Medieval Serfs



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- Medeival Serfs

Here is an article on Medieval Serfs.

The Helots (in Classical Greek Εἵλωτες / Heílôtes) were the serfs of Sparta. They Medival Serfs should not be confused with the chattel slaves, who were much Medeival Serfs less common. Helots were not confined to Sparta; the practice also occurred in Thessaly, Crete, Medeval Serfs and Sicily[1].


  • 1 Etymology
  • 2 The Mediveal Serfs Helot system
    • 2.1 Status
    • 2.2 Helots Medieal Serfs and kleros
    • 2.3 Demography
    • 2.4 Emancipation
    • 2.5 A Meideval Serfs special case: the mothakes and the mothones
  • 3 Fear and humiliation
    • 3.1 "Contempt of Helots"
    • 3.2 Context
    • 3.3 Security measures
  • 4 Helot revolts
    • 4.1 The Pausanias plot
    • 4.2 Massacre at Taenarus
    • 4.3 Earthquake
    • 4.4 Athenian outposts
  • 5 See also
  • 6 Notes
  • 7 Bibliography
  • 8 External links


There are several theories as to the origin of the word. According to Hellanicus, it comes from the village of Helos, in the South of Sparta. Pausanias thus states "Its inhabitants became the first slaves of the Lacedaemonian state, and were the first to be called Helots, as in fact Helots they were. The slaves afterwards acquired, although they were Dorians of Messenia, also came to be called Helots" [2] (III, 20, 6). This explanation is however not very plausible in etymological terms.

Linguists have associated the word to the root ϝελ / wel, as in ἁλίσκομαι / alískomai, "to be captured, to be made prisoner". In fact, some authors did not consider the term to be ethnic, but rather an indication of servitude. Antiochus of Syracuse, in a fragment (number 13) preserved by Strabo, writes "those of the Lacedaemonians who did not take part in the expedition were adjudged slaves and were named Helots"[3] (VI, 3, 2), while Theopompus (fragment 122) , cited by Athenaeus (VI, 416c), states "..and the one nation called their slaves Helots and the others called them Penestae..." [4].

"In all of these texts, the christening of the group as helots is the central and symbolic moment of their reduction to serfhood. By this name they are thus institutionally distinguished from the anonymous douloi (slaves).[5]"

It is certain that one aspect of helotism was the issue of conquest; this was the case of the Messenians, reduced to such in the Messenian Wars of the 8th century BCE. Herodotus amongst others refers to Helots as Messenians.

For the earliest Helots, the situation is less clear. According to Theopompus they were the descendants of the initial Achaeans, conquered by the Dorians. But then, not all Achaeeans were reduced to Helotism; as such the village of Amykles, home of the Hyacinthia festival, enjoyed special status.

Contemporary authors propose alternative theories; according to Antiochus of Syracuse they were the Lacedaemonians who did not participate in the Messenian Wars. For Ephorus of Cyme, they were the Perioeci from Helos, reduced to slavery after a failed revolt. Modern historiography favours the Antiochus of Syracuse hypothesis.

The Helot system


The legal status of Helots was complex. They were not free and had no political rights; they were thus comparable in this way to chattel slaves of which the rest of Greece had many. Numerous ancient authors, both Greek and Roman, referred to Helots simply as douloi or servi without any special attention to their particular status. In effect the Helots were tied to the land in almost the same way as medieval serfs.

In theory, they belonged to the state and were attached to a piece of land, the κλῆρος / klễros ("lot, inheritance"). The citizen to whom the kleros was devolved could neither emancipate the Helots that were attached to it nor sell them abroad. Nevertheless, they existed as a form of private property; according to Aristotle, citizens use one another's slaves as virtually their own, as well as horses and hounds.[6](Politics, II, 1263a 35-37). One could say that although the city owned the Helots, citizens held them in usufruct.

Helots and kleros

Helots were assigned to citizens to carry out domestic work or work on their kleros. Mention is made in various sources of these servants accompanying this or that Spartan. Plutarch (Life of Agesilaus, III, 1) has Timaea, the wife of King Agis II, "being herself forward enough to whisper among her helot maid-servants" that the child she was expecting had been fathered by Alcibiades, and not her husband; indicating a certain level of trust. In the 4th century BCE, citizens also used chattel-slaves for domestic purposes. Some Helots were also servants to young Spartans during their Agoge (Spartan education); these were the μόθωνες / mothōnes (see below). Finally, Helots could be artisans or tradesmen.

They were required to hand over a predetermined portion of their harvest (ἀποφορά / apophóra), with the helot keeping the surplus. According to Plutarch, this portion was 70 medimnos of barley for a man, 12 for a woman, as well as a quantity of oil and wine corresponding to an amount reasonable for the needs of a warrior and his family or a widow respectively. The existence of the apophora is contested by Tyrtaeus, cited by Pausanias; "Secondly, though no fixed tribute was imposed on them, they used to bring the half of all the produce of their fields to Sparta....Like asses worn by their great burdens, bringing of dire necessity to their masters the half of all the fruits the corn-land bears."[2] (IV, 14, 4–5). This does however concern the period immediately after the first Messenian War, when conditions were no doubt more severe.

Having paid their tribute, the Helots could often live quite well; the lands of Laconia and Messenia were very fertile, and often permitted two crops per year. A certain amount of wealth was achievable: in 223 BCE, 6000 Helots purchased their freedom for 500 Drachma each, a considerable sum at the time. Nevertheless, Spartans did take measures to keep the Helots from getting too rich.


Helots lived in family units and could contract unions amongst themselves. This was a significant difference from chattel-slaves, amongst whom contracts, marriages, and family relationships were not legally recognized. Helots were thus much less susceptible to having the family unit dispersed. Because of this, in contrast to other slaves in Greek Antiquity, Helots reproduced. Their numbers, probably not insignificant to begin with, increased; this in spite of the crypteia, other massacres of Helots (see below), and losses in war. At the same time, the population of citizens continued to decrease.

The absence of a formal census prevents us from accurately assessing their number, though some estimates are possible. According to Herodotus (IX, 28–29), the Helots were seven times as numerous as the Spartans during the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. At the time of the conspiracy of Cinadon, at the beginning of the 4th century BCE, at the agora only 40 peers or citizens could be counted in a crowd of 4000 (Xenophon, Hellenica, III, 3, 5). At that point, the total population of Helots, including women, is estimated as 170,000 – 224,000. [7].

Given that—unlike chattel slave populations—the Helot population could not grow by means of purchase or capture in war, it had to rely on natural growth. Helots were encouraged by the Spartans to impose eugenics similar to that which they practiced themselves. Thus, according to the Greek beliefs of the period, not only genetic but also acquired characteristics were passed along to successive generations. During the crypteia, the strongest and fittest Helots were the primary targets of the kryptes; to select soft targets would be a sign of weakness.

What is more, the Spartans used Helot women as a means of meeting the state's needs in terms of human resources: the 'bastards' (nothoi) born of Spartan fathers and Helot women held an intermediary rank in Lacedaemonian society (cf. mothakes and mothones below) and swelled the ranks of the citizen army. It is difficult to determine whether these births were the results of voluntary liaisons (at least on the part of the father) or part of a formal state programme. It is likely that girls born of such unions, serving no military purpose, were exposed at birth [8].


According to Myron of Priene, cited by Athenaeus (The Deipnosophists, VI, 271F), the emancipation of Helots was "common" (πολλάκις / pollákis). The text suggests that this is normally associated with completion of military service. The first explicit reference to this practice in regards the Helots occurs in Thucydides (IV, 26, 5). This is on the occasion of the events at Sphacteria, when Sparta had to relieve their hoplites, who were besieged on the island by the Athenians:

"The fact was, that the Lacedaemonians had made advertisement for volunteers to carry into the island ground corn, wine, cheese, and any other food useful in a siege; high prices being offered, and freedom promised to any of the Helots who should succeed in doing so".[9]

Thucydides reports that the request met with some success, and the Helots got supplies through to the besieged island. He does not mention whether or not the Spartans kept their word; it is possible that some of the Helots later executed were part of the Sphacterian volunteers.

The second such call came during the Theban invasion of Laconia. Xenophon in Hellenica (VI, 5, 28) states that the authorities agreed to emancipate all the Helots who volunteered. He then estimates that 6,000 heeded the call, leading to some embarrassment for the Spartans

All the same, in 424 BCE, the 700 Helots who served Brasidas in Chalcidice were emancipated, and they were henceforth known as the "Brasidians". It was also possible to purchase freedom, or achieve it by undergoing the traditional Spartan education. Generally, emancipated Helots were referred to as "neodamodes" (νεοδαμώδεις / neodamōdeis): those who rejoined the δῆμος / dễmos (Deme) of the Perioeci.

Moses Finley underscores that the fact Helots could serve as hoplites constituted a grave flaw in the system. In effect, the hoplite system was a strict method of training to ensure that discipline was maintained in the phalanx. The Spartans gained considerable reputation as hoplites, due to tactical capabilities developed though constant training. In addition to this military aspect, to be a hoplite was a key characteristic of Greek citizenship. To introduce Helots to this system thus led to inevitable social problems.

A special case: the mothakes and the mothones

Phylarchus, cited by Athenaeus (VI, 271 E) specifies a class of man at the same time free and non-citizen: the μόθακες / mothakes, had undergone the 'agoge, the Spartan educational system. Classical historiography recognizes that the Helots comprised a large portion of these mothakes. Nevertheless, this category poses a number of problems, firstly that of vocabulary.

The classical authors used a number of terms which appear to evoke similar concepts:

  • μόθακες: a connotation of freedom, Phylarchos affirmed that they were free(eleutheroi), Claudius Aelianus (Varia Historia, 12, 43) that they could be citizens;
  • μόθωνες / mothōnes: a connotation of servility, the word designates slaves born to the home;
  • τρόφιμοι / trophimoi: pupils, adopted children, whom Plutarch classified among the xenoi (strangers);
  • σύντροφοι / suntrophoi: literally, "they who were raised with", that is to say, milk-siblings, given by Phylarchus as equivalent to mothakes;
  • παρατρέφονοι / paratrephonoi : literally, "those who were fed near you", signification rather different from the preceding (this word also applied to domestic animals).

The situation is somewhat complicated by a gloss of Hesychios of Alexandria which attests that mothakes were slave children (δοῦλοι / doũloi) raised at the same time as the children of citizens. Philologists resolve this quandaryt in two ways:

  • they insist on reading μoθᾶνες / mothãnes, as a hapax for μόθωνες (Arnold J. Toynbee);
  • the hypothesis that douloi has been interpolated by a copyist who confounded mothakes and mothônes.

In any case, the conclusion needs to be treated carefully:

  • the mothônes were young servants charged with domestic tasks for young Spartans during their education (Aristotle, I, 633c), they remained slaves on reaching adulthood;
  • the mothakes were an independent freeborn group of Helots.

Fear and humiliation

"Contempt of Helots"

This expression by Jean Ducat expresses another of the great characteristics of Helots among the servile populations of Greek antiquity: they were ritually maltreated. Sources for this are abundant, and detailed.

Myron of Priene, cited by Athenaeus (XIV, 657 D), specifies the humiliations they were subjected to: they had to wear hats of dog skin (κυνῆ / kunễ) as well as sheep hides (διφθέρα / diphthéra) to distinguish themselves from others. The canine symbolism was clear to the Greeks: that of a servile and cowardly animal. Each year, the Helots were ritually flogged, apparently for no other reason than to affirm their servitude; though it seems that only a small group was actually flogged, symbolically representing the whole Helot population.

Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 8-10) also indicates that they were forced to drink pure wine (which was considered dangerous - wine usually being cut with water) "...and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs..." during syssitia (obligatory banquets)[10]. Conversely, it was reported in the same source that the Thebans ordered a group of Helot prisoners to recite the verses of Alcman and Terpander (national poets of Thebes); the Helots refused, on the grounds that it would displease their masters.

What is more, when the Ephors took office, they routinely declared war on the Helots, (Aristotle cited by Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 28, 7), thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without repercussion. Most of the time, this was done by kryptes, graduates of the difficult agoge who took part in the Crypteia. In 425 BCE, 2,000 Helots were also massacred in a carefully staged event. Thucydides (IV, 80, 4) states:

"The Helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever knew how each of them perished." [9]

Myron of Priene also indicates that Helots who became too fat were put to death, with their masters fined for letting them get fat.


The image built up by available sources is unanimous: the Helots were ritually humiliated and psychologically abused. Nevertheless, this picture needs to be kept in context.

Firstly, clothing: the dipthera (literally, "leather") was the general attire of the poor working class — the proletariat, so to say — and was worn as well by freemen in Athens. As such, in Aristophanes' The Clouds this is the attire of the character Strepsiades. In a similar fashion, the word κυνῆ / kunễ is used in Greek literature, especially by Homer in the Iliad, to mean a helmet. In Athens, and in the Odyssey (XXIV, 231), it also means a leather or skin hat.

Secondly, the obligation of masters to prevent fatness amongst their Helots appears somewhat incongruous: as the Homoioi lived separately, how could dietary intake be rigorously controlled? Additionally, as manual labour was an important function of the Helots (for example, being used to carry their master's arms and armour on campaign), it would make sense to keep the Helots well nourished. From Thucydides (IV, 6, 1) we know of the rations afforded by the Spartans to their besieged hoplites on Sphacteria. We also know that the Helots were on half-rations. Calculations[11] indicate that this half ration was far from miserable: it corresponds to 81% of daily nutritional needs for a moderately active man, according to FAO standards. Complemented as was normal with some meat and wine, this ration was thus close to normal.

Security measures

This hatred of the Spartans towards the Helots originates in fear: given the relatively small number of Spartans in comparison with the servile population, the natural fear that Helots would attempt to destroy them contributed to their mistreatment. According to tradition, the Equals always carried their spear, undid the straps of their bucklers only when at home lest the Helots seize them, and locked themselves in their homes. Thucydides condenses this in a celebrated phrase:

"the Lacedaemonians...policy at all times having been governed by the necessity of taking precautions against them. [9]" (IV, 80, 3)

Helot revolts

In spite of the brutality of their existence, Helots seldom revolted. The few citations which have been associated with Helot revolt are discussed below.

The Pausanias plot

The first Helot attempt at revolt which is historically reported is that provoked by general Pausanias in the 6th century BCE. Thucydides (I, 132, 4) reports:

"Besides, they were informed that he was even intriguing with the Helots; and such indeed was the fact, for he promised them freedom and citizenship if they would join him in insurrection, and would help him to carry out his plans to the end. [9]"

These intrigues do not however lead to a Helot uprising; Thucydides indeed implies that Pausanias was turned in by the Helots (I, 132, 5 - ...the evidence even of the Helots themselves.) There is little doubt that the promises made by Pausanias were too generous to be credible; not even Brasidas, when he emancipated his Helot volunteers, offered full citizenship.

Massacre at Taenarus

The massacre of Cape Taenarus, at the tip of Taygetus, is also reported by Thucydides (I, 128, 1):

"The Lacedaemonians had once raised up some Helot suppliants from the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus, led them away and slain them; for which they believe the great earthquake at Sparta to have been a retribution. [9]"

This affair, recalled by the Athenians in responding to a Spartan request to exile the Alcmaeonidae Pericles, is not dated. We know only that it happened before the disastrous earthquake of 464 BCE. Thucydides here is the only one to implicate the Helots: Pausanias (IV, 24, 5) speaks rather about Lacedaemonians who had been condemned to death. Nor does the text allow us to conclude that this was a failed uprising of Helots, only that there was an attempt at escape. Additionally, a Helot revolt in Laconia is unlikely, and Messenians would not likely be refugees near Cape Taenarus.


The uprising coincident with the earthquake of 464 BCE is soundly attested to; although Greek historians do not agree on the interpretation of this event.

According to Thucydides (I, 101, 2), the Helots and the Perioeci of Thouria and Aithaia took advantage of the earthquake to revolt and establish a position on Ithome. He adds that most of the rebels were of Messenian ancestry; confirming the appeal of Ithome as a historical place of Messenian resistance, and focuses attention on the Perioeci of Thouria, a city on the Messianian coast. Conversely, we can deduce that a minority of the Helots were Laconian; thus making this the one and only revolt of their history. Commentators such as Stephanus of Byzantium suggest that this Aithaia was in Laconia, thus indicating a large scale uprising in the region. The version of events given by Pausanius is similar.

Diodorus Siculus (XI, 63, 4-64,1), probably influenced by Ephorus of Cyme, attributed the uprising equally to the Messenians and the Helots. This version of events is supported by Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 12).

Finally, some authors place responsibility for the uprising with the Helots of Laconia. This is the case of Plutarch in his Life of Cimon(17, 8): the Helots of the Eurotas River valley want to use the earthquake to attack the Spartans whom they think are disarmed. The intervention of Archidamus II, who calls the Lacedaemonians to arms, simultaneously saves them from the earthquake and the Helot attack. The Helots fold, but revert to open warfare joined by the Messenians.

It is difficult to reconcile these versions. It is nevertheless clear that in any case the revolt of 464 represented a major traumatic event for the Spartans. Plutarch indicates that the Crypteia and other poor treatments of the Helots were instituted after this revolt. If there is any doubt in these affirmations, they at least underscore the immediate Spartan reaction: allies are gathered and war ensues with the same Athens that would be faced later in the Peloponnesian War.

Athenian outposts

During the same war and after the capitulation of the Spartans besieged in Sphacteria, the Athenians installed a garrison in Pylos composed of Messenians from Naupactus. Thucydides (IV, 41, 2-3) underlines that they had hoped to exploit the patriotism of the latter in order to pacify the region. Though the Messenians may not have triggered full-blown Guerrilla warfare, they nevertheless pillaged the area and encouraged Helot desertion. Sparta was forced to dedicate a garrison to controlling this activity; this was the first of the ἔπιτειχισμόι / épiteikhismoi ("ramparts"), outposts planted by the Athenians in enemy territory.

The second such outpost was at Kythera. This time, the Athenians set their sights on the Helots of Laconia. Again, pillaging and desertion occur, but no to the scale hoped for by the Athenians or feared by the Spartans: there was no uprising like that which accompanied the earthquake.

See also

  • Dependent groups in Greece: the Penestae of Thessaly
  • General article: Slavery in Ancient Greece
  • Crypteia
  • Intermediate status in Sparta: Neodamodes, Trophimoi, Perioeci, Sciritae.


  1. ^ Significant portions of this article were translated from the French wiki article 13 Jun 2006.
  2. ^ a b Pausanius, Description of Greece. Trans W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod 1918. Online at Perseus. accessed 11 June 2006.
  3. ^ Strabo. Geography. ed H.L. Jones 1924. accessed 11 Jun 2006
  4. ^ Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus. accessed 11 June 2006.
  5. ^ (French) J. Ducat, Les Hilotes, p. 7.
  6. ^ Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, trans H. Rackham. 1944 online at [1] accessed 11 June 2006
  7. ^ P. Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, Johns Hopkins University, London, 1994, p. 174.
  8. ^ (French) J. Tregaro, "Les bâtards spartiates" ("Spartan Bastards"), in Mélanges Pierre Lévêque, 1993. Infanticide through exposure to the elements of unwanted children is historically more common than most of us like to admit...
  9. ^ a b c d e Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton. 1910. Online at the Perseus project. accessed 11 June 2006
  10. ^ Plutarch. Life of Lycurgus. accessed 12 Jun 2006
  11. ^ L. Foxhall and H. A. Forbes, "Sitometria: The Role of Grain as a Staple Food in Classical Antiquity" in Chiron Number 12 (1982), p. 41-90.


  • Paul Cartledge. Sparta and Lakonia. A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC. Routledge, New York, 2002 (2nd edn). ISBN 0-415-26276-3
  • Jean Ducat:
    • (French) "Le Mépris des Hilotes", in Annales ESC, Number 29 (1974), p. 1451-1564
    • (French) "Aspects of Helotism", in Ancient Society, Number 9 (1978), p. 5-46
    • (French) Les Hilotes. Athènes : École française d'Athènes, Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, suppl. XX, 1990. ISBN 2-86958-034-7
  • (French) Moses Finley, "Sparte et la société spartiate", Économie et société en Grèce ancienne, Seuil, "Points Histoire" collection, 1984. ISBN 2-02-014644-4
  • Yvon Garlan:
    • (French) "Greek slaves in time of war", in Actes du Colloque d'histoire, Besançon, 1970
    • (French) Slaves in Ancient Greece, La Découverte, coll. "Textes à l'appui" collection, Paris, 1995. ISBN 2-7071-2475-3
  • (French) Edmond Lévy. Sparte : histoire politique et sociale jusqu’à la conquête romaine. Seuil, "Points Histoire" collection, Paris, 2003. ISBN 2-02-032453-9
  • Pavel Oliva, Sparta and her Social Problems, Academia, Prague, 1971
  • Sarah B. Pomeroy, Spartan Women, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002. ISBN 0-19-513067-7

External links

  • Livius, Helots by Jona Lendering

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