Briseis was the daughter of Briseus and lived in Lyrnessus. Her husband was Mynes, son of Euenus.
Achilles defeated Lyrnessus (and killed Mynes) during the Trojan War and took Briseis as a prisoner.
Ovid immortalized the plight of Briseis in letter III of the Heroides. In the Heroides, Briseis recounts the loss of her family in the form of a letter to Achilles:
(45) Diruta Marte tuo Lyrnesia
moenia vidi -
et fueram patriae pars ego magna meae;
vidi consortes pariter generisque necisque
tres cecidisse, quibus, quae mihi, mater erat;
vidi, quantus erat, fusum tellure cruenta
pectora iactantem sanguinolenta virum.
|I saw the walls of Lyrnessus having been destroyed by your (Achilles') battle (Mars) - and I myself had been a great region of my fatherland; I saw three kinsmen in birth to have fallen in death together, to whom there was a mother that was [the mother] of me; I saw, how great it was, [my] husband spread out on the blood-stained ground, his bloody chest heaving.|
Soon, however, Agamemnon demanded Briseis from Achilles because he himself had been forced to give up his female captive, Chryseis.
Achilles reluctantly gave up Briseis (some say at the bidding of Athena). However, Achilles was angry at Agamemnon and refused to fight in the war. This tipped the war in the Trojans' favor.
Ovid makes note of this in Amores I.9, when he writes:
(31) Ergo desidiam quicumque
desinat - ingenii est esperientis amor.
Ardet in abducta Briseide maestus Achilles -
dum licet, Argeas frangite, Troes, opes!
|Therefore whoever called love leisure, may he cease - love has an active nature. Unhappy Achilles burns for Briseis taken in abduction - as long as you may, Trojans, crush Argive defenses!|
The Briseis portrayed in the Heroides is an impassioned, desperate woman. Briseis describes her departure from Achilles:
(5) Si mihi pauca queri de te
fas est, de domino pauca viroque querar.
non, ego poscenti quod sum cito tradita regi,
culpa tua est - quamvis haec quoque culpa tua est;
nam simul Eurybates me Talthybiusque vocarunt,
Eurybati data sum Talthybioque comes.
Alter in alterius iactantes lumina vultum
quaerebant taciti noster ubi esset amor.
poenae mora grata fuisset.
ei mihi! Discedens oscula nulla dedi;
at lacrimas sine fine dedi rupique capillos -
infelix iterum sum mihi visa capi!
Saepe ego decepto volui custode revert,
sed, me qui timidam prenderet, hostis erat.
Si progressa forem, caperer ne, nocte, timebam,
quamlibet ad Priami munus itura nurum.
If it is lawful of me to complain in a few words of you, master and beloved, of master and beloved I will complain of in a few words. Insofar as I was quickly surrendered to the demanding king, it is not your fault - yet this also is your fault; for as soon as Eurybates and Talthybius called for me, to Eurybates and Talthybius I was given as companion. Each casting [their] eyes in the other's face, they asked silently, where was our love.
[My leaving may] have been able to be postponed; a delay in penalty had been pleasing. Ah me! Departing gave no kisses; but tears without end I gave and rent my hair - I, unhappy, have appeared to be captured again! Often I wished the guards to have been deceived, and [I wished myself to] return [to you], but, those guards might seize timid me, there was the enemy. If I had progressed out at night, I feared that I would be captured, about to go as a gift to a daughter-in-law of Priam.
Because the Greeks suffered heavy defeats as a result of Achilles not fighting, Agamemnon promised to give Briseis back to Achilles. Achilles was also promised a large sum of money.
In the Heroides, Briseis entreats Achilles to return to battle so that she can be returned to him.
(89) Propter me mota est, propter
me desinat ira,
simque ego tristitiae causa modusque tuae.
nec tibi turpe puta precibus succumbere nostris;
coniugis Oenides versus in arma prece est.
res audita mihi, nota est tibi. Fratribus orba
devovit nati spemque caputque parens.
Bellum erat; ille ferox positis secessit ab armis
et patriae rigida mente negavit opem.
Sola virum coniunx flexit. Felicior illa!
At mea pro nullo pondere verba cadunt.
Nec tamen indignor nec me pro coniuge gessi
saepius in domini serva vocata torum.
Me quaedam, memini, dominam captiva vocabat.
"Servitio," dixi, "nominis addis onus."
Because of me your anger was moved, because of me let it be ended, and let me be the cause and measure of your sadness. Don't think it disgraceful for you to succumb to our prayers; by the prayer of his wife the son of Oeneus [Meleager] was moved to arms. To me [this is but] a heard matter, to you it is well-known. Deprived of her brothers the parent cursed her son's hope and head. [There] was war; that one, defiant, withdrew and laid down his arms and with rigid will refused to aid his native land. The wife alone persuaded the man. The more happy she!
For my words fall in weight for nothing. However neither am I offended nor have I carried myself as a wife [because I have been] more often summoned, a slave, into my master's bed. I remember a certain captive called me mistress. "Slavery," I said, "you add the burden of a name."
(111) Si tibi nunc dicam, fortissime:
"tu quoque iura
nulla tibi sine me gaudia capta!" neges.
At Danai maerere putant - tibi plectra moventur,
te tenet in tepido mollis amica sinu!
et quisquam quaerit, quare pugnare recuses?
pugna nocet, citharae voxque Venusque iuvant.
Tutius est iacuisse toro, tenuisse puellam,
Threiciam digitis increpuisse lyram,
quam manibus clipeos et acutae cuspidis hastam,
et galeam pressa sustinuissee coma.
abiit corpusque colorque;
sustinet hoc animae spes tamen una tui.
Qua si destituor, repetam fratresque virumque -
nec tibi magnificum femina iussa mori.
Cur autem iubeas? Stricto pete corpora ferro;
est mihi qui fosso pectore sanguis eat.
Me petat ille tuus, qui, si dea pass fuisset,
ensis in Atridae pectus iturus erat!
If I should say to you now, most brave [one]: "Do you have oaths that [there are] to you no joys captured without me also!" you would deny. But the Danai believe [you] to grieve - the plectra (used to pluck the lyre or lute) are being moved by you, a gentle mistress holds you in a warm embrace!
And [does] anyone ask why you refuse to fight? The fight injures, lyres and song and Venus please. It is more safe to have reclined on a couch, to have held a girl, to have played a Thracian lyre with your fingers, than grasp in your hands shields and a spear with a sharp point, and to have sustained your helmet's weight and hair having been pressed down.
Gone [is my] body and color; one hope of you sustains this spirit. If I am forsaken by that, I will seek again my brothers and husband - a woman having been bided to die is to you no splendour. Why, however, should you order [me to die]? Let the iron having been drawn strike me body; I have blood which flows from my chest, having been dug. May that [sword] of yours seek me, which, if the goddess had allowed, the sword was about to go into the heart of a descendent of Atrius (Agamemnon)!
Achilles refused Agamemnon's entreaty and only after the death of his friend, Patroclus, did Achilles return to the war.
Briseis was then returned to Achilles.
In the Trojan War, captive women like Briseis were little more than objects to be traded amongst the warriors. They had no real standing, and were, in fact, spoils of war. Interestingly, in the funeral games Achilles organizes for Patroclus, one of the prizes is a woman who is said in the Iliad to be "skilled in much work of her hands, and they rated her at four oxen" (23.702-5; Blundell, 48). Ovid's Briseis recognizes her position, and proclaims that she will go as a captive with Achilles, for she loves him as if her were her "master, husband, and brother."
Briseis' proclamation that Achilles is like a "master, husband, and brother" serves to show how alone she is. She has seen her world destroyed, she is in a new land, with new people, and with a new status. The only thing she has to hold on to is her reliance on Achilles (a man who killed her husband). Achilles then takes on three roles (master, husband, brother) in the eyes of Briseis. Perhaps, then, it is not love that inspires Briseis' impassioned speeches. Instead, maybe it is desperation. Harold Isbell states: "the overriding emotion in Briseis is not jealousy of the woman given to Achilles as wife or of the captive girls given as concubines, nor is it anger that she has been replaced by these others. Briseis has seen her world of comfort and security destroyed, and she now fears that something of the sort might happen again. It is the fear of desertion that colours and shapes her life" (Isbell, 20).
Briseis takes a stance similar to that of Dido as she says, "If now a return and your fatherland's Penates are pleasing, I am not a great burden to your fleet. Let a captive follow the victor, not as a bride in marriage." Ovid's Briseis, apparently, is resigned to be a captive as long as she can be with Achilles.
(51) Tot tamen amissis te conpensavimus
tu dominus, tu vir, tu mihi frater eras.
Tu mihi, iuratus per numina matris aquosae,
utile dicebas ipse fuisse capi -
scilicet ut, quamvis veniam dotata, repellas
et mecum fugias quae tibi dantur opes!
Quin etiam fama est, cum crastina fulserit Eos,
te dare nubiferis lintea velle Notis.
Quod scelus ut pavidas miserae mihi contigit aures,
sanguinis atque animi pectus inane fuit.
Ibis et - o miseram! - cui me, violente, relinquis?
Quis mihi desertae mite levamen erit?
Devorer ante, precor, subito telluris hiatu
aut rutilo missi fulminis igne cremer,
quam sine me Pthiis canescant aequora remis,
et videam puppes ire relicta tuas!
si tibi iam reditusque placent patriique Penates,
non ego sum classi sarcina magna tuae.
Victorem captiva sequar, non nupta maritum;
est mihi, quae lanas molliat, apta manus.
Inter Achaeiadas longe pulcherrima matres
in thalamos coniunx ibit eatque tuos,
digna nurus socero, Iovis Aeginaeque nepote,
cuique senex Nereus prosocer esse velit.
No humiles famulaeque tuae data pensa trahemus,
et minuent plenas stamina nostra colos.
So many have been lost to me, yet we alone compensate; you were [my] master, you were [my] husband, you were a brother to me. You swore to me by the name of your water[born] mother, [you] yourself said [my] to be taken captive [was] useful - naturally how, although I come endowed, when you reject me and flee from me although wealth is given to you!
In fact it is even rumor [that], when tomorrow's Dawn has strengthened, you mean to give [your] linen [sails] to the cloud-capped South Wind. When this crime reached the alarmed ears of miserable me, my heart was empty of blood and purpose.
And you will go - o miserable me! - you relinquished me to whom, violent one? Who will be to deserted me gentle comfort? May I be devoured, I pray, suddenly by an opening in the ground or else may I be consumed by the red fire of lightning having been hurled, how without me the seas become foamy white by means of Phthian oars, and I, forsaken, would see your sterns to go onward.
If now a return and your fatherland's Penates are pleasing, I am not a great burden to your fleet. Let a captive follow the victor, not as a bride in marriage; there is to me an apt hand which can soften wool. The most beautiful among the Archaean women by far will come into the marriage bedroom as a spouse, and let her come, worthy as a daughter-in-law of the father-in-law, the little grandson of Jove and Aegina, and whom aged Nereus would to be a wife's grandfather. We, your lowly female slaves, will draw the given tasks, and our threads will make the full distaff become smaller.
Like Dido, Briseis was willing to give up everything she had as long as she could be with Achilles. Letter III of the Heroides ends with Briseis pleading:
(153) Me modo, sive paras inpellere
sive manes, domini iure venire iube!
|Only, whether you get ready to drive the fleet forward with the oar or you remain, [by your] master's right, order me to come!|
Horace, in Ode IV, Liber II of Carminum, remarks upon the relationship between Briseis and Achilles as an example of love between different social stations. In the ode, Horace states that loving people of lower social stations is not wrong, for Achilles himself can defeat Troy even though he loves a captive maiden.
(1)Ne sit ancillae tibi amor
Xanthia Phoceu. Prius insolentem
serva Briseis niveo colore
movit Aiacem Telamone natum
forma captivae dominum Tecmessae;
arsit Atrides medio in triumpho
barbarae postquam cecidere turmae
Thessalo victore et ademptus Hector
tradidit fessis leviora tolli
Do not let love of your handmaiden [make you] shameful, Xanthias of Phocis. Before the slave Briseis of snow-colored complexion moved insolent Achilles;
the form of captive Tecmessa moved her master, Ajax, son of Telamon; Atrides in the middle of triumph had burned in love for a captive maiden,
when the barbrous troops had fallen to the Thessalian victor [Achilles], and Hector surrendered Troy, easier to be defeated, to the weary Greeks.
Propertius, in Book II.9A, poem IXA, of the Elegies, makes note of Briseis' fidelity toward Achilles even after his death.
(1) Iste quod est, ego
saepe fui: sed fors et in hora
Penelope poterat bis denos
salva per annos
Nec non exanimen amplectens
Tunc igitur, verus gaudebat
What that one is, I often have been: but perhaps in time after, this one will have been removed and another will be more dear.
Penelope was able to live pure through twice ten years, such a woman worthy of many suitors; the false weaving was able to postpone a marriage, loosening the woven cloth of the day in nocturnal trick; and although she never hoped that she would see Odysseus, she remained, having become an old woman by waiting.
Nor did Briseis, clinging to lifeless Achilles, not beat her white cheek [with] impassioned hand; and the grieving captive washed the bleeding master positioned in the golden shoals by Simois, and she darkened her hair and she lifted the body of great Achilles and the very large bones in her small hand; who then Peleus had not aided nor his mother of the blue sea, nor Deidamia, on a destitute bed in Scyros.
Then, in short, Greece rejoiced [in] honorable wives, then also propriety [lived] amongst bloodshed and arms.
Propertius mentions that no one else aided Achilles in death. This makes Briseis' actions even more loyal because funerary customs in Greek religion were "concerned with asserting tradition across generations and in particular solidarity" (Burkert, 190-1). Because none of Achilles' family (Peleus, Thetis, and Deidamia) were there to mourn him, Briseis, a concubine, took it upon herself to prepare Achilles for the afterlife.
Propertius' depiction of Briseis caring for the fallen Achilles stands in sharp contrast to the funeral Achilles planned for his companion Patroclus. Achilles is said to have ordered the captured Trojan women to lament and mourn Patroclus, and Achilles ordered a huge feast, many sacrifices, and funerary games (Burkert, 192).
It is not known what happened to Briseis after the fall of Troy, but Robert Bell states: "Undoubtedly she was given to one of Achilles' comrades-at-arms just as his armor had been" (Bell, 244).
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