War for Helen?

prez01-startrek09b

One of the less well-known legends of Helen’s later life, from Star Trek comics #9

The Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae has a post today about the story that the Trojan War was triggered by Queen Helen of Sparta running off with Paris, alias Alexander, a Trojan prince. The post quotes several ancient Greek authors, sketching a variety of ways in which the ancients crafted the tale and a variety of purposes which they used it to serve.

They quote Herodotus’ remarks about the story:

“If Helen really were in Ilium, they would have given her back to the Greeks whether Paris wanted them to or not. Priam was not so out of his mind, nor were his other subjects, that they would want to risk their own bodies and children and the city itself just so that Paris could sleep with Helen.”

εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντοςἈλεξάνδρου. 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. 

(Book 2, chapter 110)

I offered this comment:

I’ve always been puzzled by the tradition that regards it as self-evidently absurd that a major war could have been sparked by something like Helen and Paris running off together. It sounds pretty plausible to me.

Had Priam known, as a certainty, that Menelaos and Agamemnon would raise the army Homer describes, lay siege to Troy for 10 years, and then destroy the city, probably he would have handed Helen over the minute Menelaos demanded her. The legend says that it took years to put the coalition together, so that first demand probably came from a military power that Priam could easily have defeated. For Priam to have complied with that demand would have been to present himself as a soft target to every power with designs on Troy.

Even if he had known that a vast army was coming after him and that they would defeat him, however, after that first minute had passed it would have become extremely difficult for Priam to surrender Helen. Every moment Helen was in Troy, a larger share of Priam’s prestige was invested in keeping her there. After just a few days, giving her up would have been a severe loss of face. And the way politics works, if you lose face severely enough, there’s no limit to what you can lose.

I think of the week that followed 11 September 2001. The USA demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden; some very well-informed people of my acquaintance were quite sure that bin Laden and his circle had planned and ordered the attacks without informing the Taliban leadership, but were also sure that the Taliban leaders would not comply with the American demand, even though they knew that refusing to do so would result in the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan, because complying would invite out-factions within their movement to stage a coup. Either way, they would lose control of the country. But while they might escape from the American onslaught with their lives, and perhaps even with a chance at returning to power if the occupation went badly, a coup would lead directly to their deaths.

Large-scale rationality, with economic interests and geopolitical power structures and so on, that’s very important in keeping a war going and setting the range of possible postwar environments. But the events that lead up to war take place at a different level, where there’s a lot of contingency and a lot of personality. That must have been quite obvious in ancient times, when a policymaker in Asia Minor had no way of getting information in real time about military alliances that are or are not being formed in mainland Greece, but plenty of information about who’s dominant in the face to face relationships he has with the people around him.

I teach Latin and Greek at a mid-ranking college in the interior of the USA. When the story of Helen and Paris comes up in my classes, I ask my students to imagine what might happen if Michelle Obama fell in love with Ji Xinping’s son and the two of them ran off together. It would be a tremendous challenge to diplomacy to prevent even that situation from ending in disastrous violence. How much more volatile would the situation be if, instead of a bilateral confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers who are connected by an incalculable number of electronic communications on a daily basis, the parties were loose and shifting coalitions with no access to even the most basic information about each other’s positions and capabilities.

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