Summary and Analysis
The two armies advance, and as they draw toward each other, Paris (the warrior who kidnapped Menelaos' wife, Helen) brashly steps forward and dares any of the Achaian warriors to meet him in personal combat. The challenge is eagerly accepted by Menelaos, but Paris is suddenly overcome by terror and hides within the Trojan ranks.
Hektor, the Trojan commander, finds his brother Paris and gives him a stern tongue-lashing. Paris is so ashamed that he agrees to a duel with Menelaos. A truce is declared while Agamemnon and Hektor determine the conditions of the duel, and it is arranged that Paris (Helen's lover) and Menelaos (Helen's husband) will engage in single combat. The victor will win Helen, and a treaty of peace will be agreed upon, after which the Achaians will sail for home.
Meanwhile, back in Troy, King Priam and his council sit on the ramparts watching the battlefield. Helen is with them, and she identifies the Achaian commanders for him and tells him a little about their deeds. While the two discuss the Achaians, Priam is called to the field to give his consent to the terms of the truce. When he arrives, he joins his archenemy, Agamemnon, in a sacrifice to the gods on behalf of both armies; then they solemnize the agreement. Afterward, Priam returns to Troy while Paris and Menelaos prepare to fight.
The duel is fought with javelin and sword in a large open area between the two armies. Menelaos is the superior warrior, and he inflicts a slight wound on Paris. The Trojan prince is taken captive, but while Menelaos is dragging him to the Achaian lines, Aphrodite intervenes and rescues her favorite warrior. She conceals him "in a thick mist" and carries him off to his bedroom in Troy, where she brings Helen to him.
Agamemnon steps to the front of his army and states that the duel has unquestionably been won by Menelaos, and he demands the immediate restoration of Helen. The Achaians loudly applaud the decision of their king and commander-in-chief.
Structurally, Book III follows a pattern that Homer uses many times in the Iliad — one scene is followed by a second that reflects the first and reinforces ideas within it. In Book III the war between the Greeks and the Trojans is personified in the hand-to-hand duel between Menelaos and Paris — the two men whose dispute over Helen is the cause of the entire war. Their fight is symbolically between the warrior (Menelaos) and the lover (Paris). Menelaos wins the battle, but Paris, whisked away to the bedroom by Aphrodite, wins the girl.
This conflict between Menelaos and Paris re-emerges in the second scene of the Book as Helen attempts to reject Paris for Menelaos. Helen announces that she will have nothing more to do with Paris, but when Aphrodite, who symbolizes Helen's carnal nature, threatens her, Helen immediately gives in and goes to bed with Paris. Homer frequently associates the qualities of a god with a character or an action in the poem. That Helen and Paris are overcome with carnal passion represented by Aphrodite and her threats is quite plain here. Helen would like to choose the honorable warrior, Menelaos, but her sexuality and passion control her and she returns to the bed of Paris, who is also unable to control his passionate nature and complete his battle with Menelaos. As Helen and Paris make love, Menelaos rages on the battlefield looking for the man he thought he had defeated. The skillful structuring of sections of the Iliad, such as in Book III, suggests that a single author lay behind the composition of the poem.
Book III makes it clear that human passion must be controlled if men are to be successful. By fighting with Menelaos and abiding by the terms of the truce, Paris could end the war that his actions caused. However, Paris can no more control his passion than Helen can control hers. In fact, Paris does not even try. He leaves the battlefield and glory albeit that glory on the battlefield is death, to make love with Helen. Just as Agamemnon and Achilles cannot control their pride and anger, so Paris cannot control his lust. Pride, anger, honor, passion — all these human traits, Homer suggests, must be brought under control if men are to succeed. Book III shows, through Paris and Helen, how lack of control has terrible consequences. Because he cannot control his lust, Paris causes the war to rage on more fiercely than ever. In contrast, Odysseus, the one Greek who uses reason to control his emotions, ultimately devises the plan that ends the war.
The introduction of Helen in this book and the images associated with her emphasize the sexuality inherent in her nature. When first encountered by the reader, Helen is weaving a tapestry, much like Penelope in the Odyssey. The tapestry depicts the course of the war, and while on one level it represents a kind of occupational therapy for Helen as she awaits the outcome, on another level it suggests that she is the weaver or cause of the war. Her physical beauty is never described, but the admiration of the old Trojans before they go to make the truce with Agamemnon makes her desirability clearer than any attempt at literal description.
Antenor one of the Trojan elders; advises Priam.
Crete island in the Mediterranean Sea south of Greece. Legendary home of King Minos, the labyrinth, and the Minotaur. In the Iliad, it is the kingdom of Idomeneus.
greaves armor for the leg from the ankle to the knee worn by Homeric warriors.
Iris messenger goddess, usually for Zeus.
Scaean Gate the main gates of the city of Troy.
shield a flat, usually broad, piece of metal or wood carried in the hand or worn on the forearm to ward off blows or missiles. The shields used by Homeric warriors could be the small, round, metal buckler or the larger, oval, ox-hide constructions that protected the entire body.
spear a weapon consisting of a long wooden shaft with a sharp point, usually of metal or stone, for thrusting or throwing. The Homeric warriors fight mainly with a large thrusting spear that is sometimes thrown. Swords, bows, and arrows are less frequently used.