Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

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Control of the helots: the military, syssitia, krypteia

See text: p.51 The Spartan mess, Syssition; p.55 The secret police, krypteia; Helot army service for Sparta; Freed Helots, neodamodeis, Helot revolts

HSC 2011
(b) Outline the main features of the syssitia. (3 marks)

Past HSC question - 2007:
(b) What was the syssitia? (3 marks)

Examiners' comment:
(b) Better responses gave detailed and accurate information about the syssitia. However, a large number of candidates stated that the syssitia was a meal and gave no further information. Some candidates had no idea what the syssitia was.

Syssitia - 'mess'
  • all adults were required to be members of dinning groups.
  • The syssitia, or messes, were established by Lykourgos and he decreed that all, young and old, rich and poor alike, should eat the same plain food.
  • The syssitia were designed to to give daily expression to the concept of Spartan equality and encourage fellowship and unity.
  • Replaced family
  • Emphasised Spartan status

  • A 20 year old man is to be accepted by a mess group of around 15 men.
  • some mess groups are hard to be accepted into
  • all members of the mess have to agree to the new member
  • inability to be elected into these groups meant social exclusion and disgrace
  • daily attendance at the evening meal was obligatory.
  • social grouping where men would impart their wisdom to others.
  • food was provided out of the monthly contributions of mess members themselves
  • 77L of barley, olive oil, 39L of wine, 3 Kg cheese, 1.5Kg figs
  • produce came from own estates worked by the helots (slaves)
  • just enough food to satisfy the men's hunger
  • drinking was strongly controlled and it was considered shameful to be drunk.
  • Helots were brought in and made drunk as an example of the effects of wine.
  • drunken helots were humiliated by being made to sing and dance.

Krypteia - The secret police.
  • The krypteia were so feared that Plutarch refused to believe that the force could have been instituted by Lykourgos
  • used to terrorise the helots
  • each year the krypteia would choose the most sensible and well regarded of the young men and send them out into the country to kill any helots found on the roads.
  • Aim of these raids, as said by Paul Cartledge, 'was to murder selected troublemaking helots and spread terror among the rest'

Helot army services for sparta
  • Army services was required of the helots by the spartan state
  • Spartiates were accompanied by helots
  • some helots helped with supplies and equipment, most were combatants
  • freedom was offered to those helots able to reach the island of Sphakteria off Pylas; with food
  • in the poloponnesian war, spartans used helots as soldiers
  • also sent to Sicily in 413BC as part of the hoplite force
  • the hope of eventual freedom was a motivating factor for the helots
  • Helots were sometimes rewarded with their freedom (Thuc. 5.34) "The Spartans decreed that the helots who had fought with Brasidas should be given their freedom and allowed to live wherever they liked, and not long afterwards they settled them with the already freed helots at Lepreum...". The possibility of freedom may have motivated the helots to remain loyal.

Helot revolts
The Spartiates were greatly outnumbered by the helots and there was always the fear of revolt. The army could not stay away for long periods.

Military action against the helots:
  • The helots were enslaved and their lands seized during the First Messenian War (c.735-716 BC)
  • The Messenians revolted and were suppressed by the military during the Second Messenian War (c.640-620)
  • the helots revolted in the 5th Century BC (date not established): "For the Spartans had in the past raised up some helot suppliants from the altar of Poseidon, and had taken them away and killed them." (Thuc. 1.128)
  • and in 464 BC: "The Spartans, without informing Athens of their intentions, promised to do so, and would have done so if they had not been prevented by the earthquake which happened then and by the simultaneous revolt and secession to Ithome of the helots and some of the perioeci..." (Thuc. 1.101)
  • the Spartan policy towards the helots was always dictated by security concerns
  • the helots had no rights or protection and resented their servile status
  • the Spartan state ritually declared war on the helots from time to time
  • Spartan armies organised raids and attempted to control the helots using terror
  • the fear of helot revolts kept the Spartans in a high state of preparedness
  • the army could not be away for long periods of time
  • the Messenians sought to get revenge on Sparta by aiding Athens in the Peloponnesian War