This is Part II of our five part (now six part) look at Sparta (Part I is here). Last week we took a look at our sources for Sparta and then examined the Spartan child-training system, the agoge. We found that our sources look nothing like the grizzled veterans who narrate films like 300, being instead mostly wealthy (and snobbish!) Greeks from outside of Sparta. We also found that the Spartan agoge was more like a child-soldier training program – something out of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda – than any kind of education system as we understand it.
This week, we’re going to expand our look at Spartan society and examine the claim of Spartan Equality. We’ll do this first by looking at the various classes of people in Sparta – citizens, non-citizens and slaves – and then by looking at the issue of wealth equality among the Spartan citizenry.
A helpful note to any new readers – this series seems to be reaching a lot of first time folks (welcome!) – Collections are part of my regular update schedule every Friday, so part III of this series will appear next Friday and so on. I sometimes have mid-week updates, time permitting, but obviously my day job comes first – especially now that classes have started.
As always, a helpful glossary of terms is here if you need it, but I’ll be defining things as we go, so you should be a-ok.
The Myth of Spartan Equality
Now, 300 – and indeed, many pop-culture representations of Sparta – do not always tell us in words that Spartan society was equal. Rather, what they tend to do is show us that it is. Visual language in film is, if anything, more powerful than dialogue, but it can be harder to really pin down. But let’s put in the effort – if just so that I’m not accused of attacking a straw-man. When 300 shows us the Spartans living in town, they look like this:
And in on the march, they look like this:
Identical, interchangeable Spartans. What’s interesting here is that Frank Miller and Zach Snyder have taken such pains to emphasize the identical nature of each of these men to the point of breaking with things we know about them. Each Spartan in the film has an identical shield with an identical lambda (Λ) on it, but we actually know (Plut. Mor. 234.41) that individual Spartans painted their shields with a variety of individual devices. Likewise, the Spartans brought their own armor ‘for their own sake’ (cf. Plut. Mor. 220.2) and it is safe to assume, given the variety of armor and helmets in Greece of the period, that the Spartan battle line would have itself had a fairly wide variety of styles.
Fortunately, this implicit visual signalling of ‘Spartan equality’ is often converted into explicit, written explications. To take just one example, this article by Nick Burns in the New Republic praises Spartan “relative economic equality” and “cultural egalitarianism” and goes on to say:
Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan regime, is said to have decreed that only iron bars would be accepted as currency. It became so difficult to make or accumulate money, since it had to be carted around in huge wheelbarrows, that citizens gave up on their desire to make a fortune and reconciled themselves to living on a largely materially equal basis to their fellow-citizens.
Lycurgus also had all the citizens eat together at common tables, in an effort to prevent the development of luxurious habits and to make sure private relationships, even familial ones, did not undermine the community.
We’ll come around to the person of Lycurgus next time (spoilers: semi-divine mythical founder figures should not be treated like historical figures). In a – I should stress civil and polite – twitter conversation with me afterwards, Nick Burns clarified his view:
This idea – the degree of equality and cohesion – is what I prefer to call the Myth of Spartan Equality, and it’s going to be our target today.
Where does this idea come from? Well, it comes from the same pro-Spartan sources we discussed last time. Plutarch claims that Lycurgus’ decision to banish money from Sparta essentially removed greed by making all of the Spartans equal (Plut. Lyc. 9.1-4) – or equally poor – though we should note that Plutarch is writing 900 years after Lycurgus (again, probably not a real person) was supposed to have lived. Xenophon notes approvingly that Lycurgus forbid the Spartans from engaging in productive business of any kind, making them thus unable to accumulate wealth (Xen. Lac. 7.1-6). Land was supposed to be distributed equally to each full Spartan citizen – the spartiates or homoioi (we’ll define these terms in a second) in equal plots called kleroi.
This idea – the Myth of Spartan Equality – is perhaps the single ‘biggest idea’ in the conception of the Spartan state, rivaled only by the myth of Spartan military excellence (don’t worry, we’ll get there!). There is something deeply appealing, at a bedrock emotional level, to the idea of a perfectly equal society like that. And that myth of equality has prompted all sorts of thinkers from all sorts of eras (Rousseau, most famously) – including our own – to be willing to look past Sparta’s many, many failings.
And on the face of it, it does sound like a very equal society – practically a collectivist utopia. It is a pleasant vision. Unfortunately, it is also a lie.
Meet the Spartans: A helot of a lot of helots.
Let’s begin by sketching the shape of Spartan society. The Greek term for the basic political unit of Greek life is a polis (plural poleis). Originally, this word meant ‘town’ or ‘city’ but over time it came to mean something close to ‘community’ or ‘state.’ It was possible to have a polis without a city (as Sparta did) or a city without a polis (for instance towns and cities which did not self-govern). Instead a polis was identified in our ancient sources with a body of citizens (e.g. ‘the Spartans,’ ‘the Thebans,’ ‘the Athenians,’ etc), and also includes the government those citizens set up, and the territory that government controls.
While every polis had a body of citizens at its core, poleis also included various non-citizen underclasses: foreigners and slaves, typically. Citizenship in Greek cities was hereditary and strictly regulated, so ‘foreigners’ here might mean families which had lived in the polis for generations, but which weren’t part of the original citizen body. Nevertheless, only the citizenry – however it was defined – had full legal and political rights: these free non-citizens often had to pay the full burden of being citizens (taxes, military service, etc), without any of the benefits (voting, serving on juries, access to public services, etc).
So every Greek polis had a three-level layer-cake of status: the citizen body, free non-citizens (like foreigners), and non-free persons (slaves). You could – and the Greeks did – divide that top group by wealth and birth and so on, but we’ll get to that a bit later in this post and the next. For now, let’s stick with the three-level layer cake. Sparta follows this scheme neatly.
At the top were the Spartiates, the full-citizen male Spartans. According to Herodotus there were once 8,000 of these (Hdt. 7.234.2); supposedly 9,000 based on the initial number of equal land plots (kleroi) handed out (Plut. Lyc. 8.3 – or rather than saying ‘handed out’ we might say ‘seized’). Of course these are tallies of Spartiate males, but women could be of citizen stock (but not citizens themselves) and we ought to imagine an equal number of spartiate women at any given time. For a child to be born into the citizen class (and thus eligible for the agoge and future full citizenship), he had to have a citizen father and a citizen mother. We’ll deal with the bastards a bit further down. Also, the spartiates were often also called the homoioi, sometimes translated as ‘peers’ but literally meaning something like ‘the equals.’ As we’ll see, that equality is notional at best, but this ideal of citizen equality was something Sparta advertised about itself.
The number of spartiates declined rapidly during the period for which we have evidence (from c. 480 onwards). While there were supposedly 8,000 male spartiates in 480 there seem to have only been 3,500 by 418 (Thuc. 5.68), just 2,500 in 394 (Xen Hell. 4.2.16) and just 1,500 in 371 (Xen. Hell. 6.1.1; 4.15.17). We’ll talk about why this collapse occurred and its impacts more next week, but for now, I want to note it, because it raises some skepticism that there were ever as many spartiates as Herodotus or Plutarch would have us believe. Nevertheless, we’re going to accept the figure of 8,000 for now.
Over time, Sparta developed a bewildering array of sub-citizen underclasses which were ‘free,’ but enjoyed limited rights and had no say in their government. The largest and most important of these were the perioikoi (literally: ‘the dwellers around’). When the Spartan polis formed, the poor farmers around the core villages seemed to have reduced to helotage (we’re getting there, I promise) but the outlying settlements, while subjugated by the Spartan state, remained free. The perioikoi did not attend the agoge, had no say in government and no role in Spartan ‘equality’ (meaning they were excluded from all of the benefits the Spartan state provided) but they were allowed to manage their own affairs (save that they had to fight in the Spartan army). Almost all of the good, productive land seems to have been reserved for the kleroi of the spartiates, so the perioikoi were mostly economically marginal – shoved onto the bad farmland – but they did make up the artisan class who will have made the armor, weapons and tools required by the spartiates. The skiritai were a special group of perioikoi who dwelt up in the mountains – they served differently in the army, but otherwise do not seem to have been legally different from the perioikoi. For this post, we’ll treat them together.
Alongside the perioikoi, we have also the hypomeiones and mothakes. The hypomeiones seem to consist of the men (and their descendants) who had been spartiates, but had been stripped of citizen status for some reason, usually poverty (but sometimes cowardice). Since it was normally impossible to re-obtain citizenship – even for children – they constituted a permanent underclass with rights much like the perioikoi. The mothakes (singular: mothax) seem to have been the bastard off-spring of spartiate men and helot women (we’ll come back to this) – Xenophon (Xen. Hell 5.3.9) refers to these men as nothoi (literally ‘bastards’). Some mothakes were sponsored into the agoge by wealthy spartiates, but they could never be citizens and thus never be entitled to the things full spartiates had, so they too represent an effectively permanent underclass in Sparta.
Finally, over time there accrued small groups of freed helots, the Neodamodes and the Brasideioi (the latter seeming to just be a specific group of the former). These were settled on the edge of Spartan territory (on land disputed with Elis). So apart from being given the worst garbage real-estate in all of Sparta, they seem to have had functionally the same position as the rest of the non-citizen underclasses.
Estimating the size of the various free non-citizen Spartan underclasses is essentially guesswork – our sources are profoundly uninterested in these people because – as we discussed last week – our sources are mostly elite snobs who are interested in writing about other elite snobs and thus care little for the lower classes. Estimates are made harder in that it seems fairly clear, given the evidence, that the hypomeiones, mothakes and neodamodes all increased in number over time. Still, perioikoi battle deployments tend to equal or exceed Spartan numbers, even in 480, so it seems safe to assume there are somewhat more perioikoi than Spartiates. I’ve tentatively offered 30,000 as a guesstimate of their total number c. 500 B.C., rising significantly over time. I think you could make a convincing argument that this number was significantly higher – especially if you are arguing for a smaller number of helots (see below). We’ll talk about all of these fellows more next week.
Finally, the helots, were slaves owned by the Spartan state who worked the kleroi owned by the spartiates (so you have the land, but the state owns the labor) and owed some portion of their produce (seemingly quite a lot of it) to the spartiates. The helots came in two big groups – the Laconian helots had lived in Sparta before the polis formed and had been reduced to helotage at that time. The Messenian helots were the free residents of the neighboring community of Messenia when it was conquered by Sparta in the early 600s, at which point almost the entire population was reduced to being helots. There were c. 200,000 helots, vastly outnumbering every other group in Sparta, or all of them combined.
Ok, I know that’s an awful lot of information – Sparta has a bewildering array of underclasses – but it’s important because of how it impacts the make-up of the Spartan state. Pictured below is a rough estimate of the population of Sparta in c. 480, by class:
WHOA! I hear you say. That’s a a lot of slaves. Like, a ton of enslaved people. But then – ancient slavery was common, right? Was this normal for a Greek polis? Well, let’s compare this chart – done exactly the same way – of Athens in roughly the same period:
Athens was a very wealthy city, which both drew in many foreign merchants and businessmen, but also was able to import huge numbers of slaves (all things Sparta most emphatically did not do) and yet the citizen body is still a much larger proportion of the total population. To give an ancient, but non-Greek comparison, these pie charts compare Athens (5th century B.C.), Sparta (c. 480), Sparta after the decline of the spartiates had taken hold (371 B.C.) and Roman Italy c. 218 (on the eve of the Second Punic War):
So the point here is, if we want to talk about life in Sparta, roughly 85% of that conversation should be about the life of the helots. So let’s talk about them.
It’s a helot life, for us.
I want to open by stressing just how insane the previous statement is, that helots made up not only a simple majority of the human beings living under the Spartan state, but in fact a huge super-majority. For comparison, about a third of the population of the American South in 1860 was held in slavery and we rightly call that a ‘slave society.’ Societies where an absolute majority of persons are held in slavery are extremely rare, but Sparta’s massive super-majority of enslaved persons is – to my knowledge – unique in human history.
We are very poorly informed about the helots. Our snobbish sources – recall last week – are, for the most part, singularly uninterested in them, so we’re left putting together a patchwork of information. That in turn leads into situations where students of ancient Greece can can up with the wrong impression if they don’t have all of the sources in mind (we’ll see this is a common trend with Sparta – reading just Xenophon or just Plutarch can be deeply misleading).
First, let us dispense with the argument, sometimes offered, that the helots were more like medieval serfs than slaves as we understand the ideas and thus not really slaves – this is nonsense. Helots seem to have been able to own moveable property (money, clothing etc), but in fact this is true of many ancient slaves, including Roman ones (the Roman’s called this quasi-property peculium, which also applied to the property of children and even many women who were under the legal power (potestas) of another). Owning small amounts of moveable property was not rare among ancient non-free individuals (or, for that matter, other forms of slavery).
No, what legally separated helots from douloi (chattel slaves in most Greek societies) was that they were slaves of the Spartan state rather than of individual Spartans – this had nothing to do with any sense of greater freedom they might have had. Indeed, Plutarch relates the saying that “in Sparta the free man is more free than anywhere else in the world, and the slave more a slave” (Plut. Lyc. 28.5). He can only be referring to the helots here. Indeed, Plutarch’s statement is telling – the helots were treated poorly by the standards of ancient chattel slavery, which is, I must stress, an incredibly low bar. Ancient societies treated enslaved people absolutely horribly and yet somehow the helot lot was commonly thought worse.
But the final word on if we should consider the helots fully non-free is in their sanctity of person: they had none, at all, whatsoever. Every year, in autumn by ritual, the five Spartan magistrates known as the ephors (next week) declared war between Sparta and the helots – Sparta essentially declares war on part of itself – so that any spartiate might kill any helot without legal or religious repercussions (Plut. Lyc. 28.4; note also Hdt. 4.146.2). Isocrates – admittedly a decidedly anti-Spartan voice – notes that it was a religious, if not legal, infraction to kill slaves everywhere in Greece except Sparta (Isoc. 12.181). As a matter of Athenian law, killing a slave was still murder (the same is true in Roman law). One assumes these rules were often ignored by slave-holders of course – we know that many such laws in the American South were routinely flouted. Slavery is, after all, a brutal and inhuman institution by its very nature. The absence of any taboo – legal or religious – against the killing of helots marks the institution as uncommonly brutal not merely by Greek standards, but by world-historical standards.
We may safely conclude that the helots were not only enslaved persons, but that of all slaves, they had some of the fewest protections – effectively none, not even protections in-name-only.
But what do the helots do?
The answer is mostly ‘they farm’ but getting more specific than that get sticky fast. But we may try to keep this brief: helots were enslaved agricultural laborers. Helots were owned not by individual spartiates, but by the Spartan state, where they were assigned – through whatever method we do not know – to work the plots of land (kleroi, see above) assigned to the spartiates who, as noted above, we forbidden from engaging in any kind of productive labor. The helots seemed to have lived in their own villages and settlements – no great surprise, as the Messenian helots seem to have been far more numerous than the Laconian ones and the spartiates themselves did not live in Messenia in any great numbers. It does seem that the Messenian helots were gathered in a smaller number of nucleated villages rather than split up as farmsteads, probably to make it easier for the small number of spartiates stationed there to keep watch on them. And they seemed to have produced not only simple cereal staples, but the full range of agricultural products: wheat (Xen Lac. 5.3 – we’ll come back to this), barley, grapes and wine, figs, olives and olive oil, cheese, textiles (wool) and animal products, including meat and fish.
(Super Pedantic Note: This range of production is one reason why I’d argue that the efforts of scholars like Figueira and Hodkinson tend to set a lower bound to the number of helots (picking up my note to the chart above) – they’re working from a simplified model of agriculture producing entirely in barley and wheat (I should stress this is not bad practice – you pretty much have to do this to get anything out of the limited evidence we have). But the huge range of agricultural production the helots are engaged with pretty much demands many helots engaged in tasks that are not wheat and barley cultivation and yet more helots engaged in supporting them. Such models also assume that helot labor was efficiently allocated, which would be very strange for ancient agriculture – peasant households are almost always ‘labor inefficient’ (too many hands, too little land or capital), on this, see Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire (2005)).
We don’t know what percentage of the agricultural goods produced by helots was required to be turned out to the spartiate family which owned their kleros. Plutarch gives a (evidently maximum?) figure of 82 medimnoi of barley to be paid annually to a single Spartiate household by the helots of their kleros (Plut. Lyc. 8.4, but note Cartledge (1979), 170 on the troubles with this passage) – this is, it must be noted a huge amount, roughly ten times the rations of a Roman soldier. Tyrtaeus, writing in the 7th century B.C. (our earliest source for Sparta) in a fragment says that the helots, “like donkeys suffering under heavy loads, by painful force compelled to bring their masters half of all the produce that the soil brought forth” (trans. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (1993)). Half is a tempting figure, but it’s also a nice, awkwardly round and poetically convenient figure which may not represent reality. But we do not have the necessary evidence to determine the average size of a kleros or the number of helots who might work it, so it is hard to figure out how burdensome this would have been (save that we may assume ‘very much so’ given the sheer quantity demanded – 50% is a very high rent indeed).
But I think it is worth stressing just how extreme the division of labor was. Helots did all of the labor, because the Spartiates were quite possibly the least productive people to ever exist (the perioikoi presumably also produced a lot of goods for the spartiates, but being free, one imagines they had to be compensated for that out of the only economic resource the spartiates possessed: the produce of helot labor). The spartiates were forbidden from taking up any kind of productive activity at all (Plut. Lyc. 24.2). Lysander is shocked that the Persian prince Cyrus gardens as a hobby (Xen. Oec. 4.20-5), because why sully your hands with labor if you don’t have to? Given the normal divisions of household labor (textile production in the Greek household was typically done by women), it is equally striking that not one of Plutarch’s “Sayings of Spartan Women’ in the Moralia concerns weaving, save for one – where a Spartan woman shames an Ionian one for being proud of her skill in it (Plut. Mor. 241d). Xenophon confirms that spartiate women did not weave, but relied on helot labor for that too (Xen. Lac. 1.4) a point we’ll return to next week.
The helots were also made to fight. We are told by Herodotus that the Spartans brought 35,000 helots to fight at Plataea (479 B.C., Hdt. 9.28.2) and helot forces of light infantry appear elsewhere in the sources. But slaves of all kinds attached to ancient armies are often omitted in the sources; one wonders how many helots were forced to remain with Leonidas in his doomed last stand at Thermopylae – it is a safe bet it was more than the 300 spartiates present (along with c. 1,000 perioikoi, Diodorus 11.4). One cannot imagine the helots were enthused to give their lives for a state which hated and brutalized them, but rarely loyal helots were rewarded with freedom (e.g. the Brasideoi). The helots seem to have comprised essentially the entire Spartan logistical system – carrying food and supplies – although as we’ll see, Spartan logistics are hardly impressive.
Given the huge disparity in numbers between the helots and the spartiates, you may reasonably ask: how did the spartiates maintain control? The answer appears to be, in a word: terror.
As noted above, the spartiates had a legal and religious fiction which enabled them to murder helots at any time for any reason – or no reason – without legal or religious consequences. And now is when we return to the krypteia, which we last met as a rite of passage for young spartiate men graduating from the agoge – now we meet the same institution, as a tool of terror.
Some Sparta-friendly scholars have tried to minimize the role of the krypteia, but it is hard to avoid the impression of the sources that this was a pervasive and deeply violent institution. Plutarch describes its function: the members of the krypteia would fan out in secret over the countryside, murdering helots they caught by night or else sneaking into the fields and murdering helots thought too strong, brave or independent minded. Even Plutarch describes the institution as abominable, and thus tries to distance it from Lycurgus, but as already noted his date (post 460 B.C.) does not work, since Herodotus considers the institution to already have some considerable antiquity to the events of 480 (Hdt. 4.146.2).
Thucydides relates an incident (Thuc. 4.80) where the Spartans – in a ruse – offered 2,000 helots who had fought bravely for them in war their freedom, before shortly after murdering all of them. Herodotus’ report (Hdt. 4.146.2) that the Spartans do all of their executions at night also speaks to the terror of the krypteia – one assumes these executions are without trial, which in turn means they can only be executions of the helots.
Even when they were not being murdered, the helots were treated with cruelty. Plato (Laws 6.776c-778a) politely presents the institution as contentious and while noting that ill-treatment as a factor that leads to slave revolts (along with commonality of language), also notes that such revolts are frequent among the Messenian helots with the clear implication that the Messenia helots revolt very often because they are very badly treated. Plutarch relates humiliating rituals where helots would be compelled to get badly drunk and humiliated in front of the communal mess (the syssitia) as an object lesson, or else made to sing humiliating songs (Plut. Lyc. 28.4-5). Various fragments from the Greek historians relate other demeaning humiliations enforced on the helots, with varying degrees of reliability – Kennell, Spartans (2010), 83-87 has a good roundup.
Given how very little our sources care for the lives and experiences of any enslaved people, the unanimity of their testimony that life as a helot was awful is nothing short of astounding. This is an institution that shocks the conscience of ancient slaveholders.
A Child’s Fingerprints
Taking my ancient historian hat off for a moment and putting on my military historian hat (helmet?), it seems very likely, working from more modern parallels, that this brutality was itself a product of the agoge. Organizational culture studies of modern militaries – which had the advantage of a wealth of evidence we simply do not have for the ancient world – have turned up strong connections between violence and brutality within the military apparatus (for instance, in training) and the violent and brutal behavior of those militaries when they are among civilians.
Put in more blunt language: armies that abuse and beat recruits or junior soldiers in training and in peacetime will tend to abuse and murder civilians in occupied territory and in wartime. Violence also rolls downhill, it turns out. Soldiers who are abused by their superiors tend in turn to abuse their subordinates, both as a learned behavior, but also as a transference mechanism (they repair the humiliation of receiving violence by inflicting it on someone even more powerless than them). This relationship is best documented in the Imperial Japanese military (e.g. S. Ienaga, The Pacific War (1978), 46-54); but also observed in the German Imperial Army (I. Hull, Absolute Destruction (2006), 93-103 – though I should note that Hull focuses largely on the failure of command and political structures to apply the brakes to this tendency; see also for the Wehrmacht in WW2, O. Bartov, “The Conduct of War: Soldiers and the Barbarization of Warfare” (1992)) – and hey, what do you know, two other armies that somehow gained a reputation for ‘badass’ military effectiveness despite a comprehensive inability to achieve strategic objectives resulting in the complete annihilation of the state they were supposed to defend. It’s almost like we have a pattern.
Consider what the young spartiate – soon to be given the unrestricted power of life and death over his helot subjects – is learning in the agoge. When he is inducted, his mistakes are ‘corrected’ by the physical violence of the older boys (Xen. Lac. 2.2) in a system where the reward for ‘success’ is moving up the ladder of violence – that is, the young spartiate graduates from being just a victim of violence to being ‘rewarded’ by also being allowed – indeed, encouraged – to inflict of violence on boys still younger and weaker than himself.
We are not told that this pattern continues past the agoge (although Xen. Lac. 4.5-6 strongly implies it, noting that physical violence in resolving disputes was common) but – again speaking with my military history helmet on – of course it did. Why wouldn’t it? Unlike Rome or Athens, which drew bright legal distinctions between places where military discipline (and thus disciplinary violence) was permitted and where it was not (Roman citizens were legally immune from corporal punishment except when on campaign; beating a fellow Athenian citizen with the intent to humiliate him was hubris (a legally defined crime) punishable by death), Sparta was – our sources remind us – always mobilized for war and the spartiates were always under military discipline (Plut. Lyc. 24.1; Xen Lac. 3.2-5; on military discipline, cf. Xen. Anab. 3.4.49, where Xenophon lets his troops give a fellow soldier a beating for complaining, which may give us some insight into why Xenophon sees Sparta as an ideal society).
With all of this violence rolling downhill, there is only one place for it to stop, and that is the helots. The violence is a consequence of the damage inflicted on each generation of spartiates by the previous generation; broken men perpetuating a broken system (on the backs and with the blood of the helots) for the reasons we outlined last week. At the same time, it is the only tool the spartiates have for maintaining the helots in slavery, since their social system is singularly terrible at equiping them to build any other kind of legitimacy, a point we’ll return to in more depth at the end of this series (to put this in Arendt’s terms, the spartiate’s only tool is violence because their training completely eschews power, see H. Arendt, On Violence (1969). Arendt would, I think, identify this system as badly broken – violence filling the vacuum left by a lack of power – and that seems correct).
Alright, taking my military historian helmet off, putting my ancient historian cap back on, and onward to:
What can we conclude from this?
I don’t mean to beat up more on poor Nick Burns – who I must stress, was perfectly civil in our twitter discussion and said nothing I have not seen in student papers and discussions in the past – but he exemplifies a certain kind of broken thinking about Sparta:
Burns essentially asks, “can’t we just draw a box around the spartiates and assess them on their own?” And what I hope the proceeding analysis has shown is that the answer is: no, you can’t. The helots and the brutality the Spartan state inflicts on them are integral to the system – they can’t be removed. Without helot labor, there is effectively no Spartan economy and no agricultural production to support the spartiate class’s leisure. The brutality is the vital tool of maintaining those laborers in a state of slavery, without it, the system cannot ‘function’ in its abominable way. Without the helots, Sparta’s military power collapses – not only because of the loss to the spartiates, but also because the helots seem to make up large forces of light infantry screens.
And in sheer numerical terms, the helots were Sparta. If we want to talk about drawing boxes, the box we ought to draw is not around the spartitates, but around the helots. The helots so decisively outnumber the spartiates that any assessment of this society has to be about the quality of helot life (which is terrible). To draw boxes as Burns wants would be like putting a box around Jeff Bezos and declaring that America was the first all-billionaire society. In actual fact, American millionaires represent roughly the same percentage of America as the spartiates represent of Sparta, roughly six percent.
This is a fundamental flaw in how we teach Sparta – in high schools and in college. We teach Sparta like it was a free citizen society with a regrettable slave population that, while horrific, was typical for its time – something more like Rome. But it wasn’t: Sparta was a society that consisted almost entirely of slaves, with a tiny elite aristocracy. The spartiates were not the common citizens of Sparta, but rather the hereditary nobility – the knights, counts and dukes, as it were. We should as soon judge 17th century France by the first two estates as judge Sparta only by the spartiates.
But by now you are wondering – this sounds like a conclusion, but there’s still a bunch of post left (that scroll bar is moving awfully slow!) – what does this pedantic fellow have up his sleeve? Well here it is: even if, even if we accept Burn’s boxes – even if we draw a wall around the spartiates – to be be clear we should not do this – but even if we do, Sparta still fails to live up to its myth of equality.
The Myth of the Homoioi
Now I want to be clear, the guys who called themselves homoioi were not a myth – obviously the spartiates existed. But I want to tackle that word – homoioi. It means ‘peers’ but literally translates as ‘equals’ or ‘those who are the same.’ The ideal was straight-forward – each homoios (meaning each spartiate householder) had an equal plot of land, an equal share of (enslaved, brutalized, terrorized) helot labor, an equal place in the Spartan ‘mess’ (the syssitia), an equal voice in the Apella (the Spartan voting assembly). They were equals. The crux of this is economic equality – no poor spartiates, no rich spartiates.
Herodotus implies this. Xenophon tells us this. Aristotle and Plato report this ideal. Plutarch comments on it repeatedly. And it is complete nonsense.
Let’s start with Plutarch. Plutarch (writing c. 100 A.D.) says that this ideal existed under in the past Lycurgus (who we’ll get to later), but that was in the past and that at some point (he puts it in the reign of Agis II and Lysander), wealth flowed in and corrupted the system (Plut. Lyc. 30.1-2). Sure, he says, Sparta isn’t an equal paradise now, but it used to be – back in the time of Xenophon, more or less.
So we back up to Xenophon. Xenophon (writing in the early 300s B.C.) says that this equal ideal absolutely existed..wait for it… but that was in the past and at some point (he’s living in the reign of Agis II, so it must be earlier), the Spartans got rich and traveled abroad and it corrupted the system (Xen. Lac. 14.1-5). Sure, he says, Sparta isn’t an equal paradise now, but it used to be – back in the time of Herodotus, when the Spartans led the Greeks against the Persians!
So we back up to Herodotus (writing c. 430 B.C., but about events as early as the late 500s). Except Herodotus notes explicitly two wealthy Spartans: Sperthias and Bulis – both clearly spartiates (they are going as representatives of the Spartan citizen body as ambassadors!) – who are “of noble birth and great wealth,” going on an embassy before 480 B.C. (Hdt. 7.134). So not only are they rich, they’re gegonotes eu (γεγονότες εὖ; literally ‘born well’), meaning they come from families which have been rich for a long time! The Spartans also evidently have debt-keeping (Hdt. 6.59) and toy with colonization (generally a response to land scarcity, Hdt. 5.42-46). So apparently Sparta wasn’t an equal paradise even then – or even well before that point!
So let’s back up even further, to the earliest literary evidence we have for Sparta – the lyric poets Alcman and Tyrtaeus, writing in the seventh century (Tyrtaeus c. 650, Alcman perhaps a few decades later). We’ve already noted Tyrtaeus speak of the suffering of the helots, but he also makes oblique references to social divisions and poverty (Tyrt. frag 6, 7, 10, West (1993), 23-4). Alcman, describing what seems to be a dancer’s chorus describes gold bangles, splendid headbands and other finery (Alc. frag 1, West (1993), 32.). I should stress that the limited productivity of ancient societies means that no society can provide such finery to all of its women – these women are showing off their uncommon wealth. I want to stress these poet’s work exist only in disjointed fragments and yet even in this very poor source base we have solid evidence for rich and poor spartiates.
To be clear with how far back we are here, historically – the critical event which creates the Spartan state we know, the conquest of Messenia and the reduction of the Messenians to helotry, happened – according to Tyrtaeus – in his grandfather’s generation. We’ve gotten to living memory of the origins of the Spartan state as we understand it, and we still have not gotten back to that ideal past of equality.
So let’s back up even further, back into the early seventh century or even the eighth century. We are now before all of our literary sources, but lo! archaeology and epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) comes to the rescue. And I will quote Cartledge on what they tell us, “there were rich and poor Spartans. This literary evidence [which we just discussed] is fully corroborated [emphasis mine] by archaeology (from the eighth century) and epigraphy (from the mid-seventh)” (Cartledge (1979), 165 – and no, that archaeological verdict has not meaningfully changed since then as far as I know). It isn’t corroborated any earlier than that because we have no evidence earlier than that.
So I want to be very, very clear: at every point where we have any kind of evidence whatsoever – no matter how limited, or difficult – we have evidence for significant disparities in wealth among the spartiates.
(This is not to say that there was never any change in the social stratification of Sparta. In contrast, there’s been some supposition – notably by Figueira – that it got quite a lot worse after the earthquake of 460 – we’ll talk about what that looks like next week)
Spartiate economic equality is a myth. It was a myth in 100 A.D. It was a myth in 360 B.C. It was a myth in 480 B.C. It was always a myth. It was never true.
Conclusions: Who Matters?
This is necessarily a somewhat artificial place to divide these posts. I promise we’ll get back to some of these issues – what wealth and power disparity among spartiates looks like, or why Lycurgus can do no wrong in the eyes of the sources – next week and the week after. But I want to take a step back and look at the issues we’ve addressed so far from the perspective of how we relate to history.
It is human nature, when we are told a story, to sympathize and identify with the teller of the story and the people they place at the center of the story. TV Tropes calls this Protagonist-Centered Morality and it is an apt term. We come to feel what the protagonist feels and value what they value. This is all the more true for the things and people the story omits – the unwary reader does not know what they do not know. For our sources, the Spartiates – and in particular, the wealthy, elite, successful spartiates – are the protagonists of the story of Sparta and so the morality of that story revolves around them.
In the study of history, of course, this is a trap – and a frequent one. Students naturally sympathize with the literate ruling class of past societies, seeing themselves in the shoes of military aristocrats and rulers (rather than the vast majority of farmers and laborers) both because that is the perspective our sources give, but also because that tends to be the history we teach: the history of power and politics.
All too often, I see students read the Greek contempt for the poor man, the non-citizen, or the slave with horror but then immediately turn around and replicate those patterns of thought in their own thinking about these societies (well of course the ‘mob’ cannot be trusted to rule – Thucydides and Xenophon said so – to which I am endlessly responding, ‘yes, but should you believe them?‘).
With Sparta, the case is worse still, because it is not a matter of falling into the contempt of your sources, but their disregard. The sources do not care about the helots, because the sources are wealthy Greeks who do not see slavery as a moral evil – if they are bothered by helotry, it is only because it is even crueler than normal Greek slavery. Xenophon is quite happy to ignore the helots entirely, whenever he can. Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaimonians runs 118 sections, of which two mention the helots and neither by name or at any length (Xenophon uses either doulos (chattel slave) or oiketes (household slave), but in both cases, given Sparta’s social system, it is clear that a helot must be meant). It would be easy to forget reading it that the helots were there at all (harder, of course, in Xenophon’s Hellenica, since they end up being militarily important).
This is, I want to stress, an attempt by Xenophon to describe the whole of Spartan society, which omits around 93% of all of the people in it (Xenophon also omits the perioikoi), including literally everyone who produces anything of value, at all, whatsoever. If ever there was a sign a source needed to be read critically (friendly history teacher note: read all sources critically), this is it!
But, of course, we are not trapped by our sources. We can – and should – think about the many, many people our sources do not care about. We must ask if this society produces a better human experience – not just for the aristocrats our sources pal around with, but for all of the people. A society which exalts the few by immiserating the many isn’t the same as a society which actually improves the quality of life for the majority of the people within it. This is part of what I mean when I say that we may accept our sources facts, but need not accept their judgments: we do not need to agree with our snobbish sources that the best society is one that is best only for the elite.
So let’s recap:
The dominant human experience living in Sparta was being a helot. If we were to give an hour long lecture on the human experience of living in Sparta, we would spend fifty-one of those sixty minutes on the helots. That’s 51 minutes of murders, beatings, rapes, forced extraction, poverty and humiliation. After which there are five to six minutes on the lot of the perioikoi and then – just as everyone is stuffing their notebooks into the bags (dear my students: don’t do this, it drives me bonkers), we get to the spartiates.
Rather than being egalitarian, Sparta was in fact a deeply stratified society. More than 90% of the residents of the Spartan state belongs to one kind of underclass or another. Consequently, the spartiates shouldn’t be understood as composing the state or talked about in isolation, because they’re not a self-sufficient society. Instead, the spartiates are just a local nobility, the elite of a much larger, far less equal society.
Nevertheless, the myth of spartiate economic equality is also false. There were always rich and poor spartiates, at every historical point we have evidence for. Part of the reason I leaned so hard on Cartledge – despite his scholarship being a bit older – is to show that we’ve known this for a while now. It is not a new revelation that all of our sources think Spartan equality ended ten minutes ago, despite being separated by centuries. Nevertheless, high school and even college (!) textbooks continue to credulously spout the myth – embracing the pleasant lie instead of the unpleasant truth.
Indeed, this credulous approach to the source tradition – accepting not only the facts they give, but also their guesses about what is to them the distant past and their judgments about the moral worth of a Sparta that probably never existed – is so common that it has had a name since the 1933, le mirage spartiate, coined by Francois Ollier. Rousseau and Jefferson had an excuse for their gullibility – we do not.
Next week, we’ll look at the ramifications of this kind of social stratification through the lens of Spartan families – helot families and spartiate families both…but also we’ll start taking a closer look at some of these free non-citizen Spartan underclasses and what they mean for understanding Sparta.