For many, the elite warriors that King Leonidas and company portray in 300 (2006) is the most striking and pervasive representation of Spartans readily available to a modern audience. Hollywood inevitably deviates from the ancient literary texts substantially, forgoing authenticity in favour of entertainment; as anyone that has read Homer’s Iliad and watched Troy (2004) will tell you.
The cinema predecessor of 300, The 300 Spartans (1962), may seem more historically accurate but both films are products of contemporary cinematic trends and commissioning motives. The love story underpinning the 1962 picture is one between Phylon (Spartan citizen) and Ellas (niece of Queen Gorgo) and their relationship takes not only much of the screen time but also becomes intertwined with decisive moments in the narrative.
Neither film, however, gives any real screen time, or indeed mention of, the social structure of ancient Sparta. Unless you count the undelineated workmen and basket carriers in the imagined Sparta of 300 or the “servant” that relays information from Queen Gorgo to King Leonidas in The 300 Spartans. Of course one could say that the film is not about the other social classes of Sparta but the Spartan military elite, or three hundred members thereof. However Spartan agricultural slaves ‘helots’ and the perioikoi (‘dwellers around’ in Ancient Greek) more than likely accompanied Leonidas and the numerous allies that fought at Thermopylae. Herodotus indicates in the early part of book eight of his Histories that many of the corpses on display (at the behest of Xerxes) on the battlefield were the corpses of helots, and thusly the numbers of dead were exaggerated. Diodorus Siculus also indicates in book eleven of his Historical Library that one thousand Lacedaemonians, among whom three hundred Spartiates, departed from Sparta to join with three thousand allies. Although Diodorus flourished much later (c. 60-30BC) he did use earlier sources, Herodotus was actually an infant when the battle occurred but he would have had arguably a better access during his lifetime to the ‘truth’, if we can ever get close to such a thing in ancient history. Despite the sources there seems to be an indication that helots and perioikoi may have fought at Thermopylae, as they did indeed at other battles, not to mention their place in the Spartan economy.
Sparta was situated in the Eurotas valley in the south eastern Peloponnesus, where the modern city of Sparti lays today. The south eastern quarter, roughly speaking, of the Peloponnesus was known as Laconia. Lacedaemonians (a term Diodorus uses for Leonidas’ contingent) could refer to citizens of Sparta or outside, and Lacedaemon was a more ancient term for the city itself. Invading Dorians (a loose term for the ethnic group or tribe in question, defining ethnic groups is more complex than the scope of this article) migrated into Laconia from the north due to unknown pressures in their homeland; these Dorians became the Spartiates and the existing subdued populace became the helots and perioikoi. A Spartiate was a full Spartan citizen; his status was based on his ancestry and his contribution to a public mess or dining hall (syssitia). A Spartiate family had a land allotment and this land was used to create agricultural produce with which to pay communal mess dues, these agricultural plots were worked by helots, with roughly half of the produce going to the helots and half to the master.
The perioikoi very much filled the economic void between helot and Spartiate, they lived relatively free lives in their own villages, they played a number of roles in the economy of Laconia; peasant farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, miners and traders to name a few. The perioikoi had no political independence; they had to fight in the Spartan army and they played no part in the politics of the assembly, however, they had economic freedom from the Spartiates and, in time, they owned their own chattel slaves, as did indeed rich Spartiates it seems, as wealth flooded into Laconia.
The derivation of the word helot is often the subject of debate, but what is clear is that it may well refer to the captured people of Helos in Laconia, who then gave their name to the whole population, or indeed, from the Greek for captive (heilotes). The Spartan ephors, magistrates with the right of veto in the assembly and not the malformed priests of 300, declared war on the helots every year so religious pollution from killing slaves outside of combat would not be incurred. Helots did exist in towns, mainly as domestic servants and waiters in common messes (syssitia), but primarily worked the agricultural plots to which they were tied (klaroi); helot ownership was essentially to the state and they could only be killed, conferred to another estate or set free by state order. In addition to Laconia, Sparta also acquired Messenia, the other quarter of the lower half of the Peleponnesus, in the 8th century BC; the Messenians were thusly made into helots and were assigned to Spartiates in due course. This military action was mainly due to a lack of land for the growing population of Laconia with which to sustain such growth.
This form of servile relationship is drastically opposed to the Athenian and Roman system of chattel slavery; helots speak the same language as their masters, they are Greeks and they have common identities. Most chattel slaves in Greece were non-Greeks and in Rome were non-Romans, the Spartans however subjugated the native populace rather than bring in purchased slaves or won captives from foreign wars.
The Spartan situation was a volatile one and one that constantly needed state intervention to guarantee its survival. The Second Messenian War of the 7th century BC was fought by the Spartans to put down revolting Messenian helots, captured a century earlier. Indeed helot revolt constantly hung over the heads of the Spartan state, and it would appear that through fear of such an event happening often the Spartan assembly refused military action. This fear seems to stem from the relative numbers of Spartiates and Helots in the Spartan state; the figure is not easy to ascertain due to the sources however Herodotus states that at Plataea in 479 BC, 5,000 Spartiates and 5,000 perioikoi campaigned and that there were seven helots to every Spartiate. It is hard to believe that the Spartan state would allow 35,000 helots out on campaign, but this number could be the amount of helots in the state at the time; however one interprets the sources it is clear and logical that the helots were in a substantial majority and Spartiate fear was justified. One alarming example can be found in the works of Thucydides; the Spartiates asked the helots to decide among themselves the 2000 most worthy helots of being set free, thinking that these men would be the most easily incited to revolt, the account states that they were ‘disposed of’ and this is left unclear. Helots were occasionally set free in order to avoid trouble and this story does not appear to be hyperbole, Thucydides (the Athenian) was not so anti-Spartan that he would have invented this event. N.R.E. Fisher (1993) most aptly described the Spartiate treatment of helots in the following phrase: “They were extremely adept in combining, in confusing ways, false carrots, very big sticks, and the occasional real carrot.” Although the killings were not always on the scale of the ‘disposing’ of the 2000 helots, many sources tell of occasional helot killings at night and some scholars even argue that the helot revolt of the Second Messenian War caused this behaviour to become part of the Spartan upbringing. The pervasiveness of this activity is almost impossible to ascertain however from the anecdotal evidence.
As has been demonstrated this system is very different from Athenian and Roman chattel slavery, but to what extent was the Spartan system unique? The limited information that we have of the poleis (city states) that constituted the Ancient Greek world indicate that there may have indeed been several similarities; the servile populations called the penestai of Thessaly and the klarotai of Crete seem similar to Spartan helots and even clearer parallels can be seen outside of Greece. Enslaving a whole populace, as the Spartans did with the helots, appears to be paralleled in other areas; the penestai of Thessaly were established this way, the Byzantines (citizens of Byzantium - modern Istanbul) enslaved the local Bithynians in the same way, and it appears that the Carians of Asia Minor (modern western Turkey) acted in a similar fashion; enslaving a whole local populace. However these relationships were not always contentious, indeed it appears that the Mariandynians placed themselves under the control of the control of the citizens of Herakleia Pontika (modern north-western Turkey, close to the Black Sea coast) as they felt it was in their own interest. What set Sparta apart was her ability to maintain her system of servile exploitation; all the other similar institutions had fallen apart during the classical period due to economic and social pressures. Because of the nature of helot enslavement and the fact that they were indeed Greeks, other Greeks often felt sorry for their plight and much discussion of this can be found in ancient literature.
This article aimed to provide the explanation and representation that the Spartan social system is not afforded in popular media. The nuanced and complex system that supported Sparta and thusly her military success can only be touched on briefly in a piece of this length and perhaps the actuality of Sparta deserves more exposure than has been previously made available.