Gorgias’s defense of Helen: sophism for self-centered beauty

One woman, the beautiful Helen of Troy, motivated massive violence against men in the Trojan War. The Iliad emphasizes this stark lesson about men’s folly with Helen’s self-centered, self-pitying lament at Hector’s epic-ending funeral. Men ardently desire to be heroes for women. Men desiring to be heroes for women shapes not only violence against men but also verbal competition. Herodotus’s rational, historical assessment of the Trojan War is thus less insightful than Gorgias’s defense of Helen.

Herodotus, a thoughtful, research-oriented historian of the fifth century BGC, with good reason regarded the Iliad’s story about Helen to be implausible. Herodotus noted that King Proteus of Egypt built a shrine to Aphrodite the Foreigner in Memphis. No other shrine to Aphrodite had that epithet. Herodotus conjectured that Aphrodite the Foreigner referred to the beautiful, lustful Helen of Troy.

To test his conjecture, Herodotus asked Egyptian priests about Helen. They explained that when Paris and Helen were sailing away from Cythera, a storm blew them ashore on the Nile’s bank. Having heard that Helen and Paris had adulterously eloped and stolen her husband Menelaus’s goods, King Proteus had them arrested. Blaming the man for having “seduced” the woman, Proteus was outraged at Paris’s behavior. Proteus confiscated Menelaus’s goods, ordered Paris to leave immediately, and didn’t allow Helen to leave with him. Paris thus returned to Troy without Helen.[1] In short, according to the Egyptian priests, Helen of Troy was never in Troy. She was in Egypt.

Egyptian priests said that the Trojan War arose from the Greeks’ suspecting the Trojans of lying. Herodotus reported:

When I asked the Egyptian priests whether the version told by the Greeks of what had happened at Troy was mere fantasy, they replied with a story that they insisted had been obtained by making enquiries of Menelaus. After the abduction of Helen, a great army of Greeks made for the land of the Trojans to aid Menelaus. There they disembarked and set up camp. Then they sent to Troy messengers, one of whom was Menelaus himself. Once the embassy had arrived inside the city walls, its delegates demanded the return both of Helen and of all the goods which Paris had stolen and carried off, together with justice for the crimes that had been committed. The Trojans’ response was the one which they would never cease to give, under oath or not: namely, that they had neither Helen nor even the goods in question, since the whole lot were in Egypt. The Trojans said that it would therefore be most unjust if they were obliged to compensate the Greeks for what was actually in the possession of Proteus, the king of Egypt. The Greeks, who assumed that they were being made fun of, promptly put the city under siege, until finally it was theirs. Even with the city in their hands, however, there was no sign of Helen. Instead, all the Greeks could uncover was the same story as before. Believing it at last, the Greeks sent Menelaus himself to visit Proteus.

{ εἰρομένου δέ μευ τοὺς ἱρέας εἰ μάταιον λόγον λέγουσι οἱ Ἕλληνες τὰ περὶ Ἴλιον γενέσθαι ἢ οὔ, ἔφασαν πρὸς ταῦτα τάδε, ἱστορίῃσι φάμενοι εἰδέναι παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ Μενέλεω. ἐλθεῖν μὲν γὰρ μετὰ τὴν Ἑλένης ἁρπαγὴν ἐς τὴν Τευκρίδα γῆν Ἑλλήνων στρατιὴν πολλὴν βοηθεῦσαν Μενέλεῳ, ἐκβᾶσαν δὲ ἐς γῆν καὶ ἱδρυθεῖσαν τὴν στρατιὴν πέμπειν ἐς τὸ Ἴλιον ἀγγέλους, σὺν δέ σφι ἰέναι καὶ αὐτὸν Μενέλεων: τοὺς δ᾽ ἐπείτε ἐσελθεῖν ἐς τὸ τεῖχος, ἀπαιτέειν Ἑλένην τε καὶ τὰ χρήματα τά οἱ οἴχετο κλέψας Ἀλέξανδρος, τῶν τε ἀδικημάτων δίκας αἰτέειν: τοὺς δὲ Τευκροὺς τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον λέγειν τότε καὶ μετέπειτα, καὶ ὀμνύντας καὶ ἀνωμοτί, μὴ μὲν ἔχειν Ἑλένην μηδὲ τὰ ἐπικαλεύμενα χρήματα, ἀλλ᾽ εἶναι αὐτὰ πάντα ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, καὶ οὐκ ἂν δικαίως αὐτοὶ δίκας ὑπέχειν τῶν Πρωτεὺς ὁ Αἰγύπτιος βασιλεὺς ἔχει. οἱ δὲ Ἕλληνες καταγελᾶσθαι δοκέοντες ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν οὕτω δὴ ἐπολιόρκεον, ἐς ὃ ἐξεῖλον: ἑλοῦσι δὲ τὸ τεῖχος ὡς οὐκ ἐφαίνετο ἡ Ἑλένη, ἀλλὰ τὸν αὐτὸν λόγου τῷ προτέρῳ ἐπυνθάνοντο, οὕτω δὴ πιστεύσαντες τῷ λόγῳ τῷ πρώτῳ οἱ Ἕλληνες αὐτὸν Μενέλεων ἀποστέλλουσι παρὰ Πρωτέα. }[2]

According the Egyptian priests, Menelaus and Helen thus reunited in Egypt and returned to their home in Sparta.

Helen returning with her husband Menelaus to their home in Sparta

Herodotus rightly regarded the Egyptian priests’ account of Helen to be more reasonable than that of the Iliad. Herodotus explained:

Speaking personally, I do not doubt the Egyptian priests’ account as it relates to Helen. For surely, had she indeed been in Troy, then she would have been handed back over to the Greeks, whether Paris wished it or not. Neither Priam nor the rest of his family were so mentally defective as to willingly put themselves, their children and their city in peril, simply so that Paris might live with Helen. And even if we grant that this might perhaps have been their initial attitude, nevertheless, with the onset of hostilities, there was a slaughter of Trojans at the hands of the Greeks so prodigious that Priam himself, if the evidence of the epic poets is to be trusted, was losing some two or three or even more of his sons every time battle was joined. My supposition must surely be correct that the effect of these circumstances would have been to convince Priam, had he been the one who was living with Helen, that she simply had to be given back to the Achaeans. How else, after all, was he to be rid of the evils hemming him in? Nor is it the case that Paris was the heir to the throne, and might therefore conceivably have been operating as regent during Priam’s dotage. Rather, it was Hector, who was both older and more of a man than Paris, who stood to inherit the kingdom upon the death of his father. Thus it would hardly have been proper for him to indulge his brother’s lawlessness, not when Paris was bringing such suffering upon Hector himself and upon the entire Trojan people.

{ ἐγὼ δὲ τῷ λόγῳ τῷ περὶ Ἑλένης λεχθέντι καὶ αὐτὸς προστίθεμαι, τάδε ἐπιλεγόμενος, εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντος Ἀλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. εἰ δέ τοι καὶ ἐν τοῖσι πρώτοισι χρόνοισι ταῦτα ἐγίνωσκον, ἐπεὶ πολλοὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων Τρώων, ὁκότε συμμίσγοιεν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι, ἀπώλλυντο, αὐτοῦ δὲ Πριάμου οὐκ ἔστι ὅτε οὐ δύο ἢ τρεῖς ἢ καὶ ἔτι πλέους τῶν παίδων μάχης γινομένης ἀπέθνησκον, εἰ χρή τι τοῖσι ἐποποιοῖσι χρεώμενον λέγειν, τούτων δὲ τοιούτων συμβαινόντων ἐγὼ μὲν ἔλπομαι, εἰ καὶ αὐτὸς Πρίαμος συνοίκεε Ἑλένῃ, ἀποδοῦναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἀχαιοῖσι, μέλλοντά γε δὴ τῶν παρεόντων κακῶν ἀπαλλαγήσεσθαι. οὐ μὲν οὐδὲ ἡ βασιληίη ἐς Ἀλέξανδρον περιήιε, ὥστε γέροντος Πριάμου ἐόντος ἐπ᾽ ἐκείνῳ τὰ πρήγματα εἶναι, ἀλλὰ Ἕκτωρ καὶ πρεσβύτερος καὶ ἀνὴρ ἐκείνου μᾶλλον ἐὼν ἔμελλε αὐτὴν Πριάμου ἀποθανόντος παραλάμψεσθαι, τὸν οὐ προσῆκε ἀδικέοντι τῷ ἀδελφεῷ ἐπιτρέπειν, καὶ ταῦτα μεγάλων κακῶν δι᾽ αὐτὸν συμβαινόντων ἰδίῃ τε αὐτῷ καὶ τοῖσι ἄλλοισι πᾶσι Τρωσί. }

Herodotus showed good reason in relation to Helen and the Trojans. However, Trojan men and Greek men, like many men through history, acted with bad reason in relation to a woman. That’s the story of Helen in the Iliad.

Helen and Paris leaving Cythera

Although regarded as extremely beautiful, the Iliad shows Helen to be a horrible person. She treats her second husband Paris with contempt after her first husband Menelaus thrashed him on the battlefield. Helen’s character is most fully exhibited at the funeral of Paris’s brother Hector, whom Achilles killed in battle. All of Troy mourned Hector. Underscoring women’s dominant social position in archaic Greek society, the Iliad concludes with three women speaking laments for Hector. Those lamenting women are Andromache, Hector’s wife; Hecuba, the queen of Troy; and ultimately Helen. Helen’s crowning role in lamenting Hector recalls her having motivated the Trojan War and thus Hector’s death within it. Helen’s lament for Hector is self-centered and self-pitying:

Hector, far dearest to my heart of all my husband’s brothers!
Indeed my husband is godlike Paris,
who brought me to the land of Troy. I wish I had died before then.
This is now the twentieth year from the time
when I went from there and left the land of my fathers,
yet never have I heard evil or spiteful word from you.
But if any other spoke reproachfully of me in the halls,
a brother of yours, or a sister, or a brother’s fair-robed wife,
or your mother — your father was ever gentle as if he had been my own —
yet you would turn them with speech and restrain them
by your gentleness and your gentle words.
So I wail alike for you and for my unlucky self with grief at heart.
No longer have I anyone else in broad Troy
who is gentle to me or kind. All others shudder at me.

{ Ἕκτορ ἐμῷ θυμῷ δαέρων πολὺ φίλτατε πάντων,
ἦ μέν μοι πόσις ἐστὶν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής,
ὅς μ᾽ ἄγαγε Τροίηνδ᾽: ὡς πρὶν ὤφελλον ὀλέσθαι.
ἤδη γὰρ νῦν μοι τόδε εἰκοστὸν ἔτος ἐστὶν
ἐξ οὗ κεῖθεν ἔβην καὶ ἐμῆς ἀπελήλυθα πάτρης:
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ πω σεῦ ἄκουσα κακὸν ἔπος οὐδ᾽ ἀσύφηλον:
ἀλλ᾽ εἴ τίς με καὶ ἄλλος ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἐνίπτοι
δαέρων ἢ γαλόων ἢ εἰνατέρων εὐπέπλων,
ἢ ἑκυρή, ἑκυρὸς δὲ πατὴρ ὣς ἤπιος αἰεί,
ἀλλὰ σὺ τὸν ἐπέεσσι παραιφάμενος κατέρυκες
σῇ τ᾽ ἀγανοφροσύνῃ καὶ σοῖς ἀγανοῖς ἐπέεσσι.
τὼ σέ θ᾽ ἅμα κλαίω καὶ ἔμ᾽ ἄμμορον ἀχνυμένη κῆρ:
οὐ γάρ τίς μοι ἔτ᾽ ἄλλος ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
ἤπιος οὐδὲ φίλος, πάντες δέ με πεφρίκασιν. }[3]

Helen doesn’t lament the horror of seeing Achilles kill Hector and then abuse Hector’s dead body. Helen doesn’t lament that Hector, along with numerous other men, died in a foolish war over her. Helen doesn’t lament that the Greeks are likely now to destroy Troy. No, Helen, crying hot tears, laments that no one else will be kind to her like Hector was. She laments that others will now freely reproach her. The poor privileged dear! Helen earlier called herself a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις}.”[4] While showing little direct concern for others, at least she rightly characterized herself. Helen’s self-centered, self-pitying lament for Hector in the Iliad emphasizes men’s bad reason in relation to women. Innumerable Trojan men and Greek men died fighting for the horrible woman Helen.

Criticizing even a horrible woman like Helen isn’t propitious for gaining honor, influence, and wealth within gynocentric society. No one has understood rational, self-interested men’s speech better than ancient Greek sophists. In the fifth century BGC, the sophist Gorgias assailed those who blame Helen for the massive violence against men of the Trojan War. Gorgias declared:

As for me, I wish, by providing certain argumentation in my speech, to stop the blame for Helen, who is being defamed. I wish to demonstrate that those who blame her are liars. I wish to show the truth and to stop their ignorance.

{ ἐγὼ δὲ βούλομαι λογισμόν τινα τῷ λόγῳ δοὺς τὴν μὲν κακῶς ἀκούουσαν παῦσαι τῆς αἰτίας, τοὺς δὲ μεμφομένους ψευδομένους ἐπιδεῖξαι καὶ δεῖξαι τἀληθὲς καὶ παῦσαι τῆς ἀμαθίας. }[5]

Gorgias thus positions himself as a man defending a woman. That’s a propitious position for social acclaim. With abstractions and elaborate rhetoric, Gorgias obscured the reality of what occurred:

Born of divine parents, Helen obtained beauty equal to the gods, beauty that she obtained receiving it and not hiding it. And she instilled in very many men very many longings for love. By means of her one body she brought together bodies of many men who had great ambitions about great matters. Among these men were ones who possessed an abundance of wealth, others renown for ancient nobility, others renown for the vigor of their innate strength, and others for the power of their acquired wisdom. They all came together, driven by the love that desires victory and by the invincible desire for honor.

{ ἐκ τοιούτων δὲ γενομένη ἔσχε τὸ ἰσόθεον κάλλος, ὃ λαβοῦσα καὶ οὐ λαθοῦσα ἔσχε· πλείστας δὲ πλείστοις ἐπιθυμίας ἔρωτος ἐνειργάσατο, ἑνὶ δὲ σώματι πολλὰ σώματα συνήγαγεν ἀνδρῶν ἐπὶ μεγάλοις μεγάλα φρονούντων, ὧν οἱ μὲν πλούτου μεγέθη, οἱ δὲ εὐγενείας παλαιᾶς εὐδοξίαν, οἱ δὲ ἀλκῆς οἰκείας εὐεξίαν, οἱ δὲ σοφίας ἐπικτήτου δύναμιν ἔσχον· καὶ ἧκον ἅπαντες ὑπ’ ἔρωτός τε φιλονίκου φιλοτιμίας τε ἀνικήτου. }

All these worthy men came together to kill each other. Helen provided the motive for the Trojan War. The men participated because they valued Helen more than themselves. Nonetheless, according to Gorgias, Helen should not be blamed for motivating the Trojan War:

How then ought one consider the blame for Helen as being just, given that, whether she did what she did because she had fallen in love or had been persuaded by speech or had been seized with force or had been constrained by divine constraint, on every count she is acquitted of the accusation?

{ πῶς οὖν χρὴ δίκαιον ἡγήσασθαι τὸν τῆς Ἑλένης μῶμον, ἥτις εἴτ’ ἐρασθεῖσα1 εἴτε λόγῳ πεισθεῖσα εἴτε βίᾳ ἁρπασθεῖσα εἴτε ὑπὸ θείας ἀνάγκης ἀναγκασθεῖσα ἔπραξεν ἃ ἔπραξε, πάντως διαφεύγει τὴν αἰτίαν }

Social norms favor women getting all the credit and none of the blame. Certainly men deserve blame for lacking self-esteem. Men too often have lacked a sense of their value as fully human persons — persons fully equal in value to women.

Isocrates, highly estimates ancient Attic orator

Gorgias’s student Isocrates, celebrated as one of the ten leading Attic orators, went beyond Gorgias in praising Helen. Isocrates also implicitly criticized Herodotus’s reasoning about the Trojans returning Helen to the Greeks:

What man would have rejected marriage with Helen, at whose abduction the Greeks were as incensed as if all Greece had been laid waste, while the barbarians were as filled with pride as if they had conquered us all? It is clear how each party felt about the matter. Although there had been many causes of contention between them before, none of these disturbed their peace. For Helen, however, they waged so great a war, not only the greatest of all wars in the violence of its passions, but also in the duration of its struggle. In the extent of their preparations, it was the greatest war of all time. And although the Trojans might have rid themselves of the misfortunes which encompassed them by surrendering Helen, and the Greeks might have lived in peace for all time by being indifferent to her fate, neither so wished. On the contrary, the Trojans allowed their cities to be laid waste and their land to be ravaged, so as to avoid yielding Helen to the Greeks. The Greeks chose to remain in a foreign land to grow old there and never to see their own again, rather than leave Helen behind to return to their fatherland. And they were not acting in this way as eager champions of Paris or of Menelaus. No, the Trojans were upholding the cause of Asia, and the Greeks that of Europe, in the belief that the land in which Helen resided in person would be the more favored of Fortune.

{ Τίς δ᾿ ἂν τὸν γάμον τὸν Ἑλένης ὑπερεῖδεν, ἧς ἁρπασθείσης οἱ μὲν Ἕλληνες οὕτως ἠγανάκτησαν ὥσπερ ὅλης τῆς Ἑλλάδος πεπορθημένης, οἱ δὲ βάρβαροι τοσοῦτον ἐφρόνησαν, ὅσον περ ἂν εἰ πάντων ἡμῶν ἐκράτησαν. δῆλον δ᾿ ὡς ἑκάτεροι διετέθησαν· πολλῶν γὰρ αὐτοῖς πρότερον ἐγκλημάτων γενομένων περὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἡσυχίαν ἦγον, ὑπὲρ δὲ ταύτης τηλικοῦτον συνεστήσαντο πόλεμον οὐ μόνον τῷ μεγέθει τῆς ὀργῆς ἀλλὰ καὶ τῷ μήκει τοῦ χρόνου καὶ τῷ πλήθει τῶν παρασκευῶν ὅσος οὐδεὶς πώποτε γέγονεν. ἐξὸν δὲ τοῖς μὲν ἀποδοῦσιν Ἑλένην ἀπηλλάχθαι τῶν παρόντων κακῶν, τοῖς δ᾿ ἀμελήσασιν ἐκείνης ἀδεῶς οἰκεῖν τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον, οὐδέτεροι ταῦτ᾿ ἠθέλησαν· ἀλλ᾿ οἱ μὲν περιεώρων καὶ πόλεις ἀναστάτους γιγνομένας καὶ τὴν χώραν πορθουμένην, ὥστε μὴ προέσθαι τοῖς Ἕλλησιν αὐτήν, οἱ δ᾿ ᾑροῦντο μένοντες ἐπὶ τῆς ἀλλοτρίας καταγηράσκειν καὶ μηδέποτε τοὺς αὑτῶν ἰδεῖν μᾶλλον ἢ ’κείνην καταλιπόντες εἰς τὰς αὑτῶν πατρίδας ἀπελθεῖν. καὶ ταῦτ᾿ ἐποίουν οὐχ ὑπὲρ Ἀλεξάνδρου καὶ Μενελάου φιλονικοῦντες, ἀλλ᾿ οἱ μὲν ὑπὲρ τῆς Ἀσίας, οἱ δ᾿ ὑπὲρ τῆς Εὐρώπης, νομίζοντες, ἐν ὁποτέρᾳ τὸ σῶμα τοὐκείνης κατοικήσειε, ταύτην εὐδαιμονεστέραν τὴν χώραν ἔσεσθαι. }[6]

Compared to the Iliad, Isocrates engages in crude myth-making. Compared to Herodotus, Isocrates is completely unreasonable. Such failings don’t lessen the acclaim for a speaker discounting innumerable men’s deaths to praise a woman.

Read with compassion for men’s lives, the Iliad powerfully questions men’s subordination to women. Men’s subordination to women isn’t rational. It defies belief in history like the reasoned history of Herodotus. Men’s subordination to women is an outcome of symbolic power in social discourse. Achieving gender equality depends on enough persons learning to read discerningly great literature such as the Iliad, the Aeneid, and fine medieval poetry.[7]

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[1] Herodotus, Histories {Ἱστορίαι} 2.112-5. The sixth-century Greek lyric poet Stesichorus also asserted that Helen remained in Egypt. Other early Greek poets similarly challenged the Iliad’s account of the Trojan War. Richardson (1993) pp. 26-8.

[2] Herodotus, Histories 2.118, ancient Greek text from Godley (1920), English translation (modified) from Holland (2014). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Herodotus’s Histories 2.120. For an amazingly detailed, ultra-rigorous translation of these verses, Campbell (2015).

On the objective merits of Herodotus’s history of the Trojan War, Neville (1977). Not a narrow-minded empiricist, Herodotus had a sophisticated understanding of myth’s importance. Baragwanath (2012).

[3] Homer, Iliad 24.762-75, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). One scholar tentatively observed, “Helen’s self-absorption here perhaps gives insight into the self-indulgent passion with which she and Paris carelessly sparked the war to begin with.” Perkell (2008) p. 105. Contrasting Andromache’s lament with Helen’s lament, Perkell noted, “Hektor has in some sense ultimately protected the wrong woman.” Id.

Some textual witnesses to Iliad 24.764 indicate that Helen wished “Paris had died before then.” But modern authorities favor the alternate textual witnesses indicating that Helen wished that she had died before then. That reading, as well as Iliad 24.763-4 more generally, are best interpreted to express Helen’s self-focus and self-pity. Carvounis (2007).

[4] Iliad 6.344. On Helen’s related self-characterizations, see note [7] in my post about Helen verbally abusing Paris. Punning on Helen’s name in Greek, the chorus in Aeschylus’s fifth-century BGC tragedy Agamemnon {Αγαμέμνων} sang that Helen brought “hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities {ἑλένας, ἑλάνδρος, ἑλέπτολις}.” Agamemnon v. 689.

[5] Gorgias, Testimonia, Part 2: Doctrine (D), Encomium of Helen (D24), from section 2, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Laks & Most (2016). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen, sections 4 and 20. Here are Greek texts of Hermann Diels (1922) and Friedrich Blass (1908, Teubner), and English translations by LaRue Van Hook (1913) and by Brian R. Donovan (1999). Gorgias, from Leontini in Sicily, was a student of Teisias. Gorgias came to Athens on an embassy in 427 BGC.

[6] Isocrates, Discourses 10. Helen, sections 49-51, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Van Hook (1945). Isocrates remarked about Gorgias:

This is the reason why, of those who have wished to discuss a subject with eloquence, I praise especially him who chose to write of Helen, because he has recalled to memory so remarkable a woman, one who in birth, and in beauty, and in renown far surpassed all others. Nevertheless, even he committed a slight inadvertence — for although he asserts that he has written an encomium of Helen, it turns out that he has actually spoken a defense of her conduct.

{ διὸ καὶ τὸν γράψαντα περὶ τῆς Ἑλένης ἐπαινῶ μάλιστα τῶν εὖ λέγειν τι βουληθέντων, ὅτι περὶ τοιαύτης ἐμνήσθη γυναικός, ἣ καὶ τῷ γένει καὶ τῷ κάλλει καὶ τῇ δόξῃ πολὺ διήνεγκεν. οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῦτον μικρόν τι παρέλαθεν· φησὶ μὲν γὰρ ἐγκώμιον γεγραφέναι περὶ αὐτῆς, τυγχάνει δ᾽ ἀπολογίαν εἰρηκὼς ὑπὲρ τῶν ἐκείνῃ πεπραγμένων. }

Isocrates, Discourses 10. Helen, section 14, sourced as previously. Isocrates declared of Helen, “should she not be praised and honored, and regarded as far superior to all the women who have ever lived {πῶς οὐκ ἐπαινεῖν χρὴ καὶ τιμᾶν καὶ νομίζειν πολὺ τῶν πώποτε γενομένων διενεγκεῖν}?” Id., section 38. Such is the gendered way of sophists through the ages.

Many modern scholars in writing about Helen have worked essentially as students of Gorgias and Isocrates. Helen thus becomes a great poet, overcoming the shackles of gender to make Hector a hero:

At the end of the poem, Helen is not only a mourner but also a composer, a real contributor to the creation of epic poetry. Her weaving in Iliad 3 tells her story within the larger frame of Homer’s story. Her lament sings the glory of Hector within the larger frame of Homer’s song. In this instance, Helen employs the only recognized form of public speech available to women, to make sure that the memory of Hector will not die with him.

Pantelia (2002) p. 26. According to another scholar, Homer, who was remarkably in tune with modern gynocentric discourse, created Helen, queen of Sparta and princess of Troy, as a heroic woman-victim:

Homer creates Helen as a complex and suffering figure with a good mind, who strives for autonomy, expression, and belonging, within and despite the many constraints to which she is subject.

Roisman (2006), from abstract. Helen is a great woman for all she does, including characterizing herself as a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις}”:

Her greatness lies in the many acts by which she asserts her freedom and autonomy even as her power to choose her actions is clearly limited: in her letting Priam know that she does not consider Troy her home, even though she is dependent on his good will; in the silence and invisibility she assumes when she is forced to go to Paris’ chamber; in her lashing out at Paris even though she will obviously have to go to bed with him and in her persistent distancing from him; in her affiliation with Hektor not only for his kindness but also for the respect in which he is held; and in the unique perception of him that she brings to bear in her lamentation. Her greatness lies, too, in her taking responsibility for the war, whereas Paris had denied his responsibility, and in her refusal to accept the definitions imposed on her by Aphrodite and Paris, instead persistently defining herself as a woman capable of shame and restraint.

Id. pp. 33-4. By this accounting, Helen probably ranks as greater than Empress Theodora. A scholar argued that the great Helen is a goddess, albeit a goddess “without serious regard for mortals.” Blankenborg (2022).

[7] Richardson observed:

It can also be argued that the Odyssey itself, in its implied ideals of survival at all costs, homecoming and domestic harmony, forms the first commentary on — and criticism of — the Iliad. What is clear, at any rate, is that the composer of the Odyssey has learnt a great deal from the extraordinary achievement of the earlier poem, and his work may well be seen as a poetic reflection on the Iliad, as well as a complement to it.

Richardson (1993) pp. 25-6. The Odyssey is better understand as presenting in a different way the Iliad’s concern for devaluation of men’s lives relative to women.

[images] (1) Menelaus takes Helen back to their home in Sparta. Attic black-figure amphora painting, made by the Amasis Painter c. 550 BGC. From Vulci in central Italy. Preserved as item 1383 in Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Berlin, German). Source image thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Helen and Paris leaving Cythera. Painting by Guido Reni. This painting is commonly mistitled, “The Rape of Helen.” That title is as plausible as “The Rape of Paris.” Preserved as accession # INV 539 and MR 288 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Photo thanks to Shonagon and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Isocrates, highly esteemed ancient Attic orator. Plaster copy of a head of Isocrates, thought to date to the third century GC, from Villa Abani, now in the Puskin Museum (Moscow). Source image thanks to shakko and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another ancient Roman bust of Isocrates held in Berlin’s State Museum (Neues Museum) .


Baragwanath, Emily. 2012. “Returning to Troy: Herodotus and the Mythic Discourse of his Own Time.” Chapter 12 (pp. 287-312) in Emily Baragwanath and Mathieu de Bakker, eds. Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blankenborg, Ronald. 2022. “‘Sort of human’? The Divinity and Humanity of Homer’s Helen.” Synthesis. 29(1): e116.

Campbell, E. H. 2015. “Herodotus on the Trojan War: 1.1.0-1.5.4 and 2.112.1-2.120.5. A New Translation, with Text, Commentary, and Preface.” Commentaries on Greek and Latin Literature. From the SelectedWorks of E. H. Campbell. Campbell’s Commentaries: Amherst, MA.

Carvounis, Katerina. 2007. “Helen and Iliad 24.763-4.” Hyperboreus. 13(1-2): 5-10.

Godley, A. D., ed. and trans. 1920. Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Loeb Classical Library 117-120. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holland, Tom, trans. and Paul Cartledge, introduction and notes. 2014. Herodotus. The Histories. New York: Viking.

Laks, André and Glenn W. Most, ed. and trans. 2016. Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1. Loeb Classical Library 531. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Neville, James W. 1977. “Herodotus on the Trojan War.” Greece & Rome. 24(1): 3–12.

Pantelia, Maria C. 2002. “Helen and the Last Song for Hector.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 132(1/2): 21–27.

Perkell, Christine. 2008. “Reading the Laments of Iliad 24.” Chapter 5 (pp. 93-117) in Ann Suter, ed. Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson Nicholas. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 6 Books 21-24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roisman, Hanna. 2006. “Helen in the Iliad; Causa Belli and Victim of War: From Silent Weaver to Public Speaker.” American Journal of Philology. 127(10: 1–36.

Van Hook, La Rue, ed. and trans. 1945. Isocrates. Evagoras. Helen. Busiris. Plataicus. Concerning the Team of Horses. Trapeziticus. Against Callimachus. Aegineticus. Against Lochites. Against Euthynus. Letters. Loeb Classical Library 373. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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