If book two is regarded as comparatively dull, book three is one of the greatest books of the Iliad. Here we get to know Paris, wealthy, handsome, suave, but more of a playboy than a warrior. He dances around the front lines until he sees Menelaus, the aggrieved husband whom he has cuckolded, then shrinks back into the Trojan mass. His older brother Hector, the greatest of the Trojans, reviles him for his cowardliness.
Thus rebuked, Paris suggests that he and Menelaus fight in single combat. Whoever wins gets Helen, and all of her possessions. Agamemnon (Menelaus’s brother) likes this idea, but he insists that if Menelaus wins, Troy must not only return Helen and her possessions but provide suitable recompense, too, for causing the war.
When they finally square off in a specially drawn square drawn between the two sets of troops, Menelaus wins the combat. Paris throws his spear first, Menelaus second. Then Menelaus hits Paris on the head with his sword. The helmet holds and Menelaus’s sword is shattered into three pieces. At this he cries out in anger to Zeus, who seems to be thwarting his righteous effort to get revenge on Paris and the Trojans.
Menelaus grabs Paris by the helmet and drags him back towards the Achaean lines.
Enter Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual desire, patron to Paris. She breaks the helmet strap that is choking Paris and allowing Menelaus to drag him towards death. Then she whisks Paris away in a cloud and deposits him in his bed back inside Troy. Next she goes to Helen, who is on the ramparts observing the duel, and forces her to go to Paris’s bedchamber. Helen tries to resist. Aphrodite threatens her: look, don’t piss me off, since I can cease making you the most desirable woman in the world on a moment’s notice. Helen goes to Paris’s bedroom, where she reviles him and tells him she wishes he had died at the hands of the better man, her former husband Menelaus, then climbs into bed with him. Paris tells here that he never has felt more sexual desire for her (not even in the first flush of their adultery) than at this moment. They make love.
Meanwhile, Agamemnon correctly announces that Menelaus won the single combat, the war is over, Troy must restore Helen, all of her possessions, and recompense.
Thus book three ends.
Ah, but there are some surpassing wonderful moments in this book. Priam and Helen stand above the Scaean Gate, and he, the elderly king of Troy, asks Helen to identify and describe several of the Achaean heroes: Agamemnon, Aias, Idomeneus, and Odysseus. (This may seem a little odd, since it is the tenth year of the war, but Homer is catching the reader up). We learn that Odysseus and Menelaus made an embassy to Troy to try to get Helen back before war was declared. The Trojan elder Antenor provides a famous description of Odyssus: not much to look at, not tall, quite stocky, without dazzling public presence, but when he opens his mouth he speaks with amazing sense and charisma. Book three opens with a famous Homeric simile: the Trojans march to battle with a clamor that reminds Homer of flying cranes going to battle against Pigmy men, while the Achaeans march forward in chilling silence. It doesn’t get any better than this. Homer makes sure we understand d that the Trojans are not equal to the warlike Achaeans, and Paris is an effeminate ladies’ man, not a true hero. In fact, when he is explaining his defeat to Helen, he says Menelaus only won because his patron goddess Athene was helping him. But we know that Athene was nowhere in sight, while Paris only survived because Aphrodite (an essentially frivolous goddess) plucked him from the battle.
Notes: 1) When Paris says he has never felt more desire for Helen, he mentions the island where they consummated their adulterous connection. I was at that island two weeks ago with my daughter Catherine. It’s at Glythion, connected to the Peloponnese now by a causeway. The entire legend of the island’s importance (and tourism potential) depends on one obscure line in the Iliad, and there the island is not identified by name. 2) Most of the elders of Troy acknowledge that Helen is drop-dead gorgeous and alluring, but they wish she would be returned to Menelaus so that the ruinous war might end. Priam alone treats her with full respect, and tells her that he blames the gods, not Helen, for the crisis. 3) Helen is one of the most interesting characters in Homer. She constantly calls herself a dog or a whore, and freely agrees that her behavior has been indefensible. It is clear from Aphrodite’s appearance in book three that, in a sense, Helen has no free will. In mythic terms, some women are so profoundly beautiful and alluring that they cannot escape their destiny of turning men’s heads. Their allure is beyond any notion of self-restraint or free will. Both Aphrodite and Priam admit that Helen cannot be held responsible for being the most beautiful woman in the world, and that to renounce that beauty would be insane. Even the elders who hate Helen grumble, “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating spanakopita there.” 4) By the end of book three, the moral geography has been established for the rest of the poem. The Achaeans are in the right, the Trojans are in the wrong. The Trojans are essentially shrill and frivolous, the Achaeans nothing but patriarchal virility. Helen is not a cheerful adulteress, but she has no room to maneuver. Paris is unworthy of being the cause of the Trojan War. The gods have their favorites, whom they protect in a way that seems to undercut any idea of intrinsic merit, but we are not permitted to think less of a hero just because his patron god intervenes on his behalf. Hector is the noblest individual on either side of the war, but he has been dealt a poor hand, and he is doomed to spend his nobility in defending a corrupt cause. 5) Homer has a sense of humor. He likens the old men of Troy to cicadas chirping on trees. He wants us to be amused by the ending of the book: the mighty warrior Paris goes to bed with the woman who “launched a thousand ships” while his fellow Trojans struggle to save the city from sheer destruction. He has never been so aroused. Even heroes like Menelaus whine to the gods when things don’t go their way. 6) Summary so far: attempts to end the war by way of treaty, the relinquishment of Helen, or single combat all fail. Diplomatic efforts now end. War is an extension of geopolitics by different means. Beginning with book four, the Iliad is about war. So far not a single individual has been killed.