Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"...not like we Messenians..." - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I provided a short comparison of Athenian chattel slaves and Spartan helots. In this excerpt, Leonidas' Messenian helot-attendant points out yet other differences between the two slave populations.

Leonidas gladly submitted to Mantiklos’ barbering. The Messenian had become quite good at it. Besides, it was a good opportunity to gather more intelligence. “What else have you seen here?” 

“The slaves live rotten lives,” Mantiklos told him bluntly. 

“Don’t tell me worse than Messenians?” Leonidas opened one eye to observe his squire. 

Mantiklos grimaced. “I hate to admit it, but they do. Can you believe it? Slaves are not allowed to testify at a trial of a citizen unless they have been tortured! So anytime a citizen gets accused of one thing or another—as they are all the time around here—the slaves of the household are tortured either by the prosecution to make them testify against their masters, or by their own masters to make them vindicate him! Everyone in the household is terrified that in these unsettled times that their master will get into some lawsuit, and they will be put on the rack and stretched until they come apart at the joints or hung over a fire until the skin falls off their feet. The former housekeeper was put to the rack a couple of Olympiads ago, and he can hardly walk anymore. It’s the most barbaric custom I’ve ever heard of! At least you Spartans only kill us or what we have done or not done, not for what you accuse each other of doing!” 

Leonidas laughed at this conclusion, but Mantiklos only glowered at him more furiously and continued, “None of them are allowed to marry. They are locked up at night to keep them apart from the women—like animals.” 

“I don’t expect that’s terribly effective,” Leonidas remarked, thinking how easy it was for lovers to meet at other times and locations. 

“But if a slave girl gets pregnant, the child belongs to the master, not the father. Usually, if the master doesn’t want it, he leaves it in the agora for anyone who does, or puts it to death right away. And the young Athenian men are no better about keeping away from the slave girls than the Spartans in Messenia. The young master here has had all the women at one time or another, except his old nurse.” 

“I thought you said his wife lived here.” 

“She does, but that doesn’t stop him from taking his pleasure with the slaves.” 

“She must be a singularly stupid woman. Imagine what Hilaira would do to Alkander if he looked sideways at one of the helots on her kleros!” Leonidas laughed at the thought, because it was unimaginable that Alkander would look at another woman—but if he did, Hilaira would make his life hell! 

Mantiklos, however, only shrugged. “What should the poor girl do? She’s only just turned fifteen, and according to the slaves she hardly dares say a word to anyone, though she’s been here almost two years. I caught a glimpse of her and she is very frail and sickly looking—pale white skin and an enormous belly. In fact, she seemed to be all eyes and belly. I don’t expect she’ll survive childbirth. She’s too little and weak for it.” 

Leonidas stared at Mantiklos.... Mantiklos, however, had moved on to the next subject. “The worst thing about the slaves here is that they are all cut off from their families. They have been bought and sold—sometimes more than once. They don’t know who their fathers or brothers are. They don’t know the stories of their ancestors or the names of their household Gods. They are all just individuals struggling to survive in a strange place. They don’t even all speak the same language. There’s a slave here who came from someplace in the far north and knows only a few broken phrases of Greek, and another who is from Africa and talks to himself all the time in his own barbarian tongue. It drives the others crazy, because he is vicious and they are afraid of him. They say he once carved up a man—first killed him and then carved up his body into little pieces and cooked them in a big pot.” 

“Here in this house?” Leonidas asked in horror, sitting bolt upright. 

“No, before he came here; but they swear it is true.” Leonidas looked skeptical, and Mantiklos let it go. Although he was now finished with Leonidas’ haircut and shave, they were content to continue gossiping, sitting side by side in the only patch of sun available in the courtyard. 

“Because they all come from different places, they are always bickering among themselves. The Greeks think they are much better than the rest, of course, but some of the barbarians are just as proud. That is why, although they all hate the Athenians, they will never be a threat to Athens as we Messenians are to Sparta.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, if you go out into the streets you’ll see. There are many times as many slaves and metoikoi as Athenians, but they are so different from one another that they would never unite against the Athenians. We Messenians, on the other hand—” 

Leonidas knew about Messenia. He wanted to understand more about Athens. “What are metoikoi?” 

Mantiklos scratched his head and thought about it. “They’re free men from somewhere else in the world. Athens seems to attract human rubbish. I was told they have to find a patron and get themselves registered with a community if they want to live here permanently, and they have to pay a special tax. Anyone who lives here without being registered or who fails to pay the taxes is arrested and sold into slavery. The paidagogos here is an old Thespian who moved here to set up a school for boys but somehow fell on hard times and couldn’t pay his taxes, so he was sold into slavery.” 

“The Paidonomos?” Leonidas asked, horrified—thinking of the headmaster of the agoge, one of the most revered and powerful of all Spartiates. 

“No, the paidagogos. I was told all the wealthy men here in Athens have them: slaves that look after their school-aged boys. You know, escort them places, carry their things for them, recite the Iliad to them, and the like.”  


No comments:

Post a Comment