Dimitris Stamatios | November 26, 2022
Menelaus (in ancient Greek Μενέλαος
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Menelaus is the son of Atreus and Erope, his first wife, whom he murders after her love affair with Thyestes, Atreus” brother. Menelaus is raised with his brother Agamemnon, their sister Anaxibia and Aegisthus, who passes for their half-brother. Aegisthe is in reality the son of Thyestes who raped Pelopia, his own daughter.
Seven years after the birth of Aegisthus, Agamemnon and Menelaus leave for Delphi, on the orders of Atreus, to find their uncle Thyestes. Found by chance, Thyeste is captured and brought back to Mycènes. Aegisthe murders Atreus on Thyeste”s return, and the latter takes possession of the throne of Mycenae, forcing Agamemnon and Menelaus into exile: they are entrusted in turn to the king of Sicyone Polyphides, who entrusts them to Œnée the Etolian. As adults, they return to their homeland, overthrow Thyestes, and force him into exile – he flees to Cythera. The two brothers take for wife the daughters of the king of Sparta Tyndare : Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra, after having killed her first husband (Tantalus, son of Thyestes) and her son just born. Menelaus marries Helen after a contest.
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Husband of Helen and king of Sparta
Helen was the daughter of Leda and Zeus, her putative father was Leda”s husband, Tyndare, the king of Sparta. When Helen was old enough to get married, her beauty was such that all the chiefs of Greece vied for her hand; Apollodorus counts 31 suitors. In front of this crowd, Tyndare feared that, to choose one of them, the others would rebel. But Ulysse promised him, on condition that he helps him to obtain the hand of Pénélope, to provide him the means to avoid any riot. Tyndare accepted, and Ulysses suggested to him to impose to all the suitors to lend an oath, namely to take the defense of the husband who would have been chosen, if he underwent from another some injustice because of his marriage. Thus Tyndare made the suitors swear; he chose Menelaus as the husband of Helen and obtained from Icarios the hand of Penelope for Ulysses. When the two sons of Tyndare, Castor and Pollux, were deified, Tyndare brought Menelaus to Sparta and entrusted him with the throne of Sparta. Hesiod tells that Menelaus was chosen because of his wealth.
From the union of Helen and Menelaus were born Hermione and Nicostrate. But Menelaus also had other children: Megapenthes with his slave Piéris and Xénodamos with the nymph Cnossia.
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A cheated husband
Pâris, to whom Aphrodite promised Hélène, sails to Greece where he is well received in Sparta by Ménélas and sees Hélène for the first time. Nine days later, Menelaus must leave for Crete to attend the funeral of his grandfather, Catrea. He orders Hélène to do everything to be pleasant to their Trojan guest… Aphrodite reunites that evening the two lovers, who flee the following day by stealing most of Menélas” wealth. Iris comes to inform Menelaus of his misfortune. He leaves to discuss with his brother Agamemnon and the wise Nestor and decide all three to gather all the Achaean chiefs, reminding them of the oath of Tyndare, to launch a vast military expedition against Troy. Menelaus goes on tour to his allies to gather the largest number of Greek warriors but some kings are reluctant, such as Odysseus who pretends to be crazy and Cyniras of Cyprus who gets away with a trick.
In the army of the Achaeans Menelaus manages to gather with him sixty vessels filled with warriors come from Sparta, Pharis, Messa, Brysées, Augée, Amyclée, Hélos, Laa and Oetile.
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The Trojan War
Before the whole Greek army disembarked, Ulysses and Menelaus were sent on an embassy to claim Helen and try to stop the hostilities. But the Trojans, pushed by Antimachus, refuse and even try to kill the emissaries. Ulysses and Menelaus can leave again thanks to Anténor.
The Iliad describes at length his duel with Paris. Seeing his rival in the fray, Menelaus pounces on him like a lion, but Paris flees, and is harshly chastised by Hector who reproaches him for his cowardice after having been at the origin of the war. Pâris then accepts a duel with Menelaus, for which Hélène is the prize, which could put an end to the hostilities. To guarantee the duel, Priam goes out through the Sealed Gates and leaves the safe city to go on the plain of the confrontation. Menelaus quickly overcomes Paris, but his spear sinks into the shield of his opponent and he breaks his sword. He then seizes Paris, pulling him by his helmet to bring him back to his camp, when Aphrodite frees Paris by untying his chin strap and taking off his protégé in a cloud. Shortly after, Pandaros only slightly wounds Menelaus thanks to the protection of Athena, he is healed by Machaon.
Menelaus fights under the protection of two goddesses: Hera and Athena. He kills eight Trojan warriors in battle: Scamandrios, Pylemenes, Pisandre, Dolops, Thoas, Euphorbia, Hyperenor, Podes. It is in song XVII that his aristide takes place, but he kills much less warriors than the main heroes. He is placed behind Achilles (72), Patroclus (54), Teucros son of Télamon (30), Ajax son of Télamon (28), Léitos (20), Diomède (18), Agamemnon (16), Ajax son of Oïlée (14), Idoménée (13) and Ulysse (12).
The death of Patroclus touches him particularly. He is the first of the Greek warriors to run near the body which he defends to Euphorbe. At the games celebrating the funeral of Patroclus, Menelaus takes part in the chariot race. He finishes behind Diomède and Antiloque, son of Nestor who overtook him by trickery. After the finish line, he contested Antilochus for second place, but relented after Antilochus” apology and finally gave up his prize. He won the javelin event.
He is part of the heroes who break into the interior of the Trojan horse, then he enters with Ulysses in the palace of Deiphobe (the new husband of Helen since the death of Paris) thanks to Helen who opens the doors and finds his wife. If Menelaus wants to kill her at the time, he soon relents in front of the charms of his wife, whom he finally brings back with him.
In the story of The Sack of Troy by Arctinos of Miletus, Menelaus kills Deiphobe and takes back his wife Helen. Ajax, son of Oileus, drags Cassandra out of the temple of Athena and rapes her; the gods plan to punish him by turning him into stone, but Ajax takes refuge in the temple of Athena. Later, when the Greeks return home, Athena will make him perish in the sea. Neoptolemos kills Astyanax, the son of Hector, and takes his wife Andromache as a captive. The Greeks sacrifice Priam”s daughter, Polyxene, on Achilles” grave to appease his angry spirit.
Aristotle is surprised that nowhere in the Iliad does Homer mention a concubine sleeping with Menelaus, whereas he gave wives to everyone, even Nestor and Phoenix, his elders. According to Aristotle, at the time of their youth, these two characters had hardly subjected their body to the excesses of drunkenness, nor to the disorders born from sensuality or gluttony, so much so that, quite naturally, they had remained very vigorous until their old age, if one can think that the Spartan had a great respect for Helen, his legitimate wife.
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After the sack of Troy, Menelaus argues with his brother because he enjoins the Achaeans to return home immediately, while Agamemnon wishes to sacrifice to the gods first. Menelaus is one of the first to leave for home, accompanied by Nestor and Helen. He stopped at Cape Sounion, to bury his pilot, then Zeus provoked a storm which sent some ships to Crete, and that of Menelaus on the coasts of Egypt. His return journey lasted 8 years in the eastern Mediterranean countries (Cyprus, Libya, Phoenicia) and especially in Egypt. His pilot Canopos is buried in Canope. Euripides in his tragedy Helen writes that he found the real Helen who had been kept away from the conflict during the whole Trojan war; Dion of Pruse alludes to it in his XIth Discourse. Herodotus reports that Menelaus took back Helen from her hosts without mercy. His last step is the island of Pharos where he remains blocked 20 days by the gods. The goddess Idothée comes then to advise him to capture his father Protée to question him. Menelaus and his companions seize the god by trickery, who starts to change into many animals before answering Menelaus that, if he wants to go back home, he must first sacrifice to Zeus as he should have done before his departure from Troy. Proteus also informed him of the death of his brother, to whom he erected a cenotaph before setting sail. He then reaches the coasts of Greece without any problem.
If the return was long, it was less difficult than that of Ulysses: Menelaus returned home with a ship filled with gold and gifts. He returns to Sparta the same day that Orestes murders his mother Clytemnestra and Aegisthe. He then lives quietly with Hélène, in his palace in the middle of the fabulous treasures he brought back from his journey. Later, he receives Telemachus, who has come to seek information about his father Odysseus. Telemachus arrives in Sparta the same day of the double wedding of Hermione with Neoptolemos, the son of Achilles and Megapentheus with the daughter of the Spartan Alector. Menelaus had promised Hermione to the son of Achilles at the end of the Trojan war, although she was engaged since her childhood to Orestes. The latter killed Neoptolemos to finally get Hermione back.
In the Odyssey, Proteus prophesies that Menelaus will be led by the gods to the Elysian Fields. A later legend told that Menelaus and Helen were immolated in Tauris by Iphigenia.
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The epithets used by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey for Menelaus are :
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His physical appearance is as impressive as that of most Greek heroes. Anténor remembers him when he came to Troy with Ulysses: “When they both mingled with the assembled Trojans, Menelaus was of a higher stature; but, if they sat down, Ulysses seemed to be the more majestic.” Homer insists on the blond tint of his hair (on the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is the most common epithet), which he undoubtedly wears long like the other Greeks, which gives him the appearance of a lion”s mane.
Homer evokes “the strong thighs” and “beautiful ankles” of Menelaus and compares his thighs to ivory.
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In his choice of epithets, Homer insists on Menelaus” warrior character (“loved by Ares”, “like Ares”, “good at throwing the war cry”, “famous for his spear”, “the valiant”). In fact, he holds his place in the battles, he is even compared to a lion when he sees Paris in his grasp, and he would have killed his rival if Aphrodite had not interfered, but it is true that Paris is a relatively weak fighter, which allows his brother Hector to rebuke him.
Ménélas shows several times a temerity above his value: when he wants to confront Hector alone, his brother must calm him so much his defeat appears certain, and when Diomède seeks another hero to enter the Trojans, Agamemnon still fears for his life.
His warrior level appears thus average, well above the average of the fighters, but without reaching that of the best. Apollo chooses to excite Hector by mocking him for backing down before Menelaus, a warrior “until now without strength”. This mediocrity was already commented in antiquity by Plato in The Banquet.
His voice has a certain strength since his war cry is said to be “famous”. He expresses himself well and clearly, but without reaching the eloquence of Ulysses who captivates his audience.
More generally, in spite of his leading role in the origin of the Trojan conflict, Menelaus plays an effaced role behind his brother and the other heroes. It is true that among the Achaean kings, he is neither the greatest (Agamemnon), nor the strongest (Ajax), nor the bravest (Achilles), nor the most cunning (Ulysses), nor the wisest (Nestor). Unlike the other heroes who brood over their grudges for a long time, Menelaus is also quick to get angry at Antiloque who cheats against him in the chariot race, before forgiving him almost instantly after a few nice words. This “softness” of character has often been noted, associated with an eternal supporting role.
His position is also made difficult by the inevitable ridicule of his situation. He is one of the most famous deceived husbands of literature and, as in the following centuries, the Greeks of the time did not fail to ironize. Hypénor will pay with his life for having mocked him as “the most dishonored of the Greeks”. Ménélas carries during all the conflict the guilt to have involved the Greeks in this terrible and dishonorable adventure. His reunion with Hélène is another example: after a brief fit of anger, he is almost immediately bewitched by her charms. He then resumes his life with Hélène with an unexpected ease for a warrior of the Iliad. The ironic contempt prevails among the various commentators.
From the time of Pausanias, the Lacedemonians kept the memory of a house of Menelaus: “Outside Dromos, you find, close to the statue of Hercules, a house which was formerly that of Menelaus, and which belongs now to a private individual”. Near Mycenae a temple dedicated to Hera was supposed to contain the shield that Menelaus took away from Euphorbia before Troy.
But especially, a heroic worship was returned to him to Thérapné, a borough close to Sparta, where a temple was set up on his tomb, common with that of Helene. His cult was still alive in the 2nd century as Athenagoras of Athens reports. A small ruined ancient temple, on the hill of Therapne, 5 km southeast of Sparta, has been identified as the Menelaion, dated to the 5th century BC thanks to votive offerings to Helen.
Pausanias also reports the existence near Gythio of two statues dedicated to Praxidice and Thetis which were said to have been erected by Menelaus in front of the island where Paris and Helen had fallen in love.
Menelaus appears in most of the countless works drawn from the Trojan cycle in general, and the story of Helen in particular.
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Menelaus is featured in several ancient tragedies:
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Pausanias describes a painting by Polygnotus, now lost, which was in the Lesché of the Cnidians, a building in Delphi. Beside, it seems, the scene where the Trojan princess Cassandra then clinging to the statue of Pallas is threatened by Ajax son of Oileus, are Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, both wearing helmets. Menelaus carries a shield decorated with a dragon which appeared during the sacrifice in Aulis, and which was taken for a prodigy.
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The Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence has a famous sculpted group entitled Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus. This is a 17th century artistic reconstruction by Pietro Tacca and Lodovico Salvetti from an ancient bust of the 3rd century BC, discovered in Rome in the 15th century and called the Pasquino, visible in Piazza Pasquino in Rome.
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La Belle Hélène, opéra-bouffe by Jacques Offenbach (1864): faithful to the spirit of the time, the role of Ménélas as an unintelligent cuckold is greatly emphasized.
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Menelaus has been interpreted in movies by, among others:
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Menelaus appears as a non-playable character in the video game Warriors: Legends of Troy released in 2011.
- Selon certaines traditions, Ménélas, Agamemnon et Anaxibie seraient les enfants de Plisthène, lui-même fils d”Atrée : voir Catalogue des femmes [détail des éditions], fr. 137b Most [lire en ligne].
- Velleius Paterculus, Historia Romana 1,1,3
- Euripides, Andromache 629-631
- ^ Grimal, s.v. Menelaus.
- ^ Dares Phrygius, History of the Fall of Troy 13
- 1 2 Менелай // Энциклопедический словарь — СПб.: Брокгауз — Ефрон, 1896. — Т. XIX. — С. 87.
- Гермиона // Энциклопедический словарь — СПб.: Брокгауз — Ефрон, 1893. — Т. VIIIа. — С. 539.
- Мифы народов мира. М., 1991-92. В 2 т. Т.2. С.138-139
- Гигин. Мифы 81