Dafato Team | Apr 3, 2024

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

According to some traditions, the name comes from the town of Helos (Ἕλος), south of Sparta. Pausanias states: "They were the first to be called hilots." The name would therefore have originally designated a simple tribe of the Dorian ethnic group, but this explanation is historically implausible and phonetically impossible. It has therefore been proposed that the word be linked to ϝαλῶναι, infinitive of ἁλίσκομαι.

Certainly, some hiloticism is the result of conquest: this is the case of the Messenians, reduced in the 8th century BC by the Messenian wars. Herodotus calls the hilots "Messenians".

As for the first Hilots, the situation is less clear-cut. According to tradition (Theopompus), they were the descendants of the original inhabitants, the Achaeans, who were subdued by the arrival of the Dorians. But not all Achaeans were reduced to hilotists: for example, the city of Amyclées, scene of the Hyacinthia, enjoyed a privileged status. Other ancient authors propose alternative theories: according to Antiochos of Syracuse, the hilots were originally Lacedemonians who did not take part in the Messenian wars. According to Ephorus of Cumae, they were periecans from Helos, who had revolted and been reduced to slavery. Modern historiography favors the thesis of Antiochos of Syracuse.


The legal status of hilots was complex. They were not free and had no political rights, making them comparable to commodity slaves, to whom the rest of Greece had extensive recourse. In fact, many ancient Greek and Roman authors simply referred to hilots as douloi or servants, without always being fully aware of their special status. In fact, hilots were tied to a piece of land, which brought them closer to the medieval serf.

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

Hilotes and kleros

The kleros, a portion of land allotted to each Spartan and cultivated by the hilotes, was intended to enable each citizen to pay his share. If they were unable to do so, they were excluded from the syssitie and lost their citizenship.

Hilots were assigned to citizens to carry out the work of the kleros assigned to that citizen, or even domestic tasks. Indeed, the sources often mention the servants accompanying a particular Spartan. Plutarch shows Timaïa, wife of King Agis II, conversing with hilote women, her servants. She clearly placed a certain amount of trust in them, confiding to them when she was pregnant that the child's father was her lover Alcibiades, not her lawful husband. In the 4th century, citizens also employed commodity slaves for this purpose. Some hilots also serve as servants to young Spartans, during Spartan education. These are the μόθωνες

They must give a share of their harvest (ἀποφορά

After paying tribute, hilots were often left with enough to live on: the lands of Laconia and Messinia were very fertile, often allowing two harvests. In 223 BC, 6,000 hilots bought their freedom for 500 drachmas each, a considerable sum. However, the Spartans took measures to prevent their hilots from becoming 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. As a result, hilots are much less likely to see their families separated. As a result, hilots were able to reproduce, unlike other slaves in antiquity. Their numbers, probably quite large to begin with, grew steadily - despite kryptia and other massacres of hilots, or losses due to war. At the same time, the population of peers (Spartan citizens) continued to decline.

In the absence of a census, it is impossible to know their numbers with any certainty, but estimates are possible. According to Herodotus, the Hilots outnumbered the Spartans seven to one at the Battle of Plataea in 479. At the time of Cinadon's conspiracy, at the very beginning of the 4th century, 40 peers out of a total of 4,000 could be counted on the agora. At that time, the total hilote population was estimated at between 170,000 and 224,000, including women.

Since the population of hilots cannot grow exogenously (through purchase or the taking of war), it can only rely on its own reproduction. The hilots were encouraged to do so by the Spartans themselves, who implemented a eugenics policy for their slaves comparable to the one they imposed on themselves. Indeed, according to the Greek belief of the time, acquired traits are inherited as well as hereditary ones. During the kryptic process, the strongest hilots are the primary target of the kryptes: the aim is to select the softest hilots, deemed the most docile.

What's more, the Spartans used Hilot women as a means of providing the state with human resources: the bastards (nothoi) born to a Spartan father and a Hilot mother held an intermediate rank in Lacedemonian society (mothakes and môthones) and swelled the ranks of the civilian army. It is difficult to know whether these births were the result of voluntary liaison (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, which served no military purpose, were exposed at birth.


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

"(Translation by Jacqueline de Romilly, Collection des Universités de France)".

According to Thucydides, the appeal met with some success with the hilots, who did indeed manage to get supplies to the besieged. However, he does not specify whether or not the Spartans kept their word. It is possible that some of the hilots subsequently executed were among Sphacteria's volunteers.

The second call was proclaimed during the Theban invasion of Laconia. According to Xenophon, the authorities undertook to emancipate any hilote who agreed to be incorporated. He estimates the number of those who accepted at 6,000, and points out that this number caused the Spartans a great deal of embarrassment.

Similarly, in 424, the 700 hilots who had served Brasidas in Chalkidiki were given their freedom. They became known as the "Brasideans". It was also possible to become free by buying one's freedom, or by undergoing Spartan education. Generally speaking, freed hilots are called "neodamodes" (νεοδαμώδεις

Moses Finley points out that the use of hilots as hoplites is a serious flaw in the system. Indeed, the basis of the hoplitic system is strict training to maintain ranks in the phalanx. The Spartans themselves are renowned hoplites for their maneuvering skills, the result of constant training. In addition to this military aspect, serving as a hoplite is characteristic of the Greek citizen. Introducing hilots into the phalanx is bound to lead to social unrest.

A special case: mothakes and mothônes

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

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

Jean Ducat's expression reflects the other great originality of the hilots, among the Greek servile populations: they were mistreated in a ritual manner. 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 points out that they were forced to drink pure wine (considered dangerous at the time) to get drunk, and to dance grotesquely in front of the young Spartans at syssities (compulsory banquets). Conversely, the Thebans asked a group of prisoner hilots to recite heroic verses by the national poets Alcman and Terpandre: the hilots refused, declaring that their masters would not allow them to do so.

What's more, when the ephors take office, i.e. every year, they systematically declare war on the hilots, enabling the Spartans to kill the latter without incurring religious sully. Most of the time, this is done using kryptes, young people who have passed the difficult kryptic test. In 425 B.C., 2,000 hilots were slaughtered in a carefully prepared staged event. Thucydides writes

"The Lacedemonians asked them to name those among them who had best supported them in the war, saying they wanted to set them free. In reality, this was nothing but a trap; they believed that those who would be the first to claim freedom out of pride of soul would also be the first to rise up. Around two thousand of them were thus designated; their foreheads girded with crowns, they walked around the temples, as a sign that they had already been freed; but shortly afterwards, the Lacedemonians made them disappear, and no one ever knew how they had perished (Translation by Jean Voilquin)."

Myron of Priene also reports that hilots who became too fat were put to death, and their masters 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 a few nuances.

First, clothing: diphthera was generally a poor worker's garment worn by free men in Athens too. In Aristophanes' The Clouds, for example, it's Strepsiades' garment. Similarly, the word κυνῆ

Secondly, the obligation on masters to prevent their hilots from putting on weight seems rather inapplicable: since the Homoioi were living apart, how could they have controlled the latter's diet? What's more, since hilots were used for their labor power (for example, to carry their masters' weapons in war), they probably needed to be properly fed. We know from Thucydides the content of the food rations that the Spartans sent to their hoplites besieged at Sphateria: two chelices of barley flour, two kotyls of wine and an unspecified quantity of meat. We also know that the hilots received half a ration. Knowing that one Attic chelice corresponds to 698 g, calculations have shown that such a quantity of barley flour is far from miserable: it corresponds to 81% of the nutritional requirements of a moderately active man, according to FAO standards. Given that the fighting had ceased by the time Thucydides describes, and that the flour was supplemented by a little meat and wine, the ration was pretty much normal. What's more, the very fact that there was a penalty for masters who didn't prevent their hilots from putting on weight suggests that this was possible.

Safety measures

This hatred of the Spartans for their hilots stems from a mutual fear: the Spartans, who were outnumbered by their servile population, feared that the hilots would try to destroy them, which is why they mistreated them. According to tradition, the Aegrians always carry their spears with them, undo their shield straps at home lest a hilot seize them, and lock themselves in their homes. Thucydides sums up this situation as follows: "For the essential principle of the policy of the Lacedaemonians towards the hilots has always been to be dictated principally by the concern to protect themselves from them."

The hilots were not resigned to their fate, and their sheer numbers made them a source of insecurity for the Spartans. But despite the vicissitudes to which they were subjected, the hilots rarely revolted throughout their history.

The plot of Pausanias

The first attempt by the Hilots to revolt, historically recorded by Thucydides, was that instigated by the general Pausanias in the 6th century BC:

"We also learned that he intrigued with the hilots in the following way: he promised them freedom and the right of citizenship, if they rose up with him and helped him in all his undertakings."

Yet these intrigues did not incite the hilots to revolt: on the contrary, Thucydides even reports that some of them denounced Pausanias. No doubt Pausanias' promises were too generous to be credible. Brasidas, for his part, only undertook to emancipate volunteer hilots, not to make them citizens.

The Ténare massacre

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

"had once made the supplicant hilots stand up in Poseidon's sanctuary at Tenearus, then dragged them aside and slaughtered them. In their own words, this impiety had caused the great earthquake of Sparta."

This affair, mentioned by the Athenians in response to a request by Sparta to banish the Alcmaeonid Pericles, is undated. We only know that it occurred before the terrible earthquake of 464 BC. Thucydides is the only one to mention hilots here: Pausanias speaks instead of Lacedemonians condemned to death. The text does not suggest a hilotic uprising gone wrong, but rather hilots on the run. Moreover, a revolt by Laconian hilots is unlikely, and Messenians would not have taken refuge at Cape Tenare.

The earthquake

On the other hand, the uprising during the earthquake of 464 BC is well documented. Greek historians do not, however, agree on its interpretation.

According to Thucydides, the hilotes and periecles of Thouria and Aithaia took advantage of the earthquake to revolt and entrench themselves on the Ithômé. He points out that most of these rebels were former Messenians, which is confirmed by the use of the Ithômé, the historic site of Messenian resistance, and by the fact that he mentions the periecles of Thouria, a town in Messinia. Conversely, we can deduce that a minority of them were Laconian hilots: the earthquake would therefore have sparked off the one and only revolt among the Laconian hilots in their history. Commentators such as Stephen of Byzantium also suggest that Aithia is in Laconia, which could mean a large-scale revolt in that region. Pausanias gives a version of the event similar to that of Thucydides.

Diodorus Siculus, probably inspired by Ephorus of Cyme, attributes the uprising equally to the Messenians and the Hilots. This version of events is supported by Plutarch.

Finally, some authors attribute responsibility for the uprising to the Laconian hilots. This is the case of Plutarch: the hilots of the Eurotas valley wanted to take advantage of the earthquake to attack the Spartans, whom they believed to be disarmed. The intervention of Archidamos II, who had the Lacedemonians gather in arms, saved them from both the earthquake and the hilots' attack. The Hilots then withdrew and began open warfare, joined by the Messenians.

It's difficult to decide between these authors. It is clear from all accounts, however, that the revolt of 464 was a major trauma for the Spartans. Plutarch even states that it was after this revolt that kryptia and other ill-treatments of hilots were instituted. These statements may be dubious, but they bear witness to the shock felt at the time. Sparta's reaction was immediate: it organized a network of alliances, the Peloponnesian Confederation, to wage war, including Athens, which would later become its enemy during the Peloponnesian War.

Athenian outposts

During the same war and after the surrender of the Spartans besieged in Sphacteria, the Athenians installed a garrison of Messenians from Naupacte in Pylos. Thucydides points out that they hoped to exploit the latter's patriotism to stir up trouble in the region. While the Messenians did not start a guerrilla war, they did pillage the region and incited hilots to desert. Sparta would have to immobilize a garrison to control their activities. This is the first of the ἐπιτειχισμοί

The second outpost was set up in Kythera. This time, the Athenians set their sights on the Laconian hilots. Once again, looting and desertions occur, but on a much smaller scale than the Athenians had hoped and the Spartans feared: there is no uprising comparable to that of the earthquake.


  1. Helots
  2. Hilotes
  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. Moses Finley, « Sparte » dans Jean-Pierre Vernant (s. dir.), Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce ancienne, 1999 (1re édition 1968), p. 208.
  6. Hellanicos, frag. 188 J.
  7. 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.
  8. Pierre Chantraine, ibid., approuvé par Ducat [1990], p. 10.
  9. Helánico, frag. 188 J).
  10. Hellanikos bei Harpokration s. v. εἱλωτεύειν; Ephoros bei Strabon 8,365; Pausanias 3,20,6; Theopompos bei Athenaios 6,102; Stephanos von Byzanz s. v. Ἕλος.
  11. Thukydides, Peloponnesische Krieg 4, 80.

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