Slaves, the Unsung Heroes of Ancient Greece

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Sparta was a powerful state in ancient Greece. As with the rest of the country, slavery was an accepted norm here. However, there were some differences in the lives of the slaves who lived in Sparta and the ones who lived in other Greek states. What were these differences? Why were the mighty Spartans afraid of their slaves?

Picture showing the ruins of ancient Sparta in Greece.
Spartans were known for their military might. When they conquered an area, its citizens were forced to accept the servile status. (Image: DreamArt123/Shutterstock)

Spartans: Masters of the Helots

Sparta was a state in Greece that became a dominant military force in ancient times. According to the carved records dating back to 416 B.C, Athenian slaves came from different places that were scattered around the Mediterranean. When the Spartans conquered a territory, the citizens were forced to become slaves.

For example, the Spartans conquered a land called Messenia, which was a rich agricultural region west of Laconia. The citizens of Messenia worked on their own fields, but they were slaves of the Spartans. They did not have any political rights, and their masters could execute them without trial. They were called helots, a word of uncertain origin that is probably connected with a Greek verb meaning ‘to capture’.

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Painting on a vase depicting the agricultural slaves in ancient Greece.
Tyrtaeus, the Spartan poet, characterized helots as “asses worn down with great burdens.”
(Image: Antimenes Painter/Public domain)

Life of a Helot in Sparta

The helots produced agricultural products for their Spartan masters, but in emergency war situations, they had to serve as light-armed troops. When the slaves delivered their quota of produce to their masters, they could keep the remaining part. This was most of the time half of the crop.

The helots had a sort of family life independent from their masters. They didn’t have to work at somebody’s home and be at their constant service.

However, the masters knew how to control the helots. A group called krupteia, (secret or covert) was formed to terrorize the helots. Spartan youths between the ages of 18 and 20 were members of this group and their main job was to commit random acts of violence against the helots.

When the population of Spartan citizens reduced, which was the case from 450 B.C. onward, the Spartan Assembly gave the slaves some freedom. But these acts of kindness could not be trusted all the time. Once, the Spartans decided to honor the helots who had performed acts of bravery on their behalf. When they gathered to be honored, the Spartans killed them all because they thought that they were too dangerous, and it was much safer to kill them.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Brave and the Rebellious Helots of Sparta

It is believed that the helots were more in number than their masters in Sparta. This was a major difference between the helots and other Greek slaves. Although there is no indication of the exact numbers of helots, according to some experts, the helot population is estimated to be seven times as much as that of the masters. Naturally, the masters were always afraid that the helots would rebel, and that is why they did not want to involve them in long foreign wars.

What made the Spartans paranoid was that the helots were ethnically homogeneous, had a collective identity, and worshiped their own gods. Their fear was further increased by the fact that their way of life was more dependent on slaves than any other Greek community of the time. The helots did most of the farming for Spartans.

The concerns of the Spartans turned out to be true. In 464 B.C., the helots started to rebel, and the Spartans could not suppress them until the next five years. To our knowledge, this was the only known slave rebellion in the Greek states.

Picture shows a slave attempting to control a horse.
Spartans had good reasons to feel scared of their slaves. The slaves were a homogeneous group, with a collective identity. (Image: National Archaeological Museum of Athens/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

An unpleasant fact that we should not forget is that Athens, and generally Greece, were not able to achieve such significant cultural accomplishments without slavery. According to Herodotus, in 479 B.C, about 35,000 slaves served as light-armed forces at the Battle of Plataea. The Persians were forced to leave Greece at the end of this battle. Greece wouldn’t have been able to defeat barbarians without the help of the oppressed slaves. It is no exaggeration to say that the slaves remained the unsung heroes in ancient Greece.

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Common Questions about Slaves, the Unsung Heroes of Ancient Greece

Q: How were slaves treated in Sparta?

Slaves in Sparta had some levels of independence because they lived in their own country and worked on their own lands. They did not have to work at the home of their masters. However, since they did not have any civil or political laws, their owners had the right to execute them or even sexually and physically abuse them.

Q: How many slaves were there in Sparta?

Sparta had the highest number of slaves compared to the number of owners. Some scholars estimate that there were seven times as many slaves as citizens.

Q: What did slaves do in Sparta?

Slaves in Sparta worked on their lands and produced agricultural products for their masters. They lived in their home country and did not have to work at the homes of their masters. In times of an emergency, the slaves had to serve as light-armed troops.

Q: What was krupteia?

Krupteia was a secret group in Sparta, its main objective was to organize random acts of violence against the helots.

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