The krypteia was an ancient Spartan institution in which the ablest and most intelligent young men were extracted from their training unit within the agoge (the brutal military school which Spartan males would enter at the age of 7 and leave once they had achieved citizenship around the age of 21) and sent to survive alone into the wilderness around Sparta to kill members of Sparta’s slave population, the Helots.
I would like to quickly digress to explain who the Helots were in Spartan society. In essence, the Helots were the Spartan’s slaves who lived in Laconia and Messenia (the region in which the city of Sparta was established) and whose main function was to work the farms of the Spartans so that they could devote their full energies to military practice.
The Helots seem to be the original inhabitants of Laconia and the Spartans, once known as Dorians, had migrated into this region from Macedonia, subjugated this local population and from this time there seems to have been a clear master-slave relationship between Spartan citizens and their Helot slaves.
Continuing with the main point of this post, with only a knife, their cloak and minimal food supplies they would have to survive in the countryside, completely isolated from their fellow countrymen, resting by day and then, at nightfall, descending onto the roads surrounding Sparta where they were to slit the throat of any helot they encountered. They also would often make excursions into the fields where they found the strongest and most independently-minded helots and murder them also.
There are multiple explanations of why the Spartans decided to install such an institution into their culture. Firstly, it was a military exercise and a rite-of-passage. It sent the best recruits of the Spartan agoge into physically testing autumn conditions, isolated from their friends and fellow recruits and the comfort of the hoplite fighting formation, where cooperation and co-dependence was paramount, these trainees were placed completely on their own in a harsh and unforgiving environment without shelter and only a knife and minimal clothing and food supplies. Not only this, but on top of just surviving in the wilderness on their own, they also had to survey the surrounding countryside and identify, target and kill those individuals who they believed were the most threatening to themselves and their city.
Another important aspect of the krypteia was that it controlled a resentful slave population. By getting rid of the strongest and most courageous helots, Sparta hoped to ensure their internal safety by removing the aspects of the helot population that posed the greatest potential threat to their security.
As well as this, it also functioned as a preventative tactic against rebellion. The Helots inevitably knew at the time that at a certain point of the year, the most outspoken and prominent members of their population would disappear and that this was due to the actions and decisions of their Spartan masters. Therefore, any helot knew what the price could be if they found themselves being too much of a threat to Spartan society.
Although it appears that no stories survive from an individual Spartan’s krypteia-it was a secret service kind of setup after all-one story which highlights the severity and ruthlessness with which the Spartans controlled the Helots has been conveyed to us in the works of Thucydides.
The story goes that in the year 425 BC, the Spartans sent out a proclamation to the Helots that they should pick out those among their population who had served the Spartans with the greatest amount of courage and who were most deserving of their freedom. The Helot delegation to Sparta of 2,000 men who deemed themselves worthy of freedom were received with open arms and garlands were placed around their necks. At this point as a token of gratitude and friendship the Spartans organised a tour of the temples for the helots and it was during this tour that the 2,000 helots vanished without a trace in the written records.
This story adequately highlights how dispensable helots were in the eyes of the Spartans. Despite the delegation being comprised of those helots who had done the most for Sparta, unfortunately for them this made them a threat as they were the ones who obviously felt deserved their freedom the most and therefore had to be killed so that they could not incite rebellion.
The information for this article was provided in the works of the ancient writers Plutarch, Xenophon and Thucydides.