Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sparta’s Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society

The common view of Sparta is of a society divided between the wealthy, politically privileged (albeit underfed, cowed yet brutal etc. etc.) Spartiates, and the oppressed, helpless, despised helots. As I have noted in earlier entries, this ignores the vitally important role of perioikoi, but today I wish focus on helot society, particularly the fact that it too was highly differentiated. Not all helots were equal – nor equally miserable.

Historical sources make reference to helots in a variety of positions. First and foremost, of course, the helots worked the land. But helots also played a – singularly undefined – role in the Spartan army. Helots accompanied the Spartan army to Plataea, for example, and they were ordered to set fire to the sacred wood after the battle of Sepeia. These army helots appear to be a collective body under the command of the king, not the individual attendants of Spartan rankers. 

However, each Spartan hoplite apparently also had a helot body servant to look after his kit and help him arm. We hear too of “Lacedaemonian” wet-nurses being highly valued, and finding service as far away as Athens, where such a nurse allegedly breast-fed the ultimate Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades. While not explicitly a helot, it is hard to imagine a Spartiate or even perioikoi woman taking a position that was usually held by a chattel slave. 

The same is even more true of hereditary “town-criers, flute-players and cooks” listed by Herodotus (The Histories:6:60). Because all these functions were important to the army, I have argued elsewhere that they were not despised professions, but it is unclear whether the jobs were filled by perioikoi or helots; either interpretation is possible. Last but not least, although not explicitly mentioned, implicit in a highly civilized society with a very tiny elite such as Sparta, were people doing all the menial tasks necessary to keep a developed but still non-mechanized society functioning. In short, helots most likely did all those tasks done by chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world. Someone in Lacedaemon built roads, dug ditches, cleaned latrines, quarried stones and extracted ore from mines etc., and I think it is safe to assume that these jobs were done by helots.

As we look closer at helot society, let’s remember that rural helots retained a substantial fixed portion (probably 50%) of the produce of that land they worked. Allegedly, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  As long as there is only one male heir to each tenant, such a system is more or less sustainable indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, human demographics do not produce perfect replacement and even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England) families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs rapidly reduces a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.

Stephen Hodkiinson in his excellent study Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000) traces the impact of inherence laws on the concentration of wealth in Spartiate society, but helots were not land-owners and could not buy or sell land. Rather, they were transferred with the land from one Spartiate owner to another.  Still, the ancient historians tell us that some helots were wealthy enough by the end of the 5th century to buy their freedom. In short, the accumulation of wealth – albeit not land – was clearly possible even in helot society. Some helots were definitely richer than others. But how?

The key to understanding this is again demographics.  Unlike chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, helots had family units.  In consequence, the sexual relations and off-spring of helots were not controlled by their masters for their own purposes, but developed more naturally.  In Athens and elsewhere, the off-spring of slaves were unwanted extra mouths to feed (that also reduced the concentration and working life of a female slave) and so intercourse between slaves was prevented to the extent possible. The fact that it was not always possible to prevent slave women from getting pregnant would not have worried slave-owners unduly because in the ancient Greek world it was common to expose unwanted children – even of the children of citizens. The unwanted children of chattel slaves would therefore simply have been left to die. Athens did not suffer from a growing slave population, but could keep the slave population under control effectively by these methods and by selling off anyone who had become a burden or was unnecessary on the international market. Unwanted Athenians slaves, therefore, could end up in Persia, Egypt or Italy.

In Lacedaemon, in contrast, Spartiates could not sell helots outside of Lacedaemon, and more important helots lived in family units. As everywhere else on earth where families exist, fathers would have taken pride in at least their male off-spring.  Male children would have been nourished and raised to adulthood to the extent possible. Females would have received less attention, food and affection (if the evidence of societies across the globe is any guide), but enough girls would have survived to adulthood to ensure survival of the family. Barring catastrophes, populations grow over time. Thus we can hypothesize a growing helot population from the age of Lycurgus (whenever that was) to the classical period – that fateful age when the helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population many times over (though probably not more than serfs outnumbered noblemen in Medieval Europe, by the way.) This is an important dynamic that explains why the imbalance between Spartiate and helot populations was so much greater than the imbalance between the Athenian citizen and slave populations.

This simple demographic fact might also explain why helots, who could not acquire land as their Spartiate masters clearly did, would have effectively become poorer over the generations. After all, if all the descendants of the original helot tenant of a kleros were tied to the same plot of land, then a finite plot of land would have been required to sustain entire clans rather than just one nuclear family by the time two hundred years had passed. In short, each individual would have been much poorer than his ancestor.  And while there may have been a general tendency toward impoverishment, it was clearly not the fate of all helots or there would have been no wealthy helots able to buy their freedom, and no one doing all the other jobs noted above.

Instead it appears that some form of voluntary or involuntary primogeniture ensured that only one man had the status of “tenant-in-chief” on each kleros.  He might have many children and many sons, but he had only one “heir.” If there were no sons, then very likely a son-in-law became the “tenant-in-chief,” and if there were no surviving children at all, the kleros was “vacant” and the Spartan state had to find new tenants from a pool of available helots.

In the more common case of a man having more than one son, the non-heirs (most likely the younger sons) would have been “free” to pursue their fortune elsewhere.  As the property of the Lacedaemonian state, of course, helots could not leave Lacedaemon, but to my knowledge there is no reason to think they could not hire themselves out within the boundaries of Lacedaemon. 

Thus younger sons who were lucky or particularly clever might have been apprenticed to learn a craft scorned by the wealthier perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth. Meanwhile, young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have had the option of hiring out for wages to the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites, or worked directly for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers or bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government.  Helot girls unable to find husbands would, like the daughters of the poor in every society across the globe over the last three thousand years, have found work as nursemaids and housemaids, waiting on the women and children of those better off than themselves.

In other words, helot society was more complex than Spartiate society. On the land there would have been at least three classes of helots.  There would have been “tenants-in-chief” on the prosperous estates of wealthy (even royal) Spartiates, who retained a large portion of significant revenues from the fertile land. Such helots would probably have been able to build substantial dwellings and to hire household help and additional labor when necessary (harvest etc.) without dividing up the inheritance and so keeping it in tact.  They would probably have lived better than many free men in other societies. (A good example of this pattern is the wealthy serfs of southwest England who built houses hardly distinguishable from the manors of the gentry.)  At the same time there would have been helots on poor, run-down or marginal estates that -- like their Spartiate masters -- were constantly on the brink of failure. Very likely, Spartiate masters living in fear of losing their citizenship or barely able to make agoge fees were harsh masters, constantly trying to squeeze more from the kleros or looking for ways to cheat the helots out of their share.  Finally, at the bottom of rural society would have been the itinerant agricultural workers without homes of their own, who sold their labor by the day or hour,

But, as I pointed out above, helot society was not exclusively rural.  Here too there would have been different strata of helots living very different life-styles.  Many helots, younger sons and sons of landless fathers, who were unwilling or unable to learn a craft would have made a living as attendants to Spartiates or laborers for the Spartan state and army.  Such helots probably lived in barracks, on their employer’s estates, or in small rented rooms, and would have formed a kind of urban proletariat similar to poor craftsmen in Athens and elsewhere.  However, there would also have been skilled craftsmen with workshops and stores.  While some of these might have barely scraped by, living in miserable slums or dark attic rooms rented from their more prosperous neighbors, others – as anywhere on earth – would have had a talent for business and sales. Exceptional craftsmen would have been able to charge more for their goods or found other ways to make money. These would have been able to afford apprentices and even slaves of their own. The more they had, the easier it would be for them to accumulate wealth by investing and lending. Such men, like the privileged “tenants-in-chief” on the kleros, would have lived in comparative luxury and would later be in the position to buy their freedom.

In short, in addition to the oppressed, abused and miserable helots familiar to every student of Sparta, there were also large numbers of comparatively well-off helots, who enjoyed considerable freedom, a reasonable standard of living for their age, and were far from discontented with their lot in life.  These helots were what enabled the Spartan state to function so well throughout the archaic period. 

(This article was first published on this blog in May 2013.) 

Helots play a particularly prominent part in the second and third books of my Leonidas' Trilogy:

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Spartan Assembly

The Spartan Assembly is often portrayed as a body of dumb, possibly illiterate, automatons, a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Kings, Gerousia and ephors.  This view of the Spartan Assembly is based on constitutional provisions that appear to have restricted debate, the absence of secret ballots, and the assumption that Sparta’s notoriously obedient soldiers would “take orders” in the Assembly just as they did on the battlefield. 

However, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not automatons who wait for orders, but thinking, self-confident men who take the initiative and act without – or even against – orders if necessary.  Furthermore, the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea is a dramatic case in point demonstrating that Spartans didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield.  It further highlights the fact that commanders in the Spartan army did not command obedience:  Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Last but not least, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out act as advisors to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.

Second, the Assembly had real powers, officially more than the kings.  The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia, whenever vacancies in occurred in the latter due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation.  The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions such as Pausanius and Phoebidas.  Thus, despite the inability to introduce legislation and the public nature of the vote, the Spartan Assembly did exercise real power.

Most important, however, the Spartan Assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite is unlikely to have been docile. The men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world rose through the ranks of the army – and all had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Even if some citizens were indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there would have been ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority.  Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as is demonstrated by the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” = not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well!

What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment.  Sparta’s citizens were not docile or mindless pawns, but thinking and responsible citizens with a say in the policies of their city-state. The differences between Athenian and Spartan democracy were many, and both were imperfect from the modern standpoint, but the Spartan citizen’s individual status within his polity should not be denigrated. 

The Spartan Assembly plays a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Sparta's Navy

Modern Replica of a Trireme; part of the Hellenic Navy
No, this isn't an April Fools Joke. Sparta did have a navy. In fact, Sparta was a significant naval power in Archaic times. Indeed, although the Peloponnesian War is often seen as a conflict between a great sea-power (Athens) and a great land-power (Sparta), and in many history books disparaging remarks about Sparta’s “inability” to grasp the importance of sea-power can be found, Sparta ultimately defeated Athens at sea. Clearly, Sparta’s pride was her army, not her navy, and clearly the Athenians were the “lords of the sea” throughout the Classical period, but I think it worth noting that the clich├ęs about Sparta’s lack of maritime power are overdrawn.

Sparta, unlike Athens, was not dependent on the sea for its very existence. Because it was self-sustaining in food and other necessities from ore to wood, Sparta did not need to tradeBecause Sparta was not dependent on trade, it did not need to control the trade routes. It did need to control its bread-basket Messenia, but that could be done with its army.  Thus, far from being negligent or backward (as some commentators suggest), the fact that Sparta could deploy a fleet at all is rather surprising.

In fact, based on Herodotus, it is arguable that Sparta had a credible fleet before Athens did.  Sparta’s first attempt to depose Hippias entailed, we are told, sending an army by sea (5:63) It hardly seems likely that Sparta would have sent their own modest fleet, if they had been facing a major sea-power at the time. True enough, the force dispatched was defeated on land by Thessalian cavalry, but it managed to successfully land troops in Attica, something that seems astonishing if the Athenians had truly had command of the sea at the time.

When Aristagoras convinced the Athenians to aid his rebellion against Persia, we are told the Athenians sent 20 triremes. That is respectable, but not overwhelming considering islands like Chias and Naxos could deploy fleets 100 strong. Obviously, Athens might have consciously chosen not to send too many ships, yet it seems odd they would risk the wrath of Persia with only a token force. Twenty triremes probably represented a sizable portion of their available fleet.

More to the point, Themistocles is credited with having convinced the Athenians to build a navy. He would hardly have earned the reputation as “father” of the Athenian navy if Athens already had a substantial fleet.  If the Athenian navy was indeed built up from a modest, auxiliary component of Athens’ military forces to her pride and primary arm in the ten years between 490 and 480 BC, then it is less surprising than usually assumed that a Spartan, Eurybiades, was elected to command of the combined Greek fleets opposing Persia in 480.

At the time of Eurybiades’ appointment, Athens new fleet and most of her crews were completely untested. Sparta’s fleet may have been smaller and not notably successful, but apparently the allies felt it was more experienced than Athens.’  In fact, it is less odd that Sparta was given precedence over Athens than that Sparta was given precedence over Corinth.  Corinth had a substantially larger fighting fleet and is credited by naval historians with having evolved the trireme – not Athens.

Once Athens had won the battle of Salamis, however, Athens’ domination of the seas began.  The navy was an instrument well suited to Athens radical democracy because it gave poorer citizens a means of contributing directly to Athens military power. Radical democracy in turn gave Athens the manpower to man her fleet. Middle class Athenians could remain hoplites and the sons of the wealthy could form the cavalry, while the great magnates financed the construction and commanded the fleet.  But it was Athens' citizen crews that made her fleet so good. No trireme manned by slaves or mercenaries could be depended upon to row so fast or fight so hard.

And Sparta’s fleet? We know that Spartiates were appointed to command the fleet as navarchos.  Beyond that, to my knowledge the names of no Spartans who served at sea have been recorded.  On the contrary, Spartiates were required to serve in the army and did not man the fleet.  This means that the Spartan fleet must have been manned by either perioikoi or helots or both.

Helot crews would, of course, have been similar to slave crews – highly problematic as disloyalty or even mere disinterest could cost a battle. Does this explain the lackluster performance of the Spartan navy throughout most of the Peloponnesian wars?

Yet, helots would hardly have been capable of paying for the ships nor is it likely they would have been capable or entrusted with command aboard them. This suggests perioikoi most likely financed and commanded Sparta’s fleet.  This is yet another area in which the role of the perioikoi has been seriously overlooked. The fascination of ancient and modern observers with the unique live-style of the Spartiates themselves, and the alleged oppression of helots has resulted in serious academic neglect of an essential component of Lacedaemon’s success: the perioikoi.

The Spartan navy features in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

  Buy now!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sparta's Ephors: Citizens not Monsters

In the Hollywood film "300" the Ephors are depicted as monsters strangely determined to destroy Sparta. How five officials elected annually from among the citizens by the Assembly to enforce Sparta's laws should have been so corrupted is only one of the many mysteries of Hollywood. What follows is a short history of this uniquely Spartan institution.

The Ephors as depicted in "300"

The ephors, despite later importance, were not mentioned in the so-called Great Rhetra, which allegedly encapsulated Lycurgus’ constitutional reforms, nor did they appear in any of the surviving fragments of Tyrtaeus’ poetry.  Indeed, it appears that originally the ephors were little more than official servants of the kings, charged with executing the kings’ orders. In consequence, the ephors make no particular mark in history prior to the mid-sixth century.

By about 750 BC, however, the institution appears to have evolved somewhat farther. Each year, five citizens were elected by the Spartan Assembly to serve for one year and one year only. No one could be re-elected, so the composition of the ephorate was constantly (annually!) changing. It was not, therefore, a body "controlled" by any particular faction or even class. Yes, Sparta's most famous statesman and philosopher, Chilon, served as an ephor one year (and may have done much for the prestige of the institution), but we also know that some very poor and many obscure men also held the office.  The individual members of the ephorate were not particularly powerful either before or after their one year in office. 

Furthermore, because the ephors changed annually, the ephors as a body did not have a specific policy or even a consistent bias. A.H.M. Jones in his succinct book on Sparta (A.H.M. Jones, Sparta, Barnes and Noble, 1967) notes: "Roughly speaking the ephors represented the will of the majority. When feeling was strongly in one direction there would be continuity of policy. When opinion was equally divided, or fluctuated, the ephors reflected this instability. When a king like Agesilaus was carrying out a policy which all Spartans approved, the ephors gave him their full support. When a king like Achidamus was fighting the tide of public opinion, he would often be over-ruled or frustrated by the ephors." (p. 30) Nevertheless, as an institution, the ephors were very powerful.

The first recorded act of the ephors was when they forced a reluctant King Anaxandridas to take a second wife. This interference in the personal life of a king was justified by their concern over the future of the Agiad line and indirectly the Spartan Constitution. It was initiated because, according to Herodotus, the ephors were tasked with observing the heavens at regular intervals and interpreting the stars.  In other words, this first act of interference could be interpreted as more a religious than a political role, in that the ephors were simply interpreting the Will of the Gods, rather than acting in a constitutionally independent role.

In the centuries that followed, however, the ephors increasingly engaged in activities that are unashamedly political. By the late fifth century, the ephors could fine citizens -- even those elected to public office -- for misdemeanors and bring charges against them for more serious crimes.  The ephors also controlled relations with the perioikoi and helots (at some point initiating the practice of declaring war on the helots annually). The ephors drafted bills for presentation to the Assembly and set the agenda at Assembly meetings. They could summon the Assembly and presided at it.  The ephors decided (based on their estimate of the comparative volume of the shouted “ayes” and “nays,”) whether a motion had passed or not. Last but not least, they enforced the decisions taken at Assembly.

The ephors, furthermore, had diplomatic and military roles as well as political and administrative ones. Not only did they receive and dispatch ambassadors, they also named – and recalled – commanders such as Pausanias and Lysander.  They appointed the three hippagretai, who then each selected one hundred men from the citizens on active service (aged 21 – 30) to form the royal body guard.  After the Assembly voted for war, it was the ephors, who mobilized the troops.
Perhaps most important, two ephors accompanied whichever king commanded the Spartan army on campaign.  Thus, although the kings commanded absolute obedience while the Spartan army was outside of Lacedaemon, the ephors were expected to keep an eye on them and exercise their right to bring charges against the kings for any unconstitutional behavior on their return.  The mere presence of the ephors, therefore, acted as a curb on arbitrary and unlawful actions by the kings.  Last but not least, if a king was charged with a capital offense, the ephors sat in judgment of him along with the Gerousia.

The ephors as both representatives from the Assembly and executors of it's will were fundamentally a democratic institution. The power of these annually elected ordinary citizens exercised is an testiment to the degree to which the Spartan monarchy was a constitutional monarchy.

The Ephors play a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

  Buy now!