The Trojan army marches from the city gates and advances to meet the Achaeans. Paris, the Trojan prince who precipitated the war by stealing the beautiful Helen from her husband, Menelaus, challenges the Achaeans to single combat with any of their warriors. When Menelaus steps forward, however, Paris loses heart and shrinks back into the Trojan ranks. Hector, Paris’s brother and the leader of the Trojan forces, chastises Paris for his cowardice. Stung by Hector’s insult, Paris finally agrees to a duel with Menelaus, declaring that the contest will establish peace between Trojans and Achaeans by deciding once and for all which man shall have Helen as his wife. Hector presents the terms to Menelaus, who accepts. Both armies look forward to ending the war at last.
As Paris and Menelaus prepare for combat, the goddess Iris, disguised as Hector’s sister Laodice, visits Helen in Priam’s palace. Iris urges Helen to go to the city gates and witness the battle about to be fought over her. Helen finds the city’s elders, including Priam, gathered there. Priam asks Helen about the strapping young Achaeans he sees, and she identifies Agamemnon, Ajax, and Odysseus. Priam marvels at their strength and splendor but eventually leaves the scene, unable to bear watching Paris fight to the death.
Paris and Menelaus arm themselves and begin their duel. Neither is able to fell the other with his spear. Menelaus breaks his sword over Paris’s helmet. He then grabs Paris by the helmet and begins dragging him through the dirt, but Aphrodite, an ally of the Trojans, snaps the strap of the helmet so that it breaks off in Menelaus’s hands. Frustrated, Menelaus retrieves his spear and is about to drive it home into Paris when Aphrodite whisks Paris away to his room in Priam’s palace. She summons Helen there too. Helen, after upbraiding Paris for his cowardice, lies down in bed with him. Back on the battlefield, both the Trojans and the Greeks search for Paris, who seems to have magically disappeared. Agamemnon insists that Menelaus has won the duel, and he demands Helen back.
Meanwhile, the gods engage in their own duels. Zeus argues that Menelaus has won the duel and that the war should end as the mortals had agreed. But Hera, who has invested much in the Achaean cause, wants nothing less than the complete destruction of Troy. In the end, Zeus gives way and sends Athena to the battlefield to rekindle the fighting. Disguised as a Trojan soldier, Athena convinces the archer Pandarus to take aim at Menelaus. Pandarus fires, but Athena, who wants merely to give the Achaeans a pretext for fighting, deflects the arrow so that it only wounds Menelaus.
Agamemnon now rallies the Achaean ranks. He meets Nestor, Odysseus, and Diomedes, among others, and spurs them on by challenging their pride or recounting the great deeds of their fathers. Battle breaks out, and the blood flows freely. None of the major characters is killed or wounded, but Odysseus and Great Ajax kill a number of minor Trojan figures. The gods also become involved, with Athena helping the Achaeans and Apollo helping the Trojans. The efforts toward a truce have failed utterly.
While the first two books introduce the commanders of the Achaean forces, the next two introduce the Trojan forces. Priam, Hector, Paris, and Helen of Troy (formerly, of course, queen of Sparta) all make their first appearances in Book 3, and their personalities begin to emerge. In particular, Paris’s glibness throws him into stark contrast with Hector and many of the Achaean leaders whom the audience has already encountered. While the sight of Menelaus causes Paris to flee, Hector, much more devoted to the ideal of heroic honor, criticizes him for the disgrace that he has brought upon not only himself but also the entire Trojan army. Paris’s fight with Menelaus proves embarrassing, and he must be rescued—not by any particularly fierce deity but rather by Aphrodite, the goddess of love (she is even referred to, in Book 5, as the “coward goddess” [5.371]). Though Paris sulkily blames his misfortune in the fight on the gods whom he claims aided Menelaus, Homer himself makes no mention of these gods, and the suffering that Menelaus undergoes in the fight suggests that he had no divine help. But perhaps most outrageous is Paris’s retreat to his marriage bed. While the rest of the Trojan army is forced to fight for the woman whom he stole from the Achaeans, he sleeps with her. This affront to the heroic code of conduct disgusts even the Trojan rank and file, who, we read, “hated [Paris] like death” (3.533).