Sodalitas Graeciae (Nova Roma)/Sparta

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The study of Ancient Spartan society entails significant challenges, both archaeologically and textually. The monumental structures and epigraphic remains are largely Roman-era and few texts can be attributed to authors who were either Spartans or who knew Sparta first-hand. Compounding the challenge is a propagandistic revision of its own history that Sparta itself engaged in during the Hellenistic and Roman periods—the so-called "Spartan Mirage," a term coined early last century by Francois Ollier.


Social Stratification and the Army

The traditional view of Spartan society is a three-tiered division, with helots, an enslaved servant class, on the bottom, the Spartiates (also called ὅμοιοι, "equals") at the top, and the περιοίκοι ("those who live around [Sparta]") as a second-class population handling most of the trade and crafts so that the "equals" can dedicate themselves to the art of war. But, the strict division of Spartan society into Spartiates, perioeci and helots is schematic at best.

Social Mobility in Sparta

At times the Spartan system has been characterized as "completely closed and rigid",[1]

but there is little justification for this view. The fact that mobility is attested from the earliest strands of the literary tradition (Herodotus), such as the helot and Lakedaemonian "hoplites" at Thermopylae (see below), should suggest that the system was, in principle, much less rigid. One way of glimpsing at the possibilities of social mobility is to observe the various contexts in which non-Spartiates are closely involved with their superior peers.

Herodotus and "Lakedaimonians"

In Herodotus one can observe the various uses of the terms Λακεδαιμόνιοι and Σπαρτιήται. These seem to be differentiated (although not always consistently ) in a manner revealing intimate perioecic interaction with Spartiates. One of the clearest examples of this terminological distinction is when Herodotus speaks of royal burial custom (6.58.2). He presents Λακεδαιμόνιοι as an umbrella term, from among whom the perioeci (περιοίκων) must come and participate in the funeral apart from (in addition to) the Spartans (χωρὶς Σπαρτιητέων).

Another example is extolling the performance of Dieneces at the battle of Thermopylae (Herodotus 7.226), where Herodotus explicitly qualifies him as "Spartiate" to distinguish him from the larger Lakedaemonian force. At the end of the passage he calls him Λακεδαιμόνιον, but, as seen above, Spartiates are a subset of this group, and at this point the term Λακεδαιμόνιον is used to emphasize Dieneces’ inclusivity within the larger mixed force. Earlier, a force of 5,000 hoplites is described as comprising perioecic Lakedaemonians (περιοίκων Λακεδαιμονίων, 9.11.3). When Philippides comes to Sparta to address the leaders (ἄρχοντας), he begins with the words, "ὦ Λακεδαιμόνιοι" (6.106.2). The perioeci, then, seem from early on to have had a more integrated role than just an economic/industrial function.[2]

Neodamodeis and Hypomeiones

The picture presented above is one of significant flexibility within the system from an early period. In this light, the additional terms such as neodamodeis (newly-landed) and hypomeiones (inferiors) which one encounters in Xenophon should not be considered as reflecting a new development but perhaps as an adjustment of the terminology to more precisely reflect a long-standing reality. Certainly, by the late fifth and early fourth centuries, the picture is quite complex and characters such as the mothax Lysander play prominent roles within Spartan society.[3]

It is also possible that the above terms had existed in internal Spartan usage from a much earlier time. Xenophon's closer familiarity with Spartan society would have allowed him to describe these finer distinctions. The more schematic view of Spartan classes found in Herodotus may simply be due to the poorer resolution of his own information about the internal sinews of the society.

Unfortunately, the Spartans themselves, those of the third century BCE, obfuscated the earlier internal complexity by self-consciously absorbing the various intermediate classes (intermediate between perioeci and Spartiates) discussed above into a Spartiate class of "equals" (Plutarch, Agis 5-6), which has contributed to the formation of the so-called Spartan "mirage".

Helots and Private Estates

If most Spartiates should generally be found in or close to Sparta, the immediate question becomes how they should maintain control over Lakonia and Messene with these lands de-facto in the control of supposedly oppressed and brutalized helots. If comparative evidence offers any insight into the difficulty of managing remote estates it is that the subjugated population would itself be engaged in a sophisticated regime of reward and offer of social climbing, which is to say, certain helots would be put into a privileged position as stewards in charge of managing the estates.[4]

The more concentrated settlement patterns evinced in the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project argue in favor of internal organization and greater independence, at least for the Messenian helots.[5]

The more dispersed patterns found in the Laconia Survey suggest more direct Spartiate management distributed across individual Spartiate estates. However, even here, in Lakonia, the picture of helot social life is hardly monolithic.

Helot Hoplites

As early as the sixth century one finds that some helots were sufficiently trusted to bear arms (Herodotus 6.75). They could own property, at significant levels, even sufficient to pay the required five Attic minas to Cleomenes III for the purchase of their freedom (Plut. Cleom. 23.1). Lakonian helots responded en mass (6,000 if Xenophon’s figure is accurate, Hell. 6.5) to the defense of Sparta following Epaminondas' invasion. The vision, then, that one constructs from these individual episodes is of a symbiotic relationship between the Spartiates and helots, the latter imbedded within Spartan society at various levels and differentiated among themselves by status and wealth. This suggests that the phrase "between free men and slaves," found in Pollux, is closer to the mark in characterizing the helot situation (contra Cartledge) than simply δοῦλοι.[6]

Even more importantly, if a significant part of helot stratification and symbiosis emerged out of the realities of an extensive system of absentee landlordism, one must then posit this situation of trust and cooperation as inherent to the Spartan system and present from the very beginning. In general, Spartiates would be already used to close and mutually-supportive cooperation with helots. More immediately, the presence of helot batmen (e.g. Herodotus 9.10, 28) attending them in battle would have accustomed them to their presence under combat situations. During the battle of Plataea (Herodotus 9.61) the majority of the Spartan force of 50,000 consisted of light-armed troops, many of whom were likely helots, and who suffered casualties alongside the heavier hoplites.

In 425 BCE or Earlier?

Cawkwell suggests that the decisive moment for the development of helot hoplites was in 424 BCE, when Brasidas took 700 such hoplites on his expedition.[7]

 However, one must keep in mind that precise knowledge of military action in the late fifth century is because of Thucydides. It may well be that such mixed forces were utilized earlier than this, but that precise details were lost in the oral tradition (and Herodotus certainly offers little detail for anything in the sixth century). Some clues, however, remain. When sightseers to the aftermath of the battle of Thermopylae arrived (Herodotus 8.25), they also saw dead helots (ὁρῶντες καὶ τοὺς εἵλωτας), but thought all of the dead to be either "Lacedaemonians" or Thespians (πάντες δὲ ἠπιστέατο τοὺς κειμένους εἶναι πάντας Λακε-

δαιμονίους καὶ Θεσπιέας). It seems that here Herodotus is not strictly speaking of Spartiates, but some mixed force of Spartiates and perioeci grouped together as "Lacedaemonians" and overtly distinguishes them from the dead helots.[8]

But, more importantly, the observers from Xerxes’ army were not able to tell them apart, which suggests that the helots were armed similarly to the other hoplite dead. The possibility that all three groups had fought with Leonidas is further supported by the fact that the force had been personally selected by him (Herodotus 7.205.2) instead of being a regular army detachment—in other words, by its very composition there was something ad hoc about the group. Unless Leonidas suddenly struck upon this innovation, one which should have drawn some comment from Herodotus, it is likely that it had happened earlier also, in the sixth century.

The Massacre of the 2,000

Another clue comes from the alleged massacre of 2,000 helots at some time before Brasidas' expedition (Thucydides 4.80). Despite the vision of helot-Spartiate cooperation outlined above, such a massacre is not impossible as some hot-headed ploy, although, making 2,000 bodies disappear without a trace would be no small feat,[9]

not to mention the chronological tension of shortly afterwards arming Brasidas with more helot hoplites,[10]

both points suggesting the story may have been more propaganda than reality. 

In either case, it is clear that Spartiates would at times be eager to express their social dominance, which may have been exacerbated by the fact of the fundamental and intimate cooperation between them and helots. The annual declaration of war against the helots would be one such ritual expression of differentiation and superiority.[11]

A declaration of war, however, presumes that the helots could be symbolically characterized as warriors of some sort. More concretely, the passage in Thucydides presumes hand-to-hand combat, for how else could the helots have been judged the best (ἄριστοι) in war if they had only numbered among the faceless javelinmen and slingers pelting away at the enemy forces from a distance? This was the domain of close combat and the implication is that these 2,000 helots had been, among others, armed and armored at the front lines predating Brasidas’ expedition.

Spartan Economics

For M. I. Finley, the social infrastructure of Sparta was flawed because "heavy as the pressures of austerity and withdrawal from all economic activity may have been, they were insufficient to overcome completely the counter-pressures of inequality in wealth…"[12] . Xenophon is the earliest source for such a ban on economic activity (Lak. Pol. 7), but there are good reasons to question whether such an anti-economic attitude existed and had been institutionalized in the sixth or fifth centuries. Certainly, if the evidence indicates otherwise, Finley's criticism of the system would be wholly anachronistic.

Cyrus and the Herald

When Cyrus asks his Greek advisers, following his reception of a Spartan herald, about who the Lacedaemonians are and they explain, Cyrus then responds to the herald that he would never fear such men who have a place (χῶρος) in the center of the city where people cheat (ὀμνύντες ἐξαπατῶσι) each other (Herodotus 1.153). The "place" is no doubt an agora, but it would be peculiar if Cyrus would get the idea from his advisers that such market activity takes place in Sparta if it in fact were not true. Even if, as Herodotus interprets this, it were a criticism of the Greeks in general, one would wonder why his advisers would not have stated that Sparta is an exception, and thus prompting Cyrus to respond differently to the Spartan herald; or if this had actually been Cyrus' response, why Herodotus himself had not made any comment about Sparta's exceptional case. One explanation is that such market activity was not prohibited in Sparta, or that Herodotus at least did not know about such a prohibition, which would be consistent with him not mentioning any supposed economic reforms in his brief summary of the Lycurgan initiatives (Herodotus 1.65-6).[13]


That Herodotus has no lack of examples of Spartan bribery strengthens the notion that Sparta was little different from other poleis in terms of money. Although not an instance of bribery, the example of the sixth-century Spartan, Glaucus, calls out for explanation if money had, in fact, been banned in Sparta. Firstly, one must wonder what Glaucus would have done with the money entrusted to him that he at first refused to give up. Secondly, while the money was in his possession for a long time there is no hint within the story that he incurred any penalties for having it. Finally, Herodotus puts the story in the mouth of King Leotychides, who himself had been bribed earlier (6.72), and who instead of condemning Glaucus on account of the money itself, instead presents the moral of the story as concerned with keeping true to one's oaths. Such a collocation of coincidences pointing in the direction of the use of money in sixth-century Sparta certainly speaks against an early prohibition against money.[14]

Iron Money

Connected with the issue of banning money is the peculiar notion of "iron money" (Xenophon, Lak. Pol. 7). Thomas J. Figueira would like to point to the beginning of the fifth century as the time for the institutionalization of iron money, shortly following a ban on regular coinage, but this clashes with his later examples of penetration of coinage into Spartan society in the fifth century.[15]

Figueira gives no specific evidence for this timeline except that it fits his model of a conservative society reacting to the corrupting novelty of coinage. Clear evidence, however, comes from Plutarch (who here is depending on Theopompus and Ephorus) that the ban should be pushed to the end of the fifth century, the work of the ephors Skiraphidas and Phlogidas, in reaction to Lysander's attempt to have Sparta begin coining its own (silver and gold) money (Plut. Lys. 17).[16]

That the ephors insisted on using their own money, "which was in iron," suggests that iron had indeed been used as a traded commodity on some level in the Spartan economy, alongside regular coins. This should not be surprising given the iron-ore reserves of Lakonia. The revolution here, however, is that its use became institutionalized as money and then retrojected back onto Lycurgus. This is why Xenophon can speak of a ban on silver and gold coin in association with Lycurgus’ reforms, but then drop clues at numerous points that regular coins were typically carried by Spartans.[17]

Note should also be made of Xenophon’s statement that he knows that in the past Spartans feared being discovered with gold in their possession (Lak. Pol. 14), but since few Greek cities made use of gold coins anyway, this is in no way a denial of the use of coined money in general.

Land Distribution and Inheritance

The question of land distribution and inheritance supposedly constitutes a structural flaw in the Spartan system. Finley states that the "regime of property and inheritance… was a compromise," but a compromise how? He does not state, but one can suspect that he had in mind the "Lycurgan" land redistribution and how actual inheritance practices undermined this early utopian condition.

The Lycurgan Land Redistribution

At stake here is the notion of an egalitarian land redistribution under the legendary Spartan legal reformer Lycurgus. Unfortunately, the evidence for such a practice is slim. Necessary for it to function is a regime of single inheritance by a son in order to maintain the unity of the original land. This is the vision one finds in Plutarch’s Agis, but contrary to Lykurgus, where the state is responsible for equal land inheritance. Such a system, however, is highly impractical, since it does not explain how multiple sons were cared for in terms of their mess-hall dues and implies a largely static population size if the system had been maintained for centuries.[18]

A more rational vision of Spartan land tenure is found in Aristotle with the practice of partible inheritance.[19]

Some have claimed that this was a late development, but to suggest that the "free gift and bequest" law by Epitadeus was responsible for a switch to partible inheritance requires the assumption that inheritance practices throughout Spartan society made this sudden and dramatic change to exploit the law to its extreme and parcel out all of the inheritance among the heirs.[20]

The inheritance/dowry practices concerning daughters are also inconsistent with the notion of a system designed to maintain equal land distribution.</ref>Hodkinson, "Land Tenure," 394-404.</ref> When it is added that fifth century writers do not mention any such land distribution one must conclude that there is little reason to accept the belief that it had ever existed and that the appeal to tradition by Agis and Cleomenes in the third century was wholly an appeal to an invented tradition.[21]

Ephorus and the Land Myth

The likely vector for the spread of this belief in Lycurgan redistribution, along with the belief that the use of coinage had only entered Spartan society at the end of the fifth century, is Ephorus, who may have acquired the notion from the exiled Spartan king, Pausanias.</ref>Hodkinson, "Land Tenure," 381-82; Hodkinson, "'Blind Ploutos'," 195-201. That Ephorus draws on Pausanias for certain ideas is suggested by his citing of Pausanias’ discourse on the laws of Lycurgus, as told by Strabo 8.5.5: Παύσανίαν ... συντάξαι λόγον κατὰ τοῦ Λυκούργου. At any rate, Ephorus was the first to pen a complete biography of Lycurgus. For further discussion see, E. N. Tigerstedth, The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity (Stockholm Studies in History of Literature 9; vol. 1; Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1965), 210-13.</ref> If it was not from Pausanias that he drew this idea, then perhaps it was generated following the loss of Messenia which may have prompted popular calls for redistribution to rectify the sudden loss of so many tracts of land, a call which was mythologized and then uncritically taken up by Ephorus. But, whether he used Pausanias or not, Ephorus seems to be the first to mention land reform.[22]

 It is conspicuous that Lak. Pol. does not make any reference to equal shares of land while already attributing a ban on minting coins to Lycurgus. This would suggest that Xenophon had already independently taken to heart the anti-coin propaganda pushed by the ephorate at the end of the fifth century, but had not used Pausanias’ pamphlet. Ephorus, of course, was too late to have been used by him.[23]

 That Xenophon—and all before him—do not report such land reform further suggests that the notion had not entered the Lycurgan mythology until some time in the mid-fourth century.

If then one combines the activities of the ephors, Skiraphidas and Phlogidas, with the propaganda of Pausanias' discourse, one can point to the end of the fifth and early/mid-fourth centuries as the critical juncture at which two important elements in the Spartan "ideal" type became solidified.


The core of this article is a reformatting of elements from a graduate seminar on ancient Sparta presented by M. Cornelius Gualterus Graecus in the Fall of ‡ MMDCCLXI at the University of Chicago.


  1. Finley, "Sparta", 170.
  2. For the various socio-economic roles of the perioeci see, Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, 153-59.
  3. For brief discussion of these various groups, see Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, 269-70.
  4. Stephen Hodkinson, "Spartiates, helots and the direction of the agrarian economy: towards an understanding of helotage in comparative perspective," in Helots and their masters in Laconia and Messenia: histories, ideologies, structures (ed. N. Luraghi and S. E. Alcock; Washington D. C.: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2003), 263-69.
  5. Hodkinson, "Spartiates, helots and the direction of the agrarian economy: towards an understanding of helotage in comparative perspective," 270.
  6. Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, A regional history 1300-362 BC (London: Routledge, 2002), 139-42.
  7. G. L. Cawkwell, "The Decline of Sparta," CQ 33 (1983): 246.
  8. One doubt that may be raised is Herodotus referring to the entire group of three hundred as “Spartiates” in 7.202, but this may have been a slip in precision caused by the nature of the list of forces: Herodotus was listing the polity in charge of each numbered force and not necessarily making a statement about the specific composition of each.
  9. Annalisa Paradiso, "The Logic of Terror: Thucydides, Spartan Duplicity and an Improbable Massacre," in Spartan Society (ed. Thomas J. Figueira; Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2004), 186-88. Although, not directly responding to Paradiso, for the issue of mass execution not being logistically problematic see, David Harvey, "The Clandestine Massacre of the Helots (Thucydides 4.80)," in Spartan Society (ed. Thomas J. Figueira; Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2004), 204-05; also more generally, Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 128-30.
  10. Michael Whitby, "Two shadows: images of Spartans and helots," in The Shadow of Sparta (ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson; London: Routledge, 1994), 97-99.
  11. Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, 141-42, 306.
  12. M. I. Finley, "Sparta" in The Use and Abuse of History (New York: 1975): 167-8
  13. Stephen Hodkinson, "'Blind Ploutos'," in The Shadow of Sparta (ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson; London: Routledge, 1994), 185-87.
  14. Thomas J. Figueira, "Iron money and the ideology of consumption in Laconia," in Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson; London: The Classical Press of Wales, 2002), 154, rightly concludes that no ban on holding money yet existed. For other examples of the use of money in sixth-century Sparta, see Figueira, "Iron money," 153-57, 64 n. 34.
  15. Figueira, "Iron money," 150-53.
  16. Jacqueline Christien, "Iron money in Sparta: myth and history," in Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson; London: The Classical Press of Wales, 2002), 178-80.
  17. Ephors have the power to secure payment on the spot (Lak. Pol. 8), pay fine for not having a wife (9), make use of mercenaries (12-13).
  18. Stephen Hodkinson, "Land Tenure and Inheritance in Classical Sparta," CQ 36, no. 2 (1986): 384-86.
  19. Hodkinson, "Land Tenure," 386-94.
  20. Hodkinson, "Land Tenure," 393, especially n. 72.
  21. Hodkinson, "Land Tenure," 381. Michael A Flower, "The Invention of Tradition in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta," in Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (ed. Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson; London: The Classical Press of Wales, 2002), 196.
  22. Tigerstedth, Legend of Sparta, 214.
  23. Accepting Xenophon's death as during the 105th Olympiad (359 BCE) and Ephorus not finishing his work until the Third Sacred War (347 BCE), it is unlikely that it would have been available to the former. See William Smith, ed., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (3vols.; London: John Murray, 1873), 1299; Tigerstedth, Legend of Sparta, 209.

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