Unlike many slaves, the Helots were Greeks who outnumbered the Spartans who held mastery over them. They several times rebelled against the Spartan rulers, at last successfully.

Yet it seems that Helots in large numbers accompanied the Spartans' into battle. How was order maintained? Why didn't they turn on the Spartans in battle? I would also be interested in any references describing the Helots and the techniques Sparta used to control them.

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    Simple - only "married with children" Helots are given this privilege. Combine with reasonable reward upon successful conclusion of a campaign and I fail to see how this is even an interesting question. Dec 6, 2015 at 1:37
  • 5
    True, for those who know a field many questions are not "interesting." But, sorry, I did not ask my question to interest you personally. Since you are knowledgeable in this area, perhaps you could address the latter part of the question and recommend some good sources on the Helots and the methods of controlling them, such as the cryptia. My interest stems from larger issues of social control. I have not been able to find lot of material on the Helots "on the shelves" and don't really grasp how much is known... or not. Dec 8, 2015 at 14:37
  • @PieterGeerkens could you please specify what reward the 35 000 helots were given after Platea? as there seems to be some conflict with an answer given here history.stackexchange.com/questions/50777/… can you also cite a source on how the spartans were able to control the families of so many helots during this time? This also begs the question why not control the helots by separating them from their families on a regular basis?
    – Hao S
    Jan 25, 2019 at 5:44

3 Answers 3


Normally the Spartans were very much concerned about helots uprisings, and there were indeed several large recorded ones. On the other hand, when needed (when pressed really hard), they would draft helots to their army, and usually they granted them freedom for this. Several such instances are described by Thucydides and Xenophon. There is indeed no recorded case that I know when those liberated and drafted to the army turned their weapons against the Spartans. But why should they? To achieve what? They were already liberated. You may argue that the purpose would be to liberate other helots, but this is apparently not the way they thought.

Of course these liberated helots did not become real Spartans with full rights, but they became personally free, probably similar to ''perioikoi'' (which constituted a large part of the population). But this was similar to the situation in other city states: not all inhabitants had full citizen rights.

By the way, Athens also drafted slaves to their navy, when pressed hard.

  • Find one such reference in Thucydides or Xenophon and collect my up-vote Dec 6, 2015 at 4:00
  • @PieterGeerkens Thucydides V, 34. Though I can't remember if there were any large "manumissions" before that. It was Peloponessian war, what made spartans to rely on helots so much.
    – Matt
    Dec 6, 2015 at 6:58
  • probably similar to ''perioikoi'' Probably "neodamodes", as Thucydides said they settled in the same place. Some sources (e.g. wiki) even explicitly state that word "neodamodes" stands for such helots.
    – Matt
    Dec 6, 2015 at 7:05
  • BTW. As I see in English translation of Thucydides V, 34, which you linked, it is "placed them, together with such others", while Russian translation explicitly says "together with neodamodes".
    – Matt
    Dec 6, 2015 at 7:11
  • The only way out of it is to learn Greek, if you want to study these questions seriously:-)
    – Alex
    Dec 6, 2015 at 16:08

First of all, helots were "light infantries" only, at least until Brasidas' campaign. So spartan hoplits could defeat them in a direct clash: until Iphikrates light infantries had no tactic against heavy phalanx, no matter if helots outnumbered spartans as 7:1.

But why they never tried to betray spartans in the battle seems really strange. Of course, some helots may hope to deserve a freedom, but there couldn't be too many of them.

It seems that the most popular guess is that the helots of Laconia had some privileges over the helots of Messenia (kind of "home slaves" vs. "rustic slaves"), and only privileged helots could be soldiers in the army of Sparta.

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    Thanks. If you know good references on Helotry, I'd be glad to hear. It might just be that betrayal "in the midst of battle" isn't really as possible as it may sound. Dec 5, 2015 at 19:35
  • @Matt Of course light infantry (mass noun, don't pluralise) have a defence against a phalanx. It's called running away. Later on the Spartan phalanx was defeated by light infantry who alternated this tactic with chucking things at them. (Lechaeum, 390 BCE) Mar 12, 2018 at 15:38
  • @BlokeDownThePub Lechaeum, 390 BCE In fact, I've mentioned Iphikrates in my answer. But given that his success was so much unexpected by his contemporaries, it wasn't really an easy thing to do. Considering "simply running away", anyone could throw out his shield and run away successfully if there's no enemy cavalry around. But that's not how the battles are won.
    – Matt
    Mar 12, 2018 at 16:08

I would also be interested in any references describing the Helots and the techniques Sparta used to control them.

On the techniques used by Spartans to keep the helots in check you may want to read about the so called “ceremony of the helots” in Thucydides, IV,80. Thucydides describes how at one time the Spartan authorities got rid of around 2,000 helots who had fought on the side of the Spartans and were expecting to be liberated as a reward. The Spartan authorities called forth all those among the helots who regarded themselves worthy of reward for having provided good service to the Spartans in battle. From those who turned up, the Spartans picked 2,000, whom they dressed in ceremonial clothing and paraded around the religious cites of the city, never to be seen again.

Thucydides does not date the incident. He mentions it as an example at the beginning of his account of Brasidas’ campaign of 424 BC, in order to support the claim that the Spartans were constantly in need of taking precaution against a helot uprising. Due to the context in which Thucydides makes his digression on the 2,000 helots, it has been argued that this incident took place not very long before the campaign of Brasidas {Jordan (1990)}. However, there is good reason to think that this is a much earlier incident that could have taken place sometime after the battle of Plataea. You may want to check also this question if you are more interested in this topic.

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