Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Were Sparta's "Happy Helots" a template for Roman slavery?

Lacedaemonian furniture appliqué depicting
a nude swordsman 550 - 525 BCE, Bronze.
Photographed at the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA
by Mary Harrsch.
While doing some housekeeping up on Blogger I happened to notice a post by historian Helen P. Schrader entitled "Sparta's Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society".  Of course I was intrigued because I have always envisioned Sparta's helots as a generally downtrodden lot always looking over their shoulder for an up and coming Spartan youth out to make his first kill.  But Schrader paints a much different picture of helot society and as I read the article I immediately recognized similarities in the slavery practiced by the Spartans in comparison to Roman slavery.

Although there were obvious differences such as the fact that in Sparta the state owned all slaves that in turn were attached to particular governmental activities or particular parcels of land managed by a Spartiate elite while Roman slaves were the property of individual Roman patriarchs, I was astonished to learn that the ancient sources report that some helots became wealthy and were able to purchase their freedom just as in Roman society.

I have studied Greek history to some degree but this is the first time I had heard this.  Schrader explains that Spartan helots, although unable to own land, were often entitled to up to 50% of the produce from the land that they worked.  She also pointed out that helots were able to maintain a family unit and may have benefited from inheritance laws that channeled family wealth to the "tenant-in-chief" who in turn passed it on to a single recognized heir.  If a helot had more than one son, the younger sons were forced to seek employment elsewhere within the boundaries of Lacedaemon to support themselves and their families.

"Some younger sons would have been apprenticed to learn crafts scorned by the perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth." 
"Other young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have sought employment as laborers for the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites or agricultural day-laborers, going from estate to estate.  Others would have worked for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers, bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government. Still other could have found employment in perioikoi factories and business - as miners, quarry workers, rowers, etc." - Helen Schrader, Sparta's Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society
This ability for helots to accumulate wealth and purchase their freedom is clearly reflected in the Roman approach to slavery and manumission.  Schrader did not delve into Spartan laws that may have regulated such manumissions, however.  The Romans, being consummate legislators, developed over time an exhaustive body of laws regulating not only when manumission could be granted but the social status of those manumitted.  One such law was the Lex Aelia Sentia of 4 CE.  Portions of it were cited in a textbook written by an unknown jurist named Gaius in the 2nd century CE.  I found the sections on the manumission of gladiators and former gladiators particularly interesting:

"The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe of gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii)."

" 'Subject foreigners' is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up."
"We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure of manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters' full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects."


"But if a slave has suffered no such disgrace, he sometimes becomes a Roman citizen when he is manumitted, and sometimes a Latin."
"A slave becomes a Roman citizen if he fulfils the following three conditions. He must be over thirty years of age; his master must own him by Quiritary right; and he must be set free by ajust and legitimate manumission, i.e. by the rod (vindicta) or by census or by Will. If any of these conditions is not met, he will become a Latin." - Gaius, 2nd century CE, - More 
It would be interesting to compare and contrast the development of manumission over time between the Spartans and the Romans!

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1 comment:

W.LindsayWheeler said...

There are a lot of similarities between Rome and Sparta:

The form of government is the same.

The upper body of the Doric Cretan and Spartan republics was called "gerousia", old men just as "Senatus" in Latin means Old men.

The red crests on the helmets.

The way in which Officer helmets had the crest aligned from side to side instead of from chest to back.

The Spartans carried little sceptres in their hands. If you notice, in some pics, Roman officers also carried these little sceptres.

The Red capes.

The sumptuary laws. All Spartans were under sumptuary laws while as in Rome, the Senate and all her Senators were originally under sumptuary laws. (Maybe, if the Senators throughout the generations obeyed that, the Roman Republic would not have fallen.)

Plutarch said there were many many parallels between Rome and Sparta.

The Sabines, in my opinion, were Doric Greeks that passed their customs into the Latins.

For a full definition of what a republic is and its transformation of this idea thru history, please see this Classical definition of a republic