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  • Rape, Violence, Complicity:Colluthus’s Abduction of Helen
  • Helen Morales

The Abduction of Helen (Ἁρπαγὴ Ἑλένης) concerns sexual behavior and responsibility.1 The Greek word harpage means theft or snatching away, but because abduction often involved or implied sexual violation, the title is often translated the Rape of Helen.2 The poem is a short, episodic hexameter work (392 lines) that dramatizes the Judgment of Paris, Paris’ journey to Sparta (more of a short cruise than an exacting odyssey), the theft of Helen, the grief of Hermione, Helen’s daughter, and a short coda in which Helen and Paris arrive at Troy.3 The poem presents two different accounts of Helen’s abandonment of her family and home: the first, told in the poet’s voice, describes how Helen desires Paris and encourages him to take her to Troy. The second is envisaged by Hermione in a dream in which Helen appears and despairs that she had been taken by Paris against her will and by force. The main aim of this article is to analyze the sexual politics of the Abduction of Helen. This will necessarily [End Page 61] involve the challenge of attempting to situate the poem in its late fifth- or sixth-century c.e. contexts.4

We know very little about Colluthus. The tenth-century encyclopedia, the Suda, says that he came from Lycopolis in Egypt and was an epic poet who lived, or flourished, in the time of the emperor Anastasius (who ruled from 491–518). According to the Suda, Colluthus wrote a Calydoniaca, an Encomia in epic verse, and a Persica. This information is repeated in a codex from the fifteenth century, which adds that Colluthus is also thought to be the author of the Abduction of Helen, “a poem familiar and well known in Apulia, where also the poetry of the Homeric Quintus [i.e., the Posthomerica of Quintus of Smyrna] was discovered.”5 The Abduction of Helen is the only one of Colluthus’s works to survive. Colluthus may have been what Alan Cameron calls a “wandering poet”; he may also have been a grammarian.6 Late imperial Greek poems are not easily understood as part of a coherent genre, or as emerging from a particular institution, or as having a uniform cultural function. Even if we limit our focus to mythological narrative epics from the third to the sixth centuries, Quintus’s Posthomerica, Nonnus’s Dionysiaca, the Orphic Argonautica, Triphiodorus’s Sack of Troy, Colluthus’s Abduction of Helen, and Musaeus’s Hero and Leander (to name the major works that survive), we find considerable disparities in style and scale, and know little about the poets themselves and their milieux.7

This article will present a literary analysis of some key scenes, characters, and relationships in the poem, from which, I argue, various interpretative contexts suggest themselves: literary and mythological engagements (notably those with Claudian and Dracontius), generic and performance contexts (the relationship between the poem and the pantomime), and historical, religious, philosophical, and legal contexts that [End Page 62] emerge from foregrounding the subject matter of the poem: an abduction. All too often, Colluthus’s subject matter is disregarded in favor of focusing on the poem’s positioning in relation to different literary traditions or its poetic texture. Of course, the abduction of Helen or the rape of Helen or the seduction of Helen—the myth always evokes these divergent accounts of itself—is a literary topos, familiar from epic, oratory, drama, pastoral, philosophy, and declamation, and its familiarity and contrivance can militate against a reader’s sensitivity to its sexual politics. However, it is a topos about rape, violence, and complicity, and in the period when the Abduction of Helen was being written and first read or performed, there was a heightened awareness of, and controversy about, abduction, rape, and the moral, legal, social, and emotional ramifications of abduction and rape. Reading the Abduction of Helen within these contexts can profitably expand our understanding and appreciation of the poem.


I want briefly to look at how Helen and Paris are described, before turning our attention to the relationship between Helen and her daughter Hermione. Colluthus’s Paris is...


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