Helots were conquered native peoples who were forced to become agricultural workers in some early Greek states. Although not quite slaves, helots were almost entirely without legal rights. The best known are Spartan helots, people native to Messenia and Laconia, two regions of southern Greece that were conquered by Sparta.
Unlike other slaves, who were the personal property of individual Greeks, helots were owned by the state. Only the Spartan assembly could free a helot. As the conquered native population, the helots remained in their homes and continued to farm the land. Helots in Sparta were required to supply food to individual Spartans, freeing them to participate in military and civil affairs. To keep helots obedient, the Spartans formally declared war on them each year, meaning that Spartans could kill any helot they wanted to without fear of punishment. Helots occasionally rebelled against their harsh treatment, but this only led the Spartans to treat them even more severely.
Some helots in Laconia worked closely with Spartans and even fought in the Spartan army. During and after the Peloponnesian War, the war between Sparta and Athens in the late 400s B.C., many Laconian helots won their freedom. The helots of Messenia harbored much more bitterness toward their Spartan masters, resulting in a number of large helot revolts from the 600s to the 300s B.C.
The helots survived as a distinct class in Sparta until the Messenians were freed in 369 B.C. and the remaining Laconian helots were freed in the early 100s B.C. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Citizenship; Class Structure, Greek; Slavery.)