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Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

4.07  ·  Rating Details ·  755 Ratings  ·  70 Reviews
For 3,000 years, the woman known as Helen of Troy has been both the ideal symbol of beauty and a reminder of the terrible power beauty can wield.In her search for the identity behind this mythic figure, acclaimed historian Bettany Hughes uses Homer’s account of Helen’s life to frame her own investigation. Tracing the cultural impact that Helen has had on both the ancient w ...more
Paperback, 512 pages
Published January 9th 2007 by Vintage (first published June 2nd 2005)
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Bettany Hughes’ debut work is a magnum opus of truly astonishing proportions. Hughes has not only written a thoroughly detailed examination of the evidence for a real Bronze Age Helen, and produced an in depth portrait of the woman if she indeed existed, but she has delved even further, studying perceptions of Helen throughout history and exploring the big question of just why Helen of Troy has remained a subject of fascination, reverence and revilement for millennia. Meticulously researched, He ...more
Bettany Hughes was made an honorary Fellow of my university in the same ceremony as I became a graduate, so I've been planning to read this ever since. That, and the story of Troy has always been fascinating to me. There's definitely something very compelling about Bettany Hughes' writing, which though very detailed isn't dry -- or maybe I just have a weakness for descriptions of "sumptuous palaces" and so on trained into me by my early love of a book describing the treasures of Tutankhamen's to ...more
Feb 04, 2016 Lydia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2016
I am so sad that I have finished reading this book.
This was such a delight to read. Hughes has such an evocative writing style. I was so sucked into this "biography" of the perhaps-mythical, perhaps-based-in-reality figure. She traces Helen's life and legacy from her conception to the modern western world's perceptions of her. It was just so interesting to read about the different interpretations of Helen throughout time and place, about the different tellings of the Trojan War, about all the di
Nov 22, 2013 Juliew. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: greece
I absolutely loved this book!Best source out there if you are looking for info on Helen of Troy.I liked how the author brought her to life and put a face on her.I guess it was hard for me to imagine a face that launched a thousand ships before I read this.It also has amazing background information on Sparta.
Jul 08, 2013 Hardy rated it really liked it
I had seen and heard Bettany Hughes on several DVD commentaries and BBC-produced history specials. Having been impressed by the knowledge and contagious enthusiasm she brought to her TV work, I wanted to see whether these translated to the printed page. In short, do they ever.

As an avid student and later teacher of Latin and classical mythology, I was aware of Helen's prominent place in the folklore of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Hughes, however, posits and beautifully illustrates the case
Lauren Albert
This is not really a biography of Helen so much as a biography of the idea of Helen through the ages. While she does try to uncover what historical facts are available, she spends a lot more time—understandably because of the lack of evidence—discussing all the versions of Helen in Literature and History. She also traces Helen’s path (as it is told in the stories) through the lands of ancient times. She attempts to recreate as much as possible what the life of a woman like Helen would have been. ...more
Mar 24, 2011 Caroline rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you're looking for a book on Helen of Troy, then look no further. This is a masterful book, despite the paucity of possible information available on Helen. How can anyone write a biography of a mythical figure, a woman who may or may not have even existed? Like this. Exactly like this. Bettany Hughes has written Helen as she may have been, as an historical figure; as people have wanted her to be, as a religious figure and quasi-goddess; as she was written to be, by Homer and Euripides and Aes ...more
Elia Princess of Starfall
Jun 03, 2016 Elia Princess of Starfall added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Fans of Greek myth, history, archaeology and cultural studies
Helen of Troy.

A name that needs no introduction, no?


Helen of Troy, whether she is from fact or fiction, myth or reality, is a justly famous and enthralling heroine. A legendary Queen of Sparta, so beautiful and eerily godlike in her physical perfection, that two wars were fought over her, one in Athens and the other in Troy in what would have been the Aegean Bronze Age. Helen of Troy, throughout the centuries from ancient Greece to the modern age, has inspired awe, derision, fear, anger, devot
Helena Schrader
Jun 24, 2012 Helena Schrader rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sparta
Hughes bills her book as “The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” – which is certainly ambitious. She devotes 312 pages to the main text followed by 130 pages of appendices. The book contains roughly 30 colored illustrations and even more black and white images -- altogether a very impressive and comprehensive treatment of the topic. Hughes furthermore sets out not only to discover the historical reality behind the story of Helen of Troy, but to describe the Bronze Age in which s ...more
I wasn't certain what I was getting into when I opened this book. After all, how could one write a biography of Helen of Troy without sources? It isn't as if there is a Who's Who of the Bronze Age, written on stone tablets in archaic Greek. This is a pretty hefty volume, too, suitable for use as a doorstop and pretty lethal if dropped on your toe. However, any doubts I had were foolish and soon forgotten. Remember when the word awesome, meant something? You know, capable of inspiring open-mouthe ...more
Nov 03, 2009 Lars rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: greeks
After watching the BBC documentary of the same title, I felt compelled to get this companion book. I had been pleased with the Paul Cartledge companion to Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, and felt this was worth the investment.

Ms. Hughes is very descriptive and entertaining in her account of the story of Helen of Sparta (later Troy) and her attempts to reconstruct the myth with what facts are available are well constructed.

This is not the "Troy" movie but a serious delving into the idea of a Br
Ems Dawson
Feb 28, 2011 Ems Dawson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: study, for-pleasure
History is one of those genres that is impossible to pin down. It is what informs us of ourselves, helping us to discover who we really are.

Good history telling is a mixture of fact with tantelising snippets of myth and embellishment. part of the joy is of reading History is picking various elements apart to examine them, but also taking them on face value and enjoying the story. Helen is the epitome of this tradition and Bettany Hughes expertly employs the practice.

Helen of Troy is a fascinatin
Aug 03, 2014 Pilgrimsoul rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A splendid piece of cross disciplinary writing! Ms. Hughes creates a vivid picture of the Bronze Age using both traditional and experimental archeology, literature, and art. Generally I am impatient with books that focus on the author's experience, but she does it well. Her visits to the places involved or explorations of the literature and portrayals of Helen's story are a genuine enhancement of the history. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to anyone interested in history or women's ...more
Jacqueline Williams
Didn't enjoy nearly as much as Socrates, I felt like a knew Socrates by the end of that book and Helen is still a mystery as she really is....
Totally fascinated by Helen and the power of ladies of this time
Loved the way the book was structured; just as it got a bit heavy Bettany would interject insights from her research trips which helped me to try to feel part of what happening more than 3000 years ago.
3.5* Good scholarship and very broad study of everything involving Helen, but I would have organized differently in order to make the points better. The read was less engaging because of this more chronological approach, rather than topical.
Tara van Beurden
Mar 19, 2011 Tara van Beurden rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, books-read-2014
I can’t quite remember when I fell in love with the idea of Helen of Troy. I’ve loved the Tudors (Helen’s only historical (?) rival for my affections) since I was twelve years old, and distinctly remember what it was that made me fall in love with them (The Horrible Histories books – one about Henry VIII, who remains my favourite English monarch, despite his horribleness – sorry little Prince George!). But I can’t remember with Helen. I just know that I love her. Her story is truly crazy. The mo ...more
James F
The Trojan War was almost certainly a historic event; but it is uncertain, to say the least, that it was caused by the abduction of Menelaus' wife, Helen. I'm not sure after reading this book whether the author, a popular British historian, actually believes Homer's story or not; she does at least make it seem less implausible than it appears at first sight, by showing historical parallels from the same time and region where there were diplomatic (though not actually military) crises over royal ...more
James Murphy
Jun 18, 2009 James Murphy rated it really liked it
I'd had this book for at least 3 years. Despite my interest in classical Greece I'd delayed reading it, partly because the right frame of mind never came on me and partly because the book's appearance and presentation, the more I looked at it and allowed it to gather dust on my shelf, projected itself as a treatment for popular taste rather than a serious historical study. Finally blowing the dust off and taking the plunge, I was delighted to discover it's a weighty, scholarly book about Helen. ...more
Kay ^_^
"Helen of Troy" is telling about the life and history of a woman who is known throughout the world as the most beautiful woman on earth. It tells about her as a real person and also about the myths that are told about her. Helen was born in Sparta and married Menelaus, who became king. When Helen left Sparta to go to Troy with their prince, Paris, turmoil struck and war began. Menelaus was furious about his wife leaving him, so furious, he ordered an attack on Troy. He got armies from all over ...more
Apr 02, 2010 Old-Barbarossa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good look at the environment that a real Helen would have lived in.
Good refs to archaeological and textual sources. Very good maps and refs/bibliography. Good selection of illustrations.
The author occasionally gets carried away with the whole sacred feminine thing (as does Robert Graves), but on the whole any speculation is solidly backed up.
On slightly less convincing ground when the author steps away for her area of obvious expertise and looks at more recent interpretations of Helen.
A couple o
Sep 07, 2015 Jenn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought the British edition of this seven years ago while in Paris and only just got around to reading it. I'd say I was missing out, but it was exactly what I needed this month so I'm glad I saved it. Engaging, erudite, and refreshing. It is easy to forget that most archaeology writing is from a male perspective, until you finally read something in which women are not continuously dismissed as decorative possessions.

My only complaint is my usual one: I miss FOOTNOTES. The notes are extensive
Dec 17, 2014 Colleen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hughes takes a look at several different things here, all of them entertaining. Much of the book is focused not on the myth/legend of Helen, but on "what would a real Spartan princess in the Heroic Age be like?" That alone is endlessly fascinating as she goes on to explore what we've found at various historical sites in Greece and what that tells us about what Helen might have worn, eaten, owned, and lived in.

She also goes into the persistent portrayals of Helen, how she is alternately seen as a
Robert Case
Aug 09, 2014 Robert Case rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
I love antiquities. Helen of Troy is clearly a five. The book is a detailed and provocative study, or was it a journey, of one of mankind's most celebrated, revered, and demonized women. Her biography is a fascinating read. She is an icon, not just of sex-appeal, but also for personal growth and development. She lived through many roles; from being the victim of a kidnapping and sex assault by the legendary Theseus, into a Spartan queen, then a Trojan princess, and back again into her role as qu ...more
Dec 02, 2012 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was familliar with Bettany's peripatetic scholarship, and wanted a better understanding of Helen of Troy. Indeed, Ms Hughes' animated descriptions of vistas around the globe where Helen has been ruminated upon is fascinating. One cannot contest this scholar's thoroughly admirable research of every sniff of Helen through millennia. What disturbs me is an underlying sense that the author is trying to prove something about what Helen represents. For me, the opposite has been achieved. Humans can ...more
Jeanette Schaeche
(April-June for thesis one; September-October for thesis two)

How could I not give a book that put me on my dream career path 5 stars?

Hughes was one of the first influences o ever had in wanting to do archaeology and ancient history, through watching her documentary based off of this work, not long after watch the TV Mini Series "Helen of Troy" (2003) and the film "Troy" (2004). Now, after doing my own accumulative work on Helen, I've finally had a reason and purpose to reading through this work
This was a fascinating look at how Helen might have been perceived during the Bronze Age period she purportedly lived through, as well as throughout Ancient Greece. I loved reading about the archaeological discoveries and how societies at the time of the Trojan War were structured. And, having not read a lot about ancient Greece since high school, it was also highly nostalgic to come across the stories and myths again.

At times the author seemed to stray too far in her scope, though. I skimmed th
Liss Capello
Apr 03, 2014 Liss Capello rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a great, scholarly review of the character of Helen of Troy, covering such disparate aspects as actual Bronze Age civilizations, the Hellenic concept of Helen as written by Homer and reiterated in numerous other works, and more recent interpretations of her through the renaissance. Having only ever been much acquainted with the Homeric version, I found the various other angles fascinating, and I appreciated the author's personal involvement in the quest (she visited numerous sites herse ...more
Sarah(All The Book Blog Names Are Taken)
The author's own experiences were distracting throughout - it's bothersome, honestly - but the information presented about Helen was fascinating. Certain sections were dry, dragging on and on, having seemingly little to do with Helen herself, but of the world in general at the time. I feel like the sections pertaining to how Helen has been viewed through the Middle Ages were unnecessary - though it is understandable, given how little we will ever really know about her. The book is worth reading, ...more
Jul 23, 2014 Jodi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read this book along with watching her documentary on the same subject matter. The only problem with it is the same problem with all of Bettany Hughes things. It is a very romanticised version of Helen of Troys Story and the Grecian World at the time. However Helen is the original tragic heroine, a sex symbol and a Goddess Princess and Wore so it must of been very difficult not to romanticise her. But still extremely informative and a wonderful thing to read after watching the documentary. One w ...more
Jun 28, 2011 Karolina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. At the time I read it I was in a reading group discussing "The Odyssey". We are an all woman group and were disgusted at the misogyny of those who wrote about Helen at a later period than Homer. Bettany Hughes accords Helen the benefit of the doubt on the bad things written about her; she just delves deep into the Mystique and finds a woman who had a wonderful, exciting life. Perhaps and understatement. If you believe that Helen of Troy was a Queen in her own right due to matr ...more
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Bettany grew up in West London with her brother, the cricketer Simon Hughes. Her parents were in the theatre: she learnt early the importance and delight of sharing thoughts and ideas with a wider public. Bettany won a scholarship to read Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University and then continued her post-graduate research while travelling through the Balkans and Asia Minor. In recognition ...more
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