The Ancient Spartans Had a Murderous Secret Police

Death by Spartans

A stone relief
The men of the krypteia might've looked something like these Spartan soldiers.

CM Dixon / Hulton Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images

The Spartans were a hardy and courageous group. But they weren't the nicest to their own people, punishing young people brutally for infractions, and even utilizing the youth as a secret service. Meet the krypteia.

Training of Spartan Youth

According to ancient sources, the krypteia were as vicious as they came. Its members were chosen for their discretion and probably their hardiness, intelligence, and resourcefulness. As Plato has Megillus recount in his LawsSpartan youths underwent "training, widely prevalent amongst us, in hardy endurance of pain" in the form of beatings, but it was the krypteia that was the most brutal of all. That kind of work was "a wonderfully severe training."

So what was their deal? Apparently, the idea for the krypteia might've come from the laws of Lycurgus, the king of Spartan legalese; his reforms were, according to Plutarch, "efficacious in producing valour, but defective in producing righteousness." 

Writes Plutarch: "I certainly cannot ascribe to Lycurgus so abominable a measure as the ‘krypteia,’ judging of his character from his mildness and justice in all other instances."

Over time, the krypteia evolved from a form of uber-advanced fitness training to a sort-of-secret guerrilla force. The group appears to have had some representation in the mainstream Spartan army, as well; in Plutarch's Cleomenes, a fellow named Damocles is given the title of "commander of the secret service contingent." But Damoteles was bribed to betray his own people to the enemy — and the people he represented seem to have been even worse.

The organization of the krypteia seems to have been in direct opposition to the regular hoplites in the Spartan army, as if the very way it was set up made it different of "special." The hoplites were organized, fought in a phalanx, and worked as a team; in contrast, the krypteia fought in secret, went out in irregular groups and missions, and stayed away from Sparta proper, working and living on the frontier.

Spartans Cruelty Toward the Helots

As Plutarch tells it, the Spartan leaders would periodically send the young men of the krypteia "out into the country at large." What for, you might ask? The young soldiers would hide themselves until they came across groups of people called "helots." At night, "they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught." Even during the day, the krypteia massacred the helots working in the fields.

The "Ephors," the leaders of Sparta, "made formal declaration of war upon the helots, in order that there might be no impiety in slaying them." Perhaps, as some scholars have theorized, serving in the krypteia allows soldiers to practice stealth and cunning. But what the krypteia did was basically state-sanctioned massacre.

Who were the helots? Why did the Spartan magistrates commission their young warriors to kill them? The helots were serfs of the Spartan state, they were essentially enslaved; the Roman historian Livy claims that they were "a race of rustics, who have been feudal vassals even from the earliest times." The krypteia was a force the government utilized to keep the helots in their place, according to Brandon D. Ross. Aristotle discusses the helots in his Politics, saying that "the mere necessity of policing a serf class is an irksome burden." What freedoms do you give them? How much leeway should they get? he asks.

The relationship between the Spartans and the helots was fractious at best. Once upon a time, the people of Spartan-ruled Messenia and the helots revolted against the Lacedaemonian lords. They took advantage of the chaos that ensued after the earthquakes of 464 B.C., but that didn't work, and the Spartans kept up their cruel treatment. 

How else did the Spartans torture the helots? According to Plutarch:

For instance, they would force them to drink too much strong wine, and then introduce them into their public messes, to show the young men what a thing drunkenness was. They also ordered them to sing songs and dance dances that were low and ridiculous, but to let the nobler kind alone.

The Spartan torture of the Helots wasn't a one-time thing. On one occasion, Livy recounts how, "being charged with an intention to desert, they were driven with stripes through all the streets, and put to death." Another time, two thousand helots "mysteriously" disappeared in a possible act of genocide; then, on a different occasion, a bunch of helots were suppliants at the minor Temple of Poseidon Taenarius, but were seized from that sacred spot. That kind of sacrilege - violating the sanctuary of a temple - was as awful as it got; the right of asylum was a truly valued one.

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Silver, Carly. "The Ancient Spartans Had a Murderous Secret Police." ThoughtCo, Oct. 23, 2020, Silver, Carly. (2020, October 23). The Ancient Spartans Had a Murderous Secret Police. Retrieved from Silver, Carly. "The Ancient Spartans Had a Murderous Secret Police." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).