The Reading Room
Homer’s Iliad and the Causes of the Trojan War: Kidnapping Helen
In the first part of Causes of the Trojan War, we discussed the Apple of Eris incident and who was truly at fault. Was it Eris, the goddess of Discord's, fault for throwing the apple marked kallisti in the first place?
Or was it perhaps Peleus and Thetis' fault for not inviting Eris to their wedding? Surely she would have caused some sort of disturbance, but likely not one so large, nor with implications quite so long reaching. Was the blame in fact on Zeus for delegating the task of choosing which goddess received the kallisti apple to a mere mortal, Paris, or was it Paris's fault for not choosing Athene or Hera in the first place? In any case, those were questions for the first part. Here we will consider how the suitors of Helen of Sparta relate to the casus belli of the Trojan War.
In Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, Hyginus’ Fabulae, and Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology each writer tells the story of the young Helen and the many suitors who attempted to win her hand. After her two brothers, Polydeukes and Castor returned her from the clutches of Theseus, who himself abducted Helen against her father’s will prior to marrying age, King Tyndareus decided that it was time to marry Helen off, officially, before more intrepid heroes attempted to make off with her. Since Helen was renowned far and wide as the most beautiful woman in existence—just as Aphrodite claims during the Apple of Eris episode—she was sought by many, if not most, of the great suitors alive during the age of heroes. Menelaos, Odysseus, Aias the Greater, Aias the Lesser, Antilochos, Eurypylos, Diomedes, Idomeneus, Meges, Menestheus, Patroklos, Philoktetes, Protesilaos, Teukros, and even Thoas traveled to Sparta to woo Helen and to win the rich and powerful land of Lakedaimon from King Tyndareus. Interestingly, neither Agamemnon nor Achilleus were counted among the suitors of Helen.
With so many noble suitors desiring Helen, many of whom in command of warrior-men and fleets of ships to move them, King Tyndareus found himself in a bind. Whoever he should choose to wed Helen would then have the problem of defending his claim against the many other powerful suitors. What could he possibly do? Sensing an opportunity, Odysseus approached King Tyndareus and suggested a stratagem: what if King Tyndareus made all the suitors of Helen swear a binding oath? An oath that stipulated that all suitors who actively attempted to woo Helen would be required to defend not only her, but also her husband, after Tyndareus’ decision. All the suitors agreed to this condition, and Odysseus was offered her cousin, Penelope, as recompense for his efforts.
So, after Paris of Troy steals away from Sparta with Menelaos’ wife, Helen, each great man who was suitor to Helen was oath-bound to join Menelaos and Agamemnon in restoring Helen to her rightful husband and home. This means that great figures from Homer’s Iliad like Diomedes, Odysseus, Thoas, the Aiantes, Meges, Menestheus, Idomeneus, Meriones, and Antilochos (all the greatest of the Achaians) join the war effort against Troy because of an oath they once made to protect Helen and her husband. Achilleus himself joins the war-effort out of his own pride, and in fact he mentions this fact in Homer’s Iliad Bk I when giving his reasons for fighting as he castigates the avarice of Agamemnon.
O wrapped in shamelessness, with your mind forever on profit, how shall any one of the Achaians readily obey you
either to go on a journey or to fight men strongly in battle?
I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan
spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing.
Never yet have they driven away my cattle or my horses,
never in Phthia where the soil is rich and men grow great did they
spoil my harvest, since indeed there is much that lies between us,
the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea; but for your sake,
o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favour,
you with the dog’s eyes, to win your honour and Menelaos’
from the Trojans. You forget all this or else you care nothing.
(Il. 1.149-160; Lattimore tr.)