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


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."


A delightful and engaging biopic of one of the few well known women in the ancient world.Drawing on Minoan and Mycenean history, the author paints a picture of Helen, her environment and her impact on history.


Bettany Hughes was made an honorary Fellow of my university in the same ceremony as I became a graduate, so I've been planning to read this ever since. That, and the story of Troy has always been fascinating to me. There's definitely something very compelling about Bettany Hughes' writing, which though very detailed isn't dry -- or maybe I just have a weakness for descriptions of "sumptuous palaces" and so on trained into me by my early love of a book describing the treasures of Tutankhamen's tomb. She makes the book colourful, anyway. And from whatever I know of Greek history and myths, she chooses her material well and does wonders in digging through the evidence of millennia to look at the idea of Helen of Troy, where she came from and what she has meant to generations of people. I think my favourite section was actually the discussion of what the fabled Helen had to do with Eleanor of Aquitaine: the interaction of real queens with figures of legend like Helen of Troy, Queen Guinevere and female Christian saints fascinates me...I'm not sure how well I think the information was organised, though. Admittedly, Helen is hard to pin down, but I'm not sure I can pinpoint how Hughes wanted to present her ideas. For me, reading cover to cover and for pleasure, it worked fine, but if I were to come back and try to refer to some specific point, I think I'd have trouble finding it.There are extensive notes and a long list of references to other works, so all in all I think this book is very well organised and researched. And -- to me, more importantly -- I really enjoyed reading it.

James Murphy

I'd had this book for at least 3 years. Despite my interest in classical Greece I'd delayed reading it, partly because the right frame of mind never came on me and partly because the book's appearance and presentation, the more I looked at it and allowed it to gather dust on my shelf, projected itself as a treatment for popular taste rather than a serious historical study. Finally blowing the dust off and taking the plunge, I was delighted to discover it's a weighty, scholarly book about Helen. I believe Hughes tries to touch on every known aspect of the Helen of Troy story. I have no idea whether or not she succeeds, but the vast amount of material she includes as she looks at this woman from every angle, seems convincingly comprehensive. And some of it is beautifully written. What she's done is give us a book which tries to pull fact and history from the swamp of legend surrounding Helen and Troy so that the mud slides away to show the real woman underneath and the facts of the Greece around her. She tells the story chronologically, letting us follow what's known about Helen and the life she must've lived as Spartan princess, then as bride, then as lover of Paris who flees with him or is abducted to Troy, the beautiful spark causing the 10-year firestorm on the shores of what's now Turkey. Hughes loves the story and tells it well. The facts are sketchy, a combination of anthropology and history, but she has a way of bringing permissible drama to the facts that helps make those ancient people and motives a reality. It's a fascinating brew of a book made by steeping the idea of this ancient woman in her known history and her persistent myth. By examining not only the core legend but also how that legend endured from ancient times to the present, how she's been characterized from Homer to Marlowe to Elizabeth Taylor, she's written a book that's everything Helen.


If you're looking for a book on Helen of Troy, then look no further. This is a masterful book, despite the paucity of possible information available on Helen. How can anyone write a biography of a mythical figure, a woman who may or may not have even existed? Like this. Exactly like this. Bettany Hughes has written Helen as she may have been, as an historical figure; as people have wanted her to be, as a religious figure and quasi-goddess; as she was written to be, by Homer and Euripides and Aeschylus, right up to the present day. There are a multitude of Helens in this book - historical and fiction, real or imaginary, flesh-and-blood or goddess.It focuses not just on Helen, but also the world she came from and the ages of history she has passed through up to the present. It is also a marvellous exploration of the world of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and how accurate Homer's story has been proven to be via archaeological discoveries and historical record. It's wonderfully written, eminently readable and absolutely fascinating - I'd highly recommend this.


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.


Architecture. People. Influences of all what I at first glace, thought if this would be richer in history spreading as it did once, then the little cusp of a culture everyone takes for granted today, I only wonder what inspired so much. It's history in a giant way. I supppose reading mystery's and suspense’s novels off and on as I may do, makes me less tedious and so I turned again to something to examine myself. Here is mystery that will need a lot of answers from historians.


Read this book along with watching her documentary on the same subject matter. The only problem with it is the same problem with all of Bettany Hughes things. It is a very romanticised version of Helen of Troys Story and the Grecian World at the time. However Helen is the original tragic heroine, a sex symbol and a Goddess Princess and Wore so it must of been very difficult not to romanticise her. But still extremely informative and a wonderful thing to read after watching the documentary. One world of warning make sure you read the Iliad First or you could get really stuck.


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.


On balance I liked it; I found the first half of this book rather repetitive but when we moved on to reception of Helen in for example Marlowe's Doctor Faustus the narrative truly picked up. If I'm honest I'd say for me the appendices were more interesting than most of the book.


Engaging read supported with historical facts and the authors travel experiences.


Awesome research on the most famous woman of the Greek world with comprehensive stories. It is well sourced, well written and takes you through the various art, versions of Helen such that by the time you finish, you feel you know this unknowable person from the epic poems, and you understand why she has existed in every age.

Ems Dawson

History is one of those genres that is impossible to pin down. It is what informs us of ourselves, helping us to discover who we really are.Good history telling is a mixture of fact with tantelising snippets of myth and embellishment. part of the joy is of reading History is picking various elements apart to examine them, but also taking them on face value and enjoying the story. Helen is the epitome of this tradition and Bettany Hughes expertly employs the practice.Helen of Troy is a fascinating read, part novel, part history book. It is an inspirational read giving you enough information to keep you interested and make you want to learn more but not boring you by becoming too factual and dry.I have read it three times now and am not about to stop!


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.


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.

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