Many strange tales have been told about the ancient Spartans. Soldiers had to stand naked in public every ten days to ensure they were fit and ready for battle. Their staple was a broth made from pork boiled in pig’s blood and consumed with salt and vinegar. They kept their hair long to distinguish warriors from manual laborers (they also believed that it made them look more handsome). They had to live in communal barracks until the age of thirty, even if they were married. The bride shaved her head, dressed as a man, and waited for her future husband to arrive and fulfill his marital duties. Disgraced soldiers shaved half their beard and wore rags. And yet, all these bizarre customs pale in comparison to an institution whose existence strains belief; the krypteia.
There is no shortage of famous quotes trying to describe the importance of maintaining good relationships with your neighbors…and what happens when you don’t. Hesiod believed that a bad neighbor was as much of misfortune as a good one is a great blessing. Two millennia later the general opinion was very much the same. G. K. Chesterton claimed that we may be able to choose our friends and our enemies but only God makes our next-door neighbors. Gore Vidal came even closer to the truth of the matter when he argued that it is the nature of things for one’s neighbor to always be the enemy. Especially if the parties involved are the Messenians and the Spartans.
The many Helens of Sparta
The Messenians were Achaeans who lived in southwestern Peloponnese; the Spartans were Dorians who settled in the Eurotas valley. When they ran out of farmable land, they began to have ambitions on the Messenians’ fertile plains and were on the lookout for an opportunity to invade their neighbors’ realm. And since the gods never tire of a good story (and why should you try to invent a new one when you already have a fine precedent), the Spartans were presented with a fine excuse to invade Messene; the abduction not of the most beautiful woman in the world (been there, done that) but a whole troupe of Helens.
The temple of Artemis Limnatis stood on the border between Messene and Laconia. According to the Spartan version of the events, a group of maidens came to the temple to participate in a festival, only to be raped by the Messenians. According to the Messenian version, the maidens were, in fact, beardless Spartan soldiers dressed up as women and armed with daggers. They hoped to assassinate the principal men of Messene, but they were discovered and killed by their would-be victims.
One hundred tripods
For whatever reason (a guilty conscience perhaps?) the Spartans did not invade Messene then. A generation of uneasy peace passed and then the Spartans found another excuse. A man called Euaephnus sold a herd of cows entrusted to his care by Polychares, a wealthy Messenian, and then claimed that pirates had carried off the animals. When the truth was revealed, the Spartan promised to return the value of the herd if only Polychares’ young son would accompany him home to collect the money. As soon as the pair reached Laconia, Euaephnus slew the youth. The Spartans refused all Messenian demands for justice and war broke out.
It took twenty years and an inspired ruse for the Spartans to subdue all resistance. The Messenians controlled the castle at the top of Mount Ithomi, a nearly impregnable position. The war, however, was taking a heavy toll and they decided to seek the advice of the oracle of Delphi. Apollo told them that victory would be with those who first place one hundred tripods around the altar of Zeus. How convenient! The altar was within the walls of their castle. But it took time to make the tripods (of wood since they didn’t have enough bronze). In the meantime, the Spartans heard of the oracle and a Spartan formed one hundred tripods of clay, entered the castle disguised as a Messenian peasant and placed them around the altar. Soon after the Messenians were forced to surrender.
Murderers at large
Magnanimity in victory was as strange a concept to the Spartans as adding a pear to soutzoukakia is to gourmands the world over. They enslaved the survivors and divided their land. The hapless Messenians were now known as helots and were forced to bring “full half the fruit their ploughed land produced”. Their new masters stipulated a degrading dress code that included a cap made of dogskin; they administered a set number of beatings annually regardless of fault to remind helots of their servile status and punished any Spartan who fed his slaves well.
The krypteia was the most abhorrent method devised by the Spartan magistrates to control the helots. From time to time, the ephors sent the most intelligent young men into the country, equipped with little more than their daggers and their cunning. During the day, the Spartans lay quiet in obscure places; in the nighttime though, they came down into the highways and killed every helot they found outside. The most daring even murdered the Messenians as they worked the fields, preferring to go after the sturdiest of them. To justify these actions, the Spartans ritually declared war on the helots on an annual basis.
The great helot massacre
The authorities in Sparta were always apprehensive lest the Messenians rise in revolt. The krypteia was a period of traditional withdrawal from society and an initiation rite into the male institutions of the Spartan society. It was also a method whereby the ephors employed the most intelligent young men to police and terrorize the helot population. Despite their losses and harsh oppression, the Messenians were always too numerous compared to the Spartans and could theoretically prove very dangerous to their masters. The fear and hatred of the Lacedemonians towards their slaves reached its most wretched climax on the eighth year of the Peloponnesian War.
The Spartans were hard pressed by the Athenians and the ephors were apprehensive of a helot revolt. They decided, therefore, to invite any Messenian who had rendered distinguished services in support of Sparta to make his claim known to the authorities, who would grant liberty to the most deserving. Many helots came forward; 2000 were emancipated and led in solemn procession around the temples with garlands on their heads. That was the last time anyone ever saw them. The Spartans used the garlands to single out the most ambitious and brave helots and murdered them all. The manner of their death remains a mystery to the present day.