The two armies approach each other on the battlefield, the Trojans with war cries and the Achaeans in silence. Paris appears at the front of the Trojan force, challenging Achaeans to fight him one on one. Menelaus notices Paris and gleefully plans to fight him for revenge. Paris, seeing Menelaus, retreats back into the Trojan lines. Hector criticizes Paris’ cowardice, telling him his talents and looks are useless on the battlefield. Paris agrees that Hector’s chastisement is appropriate, but that the gifts given by Aphrodite shouldn’t be rejected either.
Paris’ blustering attitude becomes a source of comedy when it is shown that he won’t back up his swagger. Only acts of valor give a man honor on the battlefield. Hector’s criticism displays the divide between wartime and peacetime behaviors, as Paris is indeed charming, but his charm or his success with women is of little use when a warrior like Menelaus challenges him to combat.
Paris tries to save face from Hector’s criticism by offering to fight Menelaus in single combat while both armies watch. The winner of the duel will take Helen home along with a vast treasure, ending the war without further bloodshed. Hector happily agrees and strides out in front of the battle to declare a temporary truce. Agamemnon sees Hector come forward and tells his archers to stop firing. Hector asks all of the soldiers to put down their armor while the two champions fight.
The duel between two soldiers is one of the signature modes of fighting in the poem, testing the mettle of two soldiers against one another, free of any outside influence. Hector’s decision to step forward into enemy fire to call a truce is a heroic act, and Homer begins to portray Hector as one model of the hero, a man who always defends his kin.
Menelaus responds, calling the duel “limited vengeance” and noting the heavy casualties brought on by his quarrel with Paris over Helen, but ultimately accepts the challenge. He asks for a sacrifice to be made to the gods, with King Priam as witness, to seal the oath that their duel will end the war. The two armies rejoice at the possibility that the war might soon be over.
Paris and Menelaus are the main instigators of the war, as Helen was Menelaus’ wife before Paris stole her away. Both sides are receptive to the idea that the two will settle their difference through a duel, as both sides have lost many men fighting for Helen.
The messenger god Iris, taking the form of Hector’s sister Laodice, flies to Helen and informs her of the coming duel between Paris and Menelaus: “the man who wins the duel, / you’ll be called his wife!”. Helen is filled with longing for Menelaus and her homeland.
As Helen is informed of the duel, she is shown as a passive witness to the men who fight for her hand. Helen comes from the same region as Menelaus, and the thought that she might have a homecoming excites her.
Priam and his elder advisors gather in Troy’s tall tower. The elders remark how beautiful Helen is, but that it would be better if the Achaeans took her home to end the war. Priam calls Helen to his side. Recognizing her familiarity with the Achaeans from her past, asks her to point out certain men on the field.
Homer addresses the practical question of the war, as the potential destruction of Troy is a great price to pay for a woman, even one as beautiful as Helen. Priam and Helen are shown to have a bond of friendship, humanizing both characters.
Helen names for him Agamemnon, Odysseus, Great Ajax, and Idomeneus, noting the strength and special qualities of each man. Priam’s advisor Antenor also tells a story about Odysseus’ earlier visit to Troy to bring back Helen, praising his eloquence. Helen cannot find her brothers Castor and Polydeuces among the Achaean fighters, not knowing that they have already died in Lacedaemon, Helen’s homeland.
For one of the few times in the poem, we see the Achaeans described from the Trojan perspective. The Achaeans are seen as men of great bravery, noble opponents to the Trojans. Helen’s brothers have died without her knowledge, a sign of the way time has passed while Helen has been away from home.
Trojan heralds bring out the sacrifice, and call Priam out to the battlefield to oversee it. Shuddering, Priam reaches the front, where Agamemnon consecrates the sacrifice and swears again that the war will end when the duel is finished. The troops pray for the oath to be kept, but Homer notes that “Zeus would not fulfill their prayers”. Priam, unable to bear the sight of his son’s potential death, returns to Troy.
A sacrifice to the gods is necessary to ensure the validity of the oaths taken: in a world where gods are active participants, the ability to enforce a broken oath is much more real. Similarly, Homer is able to tell the reader beforehand if an act will come to pass, emphasizing the fated nature of certain actions.
The ground for the duel is measured off, and the two champions cast lots. Paris’ lot falls out of the helmet, meaning he will throw his spear first. Paris straps on his burnished armor, Menelaus does the same, and the duel begins. Paris throws his spear, hitting Menelaus’ shield but failing to break through. Menelaus prays to Zeus for revenge, and his spear throw almost hits Paris, who barely dodges it. Menelaus then draws his sword, but the blade breaks as he brings it down on Paris’ head.
The duel between Paris and Menelaus measures the strength of each man, as performance in battle was one of the foremost ways of measuring a man’s worthiness. By contrast, happenstance events like the breaking of a sword are attributed to the acts of gods. Here Zeus does not fulfill Menelaus’ prayer.
Menelaus, furious at his weapons’ failure, grabs Paris by the crest of his helmet and begins to drag him away to the Achaean lines, choking him by his helmet strap. Before he can complete his conquest, Aphrodite intervenes, snapping the strap of the helmet and transporting him back to his bedroom in Troy.
Aphrodite is, among other things, the personification of love, and the fact that Paris is her favorite, and that she must remove him from the battle to his bedroom, indicates that Paris is soft in battle. Paris’ disappearance is the first in the series of gods’ interventions to save mortals.
Aphrodite then travels to Helen, and taking the appearance of Helen’s beloved seamstress from Lacedaemon, summons her to join Paris in his bedroom. Helen resists, suggesting that Aphrodite has transported her before against her will, and that she will never go back to Paris. Aphrodite becomes furious and threatens to destroy Helen. Helen meekly submits and goes to Paris. In the prince’s “sumptuous halls,” Helen berates her husband for his cowardice. Paris deflects her harsh words and the two make love. On the battlefield, Menelaus looks for Paris up and down the lines, and the Achaeans cry out that Menelaus is the victor, ending the war by oath.
Aphrodite’s actions illustrate the fine distinction between a god as a metaphor for a human emotion and a god as something closer to a person. Aphrodite takes the form of a friend of Helen in order to be more convincing, but is also more than capable of forcing Helen to do her bidding. Much like love itself, Aphrodite’s change of mood is impulsive. On the battlefield, Paris’ disappearance only contributes to his poor reputation as a soldier. Meanwhile, the war appears to be over.