In the Trojan War in Greek Mythology the Greeks spent 10 years fighting to capture Troy, because the Trojan Prince Paris had stolen the Greek King Menelaus' beautiful wife Helen.

Finally when the Trojans thought the war was over the Greeks sneaked back, catching the Trojans completely by surprise and unprepared with the famous wooden horse trick, slayed all the Trojan men without mercy and destroyed their city, and took Helen back.

Helen then resumed living with King Menelaus, apparently not too bothered to have caused the deaths of thousands of warriors on both sides during the war and of the entire adult male population of Troy and the destruction of the city at the end of it.

Was it open to the Trojans to save their lives and city throughout the 10 previous years of the war by giving Helen back? If so, why didn't they? Were they just stupidly proud and stubborn, or what?

  • Can you clarify what you mean by "open to the Trojans"?
    – Semaphore
    Oct 11, 2018 at 6:46
  • "open" meaning 'something they could do if they chose'
    – Timothy
    Oct 11, 2018 at 20:11

2 Answers 2


Yes, the Trojans could have surrendered Helen to avoid war. Before the fighting began, an embassy composed of Menelaus and Odysseus was dispatched to Troy demanding the return of Helen. This the subject of Sophocles' now lost Helenes Apaitesis, and referenced during the Iliad by Antenor (who hosted the Greeks) and Agamemnon. Evidently, Priam rejected the demand.

Elsewhere in the Iliad, Paris actually proposed a duel with Menelaus to end the war, and this was accepted by the Greeks. As Agamemnon vowed:

If Alexandrus kills Menelaus, let him keep Helen and all her wealth, while we sail home with our ships; but if Menelaus kills Alexandrus, let the Trojans give back Helen and all that she has; let them moreover pay such fine to the Achaeans as shall be agreed upon, in testimony among those that shall be born hereafter.

The Iliad, Book III

Menelaus won the duel, though Aphrodite spirited Paris away before the killing blow. All indications were that if Helen was then returned to Menelaus, the war would be ended. However, the truce was then broken by the Trojans at the instigation of Athena, with the result that fighting resumed.

There's no single reason for why the Trojans refused to surrender Helen - not all Trojans were of one mind.

One reason would be Helen's beauty. Several of the wisest elders of Troy actually believed they should return Helen to Menelaus, but find it a matter of course that the Trojans would fight to keep such beauty:

When they saw Helen coming towards the tower, they said softly to one another, "Small wonder that Trojans and Achaeans should endure so much and so long, for the sake of a woman so marvellously and divinely lovely. Still, fair though she be, let them take her and go, or she will breed sorrow for us and for our children after us."

Likewise, this is obviously Paris' motivation, and he bribed other Trojans into supporting him in keeping Helen:

It was Antimachus who had been foremost in preventing Helen's being restored to Menelaus, for he was largely bribed by Alexandrus.

Secondly, both Priam, the King, and Hector, the greatest hero of Troy, appeared to genuinely care for Helen. As Helen mourned at Hector's funeral,

"Hector," said she, "dearest of all my brothers-in-law . . . I have never heard one word of insult or unkindness from you. When another would chide with me, as it might be one of your brothers or sisters or of your brothers' wives, or my mother-in-law - for Priam was as kind to me as though he were my own father - you would rebuke and check them with words of gentleness and goodwill."

Finally, Priam might have had the additional motivation of revenge. Years before the Trojan War, the Greek hero Heracles sacked Troy and captured Priam's sister Hesione. She was given to to Telamon, father of Ajax and Teucer. At some point prior to Paris' seduction of Helen, Priam requested the return of his sister but was rebuked.

According to the version told in the 13th century Historia Troiana, the Trojan ambassador Antenor, received a hostile reception from the Greek kings. In response, Priam sent an army to retrieve Heosine by force under the command of Paris, who diverted the army to seize Helen instead. It is thus understandable if Priam give the Archaeans a taste of their own medicine.



From both an ancient philosophical approach, and one based on human nature, this was impossible.

Some of the answers cite the Iliad to show some attempts to avert the city's destruction, but these were already doomed to fail. Priam decided not to give Helen back directly, and when Menelaus bested Paris in combat, the gods spirited him away.

In fact, this whole question incorrectly approaches the subject from a modern point of view -- the ancient Greeks didn't think like that. The core of their philosophy was Fatalism, or the belief that destiny (plus the whims of the gods) controlled events, and not men's actions.

The whole story of the Trojan War is imbued with the impossibility of avoiding fate. Hecuba's dream while carrying Paris, and its outcome, demonstrate this:

The first son born to her was Hector; and when a second babe was about to be born Hecuba dreamed she had brought forth a firebrand, and that the fire spread over the whole city and burned it. When Priam learned of the dream from Hecuba, he sent for his son Aesacus, for he was an interpreter of dreams, having been taught by his mother's father Merops. He declared that the child was begotten to be the ruin of his country and advised that the babe should be exposed. When the babe was born Priam gave it to a servant to take and expose on Ida; now the servant was named Agelaus. Exposed by him, the infant was nursed for five days by a bear; and, when he found it safe, he took it up, carried it away, brought it up as his own son on his farm, and named him Paris.

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 3.12.5, Tr. Sir James George Fraser

The prophecy in Hecuba's dream is fulfilled, despite everyone's attempts to avoid it. Troy's destruction was assured by Paris's survival as an infant.

After Achilles slays Hector, Hecuba makes direct reference to Fate while trying to persuade Priam from going to beg Achilles for the body:

Let us then weep Hector from afar here in our own house, for when I gave him birth the threads of overruling fate were spun for him that dogs should eat his flesh far from his parents, in the house of that terrible man on whose liver I would fain fasten and devour it.

MIT Internet Classics Archive, Iliad, book 24, 209, tr. Samuel Butler

So let's leave mythology behind and treat the characters in the Iliad as real people, or at least the heroic archetypes Homer was depicting. On a level of human nature, the destruction of Troy was also inevitable. Even if Fate wasn't controlling everything, the Greeks and Trojans couldn't help but make decisions that led to the city's destruction.

Although triggered by Paris's abduction of Helen, the Achaean expedition against Troy was a massive undertaking and they had a lot invested in it. Agamemnon in particular sacrificed his own daughter Iphiginea to gain the favorable winds necessary to get to Troy. And it's clear that Helen was a MacGuffin -- secondary to pride, glory, and booty -- thus the squabble between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis prolonged the conflict and almost brought the Greeks to ruin.

When Patroclus convinced Achilles to let him lead the Myrmidons against the Trojans about to overrun the Greek ships, Achilles advised Patroclus to do only that and come tight back. But of course Patroclus didn't do that -- instead, wearing Achilles's armor, he went on a wild rampage in the Trojan army until Apollo knocked the helmet off, allowing Euphorbus to kill him.

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