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date: 03 October 2023



  • David M. Lewis


The helots were the slaves of the Spartans. Distributed in family groups across the landholdings of Spartan citizens in Laconia and Messenia, helots performed the labour that was the bedrock on which Spartiate leisure and wealth rested. Since they outnumbered the Spartiate class, keeping the helots in line was a significant challenge, and scholars are divided over the degree of tension that marked helot-Spartiate relations and the intensity of oppression inflicted upon the former by the latter. Debates exist over many other aspects of helotage, e.g., the krypteia, the alleged massacre of 2,000 helots, the socio-economic organization of helotage, the demography of the helot population, helot rebellion, and the ancient tradition of comparing the helots to other servile groups (e.g., the penestai of Thessaly, the Mariandynoi of Heraclea Pontica).


  • Greek Law

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.


Crucial to the operation of the Spartan sociopolitical system, the exploitation of the helots was, in Plato’s view (Leg. 776c), one of the most vexed questions in 4th-century Greece. The subject is no less vexed in modern studies of Sparta. What follows examines the evidence for—and debates about—the origins of the helots, their status, treatment, socio-economic situation, demography, rebellions, military role, and comparable populations in other regions of the Greek world.


There are three main theories regarding the origins of helotage. The most popular in antiquity was that the helots of Laconia and Messenia constituted the aboriginal populations of these respective regions; they were reduced to servitude by Spartan conquest, the former at some very early period, the latter during the Messenian War(s). Several ancient writers link the name “helot” to the town of Helos in southern Laconia, whose inhabitants were supposedly captured and became the original helots (Hellanicus FGrHist / BNJ 4 F188; Ephorus FGrHist / BNJ 70 F117; Theopomp. FGrHist / BNJ 115 F13; cf. F122); but the derivation is impossible linguistically, and the story an obvious folk etymology (the term “helot” more likely derives from a term for “bound captive”; this theory, if correct, finds a parallel with a Cretan slave word, klarōtai, captives “distributed by lot” among their captors: Ephorus FGrHist / BNJ 70 F29).1 Hellanicus, Ephorus, and Theopompus were all writing many centuries after the events that they purport to describe; nevertheless, some leading scholars find the “conquest thesis” the most probable explanation for the origin of helotage without necessarily believing these sources.2 A second theory sees helotage as forming through processes of internal differentiation, where subordinate groups either coalesced or arose through demotions of hitherto privileged groups. The idea was first articulated by Antiochus of Syracuse: in his account, those Spartiates who did not fight in the Messenian War were reduced to slavery and called helots; their children, called Partheniai, were expelled from the community and founded Taras in Italy (FGrHist / BNJ 555 F13). This particular story has no modern adherents, but a version of the “internal differentiation” theory based on comparative-historical considerations has recently been advanced by Luraghi.3 A third possibility is that helotage evolved from the sort of slavery described in Homer and Hesiod, gradually taking on its particular Classical features as part of a local process of historical development.4 Certainty on the question of the origin of helotage is not possible based on our available sources.


The helots are described in sources from the Classical period using the standard terminology for slaves, especially the terms douloi and oiketai.5 According to Thucydides (8.40.2), the Chians had the most slaves (oiketai) of any polis except for Sparta, whilst in the view of the Athenian oligarch and Laconophile Critias, in Sparta slaves—and it is generally accepted that he is talking about helots—were slaves to the greatest degree, and free men (i.e., Spartiates) were free to the greatest degree (88B F37 DK). But later writers sometimes demurred. Writing during the Second Sophistic, Julius Pollux (Onom. 3.83) claimed that the status of the helots lay “between free men and slaves,” whilst his contemporary Pausanias the Atticist went so far as to claim that the helots were a kind of metic (free resident foreigner; K9 s.v. Kallikyrioi [Erbse]). Debate about the status of the helots, therefore, goes back to antiquity.

The best way to address this problem is to look at the helots’ status during different periods of Spartan history. Contrary to ancient stereotypes (e.g., Thucydides 1.18; Cic., Flac. 63), Sparta was not an unchanging society; accordingly, the functioning of this or that institution at one point in time cannot be taken as evidence for how that institution functioned during an earlier or later period where sources are lacking.6 We must admit at the outset that helotage may have changed during the centuries between the early Archaic period and the Roman conquest, when the institution finally came to an end (Strabo 8.5.4). During the classical period, all of our sources concur in seeing the helots as slaves, douloi. That helots could be sold privately is implied by the 4th-century writer Ephorus (FGrHist / BNJ 70 F117), who notes two peculiar aspects of their status: first, their masters could not privately manumit them; secondly, they could not sell them “beyond the boundaries” (exō tōn horōn).7 Some further features of their legal status should be noted. First, although counted as private property, helots could be commandeered for minor tasks by Spartiates other than their owners, without having to ask the owner’s permission (Xen. Lac. 6.3; Arist. Pol. 1263a35–37). Secondly, helots could be beaten at will by Spartiates other than their owners ([Xen.] Ath.Pol. 1.10–12) and sometimes killed by the state (see “Treatment”). Thirdly, helots could be recruited by the state as soldiers and freed by public decree, apparently irrespective of their owners’ wishes (see “Military Role”); but this has parallels in other parts of the Greek world.8 Although helots thus fit ancient Greek as well as modern conceptions of slavery, heavy communal inroads were made into the rights of helot owners.9 There is no good evidence that helots had formal rights to marry or own property.10

A substantive shift seems to have occurred regarding the status of the helots during the 3rd century bce, for the later decades of that century were a period of revolution under Agis IV and, more particularly, Cleomenes III. The latter enacted a profound restructuring of Spartan society, including an enlargement of the citizen body and redistribution of land. The helot population seems also to have been brought under a greater degree of public control, reflected in the statements of Roman-era writers who consumed much of the propaganda of these Hellenistic reformers: Strabo (8.5.4) viewed the helots as public slaves, and Pausanias (3.20.6) viewed them as slaves of the community. Cleomenes’ restructuring of Spartan society, however, did not last, and tensions between plutocrats and reformers persisted down to the Roman conquest, with implications for the status and use of helots that can only be guessed at.11 After the demise of helotage, views among ancient writers on the status of the helots became increasingly eccentric and at odds with our Classical-era evidence, and there are good reasons to prefer the evidence of contemporaries over the views of Roman and Byzantine scholars. For example, the common idea that Pollux’s categorization of the helots as “between free men and slaves” derives from the Hellenistic scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium is a modern confection and based on no good evidence.12 It should be noted, however, that some scholars remain convinced of the view that the helots are better described as serfs, not slaves, and consensus has not been reached on this issue.13


Sparta’s treatment of the helots was a byword for cruelty in antiquity. Echoing Critias, but perhaps not as admiring, is Isocrates’ remark (6.96) that their slavery was harsher than any other; similarly, Theopompus claimed that the helots were in an altogether cruel and bitter condition (FGrHist / BNJ 115 F13). Xenophon (Hell. 3.3.6) has the insurgent Cinadon remark that the helots and other subordinate groups in Sparta (e.g., perioikoi, neodamōdeis, hypomeiones) so hated the Spartiates that they would gladly eat them raw. On the other hand, much recent scholarship has pointed out that Spartiate intervention in the lives of the helots was occasional, and for the most part the helots ran their own affairs.14 There is no evidence that the Spartiates ever micromanaged the lives of the helots; rather, we are looking at an ideology of contempt instantiated through measures of extreme brutality, only occasionally enacted, targeting those helots who rose above their humble station.

Ideological tools of the Spartans included an annual declaration of war on the helots by the Ephors upon taking office (Aristotle in Plut., Lyc. 28.4) that freed helot killers from miasma (religious pollution). If Plutarch (Lyc. 28.4) is to be believed, it also included humiliation of helots through enforced intoxication in the messes, an example of the intemperance of slaves in counterpoint to the Spartans’ famous sobriety and self-control (Critias 88B F6 DK; Xen. Lac. 5.4–7; Pl. Leg. 637a). Plutarch (Lyc. 28.5) also tells us that helots were banned from singing the songs of certain poets. According to the pro-Messenian Hellenistic writer Myron of Priene (FGrHist / BNJ 106 F2), helots were forced to wear dogskin caps and receive a set number of stripes of the whip annually to hammer home their servile status; masters who allowed their helots to become overly brawny could be fined and the helot in question killed. If this is true, it perhaps represents Hellenistic developments in Laconia, but it is possible that the practice existed earlier. It is equally possible that Myron is exaggerating or inventing details to demonize the Spartans.

Targeted violence against helots is best known in the context of the mysterious krypteia and the famous alleged slaughter of 2,000 helots as reported by Thucydides (4.80). Our main sources for the krypteia are Plato (Leg. 633b–c), who reports that it was a select training programme in endurance; and Plutarch (Lyc. 28.2–3), who may be getting his information from the peripatetic author of the lost Aristotelian Lacedaemoniōn Politeia.15 According to Plutarch, the magistrates sent out from time to time some of the most intelligent of the youth, armed only with daggers and minimal supplies; these would infiltrate the countryside and kill those helots whom they met on the road at night; they would also infiltrate the fields and murder those helots whom they regarded as inappropriately brawny. These sources leave various possibilities open: was there a shift in the nature of the krypteia, from a training regime in Plato’s day to a helot-hunting exercise in Aristotle’s day? Or do both of these writers preserve incomplete pictures of the same institution? Furthermore, when was the helot-hunting aspect introduced? This issue was disputed in antiquity, for Plutarch disagreed with [Aristotle]’s attribution of it to Lycurgus (Plut., Lyc. 28.1). Modern writers too have differed regarding the timescale of its introduction: for some, it was a relic of an age-old initiation system stretching back into Indo-European prehistory; for others, it represents a reaction to the helot revolt of 464 bce; yet others see it as a development of the post-369 period and applying to Laconia only.16 Similarly controversial is the state massacre of 2,000 helots reported by Thucydides (4.80). For some, this is a credible story which fits the historical context of the 420s bce; for others, it is an apocryphal story concocted for propagandistic reasons.17

Socio-Economic Aspects

The majority of the helots worked as farmers on the estates of the Spartiates in Laconia and Messenia (until the latter was liberated by the Thebans in 369 bce). Spartiate citizen rights rested on the ability to pay monthly mess dues (Aristotle, Politics 1271a26–37), and since these were paid mostly in kind, Spartiates needed to have sufficient land and helots to meet the cost despite the vagaries of climate and possibility of lean harvests. Helots appear to have lived in the countryside mainly in family groups (cf. Thuc. 1.103.3), which explains how the population reproduced itself intergenerationally; intensive field surveys in Laconia and Messenia point to different configurations of helot settlements, with a large number of farmsteads and hamlets in Laconia (trending more towards hamlets from the 450s onwards), but larger nucleated settlements in Messenia.18 From the produce of Spartiates’ farms, some obviously had to be retained by the helot cultivators for their own subsistence. Again, our sources are contradictory: were the helots and Spartiatai engaged in a sharecropping arrangement, perhaps like the defeated Messenians mentioned by Tyrtaeus (fr. 6–7 West), who paid their conquerors half of the crop? Or did the helots pay a fixed amount, the same every year, as suggested by Plutarch (Mor. 239d–e)? Hodkinson has argued that the Plutarchan arrangement is a Hellenistic innovation, replacing an earlier system based on the sharecropping principle.19

Not all helots were farmers. Some were probably supervisors.20 Others were fishermen and possessed small vessels (4.26). We probably underappreciate the range of tasks in which helots worked through a sparsity of source material. Helot women could work in service for Spartiate families and were particularly important in textile production: unlike other Greek women, Spartan women did not weave (Xen. Lac. 1.3–4). The illegitimate children of Spartiates and helot women seem to have been raised as free non-citizens.21 Although helots lacked formal ownership rights, like other Greek slaves they seem to have been able to amass savings with the consent of their owners; and many helots in Hellenistic Laconia possessed several hundred drachmas in savings.22

Demography and Rebellion

It is universally accepted that the helot population greatly outnumbered the Spartiate population. Herodotus (9.10.1; 28.2; 29.1) tells us that for each Spartiate who fought at the battle of Plataea in 479 bce, seven helots fought too. This disparity will have become increasingly felt as time went on and Sparta’s decline in citizen numbers became increasingly acute.23 This disparity in numbers (combined with other factors such as absenteeism, large slaveholding units, and terrain suitable for fortified resistance points) made Sparta particularly vulnerable to slave revolts.24 The most famous of these occurred in 464 bce following a massive earthquake; the campaign to defeat the rebels lasted perhaps for a decade (Thuc. 1.101–103; Diod. 11.63.1–6; Plu. Cim. 16.4–7). It should be noted, however, that this revolt included Messenian perioikoi and was not simply a slave rebellion.25 The possibility of smaller episodes of violent resistance that have largely passed underneath the radar of our sources is suggested by Aristotle’s remark (Pol. 1269a) that the helots often attacked the Laconians and were like an enemy constantly lying in wait for their misfortunes. In modern debate, scholars fall between two opposing poles: on the one hand, the idea that Spartan militarism was a direct result of the constant need to police the helots and, on the other, a rejection of the notion of constant tension between Spartiates and helots, arguing for generally peaceful relations.26

Military Role

Although various normative sources write of helot oppression (see “Treatment”), the participation of helots in warfare is well documented and an example of how Sparta’s need for military manpower was in tension with its ideological commitments. This phenomenon also demonstrates an arena for helot agency, since volunteering for military service was the only official route by which a helot could achieve freedom.27 Helots are known to have served as batmen for their Spartiate owners (Thuc. 4.8.9; 4.16.1), and they brought supplies to the besieged Spartans on Sphacteria in 425 (Thuc. 4.26.5). However, they also served as soldiers, fighting as light troops at the battle of Plataea (Hdt 9.10.1; 28.2; 29.1), and most famously with Brasidas (Thuc. 4.80.5; 5.34.1). A group of ex-helot soldiers known as neodamōdeis (“new members of the demos”) played an important role in Sparta’s military in the 4th century (Xen. Hell. 1.3.15; 3.1.4; 3.4.2–3; 5.2.24; 6.5.24). Another group of former helots, the desposionautai (“master sailors”), appear to have served in Sparta’s fleet (Myron, FGrHist / BNJ 106 F1).28

Comparable Groups

A tradition ran through much of antiquity in which helots were compared to other, apparently similar servile groups.29 The trend began with Plato and Aristotle in the context of debates over the place and organization of slavery in ideal states. Plato’s points of comparison for helotage were the penestai of Thessaly and the Mariandynoi of Heraclea Pontica (Leg. 776c–d). What made these populations comparable appears to have been that they were monoglot slave populations. Aristotle added two further comparanda: the perioikoi (also known as klarōtai) of Crete—not to be confused with the free perioikoi of Laconia and Messenia—and the kallikyrioi of Syracuse (Pol. 1269a34–b12; 1271b41–1272a1; fr. 586 Rose). Theopompus (FGrHist / BNJ 115 F122) likewise compared the helots to penestai. As time went by, other groups were added to the lists: for example, the Bithynians in Byzantine territory (Phylarchus, FGrHist / BNJ 81 F8); the Leleges in Caria (Philip of Theangela, FGrHist / BNJ 741 F2); the Gymnetes of Argos, and Korynephoroi of Sicyon (both in Poll., Onom. 3.83). It is unclear by what criterion or criteria these other dependent populations were considered similar to the helots, and many of these comparisons emerged in the Roman period after such systems had disappeared. The early sources certainly treat the penestai, klarōtai, and Mariandynianoi as slave populations; Cretan inscriptions use different terminology, but deal only with slaves that could be sold (IC IV 41 IV 6–14; IC IV 72 VII 10–15).30 Bans on external sale of slaves such as that operative in Classical Sparta are attested for the penestai (Archemachus FGrHist / BNJ 424 F1) and Mariandynoi (Posidonius FGrHist / BNJ 87 F8).31


  • Luraghi, Nino, and Susan Alcock, eds. Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2003.


  • 1. Luraghi 2009: 286–287.

  • 2. e.g. Hans Van Wees, “Conquerors and Serfs: Wars of Conquest and Forced Labour in Archaic Greece,” in Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures, ed. Nino Luraghi and Susan Alcock (Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2003), 33–80.

  • 3. Nino Luraghi, “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered,” in Sparta: Beyond the Mirage, ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson (London: The Classical Press of Wales, 2002), 229–250; Nino Luraghi, “The Imaginary Conquest of the Helots,” in Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures, ed. Nino Luraghi and Susan Alcock (Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2003), 109–141; and Nino Luraghi, “The Helots: Comparative Approaches, Ancient and Modern,” in Sparta: Comparative Approaches, ed. Stephen Hodkinson (Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales, 2009), 261–304.

  • 4. Jean Ducat, “Les hilotes à l’époque archaïque,” in La Main-d’œuvre agricole en Méditerranée archaïque: Statuts et dynamiques économiques, ed. Julien Zurbach (Paris: Ausonius, 2015), 165–195.

  • 5. See Jean Ducat, Les hilotes, BCH Suppl. 20 (Paris: De Boccard, 1990), 46–47 for a collection of references; and see David M. Lewis, Greek Slave Systems in Their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c. 800–146 bc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 295–305, on the term oiketēs.

  • 6. Cf. Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales, 2000), 9–112.

  • 7. Luraghi, “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered,” 229.

  • 8. Ducat, Les hilotes, 26–27.

  • 9. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth, 113–149; Lewis, Greek Slave Systems, 125–141.

  • 10. Luraghi, “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered,” 229–230.

  • 11. See Nigel Kennell, “Agreste genus: Helots in Hellenistic Laconia,” in Helots and Their Masters, ed. Luraghi and Alcock, 81–105.

  • 12. David M. Lewis, “The Local Slave Systems of Ancient Greece,” in Voiceless, Invisible, and Countless: The Experience of Subordinates in Greece, 800–300 bc, ed. David W. Tandy and Samuel D. Gartland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  • 13. See Peter Hunt, “Slaves or Serfs? Patterson on the Thetes and Helots of Ancient Greece,” in On Human Bondage: After Slavery and Social Death, ed. John Bodel and Walter Scheidel (Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 55–80.

  • 14. Stephen Hodkinson, “Spartiates, Helots and the Direction of the Agrarian Economy: Toward an Understanding of Helotage in Comparative Perspective,” in Slave Systems, Ancient and Modern, ed. Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 285–320.

  • 15. Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, “War die Krypteia ein grausames Terrorinstrument? Zur Entstehung einer Fiktion,” Laverna 15 (2004): 33–46; for the various sources, see Jean Ducat, Spartan Education. Youth and Society in the Classical Period (Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales, 2006), 281–285.

  • 16. Welwei, “Krypteia”; Ducat, Spartan Education, 281–331; Jean-Christophe Couvenhes, “Les kryptoi spartiates,” Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, Supplement 11 (2014): 45–76; and Massimo Nafissi, “Krypteiai spartane,” in Los espacios de la esclavitud y la dependencía desde la antigüedad, ed. Alejandro Beltran, Inés Sastre, and Miriam Valdés (Besançon, France: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2015), 201–229.

  • 17. Accepting: F. David Harvey, “The Clandestine Massacre of the Helots (Thucydides 4.80),” in Spartan Society, ed. Thomas J. Figueira (Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales, 2004), 199–217; and Lewis, Greek Slave Systems, 135–136; sceptical: Annalisa Paradiso, “The Logic of Terror: Thucydides, Spartan Duplicity, and an Improbable Massacre,” in Spartan Society, ed. Thomas J. Figueira (Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales, 2004), 179–198; Annalisa Paradiso, “Spartan Suspicion and the Massacre, Again,” Araucaria: Revista Iberoamericana de Filosofía, Política y Humanidades 37 (2017): 257–269; Welwei, “Krypteia.”

  • 18. R. W. V. Catling, “The Survey Area from the Early Iron Age to the Classical Period (c. 1050–c. 300 bc),” in The Laconia Survey, Vol. 1, ed. William G. Cavanagh et al. (London: British School at Athens, 2002), 151–256; and Susan Alcock, et al., “Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, Part VII: Historical Messenia, Geometric through Late Roman,” Hesperia 74 (2005): 147–209.

  • 19. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth, 125–131; cf. Ducat, Les hilotes, 56–62; and Luraghi, “The Helots,” 277–278 for different views.

  • 20. Hodkinson, “Spartiates, Helots,” 308–309; cf. Winfried Schmitz, “Sklavenaufseher der Heloten?” Historia 63, no. 3 (2014): 293–300; and Luraghi, “Helotic Slavery Reconsidered,” 230.

  • 21. Xen. Hell. 5.3.9, with Hodkinson, Property and Wealth, 336–337.

  • 22. Plutarch, Cleomenes 23.1, with Kennell, “Agreste genus,” 85.

  • 23. For further discussion of Helot demography, see Thomas J. Figueira, “The Demography of the Spartan Helots,” in Helots and Their Masters, ed. Luraghi and Alcock, 193–239; and Walter Scheidel, “Helot Numbers: A Simplified Model,” in Helots and Their Masters, ed. Luraghi and Alcock, 240–247.

  • 24. Paul A. Cartledge, “Rebels and Sambos in Classical Greece: A Comparative View,” in Crux: Essays in Greek History Presented to G. E. M. de Ste. Croix on his 75thBirthday, ed. Paul A. Cartledge and F. David Harvey (London: Duckworth, 1985), 16–46.

  • 25. Thomas J. Figueira, “The Evolution of Messenian Identity,” in Sparta: New Perspectives, ed. Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell (London: The Classical Press of Wales, 1999), 211–244; Nino Luraghi, The Ancient Messenians: Constructions of Ethnicity and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 173–208.

  • 26. G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (London: Duckworth, 1972), 89–94; contra: M. Whitby, “Two Shadows: Images of Spartans and Helots,” in The Shadow of Sparta, ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 87–126; and Paradiso, “Logic of Terror.”

  • 27. Annalisa Paradiso, “Politiques de l’affranchissement chez Thucydide,” in La Fin du statut servile? Affranchissement, libération, abolition, XXXe colloque du GIREA, Besançon 2005, ed. Antonio Gonzales (Besançon, France: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2008), 65–76.

  • 28. On Helots in warfare, see Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, Unfreie im antiken Kriegsdienst (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1974), 108–174; and Peter Hunt, Slaves, Warfare and Ideology in the Greek Historians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 13–18; 56–82; 170–174.

  • 29. Ducat, Les hilotes, 31–51.

  • 30. Lewis, Greek Slave Systems, 147–165.

  • 31. In general, see Lewis, “Local Slave Systems”; for the view that these were “serf’ populations, see van Wees, “Conquerors and Serfs.”