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The Crypteia or Krypteia (Greek: κρυπτεία krupteía from κρυπτός kruptós, "hidden, secret things") was an ancient Spartan state institution involving young Spartan men. Its goal and nature are still a matter of discussion and debate among historians, but some scholars (Wallon) consider the crypteia to be a kind of secret police and state security force organized by the ruling classes of Sparta whose purpose was to terrorize the servile helot population. Others (Köchly, Wachsmuth) believe it to be a form of military training, similar to the Athenian ephebia.
History and function
Certain young Spartan men who had completed their training at the agoge with such success that they were marked out as potential future leaders would be given the opportunity to test their skills and prove themselves worthy of the Spartan polity through participation in the Krypteia.
Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of punishment. At night, the chosen kryptes (members of the Krypteia) were sent out into the Laconian countryside armed with knives with the instructions to kill any helot they encountered and to take any food they needed. They were specifically told to kill the strongest and best of the helots. This practice was instigated to prevent the threat of a rebellion by the helots and to keep their population in check.
According to Cartledge, Krypteia members stalked the helot villages and surrounding countryside, spying on the servile population. Their mission was to prevent and suppress unrest and rebellion. Troublesome helots could be summarily executed. Such brutal repression of the helots permitted the Spartan élite to successfully control the servile agrarian population and devote themselves to military practice. It may also have contributed to the Spartans' reputation for stealth since a kryptes who got caught was punished by whipping.
Only Spartans who had served in the Krypteia as young men could expect to achieve the highest ranks in Spartan society and army. It was felt that only those Spartans who showed the willingness and ability to kill for the state at a young age were worthy to join the leadership in later years.
Krypteia on the battlefield
In his Cleomenes, Plutarch describes Krypteia as being a unit of the Spartan army; during the battle of Sellasia, the Spartan king Cleomenes "called Damoteles, the commander of the Krypteia, and ordered him to observe and find out how matters stood in the rear and on the flanks of his army". Various scholars have speculated on the presence and function of the Krypteia on the battlefield, describing it as a reconnaissance, special operations, or even military police force.
Krypteia as rite of passage
Jeanmaire points out that the bushranger life of the Krypteia has no common point with the disciplined and well-ordered communal life (see Homonia) of the Spartan hoplite; but as it is only a short part in a very long and thorough training, this could precisely fit an additional skill useful when separated from one's unit. Jeanmaire suggests that the krypteia was a rite of passage, possibly pre-dating the classical military organisation, and may have been preserved through Sparta's legendary religious conservatism. He draws comparison with the initiation rituals of some African secret societies (wolf-men and leopard men).
- Henri Alexandre Wallon, Explication d'un passage de Plutarque sur une loi de Lycurgue nommée la Cryptie (fragment d'une Histoire des Institutions politiques de la Grèce), Paris, Dupont, 1850;
- Hermann August Theodor Köchly (aka Arminius Koechly), Commentatio de Lacedaemoniorum cryptia, Leipzig (aka Lipsiae), 1835;
- Henri Jeanmaire, La cryptie lacédémonienne, Revue des études grecques, 26, 1913;
- Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300-362 BC, 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2001.
- Pierre Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian Ephebeia, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 194, 1968;
- Wilhelm Wachsmuth, Hellenische Altertumskunde aus dem Geschichtpunkt des Staates (Teil 1 & 2), 2. Ausgabe, Halle, 1844 (Teil 1) & 1846 (Teil 2);