Friday, March 4, 2011

Reasoning: The Politics of Helen

Helen was one of the most discussed characters in the Greek world. However, no ancient author seems to agree on Helen's nature, and even the portrayal of Helen in the Iliad and the Odyssey are different. I have been reading Gorgias' Encomium of Helen with Propertius II (although more slowly than I intended) and noticed that one of the defenses that he uses is that if she were seized, specifically under the will of the gods, then it is not her fault but the fault of the person who seized her (and the gods).

This immediately struck me as interesting. I remembered reading the beginning of the Histories in my fabulous Herodotus class. Herodotus introduces his tale of the Persian wars with an incredible prologue [1] and then launches into a discussion of the causes of the war: specifically a long train of young women captured by the opposing side starting with Io and moving on through Helen and finally to Medea. In each case, he blames the woman, rather than the sailors who seize her, for her capture. Gorgias makes the opposite argument. As the two wrote relatively close together, I was wondering which argument about captured women might have been more persuasive to an audience. Food for thought.
Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition) Herodotus Book I (Greek Commentaries Series; Book 1) (Bk. 1) The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
  1. There is an amazing article by Egbert Bakker on Herodotus' prologue called "The Making of History: Herodotus' Histories Apodexis" from Brill's Companion to Herodotus.

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