What happened to the 35,000 helots that fought at Plataea?

Were they made Spartan citizens?

I just felt this might have been disruptive to Spartan society.

I've checked Wikipedia, Google.. related questions on stackexchange and been unable to find an answer.


3 Answers 3



If there was any reward at all for the helots at Plataea, it was plunder. There is no evidence from ancient sources that any helots were made citizens in the aftermath of Plataea. Also, there is very strong circumstantial evidence which suggests that citizenship was not awarded to helots. The earliest likely date for helots becoming citizens is the late 3rd century, at least 250 years after the Battle of Plataea.

There is also no evidence that any helots were freed in the aftermath of the Battle of Plataea, but it is not inconceivable that a small number were. This raises the question as to why a servile population apparently willingly supported their masters; this issue is discussed at the end of this answer.


The role played by the helots at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC) - and how many of them there were - is disputed. The only source is Herodotus who says there were 7 helots for each of the 5,000 Spartiates (citizens):

this would certainly be the largest number of Helots ever known to have left Lakonia. In fact to many scholars it has seemed implausibly high. Clearly it was not demanded on strictly military grounds, although Welwei (1974, 120–4) has properly stressed the supply problem of this campaign and suggested that Helots were used to solve it.

Source: Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia

Thus, many helots may not even have fought but, for those that did, there is no evidence in ancient sources that any were made citizens.

Despite the Spartan citizen population declining steadily over the years from around the late to mid 5th century BC, only those born to a Spartiate father and a Spartiate mother could be citizens. Even the sons of Spartan citizens with helot women (mothakes) could not become citizens.

Also at Plataea were 5,000 perioeci hoplites. These were free non-citizens who had no political say in Sparta and were obligated to provide soldiers when called upon. They were of a higher social class than the helots, and yet there is no evidence that any of them were made citizens for the military service they rendered at Plataea. If the perioeci and mothakes could not gain Spartan citizenship, it is highly improbable that helots could.

Although the shortage of citizens became increasingly critical during the 4th and 3rd centuries, proposals to increase the citizen body by granting citizenship to some of those outside the elite were rejected until Cleomenes III (235 - 222 BC) forced through much needed reforms after an earlier King, Agis IV (245 - 241 BC), had failed.

We cannot rule out the possibility that some helots were freed in the aftermath of Plataea, but there is no mention of this happening in ancient sources and it does not appear to have been the practice at the time of Plataea. If any were freed, they would most likely have become perioeci and been given land on the frontiers of Lakonia or other territory controlled by Sparta.

The practice of freeing helots for military service rendered does not seem to have happened until around the 420s (see Neodamodes, and also those who fought with Brasidas during the Peloponnesian War). The JSTOR article On Messenian and Laconian Helots in the Fifth Century B.C. goes into some detail on this by examing the ancient sources.

This change in 'policy' was likely due to the apparently heavy losses Sparta suffered in the earthquake of 464 BC, and the casualties suffered during the Peloponnesian War. Note how concerned the Spartans were at the possibility of losing just 120 citizens captured after the Battle of Sphacteria (425 BC). Freeing helots was one way of tackling the problem of declining manpower.

Why did the helots support the Spartans at Plataea?

So why did the Helots apparently willingly support and probably fight alongside their Spartan masters? There is no definite answer to this question, but the most plausible explanation is that the Lakonian helots (who almost certainly comprised the bulk of the helots at Plataea), perceived that they had little to gain and much to lose by swapping their Spartan masters for the powerful Persian empire.

We should also not ignore that the Lakonian helots seem to have had a not entirely disadvantageous relationship with the Spartans. They were not like most slaves who could be (and often were) separated from their families, and they had land to work from which they could profit to some extent - even if they didn't own it, they had ancestral ties to it. Thus, if they had turned on their Spartan masters, they would have had much to lose, and the other Greek states in the anti-Persian coalition would certainly not have thanked them for it (i.e. it wasn't just the Spartans they were helping, it was most of Greece). As Peter Hunt puts it,

Many cities, such as Athens and Aegina, had deferred their bitter quarrels to fight together against the Mede. The Helots too may have felt that their fight with the Spartans could be put aside until the Persians were repelled. They also would have known that, although they outnumbered the Spartiates, they were but a part of a large Greek alliance under Spartan leadership and that their homes and families were under Spartan control.

Source: Peter Hunt, 'Helots at the Battle of Plataea' (Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte Bd. 46, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1997)

The Spartans may have been the helots' unwanted masters, but at least they were Greeks, not 'barabrians' like the Persians. Nor was helot support in battle unprecedented; they were among the dead at Thermopylae and were buried next to the Spartans. Also, according to two ancient sources, Lakonian helots were used during the First Messenian war, and there is other evidence of the trust placed in them by Spartans. Thus, it is important to differentiate between Lakonian helots and Messenian helots:

There is simply no indication of trouble among the Laconian helots in the 490s. Indeed, if the Spartans did actually face a Messenian revolt at this time, their ability to contain it and then immediately send a large hoplite force to Marathon almost reqires the loyalty of their Laconian subjects. Any unrest in the 490s, therefore, involved only the Messenian helots....

...Given a history of helot rebellions in Messenia, it is logical that the Spartiates were wary of trouble from that quarter. On the other hand, since there is no corresponding evidence of unrest in Laconia, it is equally reasonable that the Spartiates trusted them enough to rely upon them as support troops.

Source: James T. Chambers, 'On Messenian and Laconian Helots in the 5th Century BC' (The Historian, Feb 1978)

It has been argued by Friedrich Cornelius, in Pausanias (Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte Bd. 22, H. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1973)), that Pausanius promised some helots freedom after Plataea, but this is speculative; there is no evidence that Pausanias conspired with the helots before Plataea. What Thucydides says clearly relates to not just after the Battle of Plataea (479 BC) but also after Pausanias had been accused of conspiring with the Persians (478 BC) (see also Thucydides) and adopting some of their habits. According to Thucydides, the Ephors (five annually elected 'magistrates')

were also informed that he was intriguing with the Helots; and this was true, for he had promised them emancipation and citizenship if they would join him in an insurrection and help to carry out his whole design.

Note that the promise of emancipation was for joining an insurrection, not for services rendered at Plataea. A more likely 'direct' inducement (if there was one at all) was plunder:

After the battle of Plataea Pausanias ordered the helots to collect the booty left behind by the Persians. The booty then became public property and anyone found in private possession of it could be put to death. The helots stole as much of it as they could hide, and then sold the stolen goods to the Aeginetans. Herodotus probably exaggerates when he says that the Aeginetans founded their national treasure with the gold that they bought from the helots ; still the plunder stolen must have been considerable. It is inconceivable that theft on such a grand scale and the sale of the spoils to another state should have remained a secret. Yet Pausanias apparently did nothing to recover the booty or to punish the helots.

Source: Borimir Jordan, 'The Cermony of the Helots in Thucydides' (L'Antiquité Classique T. 59 (1990)

Hunt makes the same point:

The story that the Helots stole booty from the Spartiates may well conceal the first rewards they reaped for their service; usually, the Spartans exercised close supervision over the distribution of captured goods.

Based on the available evidence, it is most likely that the vast majority of the helots simply returned to their former lives (and families, as well as the land to which they were tied) after the battle, but that some may have benefited from plunder.

Other sources:

Anton Powell (ed), A Companion to Sparta

Nabis of Sparta and the Helots

  • hmm this conflicts with the answer given by Pieter Geekens here history.stackexchange.com/questions/26680/… which really calls into question how were the helots kept in line here? I mean if there was ever a time to revolt this looks like a good time.
    – Hao S
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 3:05
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    @HaoSun I think you mean the answer from Alex...? The evidence from Thucydides and Xenophon is from a later time period (not Plataea) - drafting and freeing helots after service became more common as the citizen population declined and there was a lack of citizen hoplites. The earthquake of 464BC (15 years after Plataea) is a key event here. Before this, citizen numbers may have been declining (we don't know for sure), but they were not critical. Thus, drafting of helots was less common. Also, I'm not ruling out the freeing of some helots after Plataea - we simply don't know. Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 12:30
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    Very, very nice follow-up work done on this answer. +1.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 15:55

I think your question is THE key for making sense of the following two events: A) the fate of Pausanias and B) the "ceremony" of the helots in Thucydides (IV 80). I am not a historian, but I have a genuine interest in the subject and I hope that the following thoughts may prove useful in answering your question.

Thucydides is very clear in that the Spartans were particularly hesitant to move out of the Peloponnese (especially en masse) out of fear of a helot uprising. But at the battle of Plataea the Spartans apparently found a way to do precisely that, mobilizing more than half of their Spartiates hoplites. It would have been inconceivable that the Spartans planned on fighting the most decisive land battle against the Persians, while having to look over their shoulders for 35000 helots. The helots had to have come along willingly, and for that to happen, they must have been offered a chance to improve their state of being, in exchange for their willing participation in the campaign and their brave conduct on the battlefield. Indeed, such a prospect would have also pacified the helots left behind.

Whatever promise was given to the helots by Pausanias it would not have been popular with everyone in Sparta, but it must have been deemed necessary for the Spartan army to be able to mobilize en masse and take part in Plataea. In the end, we know Pausanias was never allowed to make good on his promise. The faction that was opposed to the idea of granting more rights to the helots ultimately prevailed and managed to isolate, slander and eventually eliminate Pausanias.

Thucydides describes also how the Spartan authorities got rid of around 2000 helots who had fought on the side of the Spartans and were expecting to be liberated as a reward. 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 2000 helots, it has been argued that this incident took place not very long before the campaign of Brasidas {Jordan (1990)}. However, if this was indeed the case, then it would have been very difficult for Brasidas to recruit the 700 helots he did for his campaign, let alone to have any faith in their good conduct on the battlefield, especially considering the absence of a Spartan ingredient in his command. The mass slaughter of 2000 helots could not have been an unsettled account at the time of Brasidas. It seems more plausible instead, that it had taken place before the outbreak of the third Messenian War.

In the years immediately after Plataea there would have been several thousand helots who had taken part in the battle and expected to be granted the promised reward. The elimination of 2000 of them makes perfect sense in conjunction with the elimination of Pausanias. It would have sent a clear message to the helots to abandon any claim to liberty they had been promised, while at the same time rendering them powerless to act. This course of events would also explain why the helots kept waiting for the right opportunity to take up arms against the Spartans. That opportunity was provided by the earthquake of 464 BC, which sparked the massive helot uprising known as the third Messenian War. After several years of armed confrontation the Spartans eventually came to terms with the helots, allowing them to leave unharmed and they were re-settled by the Athenians in the city of Naupactus. Thus, by the time of Brasidas’ campaign the score had long been settled and helots could again be trusted to join military campaigns.

@Lars Bosteen, thank you very much for your comments. Regarding your point (1), I do not think it is accurate to say that we have no evidence that the helots were promised anything. Pausanias is explicitly mentioned to have allegedly promised the helots freedom and political rights/independence {ἐλευθέρωσίν τε γὰρ ὑπισχνεῖτο αὐτοῖς καὶ πολιτείαν (Thucydides I.132.4)}. I agree that there is no explicit mention that these promises were made in exchange for their military service in Plataea, but a good case can be made in support of this view.

Regarding your point (2), as far as I am aware the ancient sources do not inform on the Messenian/Lakonian composition of the helots in Plataea. If, as you argue, the 35,000 consisted mainly of Lakonian helots, wouldn’t that mean that there would be even fewer men left behind to guard against a Messenian revolt? This would make the departure of the 5,000 Spartiates even less likely in the absence of a “Pausanian promise”.

Regarding (3), the helots (Messenian or not) had very much to gain by collaborating with the Persians. The Persians would have rewarded very generously the service of more Ephialtes’. At the very least, the helots could expect monetary rewards. At best, they could hope for their very own city-state and some degree of autonomy, similar to the Ionian Greek cities. The Persians may have even let the helots rule over their former Spartan masters in exchange for switching over to the Persian side. Indeed, the helots had nothing to lose and so much to gain by joining the Persians that it seems impossible to imagine why they didn’t, unless they were expecting comparable rewards from their Spartan masters.

  • 3
    A few of points to consider here: (1) we have no evidence that the Helots were promised anything by anyone for their service at Plataea, but we can be fairly sure that they were (unofficially) allowed to filch a fair amount of booty, (2) it is likely that the 35,000 helots (assuming that number to be correct) were Lakonians rather than Messenians; according to 2 ancient sources, the former had been used during against the latter the 1st Messenian War, and (3) why would the Helots (especially Lakonian ones) prefer a foreign oppressor - and a huge empire at that - to a local one? Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 11:10
  • @LarsBosteen were the Helots as slaves allowed to own property? It also seemed that gold was not allowed to be owned by private citizens nor weapons and armor by slaves which further makes loot rather useless (3) because Persians were hardly oppressors all of the historians I've heard talk about Persian governance as a mild burden and many Greeks willingly served as mercenaries in the Persian empire At the least not nearly the extend that Spartans oppressed them.
    – Hao S
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 17:11
  • 2
    @HaoS Helots were allowed to own property. See, for example, Hodkinson (2007, citing Herodotus and Thucydides): "...helots were able to accumulate not insignificant amounts of moveable property. The ancient sources depict helots engaging in private sales, insuring their boats, and expecting to receive rewards of silver." Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 23:03
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    @HaoS On the Persians, yes they were quite 'mild' in their governance but note that the Greeks under Persian control nonetheless rebelled numerous times. Also, don't forget that there was a lot on anti-Persian propaganda flying around at the time. As for Greeks serving as mercenaries for the Persians, I'm not sure we can read much into that. But Greeks were also hired by Egyptians, and there plenty of examples of Christian mercenaries fighting fellow Christians while in the pay of Muslims. In short, mercenaries follow the money, and the Persians had plenty of that. Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 23:11

What happened to the 35,000 helots that fought at Plataea?

Were they made Spartan citizens?

As you've discovered, and as one would have thought from the laws ruling Spartan society, they weren't. Spartan society was ruled as a dual kingship monarchy with a small aristocracy who were the only ones to have actual citizenship. Thus, it would not have seen seemly to raise actual helots to citizenship. In fact, from what I've read, there was a day when any Spartan citizen could kill helots without any formal retribution by the state - they looked the other way.

This is unlike what happened in the famous sea-battle at Arguinusae between the Spartans and the the Athenians, which was won by the Athenians; and where Athens, to celebrate this victory and to thank all those who fought in the battle, made all slaves who fought in this battle, citizens. Athens after all was a democracy (although compared to modern democracies they would not seem so - but it's worth reminding ourselves here that the expansion of the vote was a relatively recently won) ...whereas, Sparta, as shown by their behaviour, then, were being and are odious and tyrannical; they deserve all the hatred that history has poured onto them.

  • 1
    That really begs the question of why fight for Sparta then? We do know Helot rebellions occurred and this seems as good a time as any to revolt. Further, since so much of Greece had surrendered Xerxes would surely have known about the helot slaves and we do know that Xerxes did try to use diplomacy to get greeks on his side.
    – Hao S
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 17:15
  • 2
    I have removed comments that were uncivil or did not promote respectful discourse. Comments must conform to SE Code of Conduct and H:SE expected behavior. Personal attacks are not permitted.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 17:26

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