Briseis

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Briseis and Phoenix, red-figure kylix, c. 490 BCE, Louvre (G 152)[1]
Achilles' surrender of Briseis to Agamemnon, from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, fresco, 1st century CE, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Brisēís (/brˈsɪs/; Ancient Greek: Βρισηΐς, pronounced [brisɛːís]) ("daughter of Briseus"), also known as Hippodámeia (Ἱπποδάμεια, [hippodámeːa]),[2] is a significant character in the Iliad. Her role as a status symbol is at the heart of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon that initiates the plot of Homer's epic. She was married to Mynes, a son of the King of Lyrnessus, until Achilles sacked her city and enslaved her shortly before the events of the poem.

Description[edit]

Briseis receives the same minimal physical description as most other minor characters in the Iliad. She is described with the standard metrical epithets that the poet uses to describe a great beauty, though her appearance is left entirely up to the audience's imagination. She was imagined about two millennia later by the Byzantine poet John Tzetzes as:

"tall and white, her hair was black and curly;
she had beautiful breasts and cheeks and nose; she was, also, well -behaved;
her smile was bright, her eyebrows big"[3]

Mythology[edit]

According to her mythology, Briseis was the daughter of Briseus, though her mother was unnamed. She had three full brothers who died in the sack of Lyrnessus.[4]

When Achilles led the assault on Lyrnessus during the Trojan War, he captured Briseis and slew her parents and brothers.[5] She was subsequently given to Achilles as a war prize to be his concubine. In the Iliad, as in Mycenaean Greece, captive women like Briseis were slaves and could be traded amongst the warriors.

According to Book 1 of the Iliad, when Agamemnon was compelled by Apollo to give up his own slave, Chryseis, he demanded Briseis as compensation. This prompted a quarrel with Achilles that culminated with Briseis' delivery to Agamemnon and Achilles' protracted withdrawal from battle. His absence had disastrous consequences for the Greeks. Despite Agamemnon's grand offers of treasure and women, he did not return to the fray until the death of Patroclus.

Achilles was angry at Agamemnon, and seethed with rage in his tent that Agamemnon dared to insult him by stripping him of the prize that had been awarded to him. When Achilles returned to the fighting to avenge Patroclus' death and Agamemnon returned Briseis to him, Agamemnon swore to Achilles that he had never slept with Briseis.[6]

When Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix visit Achilles to negotiate her return in book 9, Achilles refers to Briseis as his wife or his bride. He professes to have loved her as much as any man loves his wife, at one point using Menelaus and Helen to complain about the injustice of his 'wife' being taken from him.[7] This romanticized, domestic view of their relationship contrasts with book 19, in which Briseis herself speaks. As she laments Patroclus' death, she wonders what will happen to her without his intercession on her behalf, saying that Patroclus promised her he would get Achilles to make her his legal wife instead of his slave.[8]

She remained with Achilles until his death, which plunged her into great grief. She soon took it upon herself to prepare Achilles for the afterlife.[citation needed] According to some,[who?] following his death, Briseis: "... was given to one of Achilles' comrades-at-arms just as his armor had been", after the fall of Troy.

In medieval romances, starting with the Roman de Troie, Briseis becomes Briseida[9] and is the daughter of Calchas. She loves and is loved by Troilus and then Diomedes. She is later confused with Chryseis and it is under variations of that name that the character is developed further, becoming Shakespeare's Cressida.

Portrayals in art, film, and other media[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Beazley Archive 203900.
  2. ^ From the A scholium at Iliad 1.392 we learn that "[Homer] forms the names [of Briseïs and Chryseis] patronymically. For as other ancient [poets] relate, Chryseis was called Astynome, and Briseis was called Hippodameia." Dictys Cretensis calls Briseis by the latter name in his account of the Trojan War. See Dué 2002: Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis 56-58.
  3. ^ John Tzetzes. Antehomerica, 356-358
  4. ^ Iliad 19, 291-95
  5. ^ See, e.g., Iliad 2, 688-94.
  6. ^ Homer. Iliad 19, 261-63.
  7. ^ Iliad 9, 406-20.
  8. ^ Iliad 19, 348-54. "Again and again you vowed you'd make me godlike Achilles' lawful, wedded wife, you would sail me west in your warships, home to Phthia, and there with the Myrmidons hold my marriage feast." (Robert Fagles translation)
  9. ^ Brizeida in the letter of Azalais d'Altier.

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Briseis at Wikimedia Commons