© Michel Fingerhut 1996/7

Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
Assassins of Memory (1)
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992), English translation copyright 1992 Columbia University Press
No reproduction except for personal use only - Reproduction interdite sauf pour usage personnel

1. The Destruction of the Helots of Sparta

We are in 424/423 B.C., the eighth year of the Peloponnesian War, opposing Athens and Sparta, along with their respective allies. The situation is perilous for the Lacedemonians. The Athenians are installed on the island of Cytherea, to the south of Laconia, and at Pylos (present-day Navarin) on the west coast of the Peloponnesus. Sparta attempts a diversionary tactic, by sending an expeditionary force to Athens' (shaky) allies on the Calcidian peninsula, in northeastern Greece. Here is what the historian Thucydides relates at this juncture and the episode through which he comments on the crisis threatening Sparta:
Athens at the time posed an immanent threat to the Peloponnesus and especially to the very land of the Lacedemonians. The latter nevertheless had a hope: to deter the Athenians by sending an expeditionary force to one of their allies, which would trouble them [the Athenians] in turn. The allies were prepared to receive it and to defect as soon as it appeared. At the same time the Lacedemonians were looking for a pretext for expediting Helots to a foreign theatre lest they take advantage of the presence of the Athenians at Pylos to foment revolution. Fearing their youthful ardor and their number (for the Lacedemonians, the central issue in their relations with the Helots had always been to keep them under surveillance), they had, on a previous occasion, already resorted to the following measures. They had let it be known that all those [among the Helots] who felt that through their conduct in the face of the enemy they were so deserving should have their credentials for emancipation inspected. It was, from their perspective, a test: those who demonstrated sufficient pride to believe they should be first to be freed were thus the prime candidates for a future rebellion. About two thousand of them were selected: adorned with a crown, they ran the circuit of sanctuaries as free men. Shortly thereafter, they were made to disappear, and no one knew in what manner each of them had been eliminated.[1]
A strange text indeed, written in a partially encoded language. The Helots "disappear," are "eliminated" (one might also translate "destroyed"), but the words designating murder or death are not pronounced, and the weapon remains unknown.

To understand this episode, concerning which George Grote (1794-1871), the British founder of the positive history of ancient Greece,[2] wrote that it revealed "a refinement of deception and cruelty rarely equaled in history,"[3] is it enough to know who the Helots were? They constituted the servile category of Lacedemonian society. Unlike the slaves of Athens, they were neither bought nor sold abroad. They cultivated the land of the upper stratum of the city-state, the peers (homoioi), those who formed the warrior elite. To explain their origin, the ancients had concocted various theories among which moderns still lose their way.[4] The Helots formed two subclasses, which were in certain respects quite distinct. Some were Laconians quite naturally aspiring to juridical equality with their Spartan masters. Athenian peasants had been emancipated at the dawn of the sixth century B.C.. Their case was not theoretically out of the question as a model. The others were foreigners, Messenians, relatives of the Lacedemonians, speaking a Doric language like them, and conquered by Lacedemonia (the city-state whose capital was Sparta) in the course of three harsh wars. A significant portion of them emigrated, some to Messina in Sicily, others to Naupacta on the coast facing the Peloponnesus. The Helots of Messina aspired to reconstitute their ancient city, and they succeeded in doing so, moreover, after the Theban Epaminondas destroyed the power of Lacedemonia at Leuctra in 370-369 B.C. The Messenians then proclaimed a "law of return," and invited with varying degrees of success the Messenian diaspora to return to the homeland of their memories.

That much established, whether Laconians or Messenians, the Helots were in some cases submissive, adopting the values of the ruling class, and in others rebellious, and quite frequently so as of the fifth century B.C.. A general rebellion of the lower classes almost erupted in 397 B.C.. According to Xenophon, an informer working for the Spartan rulers was able to say at the time: "Each time the subject of the Spartans came up among these people [the lower classes] none of them could conceal that it would not displease him to devour them, and even raw."[5]

Another difference with the slaves of Athens was that the Helots were normally part of the Lacedemonian army, serving as weapons carriers. It even happened that some experienced combat and benefited from a kind of emancipation. But even when freed they did not become first-class citizens. The ruling Spartan elite thus faced an insoluble contradiction. Sparta could not do without Helots --neither, it goes without saying, for the cultivation of the soil nor even for waging war. Yet (even lightly) armed Helots represented an obvious danger for them. The solution adopted by Sparta had been to lock the Helots into a scorned status, a phenomenon of which history offers numerous examples. No one has better epitomized this status than Myron of Priena, a historian of the third century B.C., who writes: "The Helots are made to perform the most ignominious and degrading tasks. They are forced to wear a dogskin cap and to dress in animal hides; each year they receive a certain number of blows, without having committed any infraction, in order to remind them that they are slaves; worse yet, if there are any who exceed in strength the measure appropriate to slaves, they are punished by death, and their masters receive a fine for not having impeded their development."[6]

It happened, however, that the yoke would break or threaten to break. The city then proceeded to perform on a grand scale, while adding a measure of fraud, what the masters were doing on a lesser one: killing the most valiant of them. This is what happened in the episode narrated by Thucydides. Instead of emancipating or killing, it emancipated and killed. Chosen Helots would run the circuit of sanctuaries, as young apprentice warriors in Athens might, after which they disappeared.

But when precisely did this dramatic and sinister adventure occur? Earlier, says Thucydides. But did that mean a recent past? In the nineteenth century, historians were divided between two hypotheses, and the same situation holds at present.[7] No one, to my knowledge --although I could, of course, be wrong-- has maintained that we are dealing here with a case of pure fiction or suggested that this explosion of ruse and hatred had been invented by some intimate of the victims.[8] But did Thucydides know more than he said? Apparently the Spartans kept their secret rather well. Only a slim thread of memory has come down to the Athenian historian.

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