Expression of Self-worth in Homer’s Iliad
The story of the Trojan War as played out in the Iliad is perhaps most gripping for the focus on the role of the individual; the soul is struck by the very concept of a decade-long war and a city-state razed to the ground for one man’s crime and one woman’s beauty. As such, the dynamic between Helen, Paris, and the Trojan people they have doomed is a fascinating one. For while Prince Paris is hated by all of Troy, his right to keep Helen is challenged by none. This is seen mostly clearly in Book III, after Paris has been spirited away to safety by the goddess Aphrodite; the book ends with Trojans and Greeks alike united in scorn for Paris and his consort. In Book VII, however, at the war council of the Trojans, when a defiant Paris refuses to yield his prize, no man questions his right to do so. This puzzling contrast, between the anger of the many against the crimes of the one and the rights of the one against the will of the many, presents insight into key themes of Homer’s epic. The passages in Books III and VII highlight the unique way in which the Iliad focuses on property rights as perhaps the highest expression of individual self-worth, the violation of which demands complete redress.
Book III paints Paris at his lowest: a posturing coward contemptible in his weakness. When he seems in danger of losing a duel against his rival Meneleus—a duel that promises to end the war without further bloodshed—Paris is snatched up by his protector Aphrodite and promptly forgets all about the two armies camped at the walls. The reader is thus united with both armies in scorn for the prince when Homer describes Paris and Helen losing themselves in lust while the fragile treaty strains:
He led the way to bed. His wife went with him.
And now, while the two made love in the large carved bed,
Menelaus stalked like a wild beast, up and down the lines—
where could he catch a glimpse of magnificent Paris?
Not a single Trojan, none of their famous allies
could point out Paris to battle-hungry Menelaus.
Not that they would hide him out of friendship,
even if someone saw him—
all of them hated him like death, black death. (3.525-533)1
Homer’s description of Paris as "magnificent" (3.528) here serves two purposes: it acts both as beautiful Paris’ traditional heroic epithet and as an ironic reflection on his lack of honor or shame. Certainly, no one would praise him now; even Paris’ allies, the Trojans, would give him over to the enemy without hesitation, as they now hate him like "black death" (3.533). The simile is remarkably appropriate, for Paris in his hubris is indeed death to his people, bringing Troy’s doom back from Greece with his stolen bride. At the close of Book III, the defenders of Ilium clearly blame Paris for the horrors of the war; clearly, too, Homer’s omniscient voice joins in the condemnation.
Even in this passage, however, when Paris is at his most base, Homer...