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The Story of Greece by  Mary Macgregor

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THE HELOTS

[85] WHEN Lycurgus made a law compelling soldiers to eat their meals in the barracks, some of the wealthier citizens were indignant.

They did not wish to sit at table with their fellow-soldiers in batches of fifteen; they would rather have gone to their homes and taken their meals with their families.

Nor did they enjoy the plain fare on which Lycurgus insisted, a share of which each citizen was forced to send to the mess table month by month.

The most usual food in Laconia was black broth, which was not a palatable soup. When someone ventured to grumble at the broth, the cook answered, "It is nothing without the seasoning of fatigue and hunger." This black broth, with barley meal, cheese, and figs, was the Spartan's daily fare. Meat was a luxury which they enjoyed only on special occasions.

So great was the indignation against Lycurgus that a crowd assembled in the market-place to complain of his laws, and to speak harshly of his conduct.

When they saw the great lawgiver coming toward the market-place they were so angry that they picked up stones to throw at him, and he was forced to fly for his life.

His enemies followed him, but he outstripped them all save one, named Alexander. As he turned to see who pursued him so closely, Alexander struck his face with a stick and put out one of his eyes.

As others hastened up, Lycurgus showed them what [86] Alexander had done, and they, ashamed of his violence, told the lawgiver to take the rash youth and punish him as he would. They then went with him to his house, to show that they were sorry for what had happened.

When they reached the door Lycurgus sent them all away save his prisoner. Then going into his dining-room, he dismissed his attendants and bade Alexander wait upon him. During the meal he uttered no word of reproach, although the boy had done him so great an injury.

Alexander lived with Lycurgus until he learned not only to admire but to imitate the industry and the gentleness of his host. And so Lycurgus had the pleasure of seeing a rash and wilful lad become a grave and sensible citizen.

Each Spartan had a portion or "lot" of land given to him, on the produce of which he and his family had to live. But citizen soldiers had no time to dig the ground, to sow, to reap, for all the days were spent in drill and military exercises. So their land was cultivated for them by the Helots, who had owned Laconia before the Spartans conquered them and took possession of their land.

The Helots were treated very much as slaves, although they had no taskmasters to drive them to their work. They were even allowed to own property. But they had many hardships to endure, and were always ready to rebel against their masters.

One of their greatest hardships was that their lives were never safe. For while the Spartans were being trained, they were often sent into the country with orders to kill any Helot who was suspected of wishing to rebel.

In time of war the Helots fought as light-armed troops. If they showed themselves brave and loyal in the service of the State, they were sometimes rewarded by being made free.

Once during the great Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens, of which you will read in this story, the Spartans believed that the Helots had plotted to rise against them. They determined that the rising should never take place, [87] and to prevent it they did a cruel deed. For they chose two thousand of the bravest Helots, set them free, and gave them a great feast to celebrate the event. Then when the feast was over and the Helots had gone away to their homes, suspecting nothing, the Spartans ordered each of the two thousand freed men to be put to death. When the bravest were killed the others were not likely to rebel.

The Spartan army became strong as Lycurgus had foreseen it would, if it were trained according to his strict methods. It conquered Peloponnesus, and for a time Sparta was the chief city in that land.

But there was one strange thing about these soldiers. Well as they had been trained, they could never learn how to attack or to take a town that was fortified. "Wall-fighting," as the Greeks called it, was beyond their power. Even an ordinary wall or fence would stop them in their victorious course. At sea too they were not nearly so successful as on land.

Sparta itself was not, like other Greek cities, surrounded by a wall. For when the citizens once sent to ask Lycurgus if it were necessary to enclose their city with a wall, his answer was, "The city is well fortified which hath a wall of men instead of brick."

When, after many years, Lycurgus had finished his code of laws, he called the people together and told them that he was going to Delphi to consult the oracle on an important matter which concerned the State.

Before he set out he begged them, and also the two kings and the Senate, to take an oath to keep his laws unaltered until his return. This they gladly promised to do.

Then Lycurgus journeyed to Delphi, and after offering sacrifices to Apollo, he asked the god if the laws he had made for his country were good laws.

The oracle answered that the laws were good, and that as long as the people kept them their fame would endure.

Lycurgus sent this answer in writing to Sparta. Then, [88] that the Spartans might not be set free from their oath he determined never to go back to the city. Yet it seemed that he could not live away from her, and so, for the welfare of the State, as he believed, the lawgiver starved himself to death.

The Spartans kept the oath that they had taken, and when they died their sons and their sons' sons observed it. For five hundred years, during the reigns of fourteen kings, the laws of Lycurgus were unaltered and strictly followed.

After his death Lycurgus was worshipped as a god, and a temple was built for him in Sparta, where sacrifices were offered to him every year.


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