Menelaus

Menelaus was the King of Sparta and the husband of Helen. He was a central figure in the Trojan War, leading the Spartan contingent of the Greek army, under his elder brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae.

Parents: Atreus and Aerope
Consort: Helen
Siblings: Agamemnon
Children: Hermione, Nicostratus and Megapenthes

Menelaus
Marble bust of Menelaus, Vatican Museums.

Family

 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 Polypheides 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.

Helen

When it was time for Tyndareus’ stepdaughter Helen to marry, many kings and princes came to seek her hand. Among the contenders were Odysseus, Menestheus, Ajax, Patroclus, and Idomeneus.

The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David, 1788, Louvre, Paris.

Tyndareus justifiably feared an outbreak of violence when he chose one suitor against the others. Fortunately, Odysseus thought up an excellent solution. In exchange for the hand of Penelope, he advised him to make all the suitors swear an oath that they would respect his final choice and that they would support the husband and wife in any ill fate that the two may face in the future.

The rest of the suitors swore their oaths and Helen and Menelaus were married, Menelaus becoming a ruler of Sparta with Helen after Tyndareus and Leda abdicated the thrones.

The Trojan War

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 in Crete, Paris ran off to Troy with Helen despite his brother Hector’s prohibition. Invoking the oath of Tyndareus, Menelaus and Agamemnon raised a fleet of a thousand ships and went to Troy to secure Helen’s return; starting the Trojan War.

The Abduction of Helen by Francesco Primaticcio, c. 1530–1539.

He fought extensively in the war, including defeating Paris in a duel, 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.

Menelaus and Meriones lifting Patroclus’ corpse on a cart while Odysseus looks on. Alabaster urn from Volterra, 2nd c. BC.

On the night of the sack of Troy, Menelaus sought out Helen in the conquered city. Raging at her infidelity, he raised his sword to kill her but as he saw her weeping at his feet, begging for her life, Menelaus’ wrath instantly left him. He took pity on her and decided to take her back as his wife.

Menelaus regains Helen. Detail of an Attic red-figure crater, c. 450–440 BC.