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Settling the score

The duel between Paris and Menelaus

In the Iliad, Paris challenges the Greeks to a duel to settle the Trojan War once and for all. Menelaus accepts, but before he can kill Paris, the Trojan prince is rescued by the goddess Aphrodite. Still, why wasn’t Menelaus proclaimed the winner?

Written by Josho Brouwers on

On Reddit’s AskHistorians, someone asked a question about the story of the Trojan War. In Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, set during the tenth and final year of the war, the Trojan hero Paris and the Spartan king Menelaus engage in single combat to determine the outcome of the entire war.

The duel ends with Paris, on the verge of defeat, being whisked away to safety by the goddess Aphrodite. One might assume, as the person asking the question did, that this meant that Menelaus had won the engagement and therefore the Trojan war had come to a close. But this didn’t happen: the fighting continued.

How so?

Well, the main reason is because the duel didn’t end in Paris’ decisive defeat at the hands of Menelaus. To better understand the situation, we need to take a closer look at this encounter as it is described in the Iliad.

Paris issues the challenge

The duel between Paris and Menelaus is described in the third book of Homer’s Iliad; the aftermath is described in the fourth book. The duel is set after the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, which ends with Achilles and his men withdrawing from combat.

The Trojans and the Greeks move their forces to the plain. Once there, Paris – also referred to as Alexander – leaps out and challenges the Greeks (Iliad 3.15-20; transl. Lattimore):

Now as these [armies] in their advance had come close together, Alexandros the godlike leapt from the ranks of the Trojans, as challenger wearing across his shoulders the hide of a leopard, curved bow and sword; while in his hands shaking two javelins pointed with bronze, he challenged all the best of the Argives to fight man to man against him in bitter combat.

Menelaus immediately sees an opportunity to get revenge on Paris. The latter, after all, stole his wife and was the cause of the entire Trojan War. When Paris sees Menelaus, stalking “like a lion who comes on a mighty carcass” (Il. 3.23), he becomes fearful. Hector rebukes him, at which point Paris proposes the following (Il. 3.67-75):

Now though, if you wish me to fight it out and do battle, make the rest of the Trojans sit down, and all the Achaians, and set me in the middle with Menelaos the warlike to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions. That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward. But the rest of you, having cut your oaths of faith and friendship, dwell, you in Troy where the soil is rich, while those others return home to horse-pasturing Argos, and Achaia the land of fair women.

This is quite weird. You would imagine that if the entire war could have been decided by single combat between Paris and Menelaus that this would have been proposed at the start the war, rather than at some point during the tenth year.

But within the epic world, this is not unusual: there are other instances where single combat appears to take place on seemingly an ad hoc basis, such as the duel between Hector and Ajax, which also ends undecided because heralds tell them it’s become too dark to continue fighting (Il. 7.244–312).

In any event, Hector agrees with Paris’ plan and tells everyone to sit and watch as Paris “and warlike Menelaos fight alone for the sake of Helen and all her possessions” (Il. 3.90-91). Menelaos echoes these sentiments.

The poet adds that “the Trojans and the Achaians were joyful, hoping now to be rid of all the sorrow of warfare” (Il. 3.111-112). The gods send Iris, their messenger, to Helen to tell her of what is about to happen, while everyone else reflects on what is about to happen and prepares for the battle.

The duel between Paris and Menelaus

Paris proceeds to equip himself for the battle to come, donning his armour and putting on greaves as well as ankle-guards, and so forth (Il. 3.326–339). We should probably assume he wasn’t wearing heavy armour before; the poet only described him as wearing a leopard skin, and carrying sword, bow, and two spears (Il. 3.17-19).

It is worth noting at this point that, after the duel, Paris only ever appears as an archer, wounding a number of Greek heroes, including Diomedes (Il. 11.373-383). We know from other sources that he would eventually strike down Achilles with an arrow.

The duel itself doesn’t go well for Paris. Menelaus is clearly the better fighter. Menelaus at one point starts hacking away with his sword at Paris’ helmet, but it breaks. He then complains about this to Zeus (Il. 3.365-368):

Father Zeus, no God beside is more baleful than you are. Here I thought to punish Alexandros for his wickedness; and now my sword is broken in my hands, and the spear flew vainly out of my hands on the throw before, and I have not hit him.

Menelaus starts dragging Paris by his helmet towards the Greeks. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is upset. She protects Paris, because he awarded her the Apple of Discord, back in the day, for which he was promised the love of the world’s most beautiful woman, i.e. Helen.

The goddess causes the chin strap of the helmet to break, at which point Menelaus “whirled the helmet about and sent it flying among the strong-greaved Achaians, and his staunch companions retrieved it” (Il. 3.377-378). Then (Il. 3.379-382):

He turned and made again for his man, determined to kill him with the bronze spear. But Aphrodite caught up Paris easily, since she was divine, and wrapped him in a thick mist and set him down again in his own perfumed bedchamber.

So Aphrodite has whisked Paris back to safety. Helen joins him in the bedroom.

Confusion reigns

Meanwhile, the Greeks and Trojans are still on the battlefield, left utterly confused about had just happened. Zeus looks down on the scene from Olympus and says (Il. 4.14-19):

Let us consider then how these things shall be accomplished, whether again to stir up grim warfare and the terrible fighting, or cast down love and make them friends with each other. If somehow this way could be sweet and pleasing to all of us, the city of lord Priam might still be a place men dwell in, and Menelaos could take away with him Helen of Argos.

Athena and Hera don’t want peace for the Trojans. Athena goes down to Troy “in a flash of speed” (Il. 4.74), and lands in the empty space between the assembled armies in the form of a meteor. The troops murmur about what this might portend, and if perhaps the gods will decide whether they will fight or make peace (Il. 4.82-84).

Meanwhile, Athena transforms herself into Laodocus, a Trojan, and starts looking for Pandarus, a Trojan archer. When she finds him, she whispers in his ear (Il. 4.93-103):

Wise son of Lykaon, would you now let me persuade you? So you might dare send a flying arrow against Menelaos and win you glory and gratitude in the sight of all Trojans, particularly beyond all else with prince Alexandros. Beyond all beside you would carry away glorious gifts from him, were he to see warlike Menelaos, the son of Atreus, struck down by your arrow, and laid on the sorrowful corpse-fire. Come then, let go an arrow against haughty Menelaos, but make your prayer to Apollo the light-born, the glorious archer, that you will accomplish a grand sacrifice of lambs first born when you come home again to the city of sacred Zeleia.

Convinced that killing Menelaus is the best thing to do, Pandarus looses an arrow at Menelaus. The Spartan king is hit. Agamemnon is shaken when he sees “the dark blood” (Il. 4.149). He then groans and says that the Trojans have broken the truce that they were enjoying at that moment, on account of the duel between Paris and Menelaus.

But Menelaus comforts his brother, saying that the wound isn’t serious, as the point of the arrow was deflected by his “war belt”, “and the flap beneath it” (Il. 4.186). They then call for Machaon, the healer, to come and help Menelaus.

Agamemnon calls upon the Greek army to fight the “lying” Trojans (Il. 4.234-239):

Argives, do not let go now of this furious valour. Zeus the father shall not be one to give aid to liars, but these, who were the first to do violence over the oaths sworn, vultures shall feed upon the delicate skin of their bodies, while we lead away their beloved wives and innocent children, in our ships, after we have stormed their citadel.

The two armies then clash (Il. 4.446ff), and the rest of the Iliad is taken up by different battles and a few other adventures, before the resolution of the poem’s main story, which involves the death of Hector at the hands of the enraged Achilles over the death of the latter’s compatriot, Patroclus.

Closing remarks

The main point here is that the duel between Paris and Menelaus ended undecided because Aphrodite brought Paris to safety. As the Greeks and Trojans were left pondering what happened, Athena moved in and whispered in Pandarus’ ear that he would win great renown by killing Menelaus. This he tried and failed, but it meant that Agamemnon could assert that the Trojans broke the peace and were thus forced to return to fighting.

On Reddit, Roel Konijnendijk (i.e. user Iphikrates) posted a link by way of a follow-up to my answer. His comments deal more generally with the role of single combat in ancient Greece. Briefly put, duels always caused problems and don’t seem to have ever resolved any actual conflicts in ancient Greece. You may also want to check out my article on the Battle of the Champions.