Helots: class of unfree peasants in Spartan society, who may be defined as state-owned serfs.
In Antiquity, all humans were unequal. Citizenship was a privilege; magistracies were usually reserved for men; not everyone was allowed to serve in the army; the right to marry was restricted; not everybody was permitted to own land; certain professions were considered to be vulgar; and nearly every society had at least one class of people who were not their own masters. They were unfree. The idea that all members of society are equal for the law, have identical rights and are free, simply did not exist.
Spartan society was no exception to this rule. Like other towns in ancient Greece, all people belonged to different groups, and there was a class of unfree laborers, the helots. Typically, they were peasants, but they are sometimes found in other sectors of Spartan society (as servants at home, guards, and grooms), and although they were believed to be ethnically different from the Spartan elite, they could be emancipated and enter the world of the free-born.
None of this is unique, and ancient and modern authors have found it very difficult to define helotism, because it was not considered to be an ordinary type of unfree labor. Unlike the slaves in Athens, helots had families and communities of their own, and they were no private property. Therefore, Pausanias calls them "slaves of the commonwealth". Strabo of Amasia says they were "some sort of public slaves", and other authors say they were a category between slaves and free people. Perhaps the best approach is to leave the niceties for what they are, and simply define helots as a class of unfree laborers.
Probably, helotism is a very ancient category; it may even be a survival from Mycenean times. It has been assumed that when the Dorians conquered Laconia (the southeast of the Peloponnese), they reduced the native population to the status of helots. An argument for this theory is that the word heilôtes may be related to a verb that means "capture". On the other hand, the Dorian invasion is poorly understood, and it is perhaps unwise to use a poorly understood phenomenon to explain another poorly understood phenomenon.
Whatever the origins of helotism and its relation to slavery, it is reasonably certain that when the Spartans conquered Messenia in the southwest of the Peloponnese (probably in the eighth or seventh century), the native population became helots. They were forced to work on the land and had to give the fruits to the Spartans. However, their communities were left intact and they were allowed to have their own religious ceremonies. They still had an identity as Messenians, must have defined themselves as a repressed class, and hoped to liberate themselves. Writing much later, Xenophon stated that helots would gladly eat their masters raw, and several revolts of Messenian helots have been recorded.
In fact, the creation of a great number of helots in Messenia caused great problems and led to the introduction of a strict military discipline among the Spartans, who became a specialized military class. They had to be permanently on their guard, and it is not surprising, therefore, that their magistrates (the ephors) declared war upon the Messenians every year. If a member of the Spartan elite happened to kill a helot, it was not considered to be murder but an act of war. Other acts of violence and terror are recorded, and it seems that Spartan society as a whole suffered from a permanent fear of a helot rebellion. Probably, the helots outnumbered their masters by some seven to one.
On the other hand, there was also a more kind policy towards the helots, as if to appease them. Helots always could dream of being emancipated, and we know that the Spartan government did indeed sometimes liberate groups of helots. They were known as neodamôdeis and had the right to serve in the Spartan army, which also meant that they shared in the spoils. Former helots are also recorded as rowers.
The system collapsed in the fourth century. In 371, the Theban commander Epaminondas defeated the Spartans at Leuctra, and later, he invaded the Peloponnese, where he liberated the helots of Messenia. The helots of Laconia appear to have been emancipated later by the reformer kings Cleomenes III (235-222) and Nabis (207-192).