Trojan War Wednesday: "The Journey Back from Thebe"
Being the 2nd Installment of RAGE!, a retelling of the Iliad
The institution of slavery, in its ancient form, is central to the plot of Homer’s Iliad. Chryseis and Briseis are two women who are enslaved by the Achaeans during a raid. The pair are brought back to the Achaean encampment and are among the women doled out as war prizes. Chryseis goes to Agamemnon, who ordered the raid, and Briseis goes to Achilles, who carried it out. For both of these men, the women represent prestige and entitlement, but there is an emotional attachment as well. Agamemnon expresses a scandalous preference for Chryseis over his own wife back home, while Achilles is urged by Patroclus to marry Briseis.
Homer strips the names and identities from his enslaved characters. Chryseis and Briseis mean, respectively, “daughter of Chryses” and “daughter of Briseus,” although some later traditions provide their given names as Astynome and Hippodámeia and make them cousins to each other. The pair and their disposition are central to the conflict that drives the story, but Chryseis and Briseis are never developed by Homer as characters in their own right. Chryseis receives no dialogue and quickly exits the story. Briseis remains but says nothing until Book 19.
This week’s installment centers Briseis as a woman who uses her wits to make the best of a bad situation. Through her eyes, Achilles is a brutal monster and, terrifyingly, not the worst of all possible brutal monsters in the place she is being taken to against her will. By later tradition, Briseis was a princess or queen before her abduction, but in my telling this is an invention of hers, meant to raise her value as a defensive measure. Unlike Chryseis, Briseis receives no ransom from her family or assistance from the gods. Briseis is on her own. But although enslaved, she is still capable of making choices that drive the plot of the story and affect the outcome of the war.
In the brutal world of the Iliad, no one is exempt from the possibility of being enslaved. When Heracles came to Troy, a generation earlier, he captured and enslaved a boy named Podarces. Upon being purchased back by his family, the boy’s original name was changed to another, meaning “ransomed one.” The boy retained the new name, Priam, as a constant reminder of his humbling past even as he rose to become the powerful king of Troy.