spartan kingship, however, was also legitimized from the pre‐
Dorian Atreidai as shown by the cult in the Menelaion.
14 That the non‐royal Heraklid Lysandros tried to open the kingship to all Heraklids (in one version), supporting himself on both traditional and fabricated oracular material, indicates that
this elevation of the royal houses did not appear unassailable, even as late as the early fourth
century (Plut. Lys. 24.4–26.4, 30.3–4, with Ephoros FGrH 70 F 207; cf. Plut. Ages. 8.3).
15 Cf. Lukermann and Moody (1978) 92–5; McDonald and Coulson (1983) 326; Spencer (1998).
16 Figueira (1999) 225–9.
17 Hdt. 6.23.2–24; Thuc. 6.4.6; Strabo 6.1.6 C257; Paus. 4.23.6–10. See Luraghi 2008, 147–72.
18 In general, see Kahrstedt (1919); Buckler (1977); Cozzoli (1979); Ducat (1983); Cartledge
(1987) 166–74; (2002), 142–5; Papazoglou (1993); Lazenby (1995).
19 Figueira (2015); with (1991) 57–62, 73–4; (2008) 440–2.
20 Direct evidence is admittedly late archaic or classical, but does encompass not only democratic
Athenians (e.g., Thuc. 3.50.2), but also oligarchic Corinthians (Thuc. 1.27.1–2, 29.1) and
the Spartans themselves (Thuc. 3.92.4–5, 93.2; Diod. Sic. 12.59.3–5).
21 Polyb. 6.45.3–4, based on Ephoros (FGrH 70 F 148); cf. Just. 3.3.3.
22 Figueira (1984a) 100–2; (2003b) 199–201; cf. Hodkinson (2000) 131–45; Catling (2002)
161–3, 193–5.
23 We should not forget that Aristotle in his Politics offers a different understanding of Spartan
land tenure. Its relation to the rest of the source material and how it enhances our treatment
is discussed later in this chapter.
24 Isok. 12.255 with Figueira (1986) 170, (2003b) 223.
25 Figueira (2004b) 62–3. See also Ducat (1983) 145, 151; Hodkinson (2000) 74–81.
26 Plut. Mor. 238E (cf. Lyk. 16.1), which is derived from a constitutional work on Sparta (possibly
that of the Stoic Sphairos) and ultimately descends from the work of Aristotle on the Spartan
constitution. See Figueira (2004b) 51–2, 55–6. While passage of the agōgē constituted a
requirement for klēros possession, Plut. Lyk. 16.1 places the initial allocation of the klēroi in
27 Figueira (2004b) 63–4. See also Hodkinson (2000) 400–5.
Helotage and the Spartan Economy
28 I emphasize that the vulnerability of the system to disruption, as much as the threat of outright
revolt, caused the famous Spartan anxiety over the helots. See Thuc. 4.80.2–4; Kritias fr. 37
DK; Plato Laws 698E; Aris. Pol. 1269a37–b5. Cf. Roobaert (1977); Baltrusch (2001).
29 Whether these measures are Attic or Laconian is uncertain (Figueira (2003b) 201–2).
30 Cf. Figueira (2003b) 216–220.
31 See Figueira (2003b) 219. Cf. Hunt (1997); van Wees (2004) 181–2, for the view that the
helot muster did have military value.
32 For Messenia, see McDonald and Hope Simpson (1972) 144–5, maps 8–15–17; for possible traces
of the evolution at Kelephina, see Catling (2002) 168, 249, with Cavanagh et al. (1996) 285.
33 Or to be more specific, a helot could not amass such resources before the third century, when
Sparta had a monetary economy, as illustrated by the 6,000 helots prepared to pay 500
drachmas (a considerable sum) for their freedom in 223.
34 Hodkinson (1986). Cf. Figueira (2002b).
35 In addition to the authorities of n.18 above, note Ducat (1990) 61–2; Singor (1993) 45–6.
36 Crete: Aris. Pol. 1272a16–21; Dosiadas FGrH 458 F 2; Tiryns: Verdelis et al. (1975). See
Figueira (1984a) 97–8.
37 Figueira (1984a) 91–5 suggests that annual mess dues were equivalent in value to 1278–1478 kg.
of wheat. Figueira (2003b) 217 offers even higher estimates (up to 2880 kg. of wheat).
38 Kritias fr. 6W, FHG 2.68, fr. 2; Xen. Lak. Pol. 5.4, 7; Plut. Lyk. 12.14.
39Plut. Lyk. 28.8–9; Demetr. 1.5; Mor. 239A. Cf. Ducat (1974) 1455–8.
40 Figueira (1984a) 96–7; (2003b) 207–10.
41 Figueira (1984a) 103–4; Hodkinson (1992).
42 Other treatments: Busolt (1905); Ziehen (1933); Toynbee (1969); Lazenby (1985).
43 Cavanagh et al. (1996) 321–3; Catling (2002) 168–9, 183.
44 Hdt. 6.120; cf. Isok. 4.87. See Figueira (1986) 169.
45 Hdt. 7.202, 205.2 with Figueira (2006) 61–2.
46 Figueira (2003b) 217–20; cf. Grundy (1908) 81; Cartledge (1987) 174; Talbert (1989) 23.
47 The archaeological evidence is not sufficiently detailed to confirm the population figures implied
by Herodotos for Plataia (Hdt. 9.10.1, 11.3, 28.2; cf. 7.103.3: 5,000 Spartiates, 5,000 perioikoi, 35,000 helots), but the conclusions of Catling (2002) 206–7 note the classical falloff in
population in the Laconia survey area (cf. pp. 249–50 for changes at Chrysapha).
48 Figueira (1999) 225–32; cf. Figueira (2010). See also Alcock (1999); Luraghi (2001) 293–301;
Luraghi (2008) 173–208. On the Messenian folk hero Aristomenes, see Ogden (2004).
49 Luraghi (2008) disputes this view, but note Figueira (1999) 211–13; Figueira (2010).
50 See Figueira (1986) 177–9, 181–7; Hodkinson (2000) 417–23.
51Aris. apud Herakleides Lembos fr. 12 (Dilts); Plut. Mor. 238E; cf. Myron FGrH 106 F2. Cf.
Lazenby (1995); Lupi (2003).
52 Thuc. 4.80.3–4; cf. Plut. Lyk. 28.6; Diod. Sic. 12.67.3–4. See Figueira (1986) 186.
53 The critical assumption (widely accepted) is that the garrison at Sphakteria (420) was formed from
one enōmotia (of 35) from each of 12 lokhoi. See Figueira (1986) 175–7, with full bibliography
including Chrimes (1949) 388–91; Toynbee (1969) 319, 368–77; Lazenby (1985) 114.
54 The maximum number for the Spartiates at Pylos appears to be c.2755 and the Spartiate force
at Mantineia (with Thucydides’ number of lokhoi doubled!) fell within a range c.2086–2251.
55 Thuc. 4.41.2–3, 6.1–2; 5.14.3, 56.2–3. See Powell (2001) 234–6.
56 Thuc. 4.81.2, cf. 4.108.7; 4.117.1–2, cf. 5.15.1–2; 4.119.9–10; 5.7–11, cf. 5.13.2; 5.14.3–4,
cf. 5.15.1, 17.1.
57Xen. Hell. 3.3.6, 11; cf. Thuc. 5.34.2; also 4.41.3, 55.1.
58 Thuc. 5.34.1; also Xen. Hell. 3.3.6; Hesych. s.v. δαμώδεις; νεοδαμώδεις; ΣThuc.5.34.1; Poll. 3.83;
Myron FGrH 106 F 1; Dio Chrys. 36.38. Previously helots were employed as hoplite attendants or
as light skirmishers, as at Sepeia (492) or Plataia (479). In general, see Welwei (1974) 142–58.
Thomas Figueira
59 It is unlikely that the massacre of helots described in Thuc. 4.80. 2–4 belongs in the 420s,
despite Thucydides’ mentioning it while discussing Spartan reactions to Pylos. See Figueira
(1986) 186. For recent discussions, see Harvey 2004; Paradiso 2004.
60 Powell (2010) 117–21 sees the plot as a ploy by King Agesilaos to augment his authority, but
Powell rightly points out to me that such a hypothesis would add credibility to the background
details, which must have been fabricated for their plausibility.
61Plut. Agis 5.3. See Figueira (2004b) 50–1.
62 Contrast Ducat (1983) 159; Cartledge (1987) 167–9; Schütrumpf (1987); Hodkinson
(2000) 93–4 with Toynbee (1969) 337–43; Christien (1974).
63 Figueira (2004a) 151–2; Figueira (2016) 28–9.
64 Thuc. 4.8.9, 31.2, 33.1, 38.1.
65Plut. Lys. 2.1–2; Ael. VH 12.43; Phylarchos FGrH 81 F 43; cf. Isok. 4.111.
66Xen. Hell. 6.4.12–15. Figueira (1986) 206–7.
67 Figueira (1986) 198–9; for later declines pp. 204–5.
68 Diod. Sic. 16.66.1, 3; Paus. 4.27.4–11, with Figueira (1999) 219–21; Luraghi (2008)
69Plut. Lys. 17.5–6 with Ephoros FGrH 70 F 205; Theopompos FGrH 115 F332. See Figueira
(2002a) 141–3.
70Xen. Hell. 6.4.15: 400 Spartiates dead out of 700 present (perhaps c.1,333 for Spartiates 20+)
and 400 other Spartans. Diod. Sic. 15.56.4 has 4000 dead. See Figueira (1986) 206–8.
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For a basic view on the helots (and on fifth‐century Sparta), consider the discussion in G.E.M. de
Ste. Croix, (1972), The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, London. The most systematic treatment
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N. Luraghi and S. Alcock, eds (2003), Helots and their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories,
Ideologies, Structures. Washington, DC. On the roots of helotage, consider S. Link, ‘Snatching and
Keeping. The Motif of Taking in Spartan Culture’ in Figueira, ed., Spartan Society, 2004, Swansea,
1–24. Paul Cartledge is the leading contemporary Anglophone student of Sparta: his Sparta and
Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 bc2. 1st edn (1979), 2nd edn (2002), London and New
York, is an important overview, and his (1987), Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, London, is a
detailed discussion of classical Sparta. I note three of my works on economics: (1984) ‘Mess
Contributions and Subsistence at Sparta’, TAPA 114, 84–109; (1986) ‘Population Patterns in
Late Archaic and Classical Sparta’, TAPA 116, 165–213; (2004) ‘The Nature of the Spartan
Klēros’, in Figueira, ed., Spartan Society, Swansea, 47–76. A reconstruction along different principles is provided in S. Hodkinson (2000), Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, Swansea and
London. On the helot creation of a Messenian identity, see Figueira (1999), ‘The Evolution of
the Messenian Identity’, in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, eds, Sparta: New Perspectives, Swansea,
211–44; N. Luraghi (2008), The Ancient Messenians: Constructions of Ethnicity and Memory,
Cambridge, MA. For the helots, Spartan religion, and state security: A. Powell (2010),
‘Divination, Royalty and Insecurity in Classical Sparta’, in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, eds
(2010), Sparta: The Body Politic, Swansea, 85–135.
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