Like most countries that depended on oppressed laborers, the free citizens of Sparta were far outnumbered by the subservient Helots (similar in nature to medieval serfs), who performed all of the manual work required by the state. As such, the Spartans were always in fear of a Helot revolt, as it would threaten national security and shatter the Spartan economy. One of the unpleasant results of this fear was the Krypteia. Unfortunately, surviving information on the Krypteia is vague, yet what we do know is extremely unnerving.
Plutarch wrote the most detailed description of the Krypteia in his biography of Lycurgus, included in his Parallel Lives. Even though his account is the clearest, it still leaves many questions unanswered. According to Plutarch, the Krypteia was some sort of institution that operated from the shadows to oppress the Helots. In the account, he was unclear as to whether the Krypteia was a large-scale government organization (like a secret police) or if the Krypteia was simply an initiation test given to talented Spartan trainees. Either way, the Spartan youths and their instructors were said to have played a significant role in the Krypteia.
According to Plutarch, agents of the Krypteia were the most intelligent and talented of the Spartan youths. The training overseers would periodically send out these elite trainees, armed with daggers and provisions, to infiltrate the countryside. While on their missions, these agents would allegedly spend their days hiding and resting, but once the sun fell, they would allegedly prowl for Helots and sometimes go on a murdering rampage. The assassins were said to target the strongest, most admired, members of the Helot population—the very ones that could lead potential revolts against Sparta.
An event reported by Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) to have occurred in Sparta around early 424 BCE is often mentioned in regards to the actions of the Krypteia. It was a time when the morale of Sparta was very low—in 425 BCE, the Athenian general, Demosthenes, audaciously constructed, and successfully defended, a fortress at Pylos, located on the southwestern coast of the Peloponnesus. Not only did the Athenian general protect his newly built fortress from a Peloponnesian attack, but he also captured over a hundred Spartan officers that had camped on a nearby island. According to Thucydides, the loss at Pylos, as well as other Athenian victories, made the Spartans worry about a possible Helot uprising. Thucydides alleged that, in the aftermath of Pylos, the Spartans sent out messages, asking for the Helot community to send their strongest and most productive members of their community to an unnamed temple, where they would receive rewards for their efforts. These chosen Helots, supposedly 2,000 in number, were wreathed with garlands and paraded around the temple grounds. Yet, not long after the ceremony, all 2,000 of the elite helots were said to have died of mysterious causes. On this curious episode, Thucydides wrote, “So about 2,000 were selected, who put garlands on their heads and went round the temples under the impression that they were being made free men. Soon afterwards, however, the Spartans did away with them, and no one ever knew exactly how each one of them was killed” (History of the Peloponnesian War, 4.80). Such was the alleged fate of the 2,000. As for less threatening Helots, many were sent abroad to serve in the Peloponnesian war effort.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Three Spartan Boys Practicing Archery, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
- History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.