For Briseis, Iliad is a story of murder, kidnapping, and tragedy. For Helen, a story of kidnapping and uncertainty as her captors fight a war to retain her.
Chrysies fares perhaps the best of the three, but she is later returned to her former captor by her own father. None of them come away from the war with any justice served on their behalf, and all three lose almost everything (if not everything).
The women are victims of the actions of men who were seeking their own versions of glory and honor. They had no thought for how their behavior would affect the very ones they claimed to value so deeply they were willing to shed and spill blood over their presence or absence.
Born to her father Briseus and her mother Calchas in Lyrnessus, Briseis in the Iliad was a victim of the city’s Greek sacking before the start of the epic.
The Greek invaders brutally murdered her parents and three brothers, and she and another maiden, Chryseis, were taken away to be slaves and concubines of the invading forces. The taking of women as slaves by invading forces was common practice in those days, and the women were doomed to be a prize of war.
Briseis’ fate laid entirely in the hands of the very men who had murdered her family and stolen her away from her homeland.
Who Is Briseis in The Iliad?
Some writers romanticize Achilles and Briseis‘ relationship, painting them as almost as tragic a couple as Helen and her husband Menelaus, who fought to retrieve her.
The stark contrast between Helen’s courting by multiple suitors until she chose Menelaus and the brutal murder of Briseis’ family and her subsequent kidnapping is ignored by most writers.
Briseis was no bride to Achilles. She was a slave, stolen from her homeland and bought with her parents’ and brothers’ blood. She is traded between Achilles and Agamemnon like any other war prize, and upon Achilles’ death is rumored to have been given to one of his comrades, with no more say in her fate than his armor and other possessions.
Achilles and Briseis are not lovers or a tragic couple. Their story is far darker and more sinister. Achilles, the famed Greek hero, is a kidnapper and potentially a rapist, though it is never made clear whether he has intercourse with his victim.
At best, Briseis is a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which a victim becomes dependent upon their captor.
It is a fundamental survival instinct to befriend and endear oneself to one’s captor to win better treatment and perhaps prevent abuse or even murder.
There is simply no scenario in which Achilles’ relationship with Briseis can be re-imagined as “romantic” or benevolent in the least. Only Patroclus, a mentor, potential lover, and squire to Achilles, shows her compassion and kindness. Perhaps Patroclus is most able to understand her position, which is not entirely dissimilar to his own.
Regardless of his valor or strength, he will always be second to Achilles, at the mercy of his whims. Perhaps that is why he befriends Briseis and later oversteps Achilles’ instructions.
How Did Briseis and Chryseis Cause a Feud?
At around the same time when Briseis was taken from her homeland by Achilles, another maiden was captured. Her name was Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, a priest of god Apollo.
Chryses appeals to Agamemnon, seeking to ransom his daughter from the warrior. He offers the Mycenaean king gifts of gold and silver, but Agamemnon, saying that Chryseis is “finer than his own wife” Clytemnestra, refuses to release her, insisting instead on keeping her as a concubine.
When Chryses’ efforts to rescue his daughter fails, he prays to Apollo to save her from slavery and return her to him. Apollo, hearing his acolyte’s pleas, sends a plague on the Greek army.
Finally, in defeat, Agamemnon agrees to return the girl to her father grudgingly. He sends her, accompanied by Odysseus, the Greek warrior, to relieve the plague. In a fit of pique, Agamemnon insists that Briseis, the princess taken by Achilles, be given to him as a replacement and to restore his offended honor.
“Fetch me another prize, and straight off too,
else I alone of the Argives go without my honor.
That would be a disgrace. You are all witnesses,
look – MY prize is snatched away!”
Achilles would have slain Agamemnon rather than giving up his prize, but Athena intervenes, stopping him before he can cut the other down. He is angry that Briseis has been taken from him.
He speaks of loving her as a wife, but his protests are belied later by his declaration that he would rather that Briseis had died rather than coming between himself and Agamemnon.
When Briseis is taken from him, Achilles and his Myrmidons withdraw and return to the shore near their ships, refusing to participate further in the battle.
Thetis, his mother, comes to Achilles to discuss his options. He can stay and win honor and glory in battle but likely die in the war, or retreat quietly to Greece and leave the battlefield, living out a long and uneventful life. Achilles refuses the peaceful route, unwilling to give up Briseis and his opportunity for glory.
Achilles may have developed real feelings for Briseis, but his attitude and behaviors reveal a far larger measure of hubris and pride than of selfless affection.
When telling Thetis the story, he barely mentions the woman’s name, a rather telling sign for a man speaking with his mother about the woman he supposedly carries affection for in his heart.
Patroclus and Briseis: Greek Mythology’s Odd Couple
Although Achilles declares affection for Briseis, comparable to Agamemnon’s own desire to retain Chryseis, his behavior tells another story. While there is no evidence that either of the women is taken advantage of physically, neither has any choice in their fate, making their positions those of “victim” rather than participating in a romantic exchange.
Though Briseis makes few appearances in the Iliad, she, and the other women, have a strong impact on the storyline. Much of Achilles’ behavior is posturing around his fury at being seen as disrespected by Agamemnon.
All of the major leaders in the Trojan war have been brought into the war against their own wills, bound by the Oath of Tyndareus. Tyndareus, Helen’s father and the king of Sparta, took the wise Odysseus’ advice and made all of her potential suitors swear a vow to defend her marriage.
Therefore, when Paris steals Helen away, all of those who had previously courted her are called upon to defend her marriage. Several attempts, to no avail, to avoid fulfilling their vows.
Achilles had been sent to the Aegean island of Skyros and disguised as a girl by his mother Thetis because he would die heroically in battle because of a prophecy.
Odysseus himself fetched Achilles back, tricking the youth into revealing himself by laying out several items of interest to young girls and a few weapons. He then blew a battle horn, and Achilles immediately caught up the weapon, ready to fight, revealing his warrior’s nature and identity.
Once Achilles joined the battle, he, and all the leaders present, sought to win honor and glory for their homes and kingdoms and undoubtedly hoped also to gain the favor of Tyndareus and his powerful kingdom. Therefore, Agamemnon’s disrespect showed Achilles by taking Briseis from him was a direct challenge to his status and place among the leaders present. He essentially put Achilles under himself in the hierarchy, and Achilles was not having it. He threw a temper tantrum that lasted almost two weeks and cost many Greek lives.
Of Briseis, Greek mythology paints a romantic picture. Still, when the events and circumstances are more closely examined, it becomes clear that her role was not at all one of a tragic, stoic heroine, but rather a victim of circumstances and the hubris and arrogance of the leadership of the day.
For Briseis, Trojan war battling and politics would tear her life apart. She was first kidnapped by Achilles and then retaken by Agamemnon. There is no clear indication if she suffers any abuse or unwanted attention at his hand. Still, considering that Agamemnon was busy partaking in battle, it’s unlikely he had time to spend enjoying his war prize.
Briseis’ position is made most clear not only by the trading back and forth she suffers but her own response to the death of Patroclus. Presumably, like Achilles’ squire and mentor, Patroclus was viewed as less of an enemy by the captives.
Achilles himself likely murdered her family, and in the desperate situation in which she found herself as a war prize and slave, she would have sought out any ally possible. Patroclus was the calmer, more mature balance to Achilles’ volatile temper, providing a foil and perhaps a sort of port in the storm Briseis found herself in.
In desperation, she seems to have reached out to the only person who had provided her with some hope. When Patroclus is killed, she laments his death, wondering aloud what will become of her now and saying that he had promised to convince Achilles to make an honest woman of her, promoting her to the position of bride. Achilles would have prevented her from being taken by another warrior by marrying her, as happened with Agamemnon.
Patroclus’ offer of help was a generous one and one that Achilles was likely to agree to, as he had already declared his affection for the woman. Although nothing could bring back her family, and she had no one left in her home country to return to, Briseis could have lived a relatively comfortable life as Achilles’ wife.
Caught in a challenging place, with few choices open to her, Briseis would have taken Achilles as a husband willingly, rather than remain a slave, a pawn to be passed as a prize between warriors. She understood her value as a desirable woman between the soldiers and the insecure nature of her position as a mere concubine.
Patroclus’ offer to help convince Achilles to take her as a wife would have cemented her place, given her the honor of other women in the household, and protection against being given out like a prize to other warriors by Achilles, to use as they pleased.
When she hears of Patroclus’ passing, she offers up a lament, both for him and for herself:
“And yet you would not let me, when swift Achilleus had cut down
My husband and sacked the city of godlike Mynes,
You would not let me sorrow, but said you would make me godlike Achilleus’
Wedded lawful wife, that you would take me back in the ships
To Phthia, and formalize my marriage among the Myrmidons.
Therefore I weep your death without ceasing. You were kind always.”
The loss of Patroclus was not only a dire blow to Achilles, who loved him, but to Briseis also, for whom Patroclus’ death spelled disaster. She lost not only the only one among her captors who had shown an understanding of her situation and compassion but had offered her some small hope for the future.
Was Helen an Adulteress or Victim like Briseis and Chryselis?
Helen of Sparta has no more control over her fate than the others, making her yet another victim of the “heroes” of the Trojan war. Priam and Helen share a strange moment in which he calls her to his side as he stands atop the battlements. He asks Helen to point out to him the Greeks on the battlefield, forcing her to act as the spy against her own people or suffer the consequences of refusing to answer.
Helen acknowledges her position and laments her absence:
“And Helen the radiance of women answered Priam,
‘I revere you so, dear father, dread you too,
if only death had please me then, grim death,
that day I followed your son to Troy, forsaking
my marriage bed, my kinsmen and my child,
my favorite then, now full-grown,
and the lovely comradeship of women my own age.
Death never came, so now I can only waste away in tears.’ “
Helen acknowledges her place as a prisoner to the whims of the men around her, her regret at losing her homeland and her child. She does point out the heroes in the field, Odysseus, Menelaus, Agamemnon and Ajax the Great. She also mentions Castor, “breaker of horse” and “the hardy boxer Polydeuces,” not knowing that they have been killed in the battling. In this way, Helen subtly tries to get information on the missing men, mentioning that they are her “blood brothers, my brother bore them both.”
Helen’s speech is subtle and carries overtones often missed in literal and surface interpretations of the epic.
Many writers believe her a willing participant in her own kidnapping, seduced by Paris rather than stolen from her home. Since Paris’ interest was first aroused by Aphrodites’ gift of Helen’s hand in marriage, the implication is that if Helen looked fondly on Paris at all, she was heavily influenced by the goddess.
The final evidence for Helen’s position as a victim is revealed in her speech to goddess Aphrodite, who disguises herself as an older woman to lure Helen to Paris’ bedside. Menelaus has injured him, and Aphrodite tries to coerce Helen to come to his side and comfort him in his injuries.
“Maddening one, my goddess, oh what now?
Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?
Where will you drive me next?
Off and away to other grand, luxurious country?
Have you a favorite mortal man there too? But why now?
Because Menelaus has beater your handsome Paris,
and hateful as I am, he longs to take me home?
Is that why you beckon here beside me now
with all the immortal cunning in your heart?
Well, goddess, go to him yourself, you hover beside him!
Abandon the god’s high road and be a mortal!
Never set foot on Mount Olympus, never!
Suffer for Paris, protect Paris, for eternity,
until he makes you his wedded wife, that or his slave.
No, I will never go back again. I would be wrong,
disgraceful to share that coward’s bed once more.”
The three maidens of the Trojan war, Helen, Briseis, and Chryseis, are heroines in their own right but are often overlooked in the glorifying of the epic’s male heroes.
Each is faced with impossible circumstances and rises, standing to face their fates with dignity. Their grief gets a footnote in the history of literature, but it is perhaps the most real and human emotion in all of the epic’s storytelling.
Helen’s bitterness toward Aphrodite, the effort Chryseis’ father puts to retrieve her from her captors, and the grief Briseis expresses at the death of Patroclus all show the desperation they each faced and the injustice they bore as women in Greek mythology.