1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

Where does the expression "The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships" come from?

By

Head of Helen. Attic red-figured krater, c. 450–440 B.C.

Head of Helen. Attic red-figured krater, c. 450–440 B.C.

Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.
Question: Where does the expression "The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships" come from?
Answer: The face that launched a thousand ships is a figure of speech that stands for Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy (formerly of Sparta) was so beautiful that Greek men went to Troy and fought the Trojan War to win Helen back from Paris. The thousand ships refer to the Greek troops that set sail from Aulis to Troy where the Trojan prince Paris had taken Menelaus' wife, Helen.

Helen had been abducted before she married Menelaus, so Menelaus knew it could happen again. Before Helen of Sparta married Menelaus, all the Greek suitors, and she had had quite a few, swore an oath to aid Menelaus should he ever need their help retrieving his wife. Those suitors or their sons brought their own troops and ships to Troy.

The Trojan War may have actually happened. The stories about it, best known from the author known as Homer, say it lasted 10 years. At the end of the Trojan War, the belly of the Trojan Horse (from which we get the expression "beware of Greeks bearing gifts") sneakily transported Greeks into Troy where they set fire to the city, killed the Trojan men, and took many of the Trojan women as concubines. Helen of Troy returned to her original husband, Menelaus.

According to Phrase Finder*, the source of the phrase "the face that launched a thousand ships" comes from Christopher Marlowe, in Doctor Faustus. * http://phrases.shu.ac.uk/meanings/359800.html (Accessed 06/06/2003)

Trojan War FAQ Index

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.