Slavery wasn't uncommon in the ancient world; the Spartans certainly didn't invent it. Although the purpose of the institution differed from place to place. Sometimes it was to pay off debts, the individual set free afterward. But slavery in Greece was normally for non-Greeks, aka foreigners. What made Sparta unusual is that they had no issue enslaving fellow Greeks. And it's also true that Greeks of this time period were different than the ones of the Heroic Age. After the Trojan War, Bronze Age Greece collapsed, for unknown reasons, and the great palaces and buildings went into the earth until they were rediscovered by archaeologists. After the collapse, a new wave of Greek people began immigrating into the mainland, and some of them founded the City we know as Sparta, picking the location because of its mountainous protection and incredibly fertile lands. These Spartans were not those of Menelaos, but they nevertheless admired Him.
Soon, the Spartans wanted more than just their own land, and needed people to work it. The people of Messenia to the west of Sparta's mountain range became the targets for no reason other than that their land, resources and labor were wanted. After 30 years of war, Sparta conquered the region and subjugated the population, having won both the First and Second Messenian War around 650 BCE. The conquered people were renamed Helots, which means slaves. They became an essential part of Spartan culture, but why were the Spartans so dedicated to keeping a slave class for 3 centuries? Simply put, the male Spartan citizen was allowed no profession other than war, which meant that there was no one to work the lands. Slaves or other forms of labor were needed so that the Spartans could focus on being a war culture. Because they were allowed to retain this sole occupation, they became the greatest fighters the known world had ever seen, at least for a significant time period.
The Spartans may have been the best warriors, but they were also not always admired in the Greek world. Athens basically thought them to be barbaric in their training and ways of life. Athens loved the beauties and pleasures of existence, they did not focus on war, and yet, as Perikles said in His funeral oration, they were just as ready for battle as the Spartans. Nevertheless, Spartan women were the envy of other Greek women. They enjoyed more freedom, more power, more equality, and were exceptionally beautiful. In the movie 300, when Leonidas comments to Xerxes that, "Clearly, you don't know our women," it wasn't a joke.
But soon, another City with some of its own infamous reputations would come onto the scene, Thebes. The home of the Hero Oedipus is routinely remembered for bowing down to the second Persian invasion in 480 BCE, surrendering the City and even eventually siding with them on the battlefield. When the war was over and the Greeks had won, Thebes paid a heavy price for their treason. But Thebes also did much good throughout ancient Greek history, and one of which was victory over the Spartan slave system. Sparta had worn itself obliviously thin after the Peloponnesian War, and in 371 BCE, their fragile peace with Thebes broke and the Thebans attacked Sparta at its weakest, with only about 1,000 Spartan men left to defend the City. At the Battle of Leuctra, a force of 6,000 Thebans finished off Sparta's strength, and absolished their slave system. The Helots were free after 300 years, and Sparta never recovered. Today on the field of Leuctra, the base of the victory monument built to Thebes still stands, a silent ruin and a ghostly face to the forgotten Heroism of the northern soldiers.
Our own American nation, like Thebes, probably, in part, freed the slaves because, like in the American Confederacy, it was the final blow to the enemy's power system. Without Helots, Spartan society would quickly decline. Not only was the labor gone, but war, the foundation of their culture, could no longer be solely utilized, and there was simply no time to make more Spartans. The Agoge training took several years. Sparta had been a producer of great soldiers, but it liked war too much. Considering the late Athenian overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants and the Theban conquest, some may argue that, ultimately, it was Sparta who lost the Peloponnesian War. The abolishment of Spartan slavery was, of course, not the only reason for the City's fall. The fact that they no longer had a standing army was the final factor.
Perhaps it was not coincidence that Thebes, being the City of Oedipus who freed it from enslavement by the Sphinx, was also the City who freed other enslaved people. But Sparta continued to be admired and studied throughout the centuries later and even into today. The face of Lykourgos, the founder of Sparta, is displayed today in the United States Congress. We can indeed learn a lot from Sparta when it comes to selflessness, honor, duty, strength, and Heroism. In the ancient world, some people did a lot of good, others bad, and others in-between. Humanity is not a perfect set but one that experiences, learns and grows. It is the good that the Gods teach us, and it is from the good that we find footing.
In the Goodness of the Gods,