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

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  554 ratings  ·  55 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
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.
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
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
Helena Schrader
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Tara van Beurden
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 Murphy
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
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
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
Robert Case
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
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
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
Frank Pacosa
I thoroughly enjoy the extent of details and lyrical writing style. I've also read her Socrates book and look forward to more books from her, if she can take time from her lectures and TV work.
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
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
I'd give this book 2.5 stars...there were some parts of the book I really enjoyed, but other parts, as well as the general wordage, were very repetitive. I felt like the author could have gotten her point across and given the readers the information in about half of the pages than it took due to a lot of repetitive phrasing. That being said, I love the subject of Helen of Troy and the Trojan war, and loved reading about archeological finds and refreshing myself on what previous authors have said ...more
Aug 28, 2008 Arthur marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Architecture. People. Influences of all what I at first glace, thought if this would be richer in history spreading as it did once, then the little cusp of a culture everyone takes for granted today, I only wonder what inspired so much. It's history in a giant way. I supppose reading mystery's and suspense’s novels off and on as I may do, makes me less tedious and so I turned again to something to examine myself. Here is mystery that will need a lot of answers from historians.
Lucy Gibson

This is truly one of the best and most enjoyable books I have read. It's very well written and uses a brilliant combination of sources, archaeological, literary and mythological to give a really interesting investigation in the life and preceding fame ( and infamy) of Helen of Troy - or Helen of Sparta as she began. After studying Homer for my last course I didn't feel I wanted to read it ever again but this book has made me want to revisit it.
Engaging read supported with historical facts and the authors travel experiences.
Bettany Hughes follows the traces of Helen of Troy across the Mediterranean. Tirelessly she visits museums, she hitches rides on boats, she climbs up hills, down hills, crawls, croaches, lifts, pushes, asks, wonders, goes back and forth endlessly and everywhere she goes, she comes closer to understanding the mythos that is the Queen of Sparta who in Hughes' case is "The face that launched a thousand trips."
Sandra Wagner-Wright
This is a fabulous book for anyone interested in Greek Mythology, Archeology, History, the Bronze Age, and/or women's history. Bettany Hughes is a brilliant writer and stellar researcher. I was genuinely sorry to complete the book and will not be passing it on to the library book sale.
David Edmonds
A thoroughly enjoyable read, At last I understand the Helen \ Paris \ Menelaus story and its impact on literature throughout the ages. The book poses some interesting thoughts about the role of females - perhaps the Helen story was developed as a warning to men against venerating womankind - just see what happens when you do - that might have been the contemporary view but wouldn't hold much water now.
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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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