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Friday, March 25, 2011

Merciless Exploiters of Their Neighbors?

In his introduction to Persian Fire Tom Holland argues that “Sparta’s greatness…rested upon the merciless exploitation of her neighbors.” The sentence made me stumble. Is Holland truly unaware that the Peloponnesian League at this point in history gave every city-state an equal vote in the League Council? Is Holland unaware that some city-states in the League chose to march north with Sparta to fight the Persians at Thermopylae and Plataea?

Since Holland goes on to contend that “to people who had suffered under Spartan oppression for generations, Xerxes rule might almost have felt like liberty,” I gather that Holland is really talking about the helots. He apparently believes that the helots and perioikoi and other Peloponnesians, who fought with the Spartans at Plataea, were all “mercilessly oppressed” Spartan slaves fighting against their own best interests. One wonders how 5,000 Spartans managed to keep 40,000 oppressed slaves under control and prevented them from defecting to their Persian liberators, while simultaneous defeating the Persians on the battlefield? Spartans must have been truly superhuman indeed to succeed at such a feat!

It is a particularly notable feat when one considers that the mere proximity of a potential liberator induced 20,000 Athenian slaves to defect in 413. The freedom loving, benevolent and ever democratic Athenians apparently didn’t treat their slaves as well as the “merciless oppressors” of Sparta or 20,000 Athenian slaves would not have “voted with their feet” by abandoning Athens for Sparta.

It also seems incredible that Sparta would have been elected to supreme command of the Greek forces opposing the Persian invasion – including Athens, if at that time it was widely perceived as a brutal oppressor of its neighbors. Would the United States at any time in its history have elected Nazi Germany the leader of a joint coalition? Would we have asked the Soviet Union to assume command of joint NATO and Warsaw Pact forces to fight a joint enemy? It tries my imagination.

Whatever else one says about Sparta’s treatment of helots (and firmly believe they were far better off than chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, not to mention Persian), to suggest that Sparta “mercilessly oppressed” its neighbors is a gross distortion of the historical record. It is sad that such sweeping allegations are still standard fare in modern treatments of the ancient world.


  1. Dr. Schrader, Holland is definitely not alone in his criticism of Sparta and their neighboring Helots. I am currently reading Paul Cartledge's work on Thermopylae. In the first chapter, he says something similar: "The Spartans' decision to base their entire politeia--their political and social regime and way of life--on exploitation of a native Greek underclass, the Helots, must forever tarnish their halo" (pp. 11-12). "Exploitation" is not quite "merciless exploitation," but it is close.

  2. No, Holland is not alone. In fact his portrayal of an oppresive Sparta is the prevailing view -- which does not necessarily make it correct. The fact is: ancient Greek society, Athenian no less than Spartan, was based on slave labor. The fact that Spartan slaves "helots" were not chattels, however, meant that on the one hand they retained a national identiy that made them capable of revolt and hence a greater threat, and that they enjoyed many, many more freedoms than the chattel slaves of Athens. I go into considerable detail on the differences between helots and chattel slaves on my website, if you are interested. The point here is NOT that the Spartans were politically correct modern democrats, but that they actually treated their underclass far better than did other Greeks. Athenian slaves deserted in the tens of thousand when they got the chance! And Spartan helots were loyal for hundreds of years. The standard view of oppressive Spartans and "enlightened" Athenians simply does not stand up to examination. I feel it is important to fight "conventional wisdom" of this sort whenever it is encountered.