1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Greece: Theocratic Views on Slavery. The Helots.

(Part 5)


Slavery in Ancient Greece: Theocratic Views on Slavery. The Helots.

It is well known that Aristotle held slavery to be necessary and natural, and, under just conditions, beneficial to both parties in the relation—views which were correct enough from the political side, regard being had to the contemporary social state. His practical motto, if he is the author of the Economics attributed to him, is— "no outrage, and no familiarity." There ought, he says, to be held out to the slave the hope of liberty as the reward of his service. Plato condemned the practice, which the theory of Aristotle also by implication sets aside as inadmissible, of Greeks having Greeks for slaves. In the Laws he accepts the institution as a necessary though embarrassing one and recommends for the safety of the masters that natives of different countries should be mixed and that they should all be well treated. But, whilst condemning harshness towards them, he encourages the feeling of contempt for them as a class. Xenophon also, in urging a mild treatment of them, seems to have in view, not their own well-being, but the security of the masters. The later moral schools of Greece scarcely at all concern themselves with the institution.

The Epicurean had no scruple about the servitude of those whose labours contributed to his own indulgence and tranquillity; he would at most cultivate an easy temper in his dealings with them. The Stoic regarded the condition of freedom or slavery as an external accident, indifferent in the eye of wisdom; to him it was irrational to see in liberty a ground of pride or in slavery a subject of complaint; from intolerable indignity suicide was an ever-open means of escape. The poets—especially the authors of the New Comedy—strongly inculcate humanity, and insist on the fundamental equality of the slave. The celebrated "home sum" is a translation from Alexis, and the spirit of it breathes in many passages of the Greek drama. A fragment of Philemon declares, as if in reply to Aristotle, that not nature, but fortune, makes the slave. Euripides, as might be expected from his humanitarian cast of sentiment, and the "premature modernism" which has been remarked in him, rises above the ordinary feelings of his time in regard to the slaves. As Mr Paley says, he loves "to record their fidelity to their masters, their sympathy in the trials of life, their gratitude for kindness and considerate treatment, and their pride in bearing the character of honourable men. . . . He allows them to reason, to advise, to suggest; and he even makes them philosophize on the follies and the indiscretions of their superiors" (compare Med., 54; Orest., 869 ; Hel., 728 ; Ion, 864 ; Frag. Melan., 506 ; Phrix., 823). But we are not to suppose that even he, latitudinarian and innovator as he was, could have conceived the possibility of abolishing an institution so deeply rooted in the social conditions, as well as in the ideas, of his time.

The case of the Helots of Laconia was different from that of the slaves in most Grecian communities. The origin of this class is disputed, and we cannot here enter into the controversy. They were regarded as the property of the state, which gave their services to individuals but kept in its own hands the power of emancipating them. The domestic servants of the Spartans were all Helots, and they waited on their masters at the syssitia or public meal. But they were in the main serfs, living in small country villages or in detached farms, cultivating the lands of the Spartan prietors, and paying to those proprietors a proportion of the produce which could not be increased. They enjoyed their homes, wives, and families, could acquire property, were not to be sold out of the country, and perhaps could not be sold at all. They were, doubtless, employed in public works; in war they commonly acted as light-armed troops attending on the Spartan or Periaecic hoplites, but in particular emergencies themselves served as hoplites (Thucyd., iv. 80). They were sometimes rewarded for good service by emancipation, which, however, did not make them Pericaeci, but introduced them into a special class known as neodamodeis. The condition of the Helot does not seem to have been economically onerous ; but his consciousness of Grecian lineage, which Grote regards as an alleviation of his lot, must surely have been one of its bitterest elements, whilst it constantly kept alive the fear and consequent hatred of his Spartan masters, and made the relation between the two classes less natural than that of the ordinary Greek masters with slaves of foreign and less civilized races. By the ruling powers of Sparta the Helots were never trusted, and in one memorable case some two thousand of them, selected for special military merit, were massacred in secret (Thucyd., iv. 80). According to Plutarch, whose statement, however, has not always been credited, the ephors declared war against the Helots every year, and there was a practice, known as the krypteia, of detailing a number of young Spartan citizens for the purpose of assassinating such of them as were considered formidable. Wallon estimates the number of the Helots at 220,000, that of the Spartans being 32,000. The Penestae in Thessaly and the Clarotae in Crete seem to have occupied a position somewhat similar to that of the Helots in Laconia.

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