Homer’s Iliad centres on events during the war against Troy, but is far from being a comprehensive account of the decade during which combined ancient Greek forces tried to crush the mighty fortress city – allegedly over the abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, and her ‘face that launched a thousand ships’.
The opening lines of the Iliad refer not to Helen, nor even directly to the war, but to the anger of Achilles, the son of Peleus:
The wrath of Peleus’ son, the direful spring
Of all the Grecian woes, O Goddess, sing!
(Alexander Pope’s translation (1715-20), via Wikisource.)
Achilles had been angry before the ‘thousand ships’ had even left Greece. He had been promised King Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia in marriage, but at the last minute the king decided that his daughter had to be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana, and give the fleet propitious winds.
David’s The Anger of Achilles (1819) shows Achilles, at the left, reaching for his sword when Agamemnon (right) breaks the news to him, the young Iphigenia looks understandably crestfallen, and the eyes of her mother, Queen Clytemnestra, are red with crying.
Once away at war, Achilles justified his reputation as Agamemnon’s best warrior, and finest leader. During an assault on the city of Lyrnessus in an earlier phase of the war, Achilles demonstrated those powers, killing the local king, queen, their three sons and a son-in-law, and leaving just the king’s daughter, Briseis, to survive. As was usual at the time, Achilles took the widowed princess Briseis as his enslaved concubine.
Agamemnon, in spite of his marriage to Clytemnestra, had also won himself a concubine: Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. Chryses was left alive, though, and tried to ransom her back from slavery. When Agamemnon refused to bargain with his concubine’s father, Apollo sent the plague to sweep through the massed Greek forces, which had devastating effect. This forced Agamemnon’s hand, and he returned Chryseis to her father.
The Iliad opens with this problem, and Agamemnon’s decision that he should take Briseis from Achilles, making her his own concubine in place of Chryseis. Abhorrent by any modern standards, women captured during war (and in many other circumstances) were treated as prize possessions at the time, and Agamemnon’s action was by no means unusual.
Although Briseis was but a slave and concubine, there is evidence of a deeper relationship developing. Achilles’ great friend Patroclus had comforted her following the loss of her home city, family, and freedom, and promised to have Achilles make Briseis his wife when the war was over. The arrival of Agamemnon’s two envoys, Eurybates and Talthybius, to take Briseis to Agamemnon was therefore a great shock to Achilles, Patroclus, and Briseis.
In 1801, JAD Ingres’s painting of Achilles Receiving the Envoys of Agamemnon made him the victor of that year’s competition for the Prix de Rome, and launched him on his career as one of the great history painters. The two envoys are at the right, explaining Agamemnon’s demand to Achilles at the left, who is clutching his lyre as he rises from his seat in anger. Patroclus stands behind him, wearing his helmet and a look of bemusement.
This detail shows Achilles and Patroclus in the foreground, and behind, in Achilles’ tent, stands Briseis. As a non-Greek, she may have found it difficult to understand the conversation going on with the envoys, which was perhaps just as well.
Tischbein’s painting of Briseis Led from the Tent of Achilles (1773) makes the removal of Briseis from Achilles’ tent look quite amicable. By any account, it was far from that.
John Flaxman’s original drawing of Briseis Taken from Achilles, made between about 1793-1805 to illustrate Pope’s translation of the Iliad perhaps, catches the atmosphere better as Achilles sulks in anger, and Patroclus tries to comfort Briseis again.
Piroli’s final engraving of Flaxman’s illustration, Briseis Taken from Achilles (1793), shows an oddly weaker composition and feeble body language.
Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays’ Briseis Led from the Tent of Achilles (c 1761) is a close-cropped view of the grief of Briseis as she is led away by the envoys – an interesting change of focus from Achilles.
George Frederic Watts showed an alternative version in his much later fresco of Achilles and Briseis (c 1858-60). Achilles is once again the centre of attention, and being comforted by another woman, as Patroclus, further to the left, looks resigned to events.
Tiepolo told the story over three sections of fresco in the Villa Valmarana, Vicenza. This is the last of the three, Eurybates and Talthybius Take Briseis, Achilles’ Concubine, to Agamemnon (1757).
The Iliad continues, its focus on Achilles and his anger, which resulted in the warrior withdrawing completely from the action. This is devastating to the Greek campaign, and as Achilles’ anger simmers steadily over the following days, the Trojans start gaining the upper hand.
Agamemnon knows that he must persuade Achilles to re-engage if the Greeks are going to have any chance of success. He tries offering Achilles wealth as compensation for the loss of Briseis, and a deputation of Ulysses, Ajax, and Phoenix is sent to appease Achilles’ wrath – and fails.
It is about this time that, according to Ovid’s fictional account in the third letter of his Heroides, Briseis might have written to Achilles. Whereas much of Homer’s Iliad is devoted to describing Achilles’ side of the story, Ovid takes up the cause of his former concubine, now presumably sharing Agamemnon’s bed.
Robinet Testard’s miniature Briseis Writing to Achilles (c 1510) shows this, in Octavien de Saint-Gelais’ translation of the Heroides into French. Briseis weeps as she struggles to write to her former captor in a foreign language.
Ovid’s fictional letter goes over the horrific murders of both her parents, her three brothers, and her husband. Despite that, Briseis even offers to remain Achilles’ enslaved concubine if he were to marry another woman. She pleads with the warrior to take her back and settle with Agamemnon. She also swears that she has not slept with Agamemnon, although she doubts that Achilles has been faithful to her since their parting.
The anger of Achilles is not assuaged. Eventually, his dear friend Patroclus goes out to fight wearing Achilles’ famous suit of armour, and is mortally wounded.
In one of his earliest and most brilliant paintings, Léon Cogniet brought together the whole story, with Briseis correctly at its centre, in his Briseis Restored to Achilles in his Tent Discovers the Body of Patroculus (1815). With the death of Patroclus, Briseis was restored to Achilles, who returned to battle to avenge the death of his dear friend. Briseis is seen grieving on Patroclus’ corpse, as Achilles (to the left) is being galvanised into action, with a fearsome stare in his eyes.
True to her word, or at least Ovid’s fictional account of her words, Briseis remained faithful to Achilles. When he was killed as a result of his ‘Achilles heel’, she fell into profound grief, and prepared him for the afterlife. Homer’s account of the battles leading to the Greek victory were but one side of the story: if Homer’s Achilles had been a great warrior, so Ovid’s Briseis had been the great heroine behind him.
Sadly, history has not been so kind to Briseis. In the Middle Ages, her name became Briseida, and she became confused with Chryseis, Agamemnon’s former concubine. So William Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida should perhaps have been Troilus and Briseida.