“handmaid of the handmaids of God”: women’s Christian preeminence

Writing to Pope Boniface I about 720, the abbess Eangyth referred to herself as “handmaid of the handmaids of God {ancilla ancillarum dei}.” Popes onward from Pope Gregory I in 590 called themselves “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.” Abbess Eangyth, who governed a double monastery of nuns and monks, adapted the pattern of this papal title. Eangyth also referred to herself as “unworthy {indigna}” and “serving without merit under the name of abbess {nomine abbatissae sine merito functa}.”[1] The greatest in a Christian perspective are those who present themselves as the most humble. For this reason among many others, women have long been preeminent over men in Christianity.

Pope Gregory I, who came to be called Saint Gregory the Great, wasn’t well-positioned to appear humble. He came from one of the most distinguished lineages of his time. Gregory’s great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III, the pope serving from 483-492. Gregory’s mother Silvia was a noble woman honored as a saint soon after her death. Gregory’s father Gordianus was a patrician who served as a Roman Senator and Prefect of the City of Rome. Gordianus owned a luxurious villa on Rome’s Caelian Hill and large estates in Sicily. Gregory inherited these properties. Moreover, Gregory himself served as Prefect of Rome in 574. He was then only about 33 years old.

Gregory nonetheless declared for himself the title “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.” In 574, long before he was named pope, Gregory turned to monastic life and founded six monasteries in Sicily. In 587, he gave his family home on Rome’s Caelian Hill to Benedictine monks as a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle. In the deed of gift to the Benedictines, Gregory described himself as “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.”[2]

Gregory was selected to be Pope in 590. He reportedly attempted to flee from Rome to avoid having the papacy conferred on him. He was miraculously located and persuaded to accept the papacy.[3] In his first papal letter, he referred to himself as “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.” A life of Pope Gregory written in 875 reported:

If he soon became in fact the supreme pontiff of the most blessed city of Rome and consulted for mortals with Christ, nonetheless with a declaration of severe threats he refused the preeminent title of Universal. John, the Bishop of Constantinople, insolently usurped for himself this title at that time in the way of his pontifical predecessors. Gregory defined himself in his first written letters humbly enough first of all as the servant of the servants of God. He left to all his successors the inherited lesson of his humility, both in this title and in his modest pontifical vestments. One may see those vestments preserved until now in the holy Roman Church.

{ Si quidem mox ut summum pontificium felicissimae Romanae urbis, Christo mortalibus consulente, sortitus est, superstitiosum Universalis vocabulum, quod Joannes Constantinopolitanus episcopus insolenter sibi tunc temporis usurpabat, more antecessorum suorum pontificum, sub districtissimae interminationis sententia refutavit, et primus omnium se in principio epistolarum suarum servum servorum Dei scribi satis humiliter definivit, cunctisque suis successoribus documentum suae humilitatis tam in hoc quam in mediocribus pontificalibus indumentis, quod videlicet hactenus in sancta Romana Ecclesia conservatur, haereditarium reliquit. }[4]

Saint Gregory the Great thus achieved high renown for his humility.

Gregory competed vigorously, and probably unsuccessfully, to appear more humble than the wealthy, politically connected Roman aristocratic woman Rusticiana. Granddaughter of the eminent Boethius and holding considerable estates in Italy and Sicily, Rusticiana resided in Constantinople. There she was prominent in the court of the Emperor Maurice. In the 590s, Rusticiana’s daughter married Apion III, scion of an eminent family holding vast estates in Egypt. Rusticiana sent Gregory money and tapestries. The latter was a particularly prized Byzantine good. Despite her vast wealth and eminent status, Rusticiana presented herself as inferior to Gregory. In a letter to her, Gregory protested:

I received your Excellence’s letters. In their vigor, devotion, and sweetness, they fully comforted me when I was bedridden with a very grave sickness. Yet one matter I received painfully: that in those very letters to me, too often was stated what could have been said just once: “your handmaid” and again “your handmaid.” For what reason does Rusticiana call herself my handmaid? I, who in fact was made servant of all through the burdens of the papal office, was received before the papacy as her own suitable one. And therefore I ask through the power of the Almighty God that I would never again find this word in your letters written to me.

{ Excellentiae vestrae scripta suscepi, quae me in gravissima aegritudine positum de salute, de devotione ac de dulcedine sua omnino relevarent. Unum vero aegre suscepi, quia in eisdem epistolis ad me, quod semel esse poterat, saepius dicebatur: ancilla vestra, et ancilla vestra. Ego enim, qui per episcopatus onera servus sum omnium factus, qua ratione mihi se illa ancillam dicit, cuius susceptus ante episcopatum proprius fui? Et ideo rogo per omnipotentem Deum, ne hoc verbum aliquando ad me in scriptis vestris inveniam. }[5]

Rusticiana’s personal wealth was probably greater than Gregory’s. With her personal connections in the Byzantine court, she probably was more politically influential than he. Pope Gregory rightly insisted that Rusticiana was not his inferior. He surely also didn’t want her to place him rhetorically in the position of God, as he would be with her being the handmaid of him.

Whitby Abbey at sunset

For Christians, the most significant servant of God is Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to Luke, the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would conceive a son. Her son would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High. Moreover, he would sit on the throne of David and reign over the House of Jacob. This was astonishing news for a young, otherwise unknown woman newly married to a carpenter from the dusty provincial town of Nazareth. Mary responded humbly to this divine prophecy:

Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to your word.

{ ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum

ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου }[6]

In Mary’s response, the ancient Greek word δούλη, commonly translated as “handmaid,” means more precisely “female bond-servant.” The masculine form of this ancient Greek word, δοῦλος, is commonly translated as “servant.” It means more precisely “male bond-servant.” Mere difference in gender inflection of the ancient Greek word became in Latin and English translation two different words: “δούλη / ancilla / handmaid” and “δοῦλος / servus / servant,” respectively. Mary thus became more linguistically differentiated from male bond-servants in translation from the ancient Greek.

In the Christian gospels, Mary is distinguished from almost all bond-servants in that she is the “handmaid of the Lord {δούλη κυρίου}.” Most of the servants in the gospels are ordinary household servants. Only one other person in the gospels is described as a servant of the Lord. Upon seeing Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple, the righteous, devout, and otherwise unknown Simeon declared:

Most High, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples — a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

{ nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israhel

νῦν ἀπολύεις τὸν δοῦλόν σου δέσποτα κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ ὅτι εἶδον οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν σου ὃ ἡτοίμασας κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν λαῶν φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν καὶ δόξαν λαοῦ σου Ἰσραήλ }[7]

Mary, who described herself as a (female) servant of the Lord, become the most powerful person in medieval Europe. Simeon is a much less well-known servant of God. In fact, the presentation of Jesus in the temple has in Christian history commonly been celebrated as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Simeon is far less eminent than Mary as a servant / handmaid of the Most High Lord.

Simeon holding the baby Jesus {Nunc dimittis); excerpt from painting by Rembrandt

With his keen Christian understanding, the apostle Paul modeled himself on Mary as a servant of the Lord. Paul called himself a “servant of Jesus Christ {δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ}” in the opening address of his letters to the churches at Rome, Philippi, and Galatia. Paul regarded Jesus Christ to be the son of God and one with God. Paul thus effectively understood himself as a (male) servant of the Lord. In that sense Paul represented himself as having the same status as Mary, the mother of Jesus.[8] Surviving sources indicate no Christians until the mid-fourth century had the audacity to follow Paul in declaring themselves to have Mary’s status as a servant of the Lord.[9] Devotional competition eventually prompted Christians to describe themselves like Paul in imitating Mary in serving God. The phrase “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}” combines declarations of humility and devotion. In Christian understanding, the preeminent model of humility and devotion is Mary, not Paul.

The phrases “handmaid of the handmaids of God {ancilla ancillarum dei}” and “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}” are essentially Marian. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the first and by far the most important Christian servant of God. She is also the most eminent Christian model of humility. Men of course are capable of identifying with Mary and learning from Mary even though she is a woman. Yet from a gender perspective, women are advantaged in learning the Christian meaning of service from someone of the same gender. The exclusion of women from Christian priesthood and some leading Church offices obfuscates women’s fundamental Christian preeminence. Not even a pope as “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}” can measure up to an abbess similarly declaring herself “handmaid of the handmaids of God {ancilla ancillarum dei}.”

Christian churches urgently need to raise men’s status as a gender. Much more can and should be done to affirm men’s God-created goodness as fully human beings. Nonetheless, men probably won’t ever achieve equality with women in Christianity. Men as Christians simply must humbly accept their inferiority to woman in a Christian sense.[10]

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[1] Letter to Winfred (Pope Boniface I), from Abbess Eangyth and her daughter Heaburg (Bugga), dated 719-722, Latin text from Dümmler (1887), Letter 14, with English translation (modified) by Emerton (2000) p. 14. On the greatest in a Christian perspective, Matthew 23:11-12.

Superlatives of the form “x of x’s” have long existed in Mesopotamia. King Tukulti-Ninurta I, who reigned over the Middle Assyrian Empire from 1233 to 1197 BGC, used the title “king of kings.” Hebrew scripture uses the phrases “god of gods” and “lord of lords.” Psalms 136:2-3. The phrase “flower of flowers” has for at least two millennia described supreme beauty.

[2] Mourret (1946) p. 60. Writing on Gregory the Great for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, James Bramby late in the nineteenth century noted with regard to Gregory’s use of “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}”:

The designation, however, had been used by others before him, as by Pope Damasus (Ep. IV. ad Stephanum et Africæ Episcopos), and Augustine (Ep. ad Vitalem). Gregory may have been the first to use it habitually.

Note to Gregory the Great, Register of Letters {Registum Epistolarum}, Book I, Epistle 1. Augustine’s letter “To Vitalis {ad Vitalem}” (Letter 217, written about 427) is addressed from “Bishop Augustine, servant of Christ, and through Him the servant of His servants {Augustinus episcopus servus Christi, et per ipsum servus servorum ipsius}.” That’s not quite equivalent to “servus servorum dei.” “To Stephan and the African bishops {Ad Stephanum et Africæ Episcopos}” apparently isn’t now regarded as one of Damasus’s genuine epistles.

[3] According to the earliest life of Pope Gregory I, known as the Whitby Life of Gregory {Vita Gregorii}, Gregory fled from Rome to escape from being confirmed as pope:

So when Gregory was elected by the people of God to the pastoral office and the apostolic dignity already mentioned, he fled from it with great humility and very anxiously sought a place to hide. But he was watched with such care that even the entrance gates of the city were surrounded by guards on every side. He is hence said to have persuaded some merchants to take him out, hidden in a cask. He then immediately sought out a hiding-place in the depths of the woods. Thrusting himself into the leafiest shades of the bushes, there he lay hidden. But after he had been there for three days and three nights, the watchmen at the heavenly gates forthwith declared his whereabouts. For the people of God did not elect someone else, as he had hoped, but gave themselves up to fasting and supplication day and night, praying earnestly that God would show them where he was. Then for three whole nights there appeared to them a very bright column of light, which penetrated the forest so that its top reached up to the sky. It appeared in the form of a ladder to a certain holy man who was an anchorite, or so we have heard, with angels descending and ascending on it, as we read of the blessed Jacob at Luz, the place which, from this incident, came to be called Bethel, that is, the house of God. … When his hiding-place was revealed, Gregory was found and led to the sacred office.

{ Nam cum ad curam pastoralem prefatam apostolice dignitatis a populo Dei electus est, tam eam humiliter aufugit, ut ubi se potuisset abscondere satis anxie querebat. Qui cum fuisset tanta servatus cura ut iam porte urbis qua inerat passim custodibus cingebantur, dictur a negotiatoribus se obtinuisse ut in cratere occultatus educeretur. Sicque statim silve avias querendo latebras, interseruit se frondissimis fruticum opacis occultandum. Ubi cum fuisset tribus diebus et noctibus, eum etiam portarum vigiles celestium, confestim quo erat declamabant. Cum populus Dei non alterum pro eo ut dilexit elegit, sed ut ille monstraretur ab eo, ieiuniis et orationibus illis diebus ac noctibus serviens, diligentur precatus est. Nam visa est omnibus per totas tres noctes columna lucidissima silvam intrasse, porrecto cacumine usque ad celum. Que cuidam sancto viro quem anachoretam fuisse audivimus visa est scala, et descendentes per eam et ascendentes angeli sicut de beato Iacob in Luza legimus, que ex inde Bethel, hoc est domus Dei vocata est. … Cum declaratus ubi latebat inventus, ductus est ad sacerdotium. }

Whitby Vita Gregorii, Chapter 7, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Colgrave (1968) pp. 84-7. This story of Gregory fleeing from being appointed pope draws upon hagiographic motifs. On the Whitby Vita Gregorii and hagiography, Butler (2005).

The Whitby Vita Gregorii, also called the Book of the Blessed Pope Gregory {Liber beatae Gregorii papae}, apparently was written at Whitby Abbey in Northumbria, England, between 704 and 714. Colgrave (1968) p. 48. It survives in one manuscript, Switzerland, St. Gallen, Codex 567, written early in the ninth century. The monastery / abbey at Whitby (Old English Streanaeshalch / Streoneshealh) was founded in 657. Underscoring this institution’s importance, a synod held there in 664, called the Synod of Whitby, set the date for celebrating Easter in Northumbria.

Whitby Abbey was a double monastery: a monastery containing distinct communities of nuns and monks. Women commonly ruled such institutions. Whitby Abbey had as its founder and first leader Lady Hilda, an abbess now regarded as a saint. Five bishops trained under Lady Hilda’s rule at Whitby Abbey. The second and third leaders of Whitby Abbey were the noble women Eanflæd and Ælfflæd. Women thus ruled Whitby Abbey at least until 714. Given these circumstances, a woman might have domineeringly ordered a monk to write the Whitby Vita Gregorii. That would be similar to how Heloise ordered Abelard to do literary work for her Oratory of the Paraclete. Scholars haven’t yet fully recognized and understood the implications of such arrangements.

Gregory’s resistance to being appointed pope also appears in less elaborate representations in subsequent lives of Gregory. The Lombard and Benedictine monk Paul the Deacon wrote the Life of Saint Gregory the Great {Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni}, probably in the 780s at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. Heath (2018) pp. 67-72. Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni, section 10, describes Gregory resisting with all his strength being appointed pope and striving to escape. For the currently leading edition of the Latin text, Tuzzo (2002). A earlier, inferior Latin edition is available in Patrologia Latina 75. For a freely accessible English translation, Jones (1951).

An interpolator extended Paul the Deacon’s Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni considerably. The interpolated life was formerly dated to the mid-ninth century. Heath (2018) pp. 68-9. Id. p. 68, n. 88 gives the date for the interpolated life of Gregory. It’s better regarded as dating to the late eighth or early ninth century. Leyser (2016) p. 188. The interpolated version was highly successful and survives in over a hundred manuscripts. Id.

The humility of Gregory is emphasized in the Life of Pope Gregory I {Vita Gregorii I papae} written by John the Deacon / John Hymmonides the Roman Deacon {Iohannes Hymmonides Diaconus Romanus} about 875. This John the Deacon has been confused with other like-named persons. John the Deacon / Iohannes Hymmonides Diaconus Romanus included the story of Gregory fleeing the papacy, but with less biblical allusions than in Whitby Vita Gregorii. Vita Gregorii I papae, Bk 1, section 40. John also told of Gregory writing to the Emperor Maurice to request that Maurice not consent to Gregory being made pope. Gregory’s letter, however, was intercepted.

John the Deacon explicitly dismissed alternate accounts of Gregory’s character:

Indeed, because not a few perfidious Lombards assert that Gregory desired greatly the pontificate rather than fled from it, it is worthwhile to introduce a few things among many by which show more clearly than light that, in so far as he could without committing the vice of stubbornness, he certainly did not desire the pontificate, but rather, he ardently desired to avoid it as an unsupportable burden.

{ Verum, quia sunt nonnulli Langobardorum perfidi, qui Gregorium appetisse magis pontificium autument quam fugisse, operae pretium reor pauca de multis inserere, quibus eum, in quantum sine pertinaciae vitio potuit, noluisse pontificium, imo quasi pondus importabile penitus cavere voluisse, luce clarius manifestem. }

Vita Gregorii I papae, Bk 1, section 45, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 75:81C, English translation (modified) from Bush (1950) p. 64.

Vita Gregorii I papae consists of four books. The currently best Latin edition is Castaldi (2004). The Latin edition from Patrologia Latina 75:72ff is readily available online. For an English translation of the first two books, Bush (1950). For an English translation of the third book, Ware (1951).

In telling of Pope Gregory I Christianizing England, Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People {Historica Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum} (completed c. 731) apparently drew upon the Whitby Vita Gregorii. However, Gregory wasn’t highly honored in Rome until the ninth century. Latham (2015) pp. 6-12. That’s a fitting tribute to his humility. For a modern, effusively laudatory life of Saint Gregory the Great, Sister of Notre Dame (1924). For scholarly appraisals of Gregory’s life, Dudden (1905), Mourret (1946) Ch. 2, and Herrin (2021) Ch. 4.

[4] John the Deacon, Life of Pope Gregory I {Vita Gregorii I papae}, Book 2, Section 1, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 75:87, my English translation, benefiting from that of Bush (1950). The “topic {argumentum}” of this section is “Gregory, inscribing himself as a servant of the servants of God, dresses himself in ordinary clothes {Gregorius servum servorum Dei se scribens, mediocribus vestimentis amicitur}.” Some aspects of the quote’s Latin are ambiguous. Bush has made some different choices in resolving the ambiguity than I have.

John the Faster, the bishop of Constantinople, titled himself the Universal / Ecumenical Patriarch {patriarches oikoumenikos}. That title could imply the preeminence of the bishop of Constantinople over the bishop of Rome. Gregory, who did not take the title Universal Pastor {Pastor Universalis}, strongly objected to John describing himself as universal or ecumenical. Vita Gregorii I papae, Book 2, sections 51-54, 60.

Here’s Gregory’s first letter. For the best current edition of Gregory’s letters, Martyn (2004). Bramby noted:

in the Registrum Epistolarum {of Pope Gregory I} we find it {servum servorum Dei} four times only, viz., in the headings of Epistles I. 1, I. 36, VI. 51, XIII. 1. But it may have been omitted in the copies of his letters preserved at Rome. This is probable from the fact that it occurs in the letters relating to the English Mission as given by Bede, though absent from the same letters in the Registrum.

Gregory describing himself as “servum servorum Dei” in his deed of gift for his Caelian Hill home indicates the importance to him of this title. On papal titles more generally, Żmudziński (2019).

[5] Pope Gregory I to Rusticiana, letter written in February, 601, excerpt, Latin text from Ewald & Hartmann (1887-91), English translation (modified) by Angela Kinney for Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters. On the biography of Rusticiana, Cameron (1979) pp. 225-6.

Rusticiana also apparently sent Gregory a poem that she ordered Andrew the Orator to compose for her. Cameron (1979) pp. 226-7. This song has commonly been called “Song of Andrew the Orator to Rusticiana about the Virgin Mary {Andreae oratoris de Maria virgine ad Rusticianam carmen}.” It survives in numerous manuscripts. The phrase “about the Virgin Mary {de Maria virgine}” has no specific manuscript basis. Id. p. 223. Like for many men in history, virtually nothing is known about Andrew {Andreas}. He did write this poem for Rusticiana. That meager fact provides insight into Byzantine gender. In reality, “patriarchy” explains actual personal relationships about as well as storks explain human babies.

[6] Luke 1:38. Here and in subsequent quotations, the source text includes Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) and the original Greek of Luke’s gospel.

[7] Luke 2:29-32. For ordinary household servants, see, e.g. Luke 7:2, 12:43, 14:17, 17:7. The household master in actual practice typically was the woman married to the man formally regarded as the head of the household.

The Gospel of John distinguishes servants not through who they serve, but with different Greek terms. In John 12:26, Jesus describes his Christian servants using a different Greek word from “δοῦλος”:

If anyone serves me, he must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. If anyone serves me, that one my Father will honor.

{ si quis mihi ministrat me sequatur et ubi sum ego illic et minister meus erit si quis mihi ministraverit honorificabit eum Pater meus

ἐὰν ἐμοί τις διακονῇ ἐμοὶ ἀκολουθείτω καὶ ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ἐκεῖ καὶ ὁ διάκονος ὁ ἐμὸς ἔσται ἐάν τις ἐμοὶ διακονῇ τιμήσει αὐτὸν ὁ πατήρ }

Here the Greek for servant is “διάκονος.” That Greek word is the root for the English word “deacon.” The Vulgate picks up the change in the Greek by using for servant not “servus,” but “minister,” the Latin root for the English word “minister.” In John 15:15, Jesus distinguishes his “friends {φίλοι}” from “servants {δοῦλοί}.”

[8] The extensive literatue considering “slave to God” in the New Testament has largely ignored Mary, the mother of Jesus. For overviews of that literature, Goodrich (2013) and Raguse (2015).

[9] Curtius (1953) p. 407. Curtius differentiated the topos of “affected modesty,” which seems to be equivalent to the “modesty topos” in his analysis, from the “devotional formula.” He categorized “servus servorum Dei” as a devotional formula. Id. p. 84. However, “servus servorum Dei” formally expresses both devotion to God and modesty relative to others devoted to God.

[10] Men, whom scholars regard as communicatively inferior to women, might have difficulty understanding Christian humility. A scholar observed:

A truly humble Christian is not wont to vouch for his humility himself. The Rhenish prelate to whom is ascribed the saying, “Humility is the rarest of all virtues; God be praised, I have it!” — this eminent ecclesiastic can hardly serve as a model of humility.

Curtius (1953) p. 408. Cf. Luke 18:11. The great scholar and saint Jerome exemplified a much more sophisticated practice of communication.

[images] (1) Saint Hilda stained glass window in the cloister of Chester Cathedral. Saint Hilda was abbess of Whitby Abbey, a double monastery in Northumbria, from its founding in 657 to her death in 680. This stained glass window (window south 3.4) was designed by Archibald Keightley Nicholson and installed about 1927. For more information, Brooke et al. (2020) pp. 302, 310-1. Source image from id. (2) Whitby Abbey at sunset on April 12, 2009. Source image thanks to Ackers72 and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Simeon holding the baby Jesus (“Nunc dimittis…”); excerpt from painting (“Simeon’s Song of Praise”) by Rembrandt in 1631. Preserved as accession # 145 in the Mauritshuis {Maurice House} (The Hauge, Netherlands). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Mary holding the baby Jesus with Simeon looking on (“Nunc dimittis…”). Manuscript illumination painted about 1415. Detail from folio 63r of Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Musée Condé (Chantilly, France), MS 65.


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Mary holding the baby Jesus with Simeon looking on (Nunc dimittis); medieval manuscript illumination

Hector and Helen goaded Paris to fight Menelaus

According to the Iliad, nine years into the Trojan War’s massive violence against men, Greek and Trojan men faced each other on the battlefield outside Troy. Prince Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, moved forward from the Trojan line and challenged the Greek men to a face-to-face fight. The Greek king and fearsome warrior Menelaus eagerly leaped down from his chariot and sought to kill Paris. Menelaus’s wife had left him to become Paris’s wife, Helen of Troy. Punishment for adultery, like the institutionalized violence of war, has long been gender-biased against men. Both Paris’s brother Hector and his wife Helen goaded him to fight Menelaus. Paris’s self-abasing responses underscore deeply entrenched disregard for men’s lives.

Menelaus pursues Paris; painting on ancient Greek vase

When Paris saw Menelaus coming towards him, he retreated back into the line of Trojan men. The leading Trojan warrior Hector, seeing his brother retreating, castigated him:

Evil Paris, excellent in appearance, mad for woman, deceiver —
if only you were impotent and had died unmarried.
This I would wish, and it would be much better
than being both an outrage and mockery to others.
The long-haired Greek men must be laughing at you,
saying you’re an eminent champion only because you have a beautiful
appearance, for you don’t have force in your guts, nor strength.

{ Δύσπαρι εἶδος ἄριστε γυναιμανὲς ἠπεροπευτὰ
αἴθ᾽ ὄφελες ἄγονός τ᾽ ἔμεναι ἄγαμός τ᾽ ἀπολέσθαι:
καί κε τὸ βουλοίμην, καί κεν πολὺ κέρδιον ἦεν
ἢ οὕτω λώβην τ᾽ ἔμεναι καὶ ὑπόψιον ἄλλων.
ἦ που καγχαλόωσι κάρη κομόωντες Ἀχαιοὶ
φάντες ἀριστῆα πρόμον ἔμμεναι, οὕνεκα καλὸν
εἶδος ἔπ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἔστι βίη φρεσὶν οὐδέ τις ἀλκή. }[1]

Men’s beauty should be appreciated, not ridiculed. Wishing a man to be impotent is truly wicked. Men too often are devalued as lovers and directed to be instruments of violence. Hector thus taunted his brother Paris:

Can’t you face Menelaus, beloved of Ares?
Then you would know the sort of man whose lively wife you have.
You wouldn’t be helped by your cithara or your gifts of Aphrodite —
your hair and your appearance — when you would be mingling with dust.
But the Trojans — they are very afraid. Otherwise, you would already
be dead with a stone tunic because of all the bad deeds you have done!

{ οὐκ ἂν δὴ μείνειας ἀρηΐφιλον Μενέλαον;
γνοίης χ᾽ οἵου φωτὸς ἔχεις θαλερὴν παράκοιτιν:
οὐκ ἄν τοι χραίσμῃ κίθαρις τά τε δῶρ᾽ Ἀφροδίτης
ἥ τε κόμη τό τε εἶδος ὅτ᾽ ἐν κονίῃσι μιγείης.
ἀλλὰ μάλα Τρῶες δειδήμονες: ἦ τέ κεν ἤδη
λάϊνον ἕσσο χιτῶνα κακῶν ἕνεχ᾽ ὅσσα ἔοργας. }

Paris in response didn’t vigorously claim his own beauty and his personal worth. He instead proposed that he and Menelaus fight for Helen, as if she were a priceless prize for him, rather than he being a priceless prize for her:

Hector, you rebuke me rightly, not beyond what’s right.

But don’t fling into my face lovely gifts of Aphrodite,
which are glorious and may not be refused,
like gifts of the gods themselves, which one wouldn’t willingly choose.
But now, if you want me to battle and fight,
make the other Trojans and all the Greeks sit down,
and set between the armies me and Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
to fight for Helen and all her property.
Whoever of us two proves himself better and wins,
let him rightly take home the woman and all her wealth.

{ Ἕκτορ ἐπεί με κατ᾽ αἶσαν ἐνείκεσας οὐδ᾽ ὑπὲρ αἶσαν

μή μοι δῶρ᾽ ἐρατὰ πρόφερε χρυσέης Ἀφροδίτης:
οὔ τοι ἀπόβλητ᾽ ἐστὶ θεῶν ἐρικυδέα δῶρα
ὅσσά κεν αὐτοὶ δῶσιν, ἑκὼν δ᾽ οὐκ ἄν τις ἕλοιτο:
νῦν αὖτ᾽ εἴ μ᾽ ἐθέλεις πολεμίζειν ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι,
ἄλλους μὲν κάθισον Τρῶας καὶ πάντας Ἀχαιούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔμ᾽ ἐν μέσσῳ καὶ ἀρηΐφιλον Μενέλαον
συμβάλετ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ Ἑλένῃ καὶ κτήμασι πᾶσι μάχεσθαι:
ὁππότερος δέ κε νικήσῃ κρείσσων τε γένηται,
κτήμαθ᾽ ἑλὼν εὖ πάντα γυναῖκά τε οἴκαδ᾽ ἀγέσθω }[2]

Women don’t have greater intrinsic human value than do men. Women should buy beloved men dinners and give them expensive gifts, if only as reparations for the terrible anti-men gender injustices that the Iliad illustrates.

Aphrodite saving Paris from Menelaus as Odysseus watches; carving on marble sarcophagus

The goddess of love Aphrodite loved men. Just as Menelaus was about to drag Paris by his head to sure death, Aphrodite snatched Paris away. She wrapped him in mist and transported him to his sensuous bedroom. Helen was then viewing the horrific violence against men from her protected, privileged position high up on a Trojan fortress wall.[3] Aphrodite summoned Helen to enjoy conjugal relations with her husband Paris, still alive thanks only to that goddess of love:

Helen, come this way. Paris calls you to come home.
He’s there in the marital bedroom, on the bed with inlaid rings.
He’s gleaming with his beauty and robes. You wouldn’t say
he came from fighting a foe, but rather he was going to a dance,
or from a dance having recently returned, he was resting.

{ δεῦρ᾽ ἴθ᾽: Ἀλέξανδρός σε καλεῖ οἶκον δὲ νέεσθαι.
κεῖνος ὅ γ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ καὶ δινωτοῖσι λέχεσσι
κάλλεΐ τε στίλβων καὶ εἵμασιν: οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἀνδρὶ μαχεσσάμενον τόν γ᾽ ἐλθεῖν, ἀλλὰ χορὸν δὲ
ἔρχεσθ᾽, ἠὲ χοροῖο νέον λήγοντα καθίζειν. }

Even when tired, men strive to fulfill as best they can their sexual obligation to their wives. Helen, however, viciously taunted Aphrodite about loving Paris.[4] Helen then declared that she wouldn’t go to her husband for fear of what other women would think of her:

There I will not go. It would be shameful
to continue to share that man’s bed, for all the Trojan women
would blame me afterwards. I have measureless griefs at heart.

{ κεῖσε δ᾽ ἐγὼν οὐκ εἶμι: νεμεσσητὸν δέ κεν εἴη:
κείνου πορσανέουσα λέχος: Τρῳαὶ δέ μ᾽ ὀπίσσω
πᾶσαι μωμήσονται: ἔχω δ᾽ ἄχε᾽ ἄκριτα θυμῷ. }[5]

Helen was a brazen adulterer in relation to her first husband Menelaus. In relation to her second husband Paris, she was a cowardly wife.

The prospects of a sexless marriage between Helen and Paris infuriated Aphrodite. She castigated Helen:

Don’t provoke me, wicked woman, or in anger I’ll desert you.
I can hate you, just as I now excessively love you.
and I can devise grievous hatred of you from both sides,
Trojans and Greeks alike. Then you would perish under an evil fate.

{ μή μ᾽ ἔρεθε σχετλίη, μὴ χωσαμένη σε μεθείω,
τὼς δέ σ᾽ ἀπεχθήρω ὡς νῦν ἔκπαγλα φίλησα,
μέσσῳ δ᾽ ἀμφοτέρων μητίσομαι ἔχθεα λυγρὰ
Τρώων καὶ Δαναῶν, σὺ δέ κεν κακὸν οἶτον ὄληαι. }

Helen thus agreed to go with the goddess of love to Paris in their marital bedroom.

Greek Prince Paris standing nude and holding an apple behind his back; sculpture

In their marital bedroom, Helen viciously taunted her current husband Paris as being a loser relative her former husband Menelaus. As if she were a Spartan mother speaking to her warrior son, Helen expressed contempt for Paris’s life:

You have returned from the war. I wish you had died there,
vanquished by the mighty man who was my former husband.
Once you boasted that, compared to Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
you were stronger with your hands and better with your spear.
But go now and challenge Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
to a duel again.

{ ἤλυθες ἐκ πολέμου: ὡς ὤφελες αὐτόθ᾽ ὀλέσθαι
ἀνδρὶ δαμεὶς κρατερῷ, ὃς ἐμὸς πρότερος πόσις ἦεν.
ἦ μὲν δὴ πρίν γ᾽ εὔχε᾽ ἀρηϊφίλου Μενελάου
σῇ τε βίῃ καὶ χερσὶ καὶ ἔγχεϊ φέρτερος εἶναι
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι νῦν προκάλεσσαι ἀρηΐφιλον Μενέλαον
ἐξαῦτις μαχέσασθαι ἐναντίον }

Rather than dueling with Menelaus, Paris sought to have sex with his wife Helen. She, however, preferred him dead because he had shown himself to be a weaker fighter than her former husband. With cutting mockery, she reversed herself and advised him not to fight Menelaus:

But I myself
ask you to refrain, not to duel with fair-haired Menelaus
face-to-face, not to battle or fight with him without thought,
for soon he might vanquish you with his spear.

{ ἀλλά σ᾽ ἔγωγε
παύεσθαι κέλομαι, μηδὲ ξανθῷ Μενελάῳ
ἀντίβιον πόλεμον πολεμίζειν ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι
ἀφραδέως, μή πως τάχ᾽ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ δουρὶ δαμήῃς. }

In the context of the brutalization of men’s sexuality, Helen’s reference to the superior power of Menelaus’s spear sexually belittles Paris. What husband would want to have sex with his wife after she wished him dead and taunted him as sexually inferior to her former husband?[6]

Like a battered husband, Paris continued to love Helen despite her verbal abuse of him. He protested her abuse only mildly. It apparently spurred his sexual desire for her:

Dear woman, don’t disparage me with harsh, reviling words.
This time Menelaus has vanquished me with Athena’s aid,
but another time I will vanquish him. On our side too, gods will help.
Come, let us have joy, sleeping together in love,
for sexual desire has never so enveloped my mind,
not even when I first swept you up from lovely Lacedaemon,
sailed away with you on my sea-going ships,
and on the island of Cranae mingled with you in love’s embrace.
Now I love you more, so sweet desire enraptures me.

{ μή με γύναι χαλεποῖσιν ὀνείδεσι θυμὸν ἔνιπτε:
νῦν μὲν γὰρ Μενέλαος ἐνίκησεν σὺν Ἀθήνῃ,
κεῖνον δ᾽ αὖτις ἐγώ: πάρα γὰρ θεοί εἰσι καὶ ἡμῖν.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δὴ φιλότητι τραπείομεν εὐνηθέντε:
οὐ γάρ πώ ποτέ μ᾽ ὧδέ γ᾽ ἔρως φρένας ἀμφεκάλυψεν,
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε σε πρῶτον Λακεδαίμονος ἐξ ἐρατεινῆς
ἔπλεον ἁρπάξας ἐν ποντοπόροισι νέεσσι,
νήσῳ δ᾽ ἐν Κραναῇ ἐμίγην φιλότητι καὶ εὐνῇ,
ὥς σεο νῦν ἔραμαι καί με γλυκὺς ἵμερος αἱρεῖ. }

The divinity helping on Paris’s side was the goddess of love Aphrodite. He would have been better off hating like the goddess Hera.

Helen and Paris in their bedroom; painting

Paris’s embrace of Helen, who rightly called herself a “shameless bitch {κυνώπης},” shows the same bad judgment that caused the Trojan War’s massive violence against men. Menelaus should have considered himself fortunate when Helen ran off with Paris. Instead he gathered a huge army of Greek men to fight and die with Trojan men for that one nasty woman. Paris’s embrace of Helen after she wished him dead and disparaged him sexually indicates the folly of Greek and Trojan men — all men — more generally.[7]

The gender trouble is even worse. If Paris had fought with Menelaus before the start of the Trojan War, and the killing of one of those men would have prevented the killing of many more men, at least their duel would improved men’s welfare in aggregate. In reality, Hector goaded Paris into fighting with Menelaus during the ninth year of the horrific Trojan War. Moreover, Hera manipulated her husband Zeus into having the Trojans break their agreement with the Greeks to turn over Helen and her wealth if Menelaus defeated Paris. The Trojan War’s horrific violence against men thus continued even after Menelaus and Paris’s duel.

Having read the Iliad, Virgil understood gender trouble. You should, too.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Homer, Iliad 3.39-45, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). Subsequent quotes from the Iliad are similarly sourced. Although Hector was a fearsome warrior, his rebuke of Paris is milder than Helen’s rebuke of Paris. Minchin (2010) p. 390. On Hector’s rebukes in the Iliad, Driscoll (2010).

To help the general reader, I use “Greek men” for “Achaean men {Ἀχαιοί}” in the English translations. I similarly replace “Alexander” with “Paris.” Alexander was another name used for the Trojan prince Paris, although the two names were associated with different characterizations and perhaps different sources. Suter (1993) p. 2.

The Chicago Homer, which includes Richmond’s Lattimore’s English translation, provides a useful resource for studying the ancient Greek text of the Iliad. Lattimore’s introduction reviews the literary context and poetic style of the Iliad. Numerous other English translations of the Iliad are freely available online, including those of Butler (1898), Johnston (2002), and Kline (2009).

The Iliad’s editors and translators, who have been predominately men, haven’t adequately recognized the tragedy of men’s impotence. Commenting on Iliad 3.40, Kirk astutely observed:

ἄγονος could be taken either in a passive sense (‘unborn’) or in an active one, not so much ‘childless’ (as the emperor Augustus evidently meant when he used the verse against his daughter) as ‘unable to produce children’ — and then not because sterile but because impotent. There is no particular meaning of ἄγονος which makes Hektor’s wish absolutely logical and self-consistent — it is, after all, a highly rhetorical formulation; but what he wishes is that Paris had not been able to be γυναιμανής (as in 39) and so become involved in disastrous sexual unions (for that, rather than legal marriage, is the implication of ἄγονος here). Nearly all editors understand ‘unborn’, nevertheless.

Kirk (1985) p. 271. For Iliad 3.40, Murray has the (inconsistent) translation: “I wish that you had never been born and had died unwed.”

The subsequent quotes above are Iliad 3.52-7 (Can’t you face Menelaus…), 3.59, 64-72 (Hector, you rebuke me rightly…), 3.390-4 (Come this way…), 3.410-2 (There I will not go…), 3.414-7 (Don’t provoke me, wicked woman…), 3.428-33 (You have returned from the war…), 3.433-36 (But I myself…), 3.438-46 (Dear woman, don’t disparage me…), 3.180 (shameless bitch).

[2] Iliad 3.70 and 3.72 literally refer to the winner of Menelaus and Paris’s duel taking Helen and “the possessions {κτήμᾰτᾰ}.” As Lattimore and Murray’s English translations recognize, the possessions in context are best understood as Helen’s possessions. Reversing the direct sense of the pun on Helen’s name in Iliad 3.72 and drawing upon the deeply entrenched social practice of gender-biased criminalization of men, Blondell asserted that “the possessions” are goods that Paris stole from Menelaus when Helen and Paris eloped. Blondell (2010) pp. 3, 8. Critically thinking persons should recognize the prevalent gender bias in penal punishment.

Ancient scholars better appreciated Helen’s agency in taking possessions. Proclus’s summary of the Cypria, attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus and probably originating in the Hellenistic period, has Helen and Alexander together loading up their ship with valuables and sailing away in the night. Apollodorus has Helen alone putting property on board the ship. Helen also abandons Hermione, her nine-year-old daughter with Menelaus. Apollodorus, Epitome 3.3.

[3] From up on the Trojan city wall, Helen viewed the Greek and Trojan men preparing to attack each other and the duel of Menelaus and Paris. That section of the Iliad is known as the “viewing from the wall {teichoscopia / τειχοσκοπία}.” Summoning Helen to the τειχοσκοπία, the messenger goddess Iris explained that the Trojan and Greek men had ceased their battle:

But Paris and Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
will fight with their long spears for you.
You will be called the beloved wife of the one who wins.

{ αὐτὰρ Ἀλέξανδρος καὶ ἀρηΐφιλος Μενέλαος
μακρῇς ἐγχείῃσι μαχήσονται περὶ σεῖο:
τῷ δέ κε νικήσαντι φίλη κεκλήσῃ ἄκοιτις. }

Iliad, 3.136-8. Women are deeply implicated in epic violence against men. Women must do more to lessen violence against men. Not regarding violence against men as a spectating opportunity would help to devalue such violence.

Michael Delahoyde observes:

This book {Iliad, Book 3} contains the famous “teichoskopia”: the viewing from the wall. (Is this even a thing? Where else in any form of literature or film does one find a “viewing from the wall”?)

From high up on a fortress wall, women viewing men engaged in horrific violence against men is a common scene in medieval European literature. It’s closely associated with the men-devaluing tradition of chivalry. For an example of a leading classicist ignoring the role of women in encouraging stupid, pointless wars, Scodel (2008).

Voluminous scholarly cant about men’s “objectification” of women and men “trafficking” in women has tended to trivialize violence against men and innumerable killings of men. For example, a scholar declared:

In the Iliad, the objectification of Helen as “bride” is most obvious in the duel that Menelaus and Paris fight over her while she looks on from the walls of Troy.

Blondell (2010) p. 3. From her protected, privileged position, Helen is gazing down upon men attempting to kill each other. The concept of Helen’s “objectification” here is, most obviously, obfuscatory. Helen’s female gaze is actively bestializing men and objectifying them as tools of gynocentric values.

[4] Helen describes Aphrodite encouraging her to have sex with her husband Paris as deceptive. Helen then essentially suggests that Aphrodite herself go have sex with Paris. Helen’s words are cold and vicious. Bowie commented:

Helen’s words here are among the strongest criticisms addressed to a divine figure in Greek literature. … Characters in Greek literature regularly complain about the gods, but none uses language as free and downright rude as this…

Bowie (2019) p. 160. Helen expresses “insolence and sarcasm” toward Aphrodite. Minchin (2008) p. 390. In the second century BGC, the influential Homeric scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace athetized these verses. Hunter (2018) p. 69. Readers have often failed to accept the full breadth of women’s humanity.

[5] Based on detailed philological analysis of this passage, Bonifazi (2016) concludes:

Helen is jealous of Aphrodite’s vouchsafing to Alexander {Paris} not only safety but also charm and beauty. Through her pronominal choices and their host clauses she conveys that she would like to keep distance from Alexander, while acknowledging, at the same time, his beautiful appearance.

Philology is vitally important. Nonetheless, this conclusion seems to me misleading without keen understanding of the broader context of Helen’s relations to Menelaus and Alexander / Paris.

The Iliad never explicitly describes a marriage ceremony or marriage agreement between Helen and Paris. Helen is usually called Paris’s “ἄλοχον,” which can mean “mistress” rather than “wife.” Bowie (2019) p. 164, discussing Helen taunting Aphrodite in Iliad 3.409. Helen, however, clearly shares Paris’s bed, apparently exclusively. She has high status among Priam’s ruling family. See, e.g. Iliad 3.361-5 (King Priam addressing Helen). Helen calls King Priam “beloved father-in-law {φίλος ἑκυρός}.” Iliad 3.172. Book 3 of the Iliad suggests symmetry between Menelaus and Paris as Helen’s former and current husbands, respectively. Helen refers to Paris’s brother Hector as her “brother-in-law {δαήρ}.” Iliad 6.344, 24.762. Hector in turn describes Helen as having an affectionate relationship with him. Iliad 6.360. Helen similarly describes her relationship with Hector. Iliad 24.767-72. Helen refers to Alexander / Paris as her “πόσις {husband}.” Overall, the literary evidence overwhelming indicates that throughout the Iliad, Helen and Paris are married as marriage was understood in the archaic Greek world.

[6] Helen’s words here are “bitterly sarcastic and hostile.” Kirk (1985) p. 327. Helen “upbraids her husband.” She has a “hostile, unwelcoming mood.” Minchin (2008) pp. 391, 392. Some scholars nonetheless interpreted Helen’s words as “a genuine outburst of concern for Paris.” Hunter (2018) p. 70.

Helen’s unwillingness to have sex with her husband Paris has often been moralistically misinterpreted. Ancient scholars, as well as modern anti-meninists, have interpreted women’s sexual passion for men as folly. Hunter (2018) pp. 77-8, citing Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 28.4-7, and Euripides, Trojan Women 983-92. A husband and wife having sex in the afternoon was also apparently regarded as shameful. Id. p. 79, citing Plutarch, Moralia 18f, 655a. Within the context of the Iliad, Helen’s sense of shame in having sex with her husband Paris is best interpreted as responding to Paris being socially regarded as the loser of his duel with Menelaus.

[7] In the teichoscopia, Helen calls herself a “shameless bitch {κυνώπης}” in describing her relation to Menelaus. Iliad 3.180. She subsequently calls herself a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις},” or in short, a “bitch {κύων}.” Iliad 6.344, 356. In the Odyssey, Helen characterizes herself as a “shameless bitch {κυνώπης}” in relation to Menelaus. Odyssey 4.145. Understood less literally, Helen substantively calls herself a “shameless whore.”

A strand of ancient thought regarded the Trojan War as foolish. E.g. Herodotus, Histories 1.4. More generally, Scodel (2008) p. 220. But men too often have passively accepted the social construction of men’s disposability. For example, elderly chief men of Troy saw Helen looking upon the Trojan and Greek men prepared to do battle. The elderly chief men of Troy declared:

Surely the Trojan men and the well-greaved Greek men cannot be blamed
that they have long suffered woes on account of such a woman.
To look upon her is terribly like looking upon immortal goddesses.
Although she is like them, even so let her go home on the ships,
and not be left here to be grief to us and to our children after us.

{ οὐ νέμεσις Τρῶας καὶ ἐϋκνήμιδας Ἀχαιοὺς
τοιῇδ᾽ ἀμφὶ γυναικὶ πολὺν χρόνον ἄλγεα πάσχειν:
αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν:
ἀλλὰ καὶ ὧς τοίη περ ἐοῦσ᾽ ἐν νηυσὶ νεέσθω,
μηδ᾽ ἡμῖν τεκέεσσί τ᾽ ὀπίσσω πῆμα λίποιτο. }

Iliad, 3.156-60. The elderly men associate mythic punishment for the male gaze with gazing upon Helen. Men should be blamed for not vigorously asserting all persons’ freedom to gaze and imagine as they so choose. Men should also be blamed for gyno-idolatry. Within the Iliad, Paris is blamed for the Trojan War. Suter (1993). Elderly chief men of Troy at least recognized the merit of simply sending Helen away.

Classical scholars have striven to excuse and justify Helen’s behavior amid men’s reluctance to criticize her. A peer-reviewed work of gynocentric ideological contortions justified not blaming Helen on the basis of modern academic myth asserting “the male” to have a larger scope of agency than women:

The objectification of Helen therefore dovetails with the well-known fact that blame directed towards her by Iliadic characters other than herself is muted or non-existent. It is Paris who takes the blame, from Achaeans and Trojans alike, in acknowledgment of the larger scope for agency assigned to the male.

Blondell (2010) p. 4. Classical literature amply documents the classical pattern of men taking the blame, and women taking the credit. Another literary scholar more expansively declared:

The dazzling question after the ‘Teichoscopia’ concerns the value inherent in listening to a song tradition that deals with the struggle of two armies for the possession of a woman (Helen) who is the symbol of blame. The Iliadic tradition thus questions the very ontogeny of its subject matter and, by extension, of the genre it belongs to. Skillfully enough, there is a way out of the impasse. As only Helen can blame Helen, so only is the Iliad allowed to question its own validity.

Tsagalis (2008), from Chapter 6 (footnote omitted). The “dazzling question” is actually a tendentious question. Readers can and should blame Helen for massive violence against men. Moreover, the “validity” of the Iliad depends inextricably on the critical intelligence of the hearer or reader.

A recent Ph.D. thesis in classics argues that “central to the thematic program of the Iliad is a feminine-coded critique of masculine warrior values.” Warwick (2018) p. 3. On gender-stereotypical analysis of the Iliad, Dayton (2018). In contrast to superficial stereotypes, women have a directing role in epic violence against men. One might much more interestingly argue that central to the thematic program of the Iliad is a masculine-coded critique of feminine warrior values. Ausonius and Proba in the fourth century and Walafrid Strabo in the ninth century had similar critical views of violence against men.

More generally, young classicists would do well to learn from medieval Latin literature. They might ponder a medieval proverb preserved in Piers Plowman:

Alas for me, what a barren, useless youth I led!

{ Heu michi quia sterilem duxi vitam iuvenilem! }

William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 1.139, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, my English translation. This Latin leonine verse apparently was proverbial. It also survives in the proverb collection of John Rylands Library, Latin MS 394, written early or in the middle of the fifteenth century. Alford (1975) p. 392. For proverbs in Rylands MS 394, Pantin (1930).

[images] (1) Menelaus pursues Paris as the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis watch. Painting on Attic red-figure kylix from Capua in southern Italy, c. 490–480 BGC. Preserved in the Louvre Museum (Paris) as accession # G 115. Source image thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another image of this vase painting. (2) Aphrodite saving Paris from Menelaus as Odysseus watches. Carving on marble sarcophagus of Aurelia Botania Demetria from second century GC. Preserved in the Antalya Archaeological Museum (Turkey). Source image thanks to Wolfgang Sauber and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Greek prince Paris standing nude and holding an apple behind his back. Marble sculpture designed by Antonio Canova in 1812 and completed by his workshop in 1822-23. Preserved as accession # 2003.21.2 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). Credit line: Bequest of Lillian Rojtman Berkman, 2001. Source image generously contributed to the public domain by the Metropolitan Museum. (4) Helen and Paris in their bedroom. Painting (excerpt) by Jacques-Louis David in 1788. Preserved as accession # Inv. 3696 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Source image thanks to Livioandronico2013 and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another detail view.


Alford, John A. 1975. “Some Unidentified Quotations in Piers Plowman.” Modern Philology. 72(4): 390–99.

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