In ancient Greece, the Hilotes or Ilotes (in ancient Greek Εἵλωτες

The name would come, according to part of the tradition, from the town of Helos (Ἕλος), located south of Sparta. Pausanias states thus: “They were the first called hilots.” The name would thus have designated, originally, a simple tribe of the Dorian ethnic group, but this explanation is implausible on the historical level, and impossible on the phonetic level. It has therefore been proposed that the word be attached to ϝαλῶναι, infinitive of ἁλίσκομαι

It is certain that a part of the hilotism is resulting from the conquest: it is the case of Messéniens, reduced in VIIIe century BC by the wars of Messénie. Herodotus, moreover, calls the hilots “Messenians”.

As for the first hilots, the situation is less clear. According to the tradition (Théopompe), they would be the descendants of the initial inhabitants, Achaeans, that the arrival of the Dorians subjected. But all the Achaeans were not reduced to the hilotism: thus, the city of Amyclées, theater of Hyacinthies, enjoys a privileged status. Other ancient authors propose alternative theories: according to Antiochos of Syracuse, the hilotes are originally the Lacédémonians who did not take part in the wars of Messénie. For Ephorus of Cumae, they are periecles of Helos, revolted then reduced to slavery. The modern historiography privileges the thesis of Antiochos of Syracuse.


The legal status of the hilots is complex. They were not free and had no political rights: they were therefore comparable to the slave-commodities, to which the rest of Greece had recourse. Besides, many ancient authors, Greek or Roman, simply call the hilots douloi or servi, without always being well aware of their particular status. Indeed, the hilots are attached to a land, which brings them closer to the medieval serf.

In theory, they belong to the state and are attached to a plot of land, the κλῆρος

Hilots and kleros

The kleros, portion of land allocated to each Spartan and cultivated by the hilots, was to allow each citizen to pay his share. If he was unable to do so, he was excluded from the syssitia and thus lost his citizenship.

The hilots are allotted to citizens to carry out the work of the kléros allotted to this citizen, or domestic tasks. The sources indeed often evoke the servants accompanying such or such Spartan. Plutarch shows Timaïa, wife of king Agis II, conversing with hilote women, her servants. Obviously, she grants them a certain confidence, since she confides to them, while she is pregnant, that the father of the child is her lover Alcibiades, and not her legitimate husband. In the fourth century, citizens also employed commodity slaves for this purpose. Some hilots also serve as servants of young Spartans, during the Spartan education. They are the μόθωνες

They must give a share of their crops (ἀποφορά

After payment of the tribute, it often remains with the hilote of what to live correctly: the grounds of Laconia and Messénie are very fertile, and often allow two harvests. Some can even arrive at a form of ease: in 223 BC, 6 000 hilots buy their freedom against 500 drachmas each, a rather considerable sum. However, measures are taken by the Spartans to avoid that their hilots do not get rich.


Hilots live in families and can only enter into unions with each other. This is already a real advantage over commodity slaves, whose marriage and family ties are not legally recognized. Hilots are therefore much less likely to have their families separated. As a result, hilots could reproduce, unlike the rest of the slaves in antiquity. Their numbers, probably quite large at the beginning, are therefore increasing – and this, despite kryptia and other massacres of hilots, or losses due to war. At the same time, the population of the peers, it, does not cease regressing.

The absence of census does not make it possible to know their number in a certain way, but estimates are possible. According to Herodotus, the hilots are seven times more numerous than the Spartans at the time of the battle of Platées, in 479. At the time of the conspiracy of Cinadon, at the very beginning of the IVth century, one can count on the agora 40 peers out of a total of 4 000 people. At that time, the total population of the hilots is estimated between 170 000 and 224 000 people, including women.

Since the population of the hilots cannot grow in an exogenous way (by the purchase or the catch of war), it can count only on its own reproduction. The hilots are encouraged to do so by the Spartans themselves, who implement for their slaves a eugenics comparable to the one they impose on themselves. Indeed, according to the Greek belief of the time, the acquired characters are inherited as well as the hereditary characters. At the time of the kryptie, the strongest hilots constitute the first target of the kryptes: it is a question of selecting the softest hilots, thus judged the most docile.

Moreover, the Spartans used hilot women as a means of providing for the needs of the state in terms of human resources: the bastards (nothoi) resulting from a Spartan father and a hilot mother had an intermediate rank in Lacedemonian society (the mothakes and môthones) and swelled the ranks of the civilian army. It is difficult to know whether these births were the result of voluntary relationships (at least on the part of the father) or of a program implemented by the state. Nevertheless, it is likely that girls from such unions, serving no military purpose, were exposed at birth.


According to Myron of Priene, the emancipation of hilots is “frequent” (πολλάκις

“It is that the Lacedemonians had invited by proclamations of the volunteers to make pass in the island of ground corn, wine, cheese and any other food likely to help to support a siege; they had fixed for that of large rewards in money, and promised freedom to any hilote who would manage it (Translation of Jacqueline de Romilly, Collection of the Universities of France.) “

According to Thucydides, the call receives a certain success near the hilots, which indeed manage to make pass food to the besieged. Nevertheless, it does not specify if the Spartans keep their word or not. It is possible that some of the hilots executed then belonged to the volunteers of Sphacteria.

The second call is proclaimed during the invasion of Laconia by the Thebans. According to Xénophon, the authorities commit themselves to emancipate any hilote accepting to be incorporated. He estimates at 6 000 the number of those which accept, and specifies that this number plunged the Spartans in the embarrassment.

In the same way, in 424, the 700 hilots who had served Brasidas in Chalcidique were freed. They are then called “Brasideans”. It is also possible to become free by buying one’s freedom, or by undergoing Spartan education. Generally speaking, the freed hilots are called “neodamodes” (νεοδαμώδεις

Moses Finley points out that the use of hilots to serve as hoplites is a serious flaw in the system. Indeed, the basis of the hoplitic system is strict training to maintain the ranks in the phalanx. The Spartans themselves are renowned hoplites because of their maneuvering skills, the result of constant training. Besides this military aspect, serving as a hoplite is characteristic of the Greek citizen. To introduce hilots in the phalanx can thus only generate social disorders.

A special case: mothballs and mothoids

Phylarch evokes a class of men, both free and non-citizens: the μόθακες

The ancient authors use several names to evoke a reality that seems similar:

The situation is complicated by a gloss by Hesychios of Alexandria stating that mothakes are child slaves (δοῦλοι

In any case, it seems that the conclusion must be cautious:

“The contempt of the hilots”

This expression of Jean Ducat translates the other great originality of the hilots, among the Greek servile populations: they are mistreated in a ritual way. The sources on this point are abundant and detailed.

Myron of Priene details the humiliations to which they are subjected: they must wear a dog skin cap (κυνῆ

Plutarch also indicates that they were forced to drink pure wine (considered then as dangerous) to get drunk, and to dance in a grotesque way in front of the young Spartans, at the time of syssities (obligatory banquets). Conversely, the Thebans asked a group of hilots prisoners to recite heroic verses of the national poets, Alcman and Terpandre: the hilots refused, declaring that their masters would not allow them.

Moreover, when the ephors take office, that is to say every year, they systematically declare the war to the hilots, which makes it possible to the Spartans to kill these last ones without incurring of religious defilement. Most of the time, one uses for that the kryptes, the young people who pass the difficult test of the kryptie. In 425 BC, 2 000 hilots are thus massacred at the end of a carefully prepared staging. Thucydides writes thus:

“The Lacedemonians asked them to name those among them who had best assisted them in the war, saying that they wanted to set them free. In reality, it was only a trap; they estimated that those which would be the first to claim by pride of heart the freedom would be also the first to rise. About two thousand were thus designated; the forehead girded with a crown, they walked around the temples, as a sign that they were already freed; but a little later, the Lacedemonians made them disappear, and no one ever knew in which way they had perished (Translation of Jean Voilquin).

Myron of Priene also indicates that hilots who became too fat were put to death, and that their masters were fined for letting them get fat.


The image suggested by the texts is unanimous: the hilots are ritually humiliated and psychologically tortured. Nevertheless, this picture deserves some nuances.

First of all, the clothing: the diphthera was generally a poor worker’s garment also worn by free men in Athens. Thus, in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, it is the garment of Strepsiades. Similarly, the word κυνῆ

Secondly, the obligation for the masters to prevent their hilots from getting fat seems rather inapplicable: the Homoioi living apart, how could they have controlled the feeding of the latter? Moreover, as the hilots were used for their work force (for example to carry their master’s weapons in war), they probably had to be properly fed. We know from Thucydides the content of the food rations that the Spartans sent to their hoplites besieged on Sphateria: two chelices of barley flour, two kotyls of wine and an unspecified quantity of meat. We also know that the hilots perceived as for them a half-ration. Knowing that an Attic chelice corresponds to 698 g, calculations have shown that such a quantity of barley flour is far from being miserable: it corresponds to 81% of the nutritional needs of a moderately active man, according to the standards of the FAO. Knowing that the fighting had ceased at the time described by Thucydides, and that the flour was supplemented by a little meat and wine, the ration was thus more or less normal. Moreover, the very fact that a penalty was provided for masters who did not prevent their hilots from gaining weight suggests that this was possible.

Security measures

This hatred of the Spartans for their hilots comes in fact from a reciprocal fear: the Spartans, in small number compared to their servile population, fear that the hilots do not seek to destroy them, this is why they maltreat them. According to the tradition, the Equals always move with their spear, undo at home the strap of their shield for fear that a hilot does not seize it, and lock themselves in their house. Thucydides summarizes this situation thus: “For the essential principle of the policy of the Lacedemonians with regard to the hilots was always to be primarily dictated by the concern to protect themselves from them.”

The hilots are not resigned to their fate and thus constitute, by their number, a factor of insecurity for the Spartans. But in spite of the vicissitudes of which they are victims, the hilotes, throughout their history, seldom revolted.

The plot of Pausanias

The first attempt of revolt of the hilots reported in a historical way by Thucydides, is that aroused by the general Pausanias in the sixth century BC:

“It was also learned that he intrigued with the hilots in the following way: he promised them liberty and the right of the city, if they rose with him and helped him in all his undertakings.”

These intrigues do not however push the hilots to the revolt: Thucydides even reports, on the contrary, that some denounce Pausanias. Undoubtedly the promises of Pausanias are too generous to be credible. Brasidas, him, had committed only to free the voluntary hilots, and not to make citizens of them.

The Ténare massacre

The massacre of the Cape Tenare, at the end of Taygetos, is also reported by Thucydides:

“had once made the supplicant hilots rise in the sanctuary of Poseidon, in Ténare, then had drawn them aside and massacred. According to themselves, this impiety had caused the great earthquake of Sparta.”

This affair, evoked by the Athenians in response to a request by Sparta to banish the Alcméonide Pericles, is not dated. We only know that it occurred before the terrible earthquake of 464 BC. Thucydides is here the only one to evoke hilots: Pausanias speaks rather of Lacedemonians condemned to death. The text does not make it possible to conclude with a hilotic uprising having turned badly, but rather with hilots in escape. Moreover, a revolt of hilots of Laconia is not very probable, and Messenians would not have taken refuge at the Ténare cape.

The earthquake

The uprising on the occasion of the earthquake of 464 B.C. is on the other hand firmly attested. The Greek historians do not agree however on its interpretation.

According to Thucydides, the hilotes and of the periecles of Thouria and Aithaia take advantage of the seism to revolt and entrench themselves on Ithômé. It specifies that the majority of these revolted are former Messenians, what confirms the recourse to Ithômé, historical place of the Messenian resistance, and the precision on the periecles of Thouria, city located in Messénie. Conversely, we can deduce that a minority is made up of Laconian hilots: the earthquake would thus have aroused among the Laconian hilots the one and only revolt of their history. Commentators such as Stephen of Byzantium suggest that Aithia is in Laconia, which could mean a large-scale revolt in this region. Pausanias gives a version of the event similar to that of Thucydides.

Diodorus of Sicily, probably inspired by Éphore of Cymé, allots the uprising in equal parts to the Messénians and the hilotes. This version of the facts is supported by Plutarch.

Lastly, certain authors allot the responsibility for the uprising to the hilots of Laconia. It is the case of Plutarch: the hilots of the valley of Eurotas want to benefit from the seism to attack Spartans which they think disarmed. The intervention of Archidamos II, which makes gather in weapons the Lacédémonians, saves them at the same time of the earthquake and the attack of the hilotes. The hilotes withdraw then and start an open war, joined in that by Messénians.

It is difficult to decide between these authors. It is clear in all the accounts, nevertheless, that the revolt of 464 constitutes a major traumatism for the Spartans. Plutarch even indicates that it is after this revolt that the kryptie and the other bad treatments towards the hilots are instituted. If these affirmations are doubtful, they testify to the shock felt then. The reaction of Sparta is immediate: it organizes a network of alliances, the Peloponnesian Confederation, to carry out the war, network of which is part even Athens, which will be its enemy later during the war of Peloponnesus.

The Athenian outposts

During this same war and after the surrender of the Spartans besieged in Sphacteria, the Athenians install in Pylos a garrison made up of Messenians come from Naupacte. Thucydide underlines that they hope to exploit the patriotism of the latter to throw the disorder in the area. If the Messenians do not start a guerrilla war, they plunder the area and incite hilots to the desertion. Sparta will have to immobilize a garrison to control their activity. This is the first of the ἐπιτειχισμοί

The second outpost is established in Cythère. This time, the Athenians aimed at the hilots of Laconia. Once again, plundering and desertions occur, but in much lesser proportions than the Athenians hope and the Spartans fear: there is no uprising comparable to that of the earthquake.

External links


  1. Hilotes
  2. Helots
  3. ^ Apud Libanios, Orationes 25, 63 = Frag. 37 DK; see also Plutarch, Li hi Lycurgus 28, 11.
  4. ^ Pollux 3, 83. The expression probably originates in Aristophanes of Byzantium; Cartledge, p.139.
  5. ^ Herodotus. Histories 9.10.
  6. Moses Finley, « Sparte » dans Jean-Pierre Vernant (s. dir.), Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce ancienne, 1999 (1re édition 1968), p. 208.
  7. Hellanicos, frag. 188 J.
  8. Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, Paris, Klincksieck, 1999 (édition mise à jour), 1447 p. (ISBN 978-2-25203-277-0), s.v.Εἵλωτες, p. 321 b.
  9. Pierre Chantraine, ibid., approuvé par Ducat [1990], p. 10.
  10. Helánico, frag. 188 J).
  11. Pausanias, Descripción de Grecia, III, 20, 16.
  12. Thukydides, Peloponnesische Krieg 4, 80.
  13. Thukydides, Peloponnesische Krieg 5, 34.
  14. Thukydides, Peloponnesische Krieg 4, 80.
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