1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Helots

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HELOTS (Gr. εἵλωτες or εἱλῶται), the serfs of the ancient Spartans. The word was derived in antiquity from the town of Helos in Laconia, but is more probably connected with ἕλος, a fen, or with the root of ἑλεῖν, to capture. Some scholars suppose them to have been of Achaean race, but they were more probably the aborigines of Laconia who had been enslaved by the Achaeans before the Dorian conquest. After the second Messenian war (see Sparta) the conquered Messenians were reduced to the status of helots, from which Epaminondas liberated them three centuries later after the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.). The helots were state slaves bound to the soil—adscripti glebae—and assigned to individual Spartiates to till their holdings (κλῆροι); their masters could neither emancipate them nor sell them off the land, and they were under an oath not to raise the rent payable yearly in kind by the helots. In time of war they served as light-armed troops or as rowers in the fleet; from the Peloponnesian War onwards they were occasionally employed as heavy infantry (ὁπλῖται), distinguished bravery being rewarded by emancipation. That the general attitude of the Spartans towards them was one of distrust and cruelty cannot be doubted. Aristotle says that the ephors of each year on entering office declared war on the helots so that they might be put to death at any time without violating religious scruple (Plutarch, Lycurgus 28), and we have a well-attested record of 2000 helots being freed for service in war and then secretly assassinated (Thuc. iv. 80). But when we remember the value of the helots from a military and agricultural point of view we shall not readily believe that the crypteia was really, as some authors represent it, an organized system of massacre; we shall see in it “a good police training, inculcating hardihood and vigour in the young,” while at the same time getting rid of any helots who were found to be plotting against the state (see further Crypteia).

Intermediate between Helots and Spartiates were the two classes of Neodamodes and Mothones. The former were emancipated helots, or possibly their descendants, and were much used in war from the end of the 5th century; they served especially on foreign campaigns, as those of Thibron (400–399 B.C.) and Agesilaus (396–394 B.C.) in Asia Minor. The mothones or mothakes were usually the sons of Spartiates and helot mothers; they were free men sharing the Spartan training, but were not full citizens, though they might become such in recognition of special merit.

See C. O. Müller, History and Antiquities of the Doric Race (Eng. trans.), bk. iii. ch. 3.; G. Gilbert, Greek Constitutional Antiquities (Eng. trans.), pp. 30-35; A. H. J. Greenidge, Handbook of Greek Constitutional History, pp. 83-85; G. Busolt, Die griech. Staats- u. Rechtsaltertümer, § 84; Griechische Geschichte, i.2 525-528; G. F. Schömann, Antiquities of Greece: The State (Eng. trans.) pp. 194 ff.  (M. N. T.)