The Real Story of the Trojan War (?)

In Book II of his Histories (112-120), the father of history, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, gives an alternative story, told to him by Egyptians who allegedly spoke with Helen’s husband Menelaus, about the kidnapping of Helen and the war of the Greeks on Troy.

It seems that when Paris (or, Alexander) stole Helen away from Sparta, he was blown off course and “wandered” for a while. Landing on a time in Egypt, he was met by Proteus, the king of that land. From disloyal servants of Paris, Proteus discovered what Paris had done, and, declaring him an impious man, gave him three days to leave Egypt. Helen, however, and the treasures Paris stole from Menelaus’ house, would remain with Proteus until the Greeks could come and retrieve them.

Herodotus says he thinks Homer knew this tale, but since it was not grand enough to suit epic poetry he chose to disregard it and accept the other tale, the one which has become immortalized in the Iliad. Herodotus’ evidence that Homer knew the other story comes from Iliad 6.289-292, which mentions Paris having stopped in Sidon on his way home to Troy with Helen. Also mentioned is Odyssey 4.351-52, which has Menelaus telling Odysseus’ son about his own enforced sojourn in Egypt.

But why was Menelaus in Egypt? The Egyptians, says Herodotus, told him the real story behind the Trojan War. Thinking Paris to have gone straight back to Troy with Helen, the Greeks raised their armada and besieged the city. The Trojans denied having Helen or the stolen treasures, and told the Greeks that Helen was with Proteus in Egypt. But since the Greeks didn’t believe them they sacked the city anyway. Not finding Helen within, they then sent Menelaus to Egypt, where he found his wife and his treasures exactly as the Trojans had said.

Fascinatingly, Herodotus believes his Egyptian sources over Homer, and gives as his reason the supposition that the Trojans would not have endangered their entire city for the lust of an erring boy prince who, at any rate, was not due to inherit the kingdom when his father died (that honor would go to Hector). Herodotus thinks that the Trojans told the truth, but that the Greeks sacked the city anyway because “the Divine was laying his plans that, as the Trojans perished in utter destruction, they might make this thing manifest to all the world: that for great wrongdoings, great also are the punishments from the gods.” Says Herodotus, “That is what I think, and that is what I am saying here.”

This is all very interesting, to say the least. I think that Herodotus is right that the “real” story of the Trojan War wouldn’t have been fitting for an epic poem, and in the spirit of his critical historical inquiries it does seem best to critique the myth and present the “real” history. But on the other hand, assuming that Homer’s purpose was far different from that of Herodotus, and also assuming (along with Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) that “myth” has much to teach us even if it is not, technically speaking, “true,” I’m going to stick with Homer’s account.

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