Who is Briseis?—Searching for her voice in the Iliad

Priscilla G. Larkin

University of South Carolina

In the Iliad, Briseis presents a study in paradox.  Both central and liminal to the plot of this warrior epic—though her role in the plot is crucial, as a character she appears in only a few scenes—Briseis is a princess objectified as a "prize," a married woman referred to as "girl," a concubine of her husband's murderer who is yet unwilling to leave him, and a passionate mourner for this enemy master's best friend.  An understanding of the contemporary Greek cultural views on women may explain in part the insensitivity with which Briseis is treated by men and gods alike throughout the action.  Moreover, Homer's vague or offhand characterization may actually leave room for a wealth of interpretations concerning Briseis.  To read the Iliad without attention to Briseis and her treatment as a captive, therefore, is to miss a major cultural element present in the poem.

The characterization of Briseis, in the world of Homer's Iliad, almost exclusively follows the male perspective.  Through descriptions of her appearance and accounts of the actions done to and performed by Briseis, the presumably male narrator along with the male characters present and thereby shape her according to the male-dominated culture's view of women, with its focus on physical appearance, domestic skills, and sexual compatibility as sources of a woman's value.  Granted that Homer set great store by male and female physical beauty, nevertheless, male characters deliver far more speeches than the women do, providing greater opportunities for the development of the men's personalities and characters.  Thus, the purely physically descriptive epithets assigned to Briseis, from kallipare<->ion ("fair-cheeked"- 1.184, 323, 346; 19.246, 24.676) and eyzo<->noio ("fair-girdled"-1.429) to e<->ukomoio ("fair-haired"-2.689) and even ikele<-> chrysee<-> Aphrodite<-> ("like golden Aphrodite"-19.282), both exemplify the portrayal of this woman from the male perspective and threaten to overshadow Briseis's only opportunity to speak. 

Nevertheless, Briseis's one speech, a lament for Patroclus, does offer an invaluable glimpse of her character from the female point of view (19.286-303).  Since she has been designated throughout the epic as either a geras ("prize") or koyre<-> ("girl" or "daughter") with a few references to her as gyne<-> ("woman" or "wife") or alochos ("bedfellow" or "wife"), all of which define her by a male-generated framework, Briseis, through this lament, displays the effects of objectification on her.

In this paper, following a consideration of the male-centered assessments of Briseis throughout the Iliad, close attention will be given to that one speech uttered from her own perspective.  As a result of this careful examination of Briseis's characterization from all sides—especially her own—a clearer picture of this shadowy heroine should begin to develop.


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