After the Spartans, What Then?

Here's another of my free-for-the-asking dissertation proposals for a degree I have no time to pursue. Reconstruction is an oft-neglected period in teaching American history, but not, at least, a complete blind spot. It's obvious to all that we're still living with the after-effects of chattel slavery in the United States and the Americas (Haiti? My God.) So what happened in Laconian Greece between the helots and the Spartans after the collapse of the Spartan system?

There was a ratio of seven or eight helot slaves to every Spartan, most of them captured from the neighboring state of Messenia. The Spartans submitted themselves to mental slavery and unmatched discipline because if they ever relaxed for a moment, the helots would make a play for their own freedom and start chewing Spartan throats. Think of police policies in the apartheid government of South Africa, or the weird mix of complacency and savagery exhibited by the ruling class of the ante-bellum South. There was even a policy of state-sponsored terrorism, turning Spartan youths loose on the helots as werewolves to cull and intimidate the flocks. These policies were rationalized by a constant repetition of Spartan sacred beliefs, as in Ronald Reagan's proxy war on "Red" peasants and nuns in Central America, or the Taliban's current war on free women.

All this is well-plowed ground, but I don't know of any deep study on what happened in Laconia after the Spartan slave state collapsed. How long did it take before the Spartans and the Messenians and the other captive states forgave and forgot, and saw themselves as Greek? Were there "different" expectations for freed helots and the grandchildren of Spartan slavers? Were there sexual tensions-- you know those helots fuck all the time, while dignified Spartans do it in the dorm...? Could you still start a fight in Alexander's army by yelling, "Hey, helot!" in the chow line? Were there Messenians who adopted the Spartan system, like those European peasants who came to America and set themselves up with their own baronial manors?

There are questions of identification, those signals of dress or speech or physical appearance that humans use to distinguish class and origin. It hasn't been that long since Germans were measuring noses and American eugenicists were sterilizing defectives, and Barack Obama still causes confusion in television editorialists. Romans mouthed pieties about ancestry, and tattooed their slaves and criminals, but after a century or two, wealthy commoners bought their way into the elite. Early American capitalists tried enslaving Indians, poor whites and Irishmen, but the pesky things kept slipping off and disappearing into a crowd. Then enterprising Dutchmen and Portugese dropped off some African prisoners, and hey presto!: by 1662, melanin is declared to be the mark of hereditary slavery, with all the attendant grief that follows. In ancient Laconia, were there physical differences, due to differences in diet, sun exposure, health care or lifestyle, that signalled "former master" or "ex-slave" to the casual observer? It must have been like being held prisoner by a heavily armed aerobics class.

There's enough Laconian lacunae here to keep a grad student busy for the rest of their crabbed lives. For my part, I intend to start writing a multi-generational series that follows the DNA of a helot family from their capture in 720 BC through Spartacus' revolt to Wat Tyler, Nat Turner's Rebellion, Coxey's Army, and beyond, perhaps in the hard-boiled style of My Gun is Quick, entitled I Carry a Grudge.

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