Slavery in Ancient Sparta

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

30 Comments

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30 responses to “Slavery in Ancient Sparta

  1. I sure wish my six grade class in South Bend, Indiana could read this. They insisted their were no slaves until the white man brought the African slaves to the colonies. They simply wouldn’t buy that other ciivilizations had slaves.

    • Hey Allison, You’re so right about that but it’s a general misconception. When I first started this research it was for a historical and I wanted info on the Barbary pirates. There were 22 books on slavery in our huge library system–all of them about slavery in America. So this month and next I plan to do the history of slavery this month and pirates next. Rita Bay

    • becky

      I know!!! I think people can be SO ignorant! My whole class acted like I was stupid when I mentioned slavery in Sparta.

  2. Jess

    I thought slaves could but their freedom

    • Hey, Jess. Laws regulating slavery varied by culture. Usually, in America and elsewhere, it was the master’s prerogative as to whether a slave could buy their freedom. More important was how the culture regarded slaves. In some cultures, slavery could be temporary and the slaves were well-treated – could even become citizens after they earned their freedom. Other cultures regarded slaves as inhuman and able to be worked to death. Sparta probably treated the helots (their slave population) the worst. Helots could be killed without cause by their Spartan overlords without reason and without punishment. The Spartans likely feared an uprising by the helots who were a permanent slave population and had nothing to lose. Rita

      • kaizen112

        That’s not entirely correct. Spartans were often gravely punished as the Helots were public property and to kill one was to damage public property (a capital crime in Ancient Sparta). Much of what people believe is actually taken in from scriptures left in Athens (Sparta’s chief enemy besides Persia and a place where the murder of slaves was quite common). It is true however that Spartans did at times kill slaves (although this was a practice done at graduation from the agoge) and it was one on one, in which if the helot killed the spartan he would become a free man (in which he would be ‘adopted’ by the city, which was the only city that allowed such a thing to happen. For instance Aristotle was not allowed to vote because having been born outside of Athens he was not a ‘free man’, as it was a requirement that you live in the city you were born in to be considered free). Sparta’s social regiment was made so rigid and strict that raping a slave was often punishable by exile (from the military or the city) both of which were the highest level of punishment a spartan could be given, past that of even death as it meant that they were not ‘human’ but ‘βάρβαρος’ or Barbarians.

        If you look at what spartan literature we have available, it’s actually less common than in any of the other city-states. Athens being one of the most extreme where things like paedophilia were commonplace and women were given to their husbands (men often times 20-30 years their elders) and were often forced to have sex until they got pregnant and gave birth oftentimes leading to death at childbirth.

        In Sparta, women were only married after they reached an age where they could ‘enjoy sexual activity’, generally interpreted as around 16 years of age (as compared to the 10-11 years of Athens) and they were married to men within 4-5 years their elders. This was done to preserve a strong line of men to continue fighting for Sparta.

      • Thanks you for the info. Ancient Sparta is NOT my area of expertise. Rita

  3. Ryan

    About how many slaves per spartan were there?

    • Hi Ryan,
      We’re talking ancient history – over two thousand years ago.. They didn’t conduct censuses back then and the helots were a type of slave. So, at best, there are only estimates. I checked several sources and each had differernt estimates varying from seven to 20. Livius.org claims seven and I would go with that. Goos luck. Rita

      • Ryan

        Would you say I could use your information for a history essay? I’m a freshmen.

      • Hi Ryan. Whenever you have non-sourced information like my posts, the info should be suspect. Although my posts are not sourced, I use at least three different sources to check my facts. The purpose of my posts is to entertain but accuracy is important to me as a former educator. If you are writing a paper, I would not be considered a legitimate source, even though I have a doctorate in education.
        The space of 200-500 words (my average post) doesn’t give me time and readers aren’t interested in historical disputes. Some historians, for instance, looked on the helots more as indentured servants who could be mobile in the Spartan society. Most historians, however, believe that the helots were the original inhabitants of the area who were conquered by invaders who settled in the conquered lands and created a system to control the conquered people who vastly outnumbered them. Check out your instructor’s requirements for what is allowed. Rita

    • kassie

      i think the spartin slaves were treated bad and where there girl slaves.

      • kassie

        i need to know for a school project

      • Hi, Cassie. Historians believe that the helots originally lived in the area. THey were invaded by the war-like Spartans who enslaved everyone – the men, women, and children. Since the helots outnumbered the invading Spartans, the Spartans were especially cruel to them. There was little chance of obtaining their freedom. NOTE: It has been over 2.000 years since this happened and most of what we know about the Spartans and helots come from people who didn’t like them. ALSO, be careful about getting info off the internet since there’s no way of knowing how accurate it is. This answer is to the best of my knowledge based on information I believe to be accurate. Rita

      • kassie

        ok thanks it helps

      • kassie

        ok i will be carefull and thanks

  4. himyname is julianna and i am in the 8th grade i am doing my reserch on greeks and saw that the sparten male had to kill their slave why would they do that ? did the sves do something wrong to their owners

    • Hi, Julianna. Slavery in Sparta was different than other city-states in Greece. Most likely, the Spartans had invaded a country and enslaved the people who lived there. While the exact number is unknown, the Spartan slaves – helots – outnumbered their Spartan lords somewhere between one to seven and one to twenty. There were several reasons that helots were killed by the Spartans. Since the helots outnumbered the Spartans, the Spartans intimidated the helots to maintain control over them. The Spartans themselves were very rough in raising their children. The men were expected to be warriors, so the helots became their victims. Finally, the helots were owned by the city of Sparta (Most worked in the fields or in public jobs, not as personally owned slaves who might work as servants to their owners as was the custom in America.), so the Spartans were not losing property when they killed a helot. The Spartans were not regarded well by the other city-states of Greece.
      Another general point, human life and freedom was not regarded as highly as we do today. For us, slavery is very wrong. Other cultures and in past times, slavery was an economic institution that was accepted by almost everyone. In some cultures, slaves could gain their freedom and actually buy slaves of their own. Early Christians, after the fourth century AD, did not approve of slavery and established laws that controlled it. Hope this helps. Rita

      • kaizen112 (Louis)

        They were required to kill a helot or to do another such mission to prove themselves capable of facing someone and mercilessly killing them. A famous quote attributed to the Queen Gorgo (wife and niece of King Leonidas I) was ‘Spartan. Come back with your shield, or upon it.’ This is meant to signify that there was no retreat (a spartan shield would likely weigh well above 5kg, and would be among the first things a deserter would throw aside as it would be heavy to run with and uncomfortable). Their lives from the age of 7 were dedicated to one thing. Combat.
        The ceremonial killing of the helot or such a mission, was viewed as a way to prove yourself a soldier, because you could coldly kill a man with absolutely no remorse. This led to many other polis (or cities) to dislike the spartans, as they viewed the use of the physical as being akin to animals and led to the belief that the spartans were less ‘human’ than the rest (because they used their bodies rather than their minds. Although this was a false concept).
        Another topic to touch upon would be the Krypteia, which were the elite ‘cadets’, those that would later rise to be officers in the military. First and foremost, the rank was not in anyway hereditary, nor could influence be used to attain it. It was gifted only through martial prowess. They were the ones that participated in the famed ‘wars’ with the slaves, and were allowed to engage in actions that we would now view as inhumane.

        Please also be aware that the definition of ‘humane’ did not exist in anything close to its current form until the World Wars, and was not placed into a concrete form until December 10th, 1948 at the forming of the United Nations. Which was the first international convention which defined certain things as ‘inhumane’. Civil Rights were first truly proposed in their modern form during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Locke and later Russeau and his ilk.
        You must also be aware that slaves were not human. Human, Man, Homo Sapiens; were titles given only to those that were free. That meant that they must reside in the city of their birth, they must use thought and reason, and they must not be a slave. It is traditionally believed that even post-Socratic Greece did not believe slaves were even capable of thought. That belief in truth arose later during the roman empire when they believed that whilst slaves were inferior, they were capable of thought.
        In essence, the ancient Greeks believed they were basically killing a wolves or mad dogs (as the helot was given a knife or a weapon of some sort and was therefore capable of defending itself. A trait that men shared with animals, self preservation) when they killed a slave; this belief was particularly strong in Sparta. The slave did have the saving grace that if he managed to kill the Spartan, he would ‘go free’.
        Most people don’t think twice about consuming beef, pork, chicken or sea food. It’s not like we don’t know that it was an animal, we’re merely able to ignore the fact that it was living because we need it for sustenance. Much the same type of principle applies in cases like these. The helots weren’t human, they were pack mules to be used for the good of the city, in whatever manner the city found it necessary.

  5. becky

    Wait…Is there an age (55) where the Helots can become free? Sorry if it was in the article. I’m sort of really busy with 3 papers.

    • Hi Becky, Slavery was usually for life, unless they were allowed to buy their freedom or were granted it. That generally did not happen in Sparta.
      Also, most people of that time did not live to be 55. Many women died in childbirth. Many babies did not live beyond their first year. Many people died from infection because there were no antibiotics or from communicable diseases because there were no immunizations. Someone in their fities was considered very old. Although a few people lived into their seventies and eighties, they were the exception rather than the rule. Some slaves did not get enough to eat which made them more likely to get sick.

  6. becky

    THANKS!!!! ATON!! You ROCK! I didn’t know if you’d actually answer, but i thought I’d try

  7. OLIVIA

    HI, i am doing a project in social studies and your blog really helped me.THANKS!!!!!!!

  8. Gina

    Hello, I love your blog, I’m doing a paper about Helots due tomorrow, and I was wondering, how would I cite this? PLease help me, and thank you very much!! :)

    • MLS if known, followed by the information covered above for entire Web sites. Remember to use n.p. if no publisher name is available and n.d. if no publishing date is given.
      “How to Make Vegetarian Chili.” eHow. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2009.

      Bay, Rita. “Slavery in Ancient Sparta.” http://ritabay.com. 2011. 9 Feb. 2012.

  9. genesis vandyke

    The two kings inherited the position and shared equal power. I have no education because I am a slave. When I get out of here I will walk 100 miles to get back to Sparta. I forgot to tell you that I was captured from Athens. I was fighting Athens to get Sparta new land but I was captured. I have been here for 5 days. I saw my friend Sara but she left with some Athens people and never came back. I use to trade but Sparta discouraged trading they feared contact with other city-states. Slavery was common in Sparta. All slaves were owned by the city-state slaves outnumbered the citizen population by about twenty to one. Slaves were legally viewed as enemies of the state

    • Lous (kaizen112)

      The fact that the position was hereditary is at best debatable, at worst false. At least in terms of what we now view as a hereditary title, because a younger son could be passed over if an elder one had some defect. Leonidas II took over when his brother was brought down because he was insane. After taking the throne he married his niece, but we have nothing to prove that he was married prior to his coronation. Tradition would have given Gorgo the throne until she married at which point her husband would take it. Leonidas’s elder brother was alive at that point, and even well into his reign, but was removed from the throne by the Spartan Senate.

      Secondly, the kings did not infact ‘rule’ in the manner we consider a monarchy. They were among the highest voices in the Senate but could and were often overruled, the Ephors sat equal to them (and were often considered a greater power because the Kings were two, the Ephors five). They were also elected annually by the Senate and therefore could not act too badly, or they’d risk losing their position at the next election. Spartan Kings were Judges (when concerning heirs, adoptions, and public roads), they were the head priests, and they were generals (and even this was curtailed by the time of the Persian wars to the point that the king couldn’t declare war without consent of the Ephors and the Citizenry).

      Thirdly, you have to remember that EVERY free man voted at the senate, and each voice was equal except for those seven who held a private vote in case a decision could not be reached by consensus. The Gerousia would confer with the Ephors and the two kings (although they were removed from this during the time of Aristotle) and they would plan out new edicts. These were then taken and shown to the Citizenry (the Senate) and voted upon.

      You also have to take in the fact that in battle, Slaves were used to herd towards the Phalanx…not for true combat. They’d be placed in areas where the phalanx could be flanked so as to allow for only one passage through.

      Yet another point I wish to make is that contrary to what seems to be believed…Helots could be given freedom. If a helot showed skill in combat, their children and depending on their age sometimes even they themselves would often be sponsored by a Spartiate as a syntrophos, which would mean they’d be adopted by the Spartiate and no longer be a slave. That also meant that they were allowed to participate in the Agoge, and if they won glory in battle could well become a Spartiate in their lifetime. Something Athens did not allow, slaves were not allowed to become Athenian, although they were allowed to be free of bonds.

      Again I reiterate the fact that hindsight is twenty-twenty. You can’t look at a society from more than two millennia ago with the morals and ideals of our current one. That doesn’t work, you have to try to understand what views were like back then. Every society has something that people in the future view as illogical and in the end unjust. I could say that about American actions in Vietnam, British Actions in WWII, Japanese and Nazi Germany’s in the same. Attempting to do so without understanding the circumstances of the time period, nor the ideals and view points that were shared during it however would make any statement I made invariably biased and opinionated.

      Were slaves often beaten and killed? Yes. Was it a crime to do so without an order from the Senate? Yes, and it was punishable by death or exile. They were public property, and in Sparta the damage to public property was a capital crime. Even in Athens, which so many people view as the epitome of a slave’s home in Ancient Greece, it was a fine and a few years of prison time.

      Could they buy their freedom? No. Could they earn their freedom? Yes, in battle.

      Please try not to judge what is at best a convoluted history. Most of what we believe about Sparta comes from Athens (as I’ve stated before) and anyone that knows anything about Greek history should know that the Spartans and the Athenians were at best of times unwilling partners against outside invasion, at worst (and normal times) bitter enemies and rivals. There are more accusations about Spartan society, because we don’t know much more than the basics about it. Particularly from those Athenians who sent their children to study in Sparta (proving that there was a good deal of thinking going on there).

  10. Andrew

    Best website i visited for sparta!

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