In Greek mythology, Menelaus (Ancient Greek: Μενέλαος, Menelaos) was a legendary king of Mycenaean (pre-Dorian) Sparta, the husband of Helen of Troy, and a central figure in the Trojan War. He was the son of Atreus and Aerope, and brother of Agamemnon king of Mycenae and, according to the Iliad, leader of the Spartan contingent of the Greek army during the War. Prominent in both the Iliad and Odyssey, Menelaus was also popular in Greek vase painting and Greek tragedy; the latter more as a hero of the Trojan War than as a member of the doomed House of Atreus.


Ascension and reign

Although early authors such as Aeschylus refer in passing to Menelaus' early life, detailed sources are quite late, post-dating 5th-century BC Greek tragedy.[1] According to these sources, Menelaus' father Atreus had been feuding with his brother Thyestes over the throne of Mycenae. After a back-and-forth struggle that featured adultery, incest and cannibalism, Thyestes gained the throne after his son Aegisthus murdered Atreus. As a result, Atreus’ sons, Menelaus and Agamemnon, went into exile. They first stayed with King Polyphides of Sicyon, and later with King Oeneus of Calydon. But when they thought the time was ripe to dethrone Mycenae's hostile ruler, they returned. Assisted by King Tyndareus of Sparta, they drove Thyestes away, and Agamemnon took the throne for himself.

When it was time for Tyndareus' step-daughter Helen to marry, many Greek kings and princes came to seek her hand, or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. Among the contenders were Odysseus, Menestheus, Ajax the Great, Patroclus, and Idomeneus. Most offered opulent gifts to win Tyndareus' favor. But Tyndareus would accept none of the gifts, nor would he send any of the suitors away for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus promised to solve the problem in a satisfactory manner if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Tyndareus' niece Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed, and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband in any quarrel. Then it was decreed that straws were to be drawn for Helen's hand. The suitor who won was Menelaus (Tyndareus, not to displease the powerful Agamemnon offered him another daughter Clytaemnestra).[2] The rest of the Greek kings swore their oaths, and Helen and Menelaus were married, Menelaus becoming a ruler of Sparta with Helen after Tyndareus and Leda either died or abdicated the thrones. Menelaus and Helen had a daughter, Hermione as supported, for example, by Sappho[3] and some variations of the myth suggest they had two sons as well.

Their palace (ἀνάκτορον) has been discovered (the excavations started in 1926 and continued until 1995) in Pellana, Laconia, to the north-west of modern (and classical) Sparta.[4] Other archaeologists consider that Pellana is too far away from other mycenean centres to have been the "capital of Menelaus.[5]

Trojan War

Menelaus regains Helen, detail of an Attic red-figure crater, ca. 450–440 BC, found in Gnathia (now Egnazia, Italy).

In a return for awarding her a golden apple inscribed "to the fairest," Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in all the world.[6] After concluding a diplomatic mission to Sparta during the latter part of which Menelaus was absent to attend the funeral of his maternal grandfather Catreus[7], Paris absconded to Troy with Helen in tow despite his brother Hector forbidding her to depart with them. Invoking the oath of Tyndareus, Menelaus and Agamemnon raised a fleet of one thousand ships according to legend and went to Troy to secure Helen's return; the Trojans were recalcitrant, providing a casus belli for the Trojan War. Indeed, his name is interpreted in Greek as "Μῆνις Λαοῦ" (Wrath of the People) fitting his 'historing" role in the epics or "Μένος Λαοῦ" (Force/Impetus of the People). [8].

Homer's Iliad is the most expansive source for Menelaus' exploits during the Trojan War. In Book 3, Menelaus challenges Paris to a duel for Helen's return. Menelaus soundly beats Paris, but before he can kill him and claim victory Aphrodite spirits Paris away inside the walls of Troy. In Book 4, while the Greeks and Trojans squabble over the duel's winner, Athena inspires the Trojan Pandarus to kill Menelaus with his bow and arrow. Menelaus is wounded in the abdomen, and the fighting resumes. Later, in Book 17, Homer gives Menelaus an extended aristeia as the hero retrieves the corpse of Patroclus from the battlefield.

According to Hyginus, Menelaus killed eight men in the war, and was one of the Greeks hidden inside the Trojan Horse. During the sack of Troy, Menelaus killed Deiphobus, who had married Helen after the death of Paris.

There are three versions of Menelaus' and Helen's reunion on the night of the sack of Troy: a) Menelaus resolved to kill Helen but Euripides tells us that, when he found her, her striking beauty prompted him to drop his sword and take her back to his ship “to punish her at Sparta”, as he claimed, but in reality she got away with it[9]. b) According to Apollodorus in "Epitome" and Proclus in "Ilion's Conquest", Menelaus raised his sword in front of the temple of Minerva in the central square of Troy to kill her but his wrath went away when he saw her tearing her clothes to reveal her breasts. c) A similar version by Stesichorus in “Ilion’s Conquest” narrated that Menelaus surrendered her indeed to his soldiers to stone her to death; however, when she ripped the front of her robes, the Achaean warriors got stunned by her beauty and the stones fell lifelessly from their hands.

After the war

Book 4 of the Odyssey provides an account of Menelaus' return from Troy and his homelife in Sparta. When visited by Odysseus' son Telemachus, Menelaus recounts his voyage home. As happened to many Greeks, Menelaus' ship was blown off course. While stranded in Egypt, Menelaus learned from Proteus how he could return home. After their homecoming, Menelaus and Helen's marriage is strained; Menelaus continually revisits the human cost of the Trojan War, particularly in light of the fact that Helen could not provide him a male heir. According to Euripides' Helen, after Menelaus dies, he is reunited with Helen on the Isle of the Blessed.[10]

Menelaus in vase painting

Menelaus appears in Greek vase painting in the 6th to 4th centuries BC, such as: Menelaus' reception of Paris at Sparta; his retrieval of Patroclus' corpse; and his reunion with Helen.[11]

Menelaus in Greek tragedy

Menelaus appears as a character in a number of 5th-century Greek tragedies: Sophocles' Ajax, and Euripides' Andromache, Helen, Orestes, Iphigenia at Aulis, and The Trojan Women.

Menelaus in other media

  • Patrick Magee portrayed Menelaus in the 1971 film of The Trojan Women.
  • Menelaus also appears in the 2004 film Troy, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson. Like the 1957 film that influenced it, Menelaus is portrayed as a brutish king out for revenge. He duels Paris and wins, but Paris retreats to his brother, Hector. When Menelaus wants to strike the finishing blow, Hector kills him to protect his brother.

See also


  1. ^ Our chief sources for Menelaus' life before the Trojan War are Hyginus' Fabulae and Apollodorus' Epitome.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Sappho, fr. 16. See an analysis of the poem by Gumpert, Grafting Helen, 92
  4. ^
  5. ^ Mee & Spawforth (2001), σ. 229
  6. ^ See the Judgment of Paris.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Andromache 629-31.
  10. ^ Line 1675.
  11. ^ Woodford 1993.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
(Second reign)
Mythical Kings of Sparta
c.1250 BC
Succeeded by

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