Donaldus. We rented a car so that we could really explore the Peloponnese. That was one of the best decisions we could have made. It was expensive, and it slowed some things down, and you have to figure out every day where you are going to park that thing, but it was worth it. One of Catherine’s professors told us we should visit a seaside village called Gythion. He said it was a droll, picturesque place right on a wonderful inlet of the Aegean Sea. So we went, and had lunch there, and felt that “Death in Venice” listlessness of a seaside town not quite in the heart of the tourist season. Pita, Greek salad, sparkling water.
We were carrying two guidebooks. One was the outstanding Blue Guide to the mainland (not the islands). The one riding shotgun always does the reading, and on this journey, I was invariably the driver, because my child wanted me to take the rap for whatever catastrophes that brought. Fair enough.
We learned that when Paris (from Troy) left Sparta with Helen (ca. 1174 BCE), they stopped on an island at today’s Gythion to consummate their adulterous relationship. Assuming they were able to keep their tunics on at Sparta, under the watchful eye of “red-haired Menelaus,” they apparently did not wish to wait until they reached the Hellespont before they tasted each other’s pleasures. So we decided to find that spot that “launched a thousand ships?” “Did the earth move?” asks the Hollywood mother? “No, but it brought on a world war!” “Nicely done.”
Our restaurant host, who virtually kidnapped us so that someone would eat at his seaside tables that day, quickly informed us that the island was now connected to the shore by way of a causeway. We ate lunch first, then walked over to the causeway and out onto the island. Lighthouse. Greek orthodox chapel (small), deserted restaurant. A few deserted or broken-down fishing boats. We spent about forty-five minutes talking about the “rape of Helen,” as it was known in the ancient world.
Possibilities. 1) Paris abducted Helen against her will and touched off the Trojan War. Quite possible in the ancient world. She would have liked to remain with Menelaus. 2) Paris seduced Helen at Sparta and she willingly went off with him to Troy. Tis is essentially the story of the Brad Pitt film Troy, though it is not quite clear who seduced whom. 3) Paris and Helen consummated their affair in Sparta (as in the film Troy). 4) They waited till Troy, and sometime much later the pathetic backwater village of Gythion invented the story as a tourist gesture. 5) They did, in fact, consummate the affair at Gythion, because the palace cultures of the intensely patriarchal Mycenaean world did not offer much privacy for a “wife.” Lack of privacy for women has been one of the principal dynamics of the world, until approximately 1875, when the industrial revolution began to create safer spaces for women. 6) Paris and Helen never existed, and whatever it was that happened between the Mycenaean world and Troy had to do with geopolitics, not “the most beautiful woman who ever lived.”
In the age of Jefferson, all classical scholars assumed that the Homeric epics were fiction, fables,primitive mythological “lays” that had been cobbled together, and behind which there was not the slightest actual historicity. Thanks to Heinrich Schliemann, 1822-1890, we now know that Troy VIIa was destroyed by fire at about the time Herodotus set the Trojan War and that Mycenae, Pylos, Argos, etc., were indeed Mycenaean palace complexes that existed at the right time for Homer’s epics and which were laid out quite precisely as Homer describes them. And that the objects found in Mycenaean ruins are often described with great facility in Homer.
So it may be premature evacuation to suggest that Helen and Paris never existed. Maybe the great epics are indeed based on an actual adulterous incident, and that it is quite right to say, in Christopher Marlowe’s words, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilion?”