Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

ISBN: 1400076005
ISBN 13: 9781400076000
By: Bettany Hughes

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Ancient History Biography Classics Currently Reading Greece History Mythology Non Fiction Nonfiction To Read

About this book

For 3,000 years, the woman known as Helen of Troy has been both the ideal symbol of beauty and a reminder of the terrible power beauty can wield.In her search for the identity behind this mythic figure, acclaimed historian Bettany Hughes uses Homer’s account of Helen’s life to frame her own investigation. Tracing the cultural impact that Helen has had on both the ancient world and Western civilization, Hughes explores Helen’s role and representations in literature and in art throughout the ages. This is a masterly work of historical inquiry about one of the world’s most famous women.

Reader's Thoughts

Lucy Gibson

This is truly one of the best and most enjoyable books I have read. It's very well written and uses a brilliant combination of sources, archaeological, literary and mythological to give a really interesting investigation in the life and preceding fame ( and infamy) of Helen of Troy - or Helen of Sparta as she began. After studying Homer for my last course I didn't feel I wanted to read it ever again but this book has made me want to revisit it.


Wonderful book! It's more about the time when Helen lived - what archaeology can tell us about the people of that age and how she "fit in" with that time period. I also recommend the novel by Margaret George about Helen - everything George includes is in agreement with Hughes' work.


Well written and detailed look at the historical Helen. After four years studying classical civilizations and mythology, I still learned new information about classical Greek and Trojan societies.

Lynn Welden

Could not put it down. Not for every reader, but if you are a fan of ancient history, the author has done a remarkable job of presenting the characters and the places in this epic story.


Bettany Hughes follows the traces of Helen of Troy across the Mediterranean. Tirelessly she visits museums, she hitches rides on boats, she climbs up hills, down hills, crawls, croaches, lifts, pushes, asks, wonders, goes back and forth endlessly and everywhere she goes, she comes closer to understanding the mythos that is the Queen of Sparta who in Hughes' case is "The face that launched a thousand trips."


I wasn't certain what I was getting into when I opened this book. After all, how could one write a biography of Helen of Troy without sources? It isn't as if there is a Who's Who of the Bronze Age, written on stone tablets in archaic Greek. This is a pretty hefty volume, too, suitable for use as a doorstop and pretty lethal if dropped on your toe. However, any doubts I had were foolish and soon forgotten. Remember when the word awesome, meant something? You know, capable of inspiring open-mouthed, wide-eyed respect? This book is that kind of awesome. The sheer amount of research that went into this work is staggering, and the skill with which the author handles her material is considerable. For the lover of the Greek myths, this book is indispensable, and for the romantic it is a story of the ultimate hottie. How can you lose? Buy it! Read it! Give it to a friend!


I was familliar with Bettany's peripatetic scholarship, and wanted a better understanding of Helen of Troy. Indeed, Ms Hughes' animated descriptions of vistas around the globe where Helen has been ruminated upon is fascinating. One cannot contest this scholar's thoroughly admirable research of every sniff of Helen through millennia. What disturbs me is an underlying sense that the author is trying to prove something about what Helen represents. For me, the opposite has been achieved. Humans can take any symbol and toss it around as they like, for their own reasons. That says more about them, than the symbol. I remain convinced that Helen's story is most real in its purest form: as a victim of Aphrodite's wiles. Paris, on the other hand, emerges as a reprehensible scoundrel, a selfish demigod with no respect for life or territory.

Helena Schrader

Hughes bills her book as “The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” – which is certainly ambitious. She devotes 312 pages to the main text followed by 130 pages of appendices. The book contains roughly 30 colored illustrations and even more black and white images -- altogether a very impressive and comprehensive treatment of the topic. Hughes furthermore sets out not only to discover the historical reality behind the story of Helen of Troy, but to describe the Bronze Age in which she allegedly lived, and then to describe how the story of Helen of Troy was handled in literature and art down the ages from Homer onwards. Although at times I found the narrative long-winded and had the feeling Hughes was trying to justify what must have been a significant investment in time and money by dragging out some commentary unnecessarily and belaboring some points to the point of exhaustion, the book nevertheless provides some very useful information. Particularly impressive was the amount of information she collected on life in the Bronze Age, something I knew little about. One of her principle thesis is that Helen (or the Helen Pro-type) was a Bronze Age aristocrat (princess and Queen) – and every subsequent treatment of Helen tells us more about the age in which the work of art depicting her was created than about Helen herself. Less successfully, Hughes tries to analyze why the story of Helen of Troy should have fascinated artists and audiences for three thousand years. Perhaps due to my ignorance of the Bronze Age, I found Hughes descriptions of recent archeological discoveries about this period particularly exciting and informative. She succeeded in convincing me that the Bronze Age civilizations were very sophisticated and international, with significant trade across the Mediterranean. A recent trip to Egypt helped me visualize just how rich and yet familiar such ancient societies could be. The art of Minoa and Egypt, with which I am more familiar, provided collateral, flanking evidence, to Hughes’ thesis about a Bronze Age Helen, who was more powerful and independent than the women in ancient Greece. In short, Hughes succeeded in making me change my own views of Helen, by enabling me to see her as a figure from a pre-archaic society with significantly different social structures and traditions. Almost as fascinating was the way in which the character and role of Helen changed depending on the values of the society re-telling the story. For example, the fact that Helen received a comparatively positive treatment in the 12th Century AD due to Eleanor of Aquitaine's patronage of Benoit de Sainte-Maure, author of the Roman de Troie. As Hughes perceptively points out, Eleanor, like Helen, had been the bride of one king, but effectively – if less surreptitiously -- ran away with his arch-rival and became the Queen of an empire that threatened her first husband’s realm. Eleanor had good reason to see Helen as a positive role model and not some tawdry whore or instrument of the devil. After reading Hughes, I admit, I am more sympathetic to Helen than I was before reading Hughes. When she described a 1974-5 staging of Christopher Marlowe’s "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" in which Helen is portrayed as “a marionette with blond wig, a mask and a chiffon nightie.” (Hughes, p. 307), I found myself feeling indignant. How could a director show so little respect for Helen? Would a dumb blond in a negligee really have been worth fighting for? For ten years? And worth recovering? Reinstating as Queen? In short, Hughes achieved her presumed of objective of making me see Helen as more than “just a pretty face.”As such, despite its stylistic faults, I think Hughes work makes a significant contribution to our understanding both of the historical and the literary Helen.

Jane Walker

Good history writing needs three components: i) expert knowledge of the subject. Tick. ii) the arrangement of the material in a way which makes sense and brings the subject to life. Tick. iii) the ability to write in a clear and engaging way, without flashing one's erudition but including personal observations where they illuminate the subject. Tick. All in all, this is an excellent book.


Wonderfully entertaining and curiously informative account to Helen of Sparta or of Troy, take your pick. Very illuminating on the background to The Iliad and The Odyssey and also very good with other types of evidence. Wholeheartedly recommended for those taking up Classical Studies.

Kayla Marie

This book gave me the resources to write the most incredible 15 page essay for school this last year!! Bettany really made history come alive for me. Helped me to not only learn about important Historical figures, but the text was packed with a lot of historial events, Greek culture, and mythology.

David Edmonds

A thoroughly enjoyable read, At last I understand the Helen Paris Menelaus story and its impact on literature throughout the ages. The book poses some interesting thoughts about the role of females - perhaps the Helen story was developed as a warning to men against venerating womankind - just see what happens when you do - that might have been the contemporary view but wouldn't hold much water now.


I loved this book. At the time I read it I was in a reading group discussing "The Odyssey". We are an all woman group and were disgusted at the misogyny of those who wrote about Helen at a later period than Homer. Bettany Hughes accords Helen the benefit of the doubt on the bad things written about her; she just delves deep into the Mystique and finds a woman who had a wonderful, exciting life. Perhaps and understatement. If you believe that Helen of Troy was a Queen in her own right due to matriliny, you will enjoy this book even more. It all starts to make sense after that realisation.


The author's own experiences were distracting throughout - it's bothersome, honestly - but the information presented about Helen was fascinating. Certain sections were dry, dragging on and on, having seemingly little to do with Helen herself, but of the world in general at the time. I feel like the sections pertaining to how Helen has been viewed through the Middle Ages were unnecessary - though it is understandable, given how little we will ever really know about her. The book is worth reading, however the 100+ pages of appendixes were a little much and I only skimmed some of them.


After watching the BBC documentary of the same title, I felt compelled to get this companion book. I had been pleased with the Paul Cartledge companion to Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, and felt this was worth the investment.Ms. Hughes is very descriptive and entertaining in her account of the story of Helen of Sparta (later Troy) and her attempts to reconstruct the myth with what facts are available are well constructed.This is not the "Troy" movie but a serious delving into the idea of a Bronze Age queen and how she shaped the lives of the men around her, for good or ill, and also is an exploration--on some levels--about modern feminism and gender identity.Recommended for anyone with an interest in peeling back layers of myth to get at the history underneath.

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