Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Spartan Economy: A Closer Look at Helot Society

The common view of Sparta is of a society divided between the wealthy, politically privileged (albeit underfed, cowed yet brutal etc. etc.) Spartiates, and the oppressed, helpless, despised helots. As I have noted in earlier entries, this ignores the vitally important role of perioikoi, but today I wish focus on helot society, particularly the fact that it too was highly differentiated. Not all helots were equal – nor equally miserable.

Historical sources make reference to helots in a variety of positions. First and foremost, of course, the helots worked the land. But helots also played a – singularly undefined – role in the Spartan army. Helots accompanied the Spartan army to Plataea, for example, and they were ordered to set fire to the sacred wood after the battle of Sepeia. These army helots appear to be a collective body under the command of the king, not the individual attendants of Spartan rankers. But each Spartan hoplite did, apparently, also have a helot body servant to look after his kit and help him arm. We hear too of “Lacedaemonian” wet-nurses being highly valued, and finding service as far away as Athens, where such a nurse allegedly breast-fed the ultimate Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades. While not explicitly a helot, it is hard to imagine a Spartiate or even perioikoi woman taking a position that was usually held by a chattel slave. The same is true of hereditary “town-criers, flute-players and cooks” listed by Herodotus (The Histories: 6:60). Because all these functions were important to the army, I have argued elsewhere that they were not despised professions, but it is unclear whether the jobs were filled by perioikoi or helots; either interpretation is possible. Last but not least, although not explicitly mentioned, implicit in a highly civilized society with a very tiny elite such as Sparta, were people doing all the menial tasks necessary to keep a developed but still non-mechanized society functioning. In short, helots most likely did all those tasks done by chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world. Someone in Lacedaemon built roads, dug ditches, cleaned latrines, quarried stones and extracted ore from mines etc., and I think it is safe to assume that these jobs were done by helots.

As we look closer at helot society, let’s remember that rural helots retained a substantial fixed portion (according to reliable sources 50%) of the produce of that land they worked. Allegedly, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  As long as there is only one male heir to each tenant, such a system is more or less sustainable indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, human demographics do not produce perfect replacement and even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England) families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs rapidly reduces a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.

Stephen Hodkinson in his excellent study Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000) traces the impact of inherence laws on the concentration of wealth in Spartiate society, but helots were not land-owners and could not buy or sell land. Rather, they were transferred with the land from one Spartiate owner to another.  Still, the ancient historians tell us that some helots were wealthy enough by the end of the 5th century to buy their freedom. In short, the accumulation of wealth – albeit not land – was clearly possible even in helot society. Some helots were definitely richer than others. But how?

The key to understanding this is again demographics.  Unlike chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, helots had family units.  In consequence, the sexual relations and off-spring of helots were not controlled by their masters for their own purposes, but developed more naturally.  In Athens and elsewhere, the off-spring of slaves were unwanted extra mouths to feed (that also reduced the concentration and working life of a female slave) and so sexual intercourse between slaves was prevented to the extent possible. The fact that it was not always possible to prevent slave women from getting pregnant would not have worried slave-owners unduly because in ancient Greece it was common to expose unwanted children – even the legitimate children of citizens. The unwanted children of chattel slaves would therefore simply have been left to die. And if a slave became superfluous after infancy, it was still easy to dispose of them by selling them on the  international market. Unwanted Athenians slaves, therefore, could end up in Persia, Egypt or Italy. In short, Athens did not suffer from a growing slave population, because control of the population was in the hands of the slave-owners, who had an interest in keeping it in proportion to their demands.

In Lacedaemon, in contrast, Spartiates could not sell helots outside of Lacedaemon, and furthermore helots lived in family units. As everywhere else on earth where families exist, fathers took pride in at least their male off-spring.  Male children were therefore nourished and raised to adulthood to the extent possible. Most probably, female children received less attention, food and affection (if the evidence of societies across the globe is any guide), but enough girls survived to adulthood to ensure survival of society. Thus, we can hypothesize a growing helot population from the age of Lycurgus (whenever that was) to the classical period – that fateful age when the helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population many times over (though probably not more than serfs outnumbered noblemen in Medieval Europe, by the way.) This is an important dynamic that explains why the imbalance between Spartiate and helot populations was so much greater than the imbalance between the Athenian citizen and slave populations.

This simple demographic fact may also explain why helots, who could not acquire land as their Spartiate masters clearly did, would have become poorer over generations. After all, if all the descendants of the original helot tenant of a kleros were tied to the same plot of land, then a finite plot of land would have been required to sustain entire clans rather than just one nuclear family by the time two hundred years had passed. In short, each individual would have been much poorer than his ancestor.  While there may have been a general tendency toward impoverishment, it was clearly not the fate of all helots or there would have been no wealthy helots able to buy their freedom, and no one doing all the other jobs noted above.

Instead, it appears that some form of voluntary or involuntary primogeniture ensured that only one man had the status of “tenant-in-chief” on each kleros.  He might have many children and many sons, but he had only one “heir.” If there were no sons, then very likely a son-in-law became the “tenant-in-chief,” and if there were no surviving children at all, the kleros was “vacant” and the Spartan state had to find new tenants from a pool of available helots.

In the more common case of a man having more than one son, the non-heirs (most likely the younger sons) would have been “free” to pursue their fortune elsewhere.  As the property of the Lacedaemonian state, of course, helots could not leave Lacedaemon, but to my knowledge there is no reason to think they could not hire themselves out within the boundaries of Lacedaemon. 

Thus younger sons who were lucky or particularly clever might have been apprenticed to learn a craft scorned by the wealthier perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they could have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth.

Meanwhile, young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, probably had the option of hiring out for wages to the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites, or worked directly for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers or bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government.  Helot girls unable to find husbands would, like the daughters of the poor in every society across the globe over the last three thousand years, have found work as nursemaids and housemaids, waiting on the women and children of those better off than themselves.

In other words, helot society was more complex than Spartiate society. On the land there would have been at least three classes of helots.  There would have been “tenants-in-chief” on the prosperous estates of wealthy (even royal) Spartiates, who retained a large portion of significant revenues from the fertile land. Such helots would probably have been able to build substantial dwellings and to hire domestic help and additional labor when necessary (harvest etc.) without dividing up the inheritance and so keeping it in tact.  They would probably have lived better than many free men in other societies. (A good example of this pattern is the wealthy serfs of southwest England who built houses hardly distinguishable from the manors of the gentry.)  

At the same time there would have been helots on poor, run-down or marginal estates that -- like their Spartiate masters -- were constantly on the brink of failure. Very likely, Spartiate masters living in fear of losing their citizenship or barely able to make agoge fees were harsh masters, constantly trying to squeeze more from the kleros or looking for ways to cheat the helots out of their share. Finally, at the bottom of rural society would have been the itinerant agricultural workers without homes of their own, who sold their labor by the day or hour. 

But, as I pointed out above, helot society was not exclusively rural.  Urban helots would also have had different strata living very different life-styles.  Many helots, younger sons and sons of landless fathers, who were unwilling or unable to learn a craft would have made a living as unskilled workers, some as attendants to Spartiates, others as laborers for the Spartan state and army.  Such helots probably lived in barracks, on their employer’s estates, or in small rented rooms, and would have formed a kind of urban proletariat similar to poor craftsmen in Athens and elsewhere.
However, there would also have been skilled craftsmen with workshops and stores.  While some of these might have barely scraped by, living in miserable slums or dark attic rooms rented from their more prosperous neighbors, others – as anywhere on earth – would have had a talent for business and trade. Exceptional craftsmen would have been able to charge more for their goods or might have found other ways to make money. These would have been able to afford apprentices and even slaves of their own. The more they had, the easier it would be for them to accumulate wealth by investing and lending. Such men, like the privileged “tenants-in-chief” on the kleros, would have lived in comparative luxury and would later be in the position to buy their freedom.

In short, in addition to the oppressed, abused and miserable helots familiar to every student of Sparta, there were also large numbers of comparatively well-off helots, who enjoyed considerable freedom, a reasonable standard of living for their age, and were far from discontented with their lot in life.  These helots were what enabled the Spartan state to function so well throughout the archaic age.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Spartan Economy: The Role of the Perioikoi

It is one of the ironies of recorded history that we generally know much more about the tiny, ruling elite in any society than about the masses that actually composed it. Thus we know about the lives and loves of medieval kings, but little about the peasants that represented more than 90% of their subjects. Likewise, Lacedaemonian history is dominated by the tiny class of Spartiates, albeit a great deal has also been written about the (allegedly unjustly) oppressed helots.  The segment of Lacedaemonian society that has received the least scholarly attention is the “middle class” – the perioikoi. 

The lack of modern literature on the perioikoi is undoubtedly due to the lack of historical and archeological information about this segment of Spartan society. The fact is, we know almost nothing about them -- not their origins, their history, their laws, or their legal relationship with the ruling Spartiates and subordinate helots. 

The lack of archeological finds has led some historians to hypothesize that they were an essentially rural population, hardly better off than the helots themselves.  Yet the very fact that they provided hoplites in at least equal numbers as the Spartans casts serious doubt on this thesis.  I would also note that the archeological finds in Sparta itself hardly reflect the might and wealth that we know Sparta enjoyed. For whatever reasons, the existing archeological evidence from Lacedaemon is an incomplete, indeed woefully inadequate, reflection of the society that inhabited the region in the 7th to 3rd Centuries BC.

John Chadwick in “The Mycenaean World" claims that the Mycenaeans found a native population on the Peloponnese, which they subjugated.  When the Dorians invaded, they conquered the remnants of the Mycenaeans.  This sequence of events might explain the three class system in Lacedaemon: the helots were the original inhabitants already reduced to serf-like status by the Mycenaeans, and the Mycenaeans became the perioikoi after the Dorian invasion.  All three groups were essentially ethnically distinct and status depended on who had conquered whom.  The situation appears to have been stable until the Spartans invaded Messenia and subdued another Dorian population. But all this is speculation.

Yet, while we know almost nothing about the perioikoi, we can infer a great deal. We know, for example, that in the later years of the Peloponnesian war, perioikoi hoplites were fully integrated with Spartan units – and that implies comparable levels of training, equipment and above all trust.  While the enemies of Sparta (and modern commentators) make much of the hostility of the helots to Spartiate rule, the loyalty of the perioikoi is rarely questioned – or mentioned, despite its significance. 

Furthermore, we know that Sparta had a fleet but that Spartiates had virtually no opportunity to gain the extremely complex knowledge necessary to build and sail ancient vessels. We know that Spartiates were prohibited from pursuing any profession other than that of arms (and civic administration – see my earlier entry "Not Just Soldiers"), but Lacedaemon had extensive international trade. We know further that Lacedaemon produced and exported timber, pottery, and bronze works. It had mines and quarries, and, of course, every kind of handcraft necessary to daily life in the ancient world from carpentry and metal working to tanning and basket-weaving. If the Spartiates were prohibited from performing these tasks and the helots were working the land, who provided the manpower and the know-how for all these various industries?

The logical answer is the perioikoi. Furthermore, by ascribing to the perioikoi these various urban professions generally held by citizens in other Greek cities, we quickly see a way in which the perioikoi could have been both integrated and co-opted into Spartan society despite their undeniable second-class political status.  The Perioikoi had no voice in Spartan politics and yet they were expected to risk their lives side-by-side with the Spartiates. It hardly seems credible that they would have accepted this situation for long – particularly in the bad years of the Peloponnesian War – if they had not enjoyed other benefits. 

The financial benefits of a monopoly on industry and trade throughout the rich territory of Lacedaemon would have been such an incentive. The very restrictive nature of Spartan citizenship, which confined Spartiates to the army and civic duties, opened immense opportunities for the perioikoi to enrich themselves.  Even if completely excluded from land-holding (which to my knowledge they were not, but which might have been the case when the Spartiate population was expanding in the archaic era), there would still have been ample opportunities to not only earn a living but make a fortune with industry and trade. The experience of other societies shows that a manufacturing and trading middle-class can indeed prosper even when politically disenfranchised (see, for example, Medieval France).  This, I believe, is the key to perioikoi loyalty and the essential character of the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract. 

While Spartiates reserved political power to themselves and evolved a culture that disdained the public display of wealth; the perioikoi traded political enfranchisement for the dual benefits of economic freedom and security.  Behind the shields of Sparta’s incomparable army, the perioikoi were free to enrich themselves for generations.  Only after Sparta fell into decline and her citizen ranks grew too thin to guarantee the protection of Lacedaemon did the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract begin to unravel. The decline of Spartiate population forced an increasing dependence on perioikoi troops, which put perioikoi at ever greater risk. As long as Sparta was winning wars, that might have been acceptable, but once Sparta was defeated at Leuktra the perpetual disenfranchisement of the periokoi became untenable.  Throughout the archaic period, however, the division of labor between Spartiate and perioikoi appears to have worked admirably.

Perioikoi play an important role in my  Leonidas' Trilogy: