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Who was “the face that launched a thousand ships” and why?

Nowadays, we might use this quote to say that a woman is stunningly beautiful, just like Helen of Troy.

Beth Taylor
Beth Taylor

“The face that launched a thousand ships” meaning

The question is not what is “the face that launched a thousand ships,” but who? The quote refers to a character in Greek mythology, but it wasn’t written by Homer or any other classical author of Greek mythology. In fact, it is a far more recent quote dating back to the 16th century. This saying originates from a play written by Christopher Marlowe, entitled The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The full quote is, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships. And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” In the play, Marlowe is talking about the infamous Helen of Troy. So, why would he refer to her in such a way?

Helen of Troy— the face that launched a thousand ships

In order to fully comprehend what Marlowe meant by this sentence, we must first understand the story of the Trojan War in Greek mythology and Helen of Troy’s role in the war. Helen was said to have been an incredibly beautiful woman. She was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta, yet Aphrodite promised her to Paris of Troy. Paris supposedly seduced her and took her back to Troy, although some say he kidnapped her. As a result, many Greek men took their own ships and formed an army to fight against the Trojans, alongside Menelaus, in order to return Helen to her husband. This army that united to save Helen is what Marlowe was referring to when he said “a thousand ships.”

Nowadays, we might use this quote to say that a woman is stunningly beautiful, just like Helen of Troy. The saying can also be parodied or used in other contexts, for example, to say that somebody started a trend and became “the face of a thousand (something).”

To summarize, Helen of Troy was so beautiful that she drove men to war. Thousands of ships, and many more men, were willing to sail to Troy and fight to bring her home to Greece. Some say this was a duty or a promise they had made to Menelaus, while others claim that they did it purely because they were mesmerized by her beauty. While Helen of Troy is depicted in many different ways by various authors, they can all agree that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

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Beth Taylor

Hello! My name is Beth. I'm from France. I'm a French and English native speaker and I really like writing.


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Beth Taylor

Hello! My name is Beth. I'm from France. I'm a French and English native speaker and I really like writing.