The Lesser Atreid: Menelaus on the Athenian Stage

Karelisa Hartigan

University of Florida

The ways of the heart are strange: no one will ever know why Helen chose Menelaus. Given the chance to select her mate from among Greece's finest heroes, the princess of Sparta pointed to the second Atreid. That moment was, perhaps, Menelaus' finest hour.

From the Iliad to the last of Euripides' tragedies, Menelaus is always portrayed as the lesser hero, the man to whom things happen. At times his actions at Troy can be interpreted as earnest and occasionally, brave. But even in the stories where Menelaus could star, he seldom looks the hero. He was not "the best of the Achaeans," his return from Troy did not earn a special story and a legacy that survives in western memory,.his visage as a gold death mask does not hold pride of place in Athens' National Museum and popular imagination.. However, Menelaus, of all the mythic kings, as husband of Helen, will spend his eternity in the Islands of the Blest. In a longer study I trace the full story of Menelaus, the man living in the shadow of his brother, of  the other heroes of the Mycenean age, and of the world's most beautiful woman. Here I discuss how Menelaus appeared on the Athenian stage, in plays all penned by Euripides.

The Spartan King plays a role in five plays,  and in all he is presented in a negative light. The characterizations range from downright evil (Andromache) to obtuse (Helen) to insignificant (Iphigeneia at Aulis). Some suggest Euripides was prompted by anti-Spartan sentiments that were surely current in late fifth century BC Athens. But neither Trojan Women nor Orestes are pro-Athenian. While in Odyssey IV Menelaus appears in a favorable light - where he faces nothing more difficult than to report his off-course journey back o Greece and enjoy the wine Helen pours - Euripides doe not pick up on this part of his story. Here I review Euripides' consistently hostile characterizations of the lesser Atreid, and seek an answer to this hostility.


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