- Menelaus is a central figure in Greek mythology, primarily recognized as the husband of Helen of Sparta. After Helen’s abduction by the Trojan prince Paris, Menelaus mustered a vast Greek army, invoking the Oath of Tyndareus, to reclaim her, thus igniting the Trojan War.
- In the Odyssey, Menelaus embodies loyalty and hospitality, while in Euripides’ plays, his character is explored in depth, showing him both as a devoted lover in “Helen” and as a vengeful figure in “Andromache.”
- Beyond ancient Greek accounts, Menelaus’s story has been retold in various eras and cultures, from Roman epics like the Aeneid to contemporary novels like “The Song of Achilles.”
Menelaus (or Menelaos), the legendary king of Sparta, is best known for his role in the Trojan War, as first described in Homer’s Iliad. More specifically, after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Menelaus’ wife, Helen, the Spartan King led a great Greek army against the city of Troy. Despite his pivotal role in the war, the portrayal of Menelaus varies widely among different authors and texts. Some depict him as a brave and loyal leader, while others as jealous and manipulative. But who was Menelaus, really? Let’s find out.
King Menelaus: The Husband of Helen
Menelaus’ relationship with Helen of Sparta, fraught with temptation, betrayal, and revenge, is one of the most impactful tales in Greek mythology. Considered the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen attracted numerous suitors from throughout Greece. However, her father, Tyndareus, was reluctant to choose a husband for his daughter, fearing that the rejected suitors would seek revenge.
In an attempt to avoid conflict, Tyndareus sought the counsel of Odysseus, who devised a plan to ensure that the suitors swore an oath to defend Helen’s chosen husband against anyone who tried to take her away from him. The suitors all agreed to this oath, with Tyndareus ultimately choosing Menelaus as Helen’s husband. The couple lived in Sparta for many years until the fateful day when Paris abducted Helen and returned with her to Troy. Using the Oath of Tyndareus, Menelaus launched an expedition to Troy with the support of many Greek heroes, causing an arduous and lengthy war.
The Adversary of Paris
Paris is often portrayed as selfish, weak, and irresponsible. His decision to abduct Helen is driven by a desire for personal pleasure rather than any sense of duty. Menelaus, stands in contrast to Paris. His journey to retrieve Helen is not simply an attempt to regain his wife but to reclaim his honor against a great insult. Throughout the Iliad, the two men are often pitted against each other as representations of the two warring sides. In Book 3, a duel between Menelaus and Paris occurs, meant to cease the fighting and determine the outcome of the war through single combat. The Spartan clearly emerges as the better warrior, and it seems that he will be a clear winner. However, at the last minute, Aphrodite intervenes, whisking Paris away to safety. As such, the outcome of the battle is left uncertain.
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The Arrow of Pandarus
As the Greeks and Trojans argue over the outcome of the battle, the gods take action to get the fighting to resume. Athena, driven by her own desire to see the destruction of Troy, actively seeks to break the truce. Seeing an opportunity in Pandarus, a skilled archer of the Trojans eager for combat, she promises him glory by guiding his arrow to kill Menelaus. However, when Pandarus shoots his arrow, Athena deflects it slightly, causing it to strike Menelaus only in his breastplate, leaving him unharmed. The Greeks, led by Agamemnon, allow this to serve as a pretext for the resumption of the war.
The Brother of Agamemnon
Menelaus was also known for being the younger brother to the fierce warrior Agamemnon. Sons of king Atreus, the two brothers were raised together in the royal palace in Mycenae and were trained in the art of war from a young age. When Helen was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon was one of the first to pledge his support and lead the armies of Greece to Troy.
However, Agamemnon and Menelaus often clashed due to their differing personalities and leadership styles. Menelaus was known for his generosity, bravery, and rationale, which earned him great respect and admiration from the people of Sparta. For example, his involvement in the retrieval of Patroclus’ body highlights these characteristics. Acutely aware of the danger, he agrees to the mission due to his sense of duty and loyalty to bury Patroclus properly. During the mission, Menelaus proves himself to be a skilled fighter and strategist, helping to secure Patroclus’ body despite the determined opposition of the Trojan warriors.
He shows both physical prowess and tactical intelligence, taking advantage of the terrain and the weaknesses of the enemy to gain the upper hand. On the other hand, Agamemnon, although a formidable leader, is also portrayed as hot-headed and selfish, making choices that put his own interests above that of his soldiers. Notably, his decision to seize Achilles’ war prize, Briseis, caused a major rift in the Greek forces. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, being deeply offended by this act of disrespect, withdrew from the fighting, causing significant damage to the Greek army’s morale and strength.
The Host of the Odyssey
In Homer’s Odyssey, Menelaus is a character who embodies the ancient Greek morals of loyalty, wisdom, and hospitality, standing in stark contrast to the impulsive and flawed characters that populate the epic. A significant feature of his Odyssean character is his undying love and devotion to his wife, Helen. Despite her abduction by Paris and the ensuing Trojan War, Menelaus remains unwavering in his love for her. In Book 4, his skills as a warrior are also recounted as he describes his many battles during the Trojan War. As a king, he appears to be a wise and judicious ruler, demonstrated by the many gifts that his subjects have bestowed upon him.
Additionally, he displays a sense of hospitality and kindness that is a critical ideal in ancient Greek culture, especially important within the Odyssey’s travel narrative. He provides Telemachus and Athena with food, drink, and shelter when they visit his palace, exemplifying the concept of xenia or guest-friendship.
The Lover of Euripides’ Helen
Euripides’ Helen is a play that offers a unique perspective on Menelaus’ character. The play presents a different version of the events surrounding the Trojan War, where Helen is not actually in Troy but has been taken to Egypt by the god Hermes to protect her from harm. When Menelaus learns that Helen is alive and well in Egypt, he sets out to bring her back to Greece. His journey is not an easy one, as he must navigate through the treacherous politics of the Egyptian court and outwit the king’s advisor Theoclymenus, who seeks to marry Helen for himself.
What makes Euripides’ portrayal of Menelaus particularly compelling is the way in which it delves deeper into the character exploring his motivations beyond simple notions of pride or honor. Here, Menelaus is driven by a deep, abiding love for his wife, one that is tested to its limits by the many obstacles he faces on his quest. Through his unwavering determination to win back Helen, Menelaus sheds the one-dimensional nature of his other depictions and emerges as a cunning, nuanced character.
Furthermore, the play offers a fresh perspective on Helen’s character, who is often maligned in traditional retellings of the Trojan War as a duplicitous and immoral figure. In Euripides’ version, however, she is a victim of the machinations of the gods and wrongly accused of causing a catastrophic war. This new interpretation of Helen serves to further deepen Menelaus’ character as he is forced to confront not only the external obstacles, but also the internal struggle he experiences as he tries to reconcile his love for his wife as they fight together to return home.
The Villain of Euripides’ Andromache
The play revolves around the character of Andromache, the former wife of Hector, who is now a captive of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Her predicament is worsened by the presence of Hermione, the wife of Neoptolemus, who is envious of Andromache’s position in the household. Hermione’s jealousy leads her to threaten the life of Andromache’s son in a desperate attempt to eliminate any potential threat to her own children. It is here that the character of Menelaus, Hermione’s father, emerges as a crucial figure in the play. He is portrayed as vengeful and cruel solely concerned with advancing the power of his household. His desire for revenge blinds him and leads him to contrive against Andromache and her son. But Menelaus’s cowardice is undeniably revealed when he comes close to murdering her son, an innocent child who poses no real threat to him.
The Legacy of Menelaus
Aside from ancient Greek literature, Menelaus has appeared in various works throughout history. In Roman literature, he is briefly featured in the underworld scene of the Aeneid. While in the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the tale of Menelaus being one of the Greek warriors who hid inside the horse and helped to capture the city of Troy. In contemporary literature, he appears in works such as David Malouf’s Ransom and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Nevertheless, it is clear that throughout history, his character has undergone various interpretations, ranging from the brave and loyal husband of Helen of Troy to the vengeful and jealous warrior seeking to reclaim his honor.