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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Bellissima Causa Belli: Helen of Troy as the Wellspring of Violence in Greek and Roman Tradition

Katharine B. Free.

The most famous woman in all of Greek mythology is Helen of Troy whose elopement with the Trojan prince, Paris, was the cause of the Trojan War. The story was first told by Homer in The Iliad, a founding document in European high culture. It was retold by many Greek and Roman poets and dramatists in many different formats and with different perspectives of the heroine. What endures in all these retellings is that a single woman brought about the destruction of a race by inciting a monumental and defining war.
This paper will survey the myth of Helen in ancient literature and drama. It proposes to answer the questions: Why does the figure of Helen of Troy embody the highest ideal of female beauty while at the same time causing social disruption and destruction? Does such ambiguity surface in all versions of the legend? How are the various interpretations and attitudes towards Helen guides to social views about war and women? Using the Helen in The Iliad and The Odyssey as a starting point, the works of Hesiod, Stesichorus, Aeschylus, Euripides, Ovid and others will be examined to find the discrepancies and ambiguities in the ancient views of the dangerous and destructive Helen.


Katharine B. Free  (United States)
Professor and Co-Chair of Theatre Arts
Department of Theatre Arts and Dance/College of Communication and Fine Arts
Loyola Marymount University

Professor and Co-Chair. B.A., Marymount College; M.A., Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Free teaches theatre history and dramatic literature. She has directed Medea, Phaedra, Picnic, Another Antigone, Ecclesiazusae (Women at Festival), The Illusion, No Exit, and her own translation and adaptation, Helen After Troy, based on plays by Euripides. Professor Free was the dramaturg for the award-winning Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production of The Greeks. She is the host of KXLU Monday Night at the Opera and has given pre-performance lectures for the Los Angeles Opera at the Music Center. Professor Free has conducted research Indian folk theatre as a Senior Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies. Her publications on ancient Greek theatre and Indian theatre have appeared in such scholarly journals as Theatre Journal, Theatre Research International, and Metamorphoses. Professor Free regularly presents invited papers at the conferences of ASTR (American Society of Theatre Research) and IFTR/FIRT (International Federation of Theatre Research). Her recent paper, “Helen of Troy in Contemporary Drama,” was presented in Amsterdam at the 14th World Congress of IFTR/FIRT.

  • Helen
  • Troy
  • War
  • Women
Person as Subject
  • Helen of Troy

(30 min Conference Paper, English)