In Spartan society, all slaves were owned by the state. The helots (as the Spartan slaves were known) outnumbered the citizen population by about twenty to one. Helots formed the basis of the Spartan economy and were essential to food production, however, they were treated like animals. Helots were bound to the land, unable to leave.
Helots were legally viewed as enemies of the state. They were forced to wear humiliating clothing to distinguish them from the Spartan population and were publicly punished through annual beatings to remind them of their servile position. One ancient writer, Plutarch, described how the Spartans made the helots drunk to show the young Spartans the problem with drinking in excess. He also described how the young Spartan men could run throughout the country armed with daggers and murder helots at will. This was intended to terrorize them to keep them under control. There was no penalty for killing a helot.
In wartime, they acted as servants to the warriors or served as light infantrymen. Only the state could emancipate slaves but how often they used the power was questionable. One Greek writer describes how after a victorious battle, the helots were asked to name those who were champions so they could be manumitted. The two thousand who stepped forward were murdered. The Athenian, Critias, best described the situation in Sparta: “The free were more free, and the slaves more fully slaves than elsewhere.”
Tomorrow, The Celts Rita Bay