9/7/10 - spartans and helots

In today's excerpt - Spartans and helots. The legendary and often celebrated Spartan culture of rigor and militancy was as much needed to control its own underclass, the helots, as it was to combat Athens and other Greek neighbors:

"Spartans, ... the Dorian invaders who conquered the southern Greek city of Messenia in the eighth century BCE set up a rigid class system separating a tiny group of 'citizens' from a giant population of native 'helots,' who worked in slavery-like conditions. The system became even more brutal after the helots tried to revolt in the seventh century BCE. By the fifth century BCE, there were  about ten thousand citizens versus perhaps two hundred thousand helots. The Spartan hierarchy was incredibly strict: helots had no political rights or freedom of movement, and gave up half of every harvest to the Spartan overlords.

"The Spartans were equally hard on themselves, creating a military society with one goal: training invincible soldiers to control the helots. Spartan life centered on military preparation. Weak and deformed newborn children were exposed to the elements and left to die by order of the state. Boys entered military school at the age of seven, where their first task was to weave a mat of coarse river reeds they would sleep on for the rest of their lives. They were forced to run for miles while older boys flogged them, sometimes during of exhaustion, and were encouraged to kill helots as part of a rite of passage. At age twenty, after thirteen years of training, the surviving young men finally became soldiers. They served in the Spartan army until age sixty, living in communal barracks, where they shared meals and bunked together.

"They were allowed to marry bur rarely saw their wives until they 'graduated' to 'equals,' at age thirty. Ironically, this gender separation helped Spartan women accumulate property and power. Women are believed to have owned about 40 percent of Sparta's agricultural land and were at least sometimes responsible for managing the labor of helots, making them far more 'liberated' than other Greek women.

"The Spartans created one of history's more unusual governments. Somewhat like in Athens, all male citizens age thirty and up formed an assembly. But that's where the similarities ended. In Sparta, the assembly picked a council of twenty-eight nobles, all over the age of sixty, to advise not one but two kings. This dual-kingship was hereditary, but if the rulers were incompetent, they could be deposed by the real bosses of Sparta—a group of five powerful men called ephors, who were elected annually by the assembly, leading it in wartime, when the kings were away"


Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur


The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverant Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2008 by Mental Floss LLC


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