The Examiner of Helots

4 Feb

“Autumn will soon arrive,” said the physician named Paeon, “and every helot in the land ruled by Sparta knows what the dangers are when that season is here. The secret fraternity of the Kryptes could descend upon them with the intention of killing anyone who appears suspicious to them.” He sighed, then drew a deep breath, his dark olive eyes on his wife, Elpis, sitting at the table across from him.

“We are Perioeci of the middle caste, between the high and noble Spartiati who fight Sparta’s wars, and the helot serfs who work the land.” She thought a moment. “At least men such as you are neither murderers nor victims in the annual slaughter.”

Paeon dropped the topic. His mind was on the summons sent to him by the Elder in charge of the secret cult of Kryptes. What did that powerful archon wish to see him about?

Deimos was a gigantic, muscular Spartan hoplite dressed in the typical crimson robe with a falcate sword attached to his thick belt. A white linen tunic lay under his outer garment. On his head was a large bronze helmet. He was an officer and ready for warfare.

He sat down with Paeon just outside the mess hall where Spartiati warriors ate and stayed, only occasionally visiting their homes and families when off duty.

“I have a special need for your services in a few weeks time,” began the nobleman. “It has to do with my assigned duties as commander of the special forces referred to as the Kryptes. You are aware of what we do every autumn for the state of Sparta?”

“That is rarely discusses among men such as me,” guardedly admitted the physician. “After all, I myself am nothing more than a person of middling rank, one of the Perioci.

“We are aware of your function of culling out dangerous and rebellious members of the lowly helots. That is a grim but necessary task that must be carried out without words or notice. I understand the need for absolute, laconic security, sir.”

“Yes, I know that you are a highly loyal and faithful individual who possesses a rare and unusual gift. It is this special ability of yours that beloved Sparta now has a need for, Paeon.

“It has been reported to me that you are able to read the thoughts and character of your patients using your two hands and concentrating your mind upon the hidden thinking and feelings of the other person.

“Am I correct that you are such an adept reader of minds?” The warrior looked directly into the colorless eyes of the doctor sitting across from him.

“That is true, sir,” whispered Paeon in a quaking voice.

“I order you, then, to accompany me out into the countryside when I go to make an inspection tour of the helot villages that form a ring around the city. It shall be your task to hold private interviews with the young men who are at a dangerous age of possible rebelliousness and possible participants in insurrection. Do you think that you can identify the ones with the potential of becoming leaders of physical revolt?”

Paeon felt his head spinning with fear. Like all Perioeci, he had been taught from his earliest age to obey the commands of the warriors of Sparta. Now he realized how right his parents had been to instill in him their own dread and apprehension concerning the Spartiati who ruled society. He was now being told that he was to choose which helot young men were to be murdered in the traditional autumn secret orgy of killing the ones thought to pose possible danger to Sparta.

“Yes, sir,” he reluctantly declared. “I will do what I can in order to help you identify the helots with seditious thinking. My mental talents are at your service, because I am loyal to the city and its sacred laws.”

The physician secretly trembled at what he had been drawn into.

Women in Sparta enjoyed higher status and freedom than in any other Greek city-state, despite its authoritarian, militaristic constitution. Paeon never treated his wife, Elpis as anything but his equal, describing his new assignment and its dangerous burden to her.

“I cannot foretell how this will end for me, let alone for the poor helots whom I happen to condemn to their deaths. What can I do, though?” he asked her in desperation.

She looked at him with compassion in her Aegean blue eyes. “It is a difficult path you will be on. If you lie and hide the truth about what a young helot thinks and believes, and this is later discovered by the Spartiat named Deimos, you yourself will face severe punishment, perhaps the ultimate penalty. But is it right for you to have innocent blood on your hands, because of thoughts that you find in the immature minds of young helots?

“Your judgments about other persons will shape and determine your own fate, Paeon. I can only advise you to do what your conscience tells you is fair and just. Each instance will contain complex ambiguities, no doubt of that.”

The couple looked at each other warmly, seeing undefined troubles ahead.

Unlike the slaves in other Greek cities, a helot of Sparta could not be bought or sold. He knew who his parents were chose his own wife, and raised children by himself. A helot was permitted to keep half of the crop that he grew and could sell the surplus at the city market. The most fortunate of these serfs accumulated a measure of property.

Helots were in effect sharecroppers allotted to work plots of land. They were descended from pre-Dorians conquered by the tribes of Dorian invaders. They did not have any legal right to move from place to place. In effect, they were attached to the land they worked.

It was estimated that there were 20 helots on Spartan land for every Spartiat of the noble warriors. One of the youths still with his parents was the strong, athletic Theron of a highland village. He had a quick, retentive brain that made him a natural leader of the young men of the vicinity.

Theron became alarmed when he heard the rumor that the secret kryptes police were traveling the countryside, employing a city physician to interrogate young males at random.

Will the eye of suspicion come to fall upon me? he wondered with anxiety, knowing that it would be very difficult to dissemble his inner thoughts and feelings. For Theron had the soul of an instinctive rebel, one who believed himself the equal of any Spartiat who might try to judge and execute him.

I do not fear those evil butchers, he said to himself whenever dark thoughts occurred and clouded his mind.

Deimos grew disappointed and alarmed at the failure of Paeon to uncover disloyal, dissident thoughts and emotions among any of the helots brought before him for examination.

the head of the Kryptes saw the deadline for identifying the expendable helots for that autumn quickly approaching. Suspicion that the physician was reluctant or afraid to tell him what he was learning about the individuals he examined arose in the mind of the Spartiat.

If he does not soon begin to give me names of helot youth with unacceptable ideas, I will have to act to force him to reveal what he knows but will not tell.

Deimos feared that he might have to find a punishment for the doctor, unless he started to name victims deserving of death.

Deimos assigned a room in a country jail to Paeon for his examination of the male youths of a district far to the west of Sparta.

The psychic physician had sessions with six suspects from that locality. By afternoon, he was growing tired and bored with what he had been compelled to do, testing the young men for treasonous thoughts. The last examination, it turned out, was of a strong, athletic-looking youth whose name happened to be Theron.

“Sit down, please,” said the doctor, barely looking at the helot.

The suspected one did as he was told, taking a stool across an empty table from the interrogator.

Paeon gazed into the reddish brown eyes of the subject about to undergo psychic testing. “Give me your two hands,” ordered the inquiring physician.

The latter was surprised at the muscular strength in the hands of young Theron once he took hold of them with his own.

“What are your personal thoughts concerning the way that you are being treated by the armed warriors of our city, the Spartiati?”

Theron stared with his own inner mental force into the dark, olive-colored eyes of the man questioning him.

Paeon was stunned and astounded. He had never come across any individual of any caste who possessed such psychic power and intensity.

This was a new, unprecedented experience for the older man carrying out the loyalty testing.

An honest, candid confession made without vocal communication now rolled forth, one mind to another one.

“I am most faithful to what my helot father and mother taught me from my earliest childhood: the concept of right and justice. I would sacrifice my life and future for the sake of my fellow helots, were I called to do so in order to save them from oppression and injustice.”

Theron leaned his broad head forward, focusing his dilated eyes on the one who was supposed to be examining and grilling him.

A long flood of psychic communication then went on, all of it in a single direction, from Theron to the almost mesmerized doctor.

This young man, indeed, is a radical rebel, Paeon quickly learned.

But the knowledge came to him as if in a dream, nonverbally and unconsciously.

It would be entirely impossible for the doctor from the city to reveal what he now knew to any Spartiat like Deimos.

Because Paeon had been psychically recruited into becoming the ally of the subversive, rebellious helot called Theron.

The physician dismissed this subject of examination, telling Deimos that there was no reason to question or doubt his loyalty to Sparta and its system of caste.

When the doctor returned home in the city that evening, his wife found her husband a transformed man because of what had happened to him from his contact with one particular helot.

“He believes that the mass that cultivates the earth can be inspired to rise up together as a united force strong enough to liberate itself. He has hope of succeeding where so many previous helot revolts have been defeated and suppressed.”

He gazed at Elpis with flames burning in his excited eyes.

“You must be careful, my love,” she warned him in a muffled tone. “Our ruling caste of Spartiati will show no mercy to those who follow the lead of this helot. You must not submit yourself to the revenging anger of the armed warriors of Sparta. I fear that many who decide to rise up will loose their lives in unequal battle.”

Paeon took her hand in his. “I believe that what in the past proved to be impossible, now lies within the grasp of all the people who do not enjoy special powers and privileges. This young man named Theron will be able to do for Sparta what no one has ever succeeded in accomplishing. He will give a new way of living to the entire population, and that is worth fighting for anywhere, at any time.”

Deimos, frustrated by the physician’s inability to identify even a single helot with disloyal, subversive thoughts, grew curious to discover the reason for these constant, continuing failures.

Had Paeon somehow lost his vaunted psychic abilities?

Or was there a more sinister cause for this lack of results?

The Spartiat officer assigned a small team of the Kryptes to keep their eyes on him at night, when he was at his small house within the city. Did the doctor have any hidden secrets that no one knew of?

Reports came in immediately from these agents.

Paeon was making nightly visits into the countryside, to a particular village of helots. Deimos received the name of the person with whom the physician was holding secret meetings. Their activities appeared suspicious to the Kryptes who were watching Paeon.

I must act in order to find out what they are doing, decided Deimos.

Paeon met with Theron in an abandoned shepherd’s hut on a high hill.

“Have you decided what you are going to do to help our general uprising of helots on all sides of Sparta?” began the younger man.

The doctor answered after a long pause for thought.

“It would be a great advantage if the rebels had as many allies in the city as possible. I have considered what specific groups there are who might come to the aid of the helots.

“I thought of the shunned outcasts born to helot women with the fathers being Spartiati who abandon the mothers and their babies. These are the Patheniai who have no standing and no rights at all. They are likely participants in a general rebellion and revolt.

“There are also the impoverished and excluded Hypomeiones, whose ancestors were once Spartiati, but were degraded for one reason or another. They are now persons without a caste to call their own.

“I think that we can find many supporters and fellow rebels among such people without position or rights.”

Theron suddenly smiled. “You come up with good, promising ideas, my friend. Perhaps you can devise a way to bring many of your own Perioeci merchants and craftsmen into our ranks as well.”

The two talked a little while more, then Paeon left for the city and home.

In the middle of the moonless night, a company of the Kryptes raided the village where the family of Theron lived.

A dozen young helot men were slaughtered in their beds or wherever they slept. Yet the main and special target of the raid was, without any doubt, the one called Theron.

It was only the following evening, when he came to have a meeting with his partner in rebellion, did Paeon receive the tragic news of what had happened.

The saddened doctor made his way back to the city and his wife. He related what he had learned to Elpis.

“Are you also in danger?” she anxiously asked.

“I think not. My status in the middle caste, above the helots, is my protection. The Kryptes dare not attack me.”

“What will you do now?” she asked her husband.

“A revolt has to be based on a wide alliance in order to succeed. I intend to devote the rest of my life to the creation of such a general conspiracy,” he told her with an ironic smile.


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