Briseis and Andromache Enslaved: Sleeping with the Enemy in Greek and Roman Epic

  Owens, William M. 2023. “Briseis and Andromache Enslaved: Sleeping with the Enemy in Greek and Roman Epic.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.

Many have read the Achilles-Briseis relationship as a relationship of mutual affection—if not love. [1] In this reading, Achilles came to hold Briseis dear despite her status as his captured war-prize. He even began to think of her as a wife and, in an unfulfilled future, would have married her when he returned home to Phthia. For her part, Briseis is Achilles’ concubine but hopes to marry her master. The attachment between the two added to Achilles’ anger when Agamemnon took her from him. This reading aligns with an aspect of elite ideological thinking that naturalizes the categories of noble and slave. Nobility in particular is an innate quality that transcends circumstance. Achilles had led the Achaeans in their sack of Lyrnessos and took noble Briseis as his prize. Briseis is his captive war-prize but cannot be a “real” slave. Thus, the noble conqueror treats his noble captive with the regard due her; he comes to love her. The noble captive loves her noble conqueror in return.
The idealizing concept of innate nobility, that a noble could never really be a slave, helped to repress the fear that misfortune, such as defeat in war, could result in slavery. Thus, Hector presages Andromache’s enslavement in Argos after the fall of Troy, when she will be forced, very much against her will (Iliad 6.459, πόλλ’ ἀεκαζομένη), to work the loom and fetch water for her mistress (6.457–459). Nonetheless, in Hector’s premonition, Andromache would retain her nobility even in slavery and still be recognized as his wife (6.460): Ἕκτορος ἧδε γυνή. At the same time, the Trojan hero’s premonition that enslaved Andromache would be forced to work very much against her will alludes to another aspect of elite thinking regarding slavery, an aspect in potential conflict with the idealistic notion of transcendent nobility. This is the realistic acknowledgment that slaves were not happy in their servitude and that master-slave relationships tended to be antagonistic, the master compelling the slave and the slave resisting, or trying to resist, domination. [2]
Like Briseis, Andromache became the concubine of the warrior to whom she was given as a prize, Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. Hector does not explicitly note this aspect of his wife’s enslavement. Menelaos Christopoulos has recently discussed the narrative motif of the captive concubine as it appears in Greek tragedy. Christopoulos provides a typology useful for comparing and contrasting instances of the motif with reference to the themes of enslavement, marriage, rape, immigration, and supplication. In my discussion here of Andromache and Briseis as captive concubines in epic, I prioritize the status of these characters as slaves. This move has consequences for the other elements of Christopoulos’s typology. First of all, legitimate marriage did not exist for slaves. Secondly, a focus on slave status invites a revised understanding of what is considered rape. In his survey of the captive concubine motif, Christopoulos identifies a single instance of rape, the rape of Cassandra by Locrian Ajax, who forcibly dragged her from the altar of Athena. [3] However, if Andromache and Briseis did not want to have sex with their masters but had no choice as enslaved concubines, their concubinage may be considered a kind of rape, albeit without the obvious and impious violence that characterizes the Locrian Ajax’s rape of Cassandra. [4] In reference to the third theme, immigration for slaves may be better characterized as the forced geographic dislocation that often accompanies enslavement. Finally, I consider how the women express themselves, either through an account of their enslavement (Andromache) or indirectly, through lament (Briseis). The present focus on the status of Andromache and Briseis as slaves also highlights the relevance of elite thinking about slaves and slavery. As I noted at the start, the reading in which Achilles and Briseis share some form of affective attachment, even love, aligns with the elite ideal that nobility is innate and that nobility transcends slavery. In Hector’s vision of Andromache’s slavery in the Iliad, his wife will retain her nobility despite her unhappy status as a slave. Virgil, however, in his representation of Andromache in Book 3 of the Aeneid (3.320–343), revises Hector’s vision. The Roman poet emphasizes Andromache’s role as concubine to her master, Achilles’ son Pyrrhus (as Neoptolemus is known in the Aeneid), an aspect of her enslavement that Hector leaves unsaid. Virgil also emphasizes the antagonism between masters and slaves in Andromache’s continuing hostility to Pyrrhus, even after his death, and suggests that the noble heroine has been tarnished by slavery.
Andromache and Briseis have parallel stories. Both are from cities allied to Troy destroyed by Achilles. Achilles had killed Briseis’ husband in the fall of her city, during which she also lost her three brothers. Achilles was awarded Briseis after the battle and used her as his concubine. In another engagement, he captured Andromache’s city and killed her father and seven brothers (Iliad 6.413–424). He would later kill her husband, Hector. With the fall of Troy, Andromache would be given to Achilles’ son and serve as Neoptolemus’ concubine. I take the parallelism between the two heroines as a motive to reconsider the Achilles-Briseis relationship in light of master-slave antagonism. The reading that results will emphasize rather than obscure Achilles’ and Briseis’ relationship as master and slave. This reading reflects both our contemporary acknowledgment that slavery represents an extreme of injustice and our reluctance to imagine a powerless slave, who has no real agency, as “loving” her master. We are inclined, rather, to readings that acknowledge the antagonism between subjugated slaves and their oppressors. Thus, one might accuse the present reading of anachronistic political correctness. However, ancient slaveholders acknowledged antagonism as a characteristic of master-slave relations. Such hostility could be proverbial, as Seneca indicates in his letter on slavery: one had as many enemies as one had slaves (Epistulae 47.5, proverbium iactatur, totidem hostes esse quot servos). This is the hostility, I will argue below, that Virgil reflects in his depiction of Andromache in Aeneid 3. However, an awareness of the hostile potential in master-slave relationships existed in even earlier periods of ancient slavery. The nature of the institution, with the master compelling the slave and the slave resisting, or trying to resist, domination, made such hostility likely. Evidence for master-slave antagonism between Achilles and Briseis is also present in the Iliad. Contemporary abhorrence of slavery may make us more open to seeing this evidence but has not invented it.

Before rereading the Achilles-Briseis relationship, I will look in more detail at how Virgil has revised Hector’s vision of Andromache’s slavery. In Book 6 of the Iliad, the Trojan hero vividly imagines the day when Troy will fall. He tells Andromache that what troubles him most is that this is also the day that she will lose her freedom and be led off by one of the bronze-clad Achaeans. He wishes to be dead and buried before he hears his wife cry as she is dragged off:

          ὅτε κέν τις Ἀχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων
455    δακρυόεσσαν ἄγηται ἐλεύθερον ἦμαρ ἀπούρας·
          καί κεν ἐν Ἄργει ἐοῦσα πρὸς ἄλλης ἱστὸν ὑφαίνοις,
          καί κεν ὕδωρ φορέοις Μεσσηΐδος ἢ Ὑπερείης
          πόλλ’ ἀεκαζομένη, κρατερὴ δ’ ἐπικείσετ’ ἀνάγκη·
          καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσιν ἰδὼν κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσαν·
460    Ἕκτορος ἧδε γυνὴ ὃς ἀριστεύεσκε μάχεσθαι
          Τρώων ἱπποδάμων ὅτε Ἴλιον ἀμφεμάχοντο.
          ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει· σοὶ δ’ αὖ νέον ἔσσεται ἄλγος
          χήτεϊ τοιοῦδ’ ἀνδρὸς ἀμύνειν δούλιον ἦμαρ.
          ἀλλά με τεθνηῶτα χυτὴ κατὰ γαῖα καλύπτοι,
465    πρίν γέ τι σῆς τε βοῆς σοῦ θ᾽ ἑλκηθμοῖο πυθέσθαι.


Hector imagines Andromache, under the necessity of slavery, forced to work at the loom or carry water, typical tasks of domestic female slaves. Nonetheless, he reminds her that, even as a slave, she will retain her nobility and still be remembered as “the wife of Hector, who was ever the bravest fighter of the Trojans.” This projection of Andromache’s fate, as bleak as it may be, may not be as bleak as it could have been. Hector himself will remain present as the heroic object of Andromache’s grief and memory. He may omit, at least through explicit reference, the likelihood of Andromache’s rape by her owner. [5]

Let’s turn now to the Aeneid, where in Book 3 Aeneas tells Dido of how he found Andromache and Hector’s brother, the seer Helenus, at Buthrotum in Epirus, where, as husband and wife, they rule over a replica of Troy. Aeneas first sees Andromache, just as Hector imagined, tearfully mourning her lost husband. She is sacrificing at a cenotaph dedicated to him. Aeneas describes how he addressed her:

heu! quis te casus deiectam coniuge tanto
excipit, aut quae digna satis fortuna revisit,
Hectoris Andromache? Pyrrhin conubia servas?


“Andromache, wife of Hector.” Aeneas is that man—the man who, Hector imagined, would one day see his wife and note her change in fortune, that the widow of so great a man (coniuge tanto) is now a slave: Ἕκτορος ἥδε γυνή, Hectoris Andromache. However, the words that follow undermine the nobility that Hector hoped would still attach to Andromache through him. Aeneas does not merely ask Andromache if she is still Pyrrhus’ concubine. In literal terms, he asks if she is still maintaining “marital relations” with her master: conubia servas. The question itself is curious. Aeneas had just told Dido that he heard a rumor that Andromache had become the wife of her fellow Trojan Helenus (3.297, patrio Andromachen iterum cessisse marito). His words to Andromache are almost taunting: servas contains a sideways allusion to Andromache’s enslavement; in conubia is an allusion to a status, that of lawful wife, from which Andromache was excluded when enslaved. [6]

Andromache’s reply expresses consciousness of the shame of her enslavement and service as a concubine. She notes first the good fortune of Priam’s daughter Polyxena, who, sacrificed at Achilles’ tomb, never had to serve in the bed of a victorious master:

O felix una ante alias Priameia virgo,
hostilem ad tumulum Troiae sub moenibus altis
iussa mori, quae sortitus non pertulit ullos
nec victoris heri tetigit captiva cubile!


In Slavery and Social Death, his seminal cross-cultural study of slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that slavery involves the systemic degradation and extreme social marginalization of enslaved persons, a process Patterson characterizes with the provocative metaphor of “social death.” [7] However, the ancients themselves may have thought of enslavement as a kind of death. The third-century CE jurist Florentinus commented in the Digest that slaves are called servi because the commanders spare the lives of those whom they take prisoner instead of killing (1.5.4, servare nec occidere solent). In a discussion regarding the inheritability of legacies, Florentinus’ contemporary Ulpian made an explicit association between slavery and death. A legacy would terminate in the event of the legatee’s death; a legacy would also terminate if the legatee should be sentenced to slavery, “because slavery is likened to death” (Digest 35.1.59, quia servitus morti adsimulatur). I have argued recently that the enslavement of protagonists in the Greek novels is frequently connected with their apparent, but false, death, a literary device known as Scheintod. [8]

For Virgil’s Andromache, however, enslavement was even worse than death. She sketches out her life as a slave, a slave-narrative in five bitter hexameters:

nos patria incensa diversa per aequora vectae
stirpis Achilleae fastus iuvenemque superbum
servitio enixae tulimus; qui deinde secutus
Ledaeam Hermionen Lacedaemoniosque hymenaeos
me famulo famulamque Heleno transmisit habendam.


Andromache notes the destruction of her homeland that—in contrast to lucky Polyxena—resulted in her enslavement. She was then transported far from her home. Put to work as Pyrrhus’ concubine, she gave birth to a child. After that, when Pyrrhus fell in love with Hermione, he gave Andromache to another of his slaves, Hector’s brother Helenus, and set them free. Andromache’s response reflects throughout the consciousness of her slave status. She gave birth in slavery: servitio. She expresses no love for this child, whom she associates with the haughty pride and arrogance of his father, her master (cf. fastus and superbum). [9] The degradation of slavery marks even her manumission and legitimate marriage to Helenus, Hector’s brother and her fellow ex-slave. Pyrrhus had transferred Andromache as if she were a piece of property (transmisit habendam) to Helenus, a degrading transfer of one slave to another: famulo famulamque. [10] The contrast with the heroine of Euripides’ Andromache is striking, a heroine who remains noble despite her status as a slave. Euripides’ Andromache espouses the qualities of a virtuous wife. She is ready to die for the child she bore to Neoptolemus her master. Furthermore, she respects Neoptolemus as a reliable protector against threats to her and her child from his wife Hermione. [11]

Virgil’s Andromache, in contrast, seems to take pleasure in Pyrrhus’ bloody fate, when Orestes, jealous over Hermione, kills him at the altar of Apollo in Delphi:

ast illum ereptae magno flammatus amore
coniugis et scelerum Furiis agitatus Orestes
excipit incautum patriasque obtruncat ad aras.


Andromache’s servile desire for vengeance may be betrayed here by a mythological solecism. An altar at Delphi becomes for Pyrrhus, incongruously, “his father’s shrine.” The puzzling reference has led to much speculation. [12] Nonetheless, a plain sense reading of the reference may be possible in the context of the antagonism that characterized master-slave relations. We see a reflection of a servile fantasy not just for revenge, but a particular revenge fantasy in which the tables are turned on the master. [13] Pyrrhus, who slew Priam on Priam’s paternal altar, suffers karmic payback, slain on his own paternal altar.

Upon the death of their former master, Andromache and Helenus inherit part of his kingdom and attach to it names of Trojan origin:

morte Neoptolemi regnorum reddita cessit
pars Heleno, qui Chaonios cognomine campos
Chaoniamque omnem Troiano a Chaone dixit,
Pergamaque Iliacamque iugis hanc addidit arcem.


Virgil has translated the myth involving Andromache’s and Helenus’ release from slavery to the context of Roman social relations. Helenus and Andromache have become Roman liberti. Just as a Roman master would free a favored slave and make him an heir, so did Pyrrhus free Helenus and bequeath to him a part of his kingdom. In this context cessit reflects the legal connotation of “pass by inheritance.” [14] However, Helenus and Andromache remain dishonored despite manumission. From the perspective of the Roman elite, they are permanently marked by “the stain of slavery,” the macula servitutis. [15] In Virgil’s revision of Hector in Iliad 6, slavery diminished Andromache’s honor as well as embittering her against her master.

As Virgil’s Andromache hated her master, so too Homer’s Briseis may have resisted enslavement and hated her master Achilles. However, before looking at the evidence for this alternative reading, let’s consider evidence that might support the idea of an affectionate relationship between Achilles and his slave Briseis. In Iliad 1, when Agamemnon’s emissaries lead Briseis from Achilles’ tents, she follows them unwillingly (1.348): ἣ δ’ ἀέκουσ’ ἅμα τοῖσι γυνὴ κίεν. During the embassy episode in Book 9, Achilles tells Odysseus that he loves Briseis from his heart, even though she is his war-prize (9.342–343): ὡς καὶ ἐγὼ τὴν / ἐκ θυμοῦ φίλεον, δουρικτητήν περ ἐοῦσαν. Finally, lamenting Patroclus, Briseis recalls how Patroclus refused to let her mourn and told her that he would take her back to Phthia and make her Achilles’ lawfully wedded wife (19.297–299). Briseis’ lament for Patroclus is followed by Achilles’. The paired laments align the two in grief and suggest a broader commonality of feeling, an alignment possibly reinforced in Book 24, when, after Achilles and Priam grieve their separate losses together, Priam goes to sleep in the forecourt of Achilles’ tent, but Achilles goes within to sleep with the fair-cheeked Briseis at his side (24.675–676).
An affectionate relationship also appears to have been a part of traditions involving Achilles and Briseis outside the Iliad. Casey Dué has noted a tradition in which Briseis was the young and marriageable daughter of a King Brises of Pedasos. [16] Another tradition connects Briseis with Aeolic tales and the Lesbian city of Brisa. The Aeolic tradition included a tale about Achilles’ sack of another city on Lesbos, where an unmarried girl saw the hero from her city walls, fell in love, and opened the gates. [17] There may have been a similar tale involving Achilles and Briseis during the siege of Brisa. The iconographic tradition also provides evidence for a love relationship. Dué notes a late Archaic amphora in the British Museum on which Briseis is depicted offering a flower to Achilles. [18]

The only direct evidence for Briseis’ feelings appears in her lament for Patroclus, the only time, in fact, when she speaks. This lament may actually be read as evidence that would undermine the notion of an affectionate relationship between Achilles and Briseis. When beautiful Briseis sees Patroclus’ body, “pierced through by the sharp bronze,” brought back to Achilles’ camp, she embraces the corpse, cries out, and then beats herself about the breast, neck, and face:

Βρισηὶς δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἔπειτ᾿, ἰκέλη χρυσέῃ Ἀφροδίτῃ,
ὡς ἴδε Πάτροκλον δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέι χαλκῷ,
ἀμφ᾿ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγ᾿ ἐκώκυε, χερσὶ δ᾿ ἄμυσσε
στήθεά τ᾿ ἠδ᾿ ἁπαλὴν δειρὴν ἰδὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα.


In tears Briseis speaks her lament, which follows a three-part pattern noted by Margaret Alexiou: (1) a preliminary direct address to the deceased; (2) a narrative remembering the past or imagining the future; (3) a return to direct address and lament. [19] Speaking directly to Patroclus, Briseis states first that he was “so very dear” to her heart. Then she notes the change of circumstances. When she was taken from Achilles’ camp by Agamemnon, Briseis had left Patroclus alive. Now, on her return, she finds him dead:

εἶπε δ᾿ ἄρα κλαίουσα γυνὴ ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσι·
“Πάτροκλέ μοι δειλῇ πλεῖστον κεχαρισμένε θυμῷ,
ζωὸν μέν σε ἔλειπον ἐγὼ κλισίηθεν ἰοῦσα,
νῦν δέ σε τεθνηῶτα κιχάνομαι, ὄρχαμε λαῶν,
ἂψ ἀνιοῦσ᾿·


In the narrative section, Briseis first remembers her husband, not Patroclus. The first of her many misfortunes occurred when she saw her husband, like Patroclus, “pierced through by the sharp bronze,” defending their city, along with her three brothers, all slain on the same wretched day.

… ὥς μοι δέχεται κακὸν ἐκ κακοῦ αἰεί.
ἄνδρα μὲν ᾧ ἔδοσάν με πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ
εἶδον πρὸ πτόλιος δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέι χαλκῷ,
τρεῖς τε κασιγνήτους, τούς μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ,
κηδείους, οἳ πάντες ὀλέθριον ἦμαρ ἐπέσπον.


The narrative section continues as Briseis recalls that it was Achilles who killed her husband. She also singles out Achilles among the Greeks who destroyed her city that day. Addressing, again, the corpse, Briseis remembers how Patroclus, nonetheless, used to refuse to let her mourn her loss. She notes a vision of the future that he used to hold out to her, telling her repeatedly that that he would make her Achilles’ properly wedded wife, that he would take her with the fleet to Phthia, and that there he would celebrate the marriage with Achilles’ people. For these reasons, Briseis concludes in the third and final section of the lament, she will mourn for Patroclus unceasingly, because he had always been kind to her:

295    οὐδὲ μὲν οὐδέ μ᾿ ἔασκες, ὅτ᾿ ἄνδρ᾿ ἐμὸν ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεὺς
          ἔκτεινεν, πέρσεν δὲ πόλιν θείοιο Μύνητος,
          κλαίειν, ἀλλά μ᾿ ἔφασκες Ἀχιλλῆος θείοιο
          κουριδίην ἄλοχον θήσειν, ἄξειν τ᾿ ἐνὶ νηυσὶν
          ἐς Φθίην, δαίσειν δὲ γάμον μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσι.
300    τῶ σ᾿ ἄμοτον κλαίω τεθνηότα, μείλιχον αἰεί.


The narrator then notes that Briseis’ fellow enslaved women joined her in her lament, each of them using Patroclus as a pretext to mourn their own losses (19.301–302): Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ᾿, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες, / Πάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ᾿ αὐτῶν κήδε᾿ ἑκάστη.

I consider Briseis’ lament through two conceptual frameworks. The first framework involves the social function of lament as elucidated in the scholarship of Alexiou and others. [20] The second employs both Patterson’s concept of slavery as social death and James Scott’s examination of the discourse practices of slaves and other dominated persons in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, in a reading of Briseis’ lament as speech of a person who has been enslaved. [21]
Women played a central role in ancient Greek death rituals, especially in lamentation of the deceased. This importance is reflected in Book 24 of the Iliad, in which the funeral rites for Hector feature the lamentations of Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen. Funeral lament gave women a public voice they would not have had otherwise. [22] Women could also use their traditional lead in lamentation to insinuate into public discourse perspectives and comments they would at other times keep private. Easterling notes, for example, how in their laments for Hector, Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen each offer their own personal comment on the significance of his death. [23] However, at times, such views and comments made public could pose a threat to social order, in expressing indignation and anger over the fate of the deceased or in calling for vengeance and retribution on his behalf. [24] This dimension of lamentation is reflected in Attic tragedy, for example, in the bitter lamentations of Hecuba, Andromache, and Cassandra in Euripides’ Trojan Women, who express hatred of their new masters and imply a desire for vengeance. [25] The play associates these lamentations with the Greeks’ fear of Astyanax as an eventual avenger and their decision to kill him. [26] Outside the theater, concern over the potential social disruption presented by funeral rituals was, it seems, a motive behind legislation that aimed to restrain the public dimensions of funeral rites, including the role of women and lamentation. [27] We have evidence for Athens, in laws attributed to Solon, as well as evidence for Sparta, Gortyn, Ioulis, and Delphi. [28]
In the Iliad, when Patroclus does not allow Briseis to mourn for her husband (nor for her three brothers and her city), we may see a reflection of the spirit and aim of such legislation. [29] In this context, Patroclus prevents Briseis from mourning her dead not out of compassion but out of a concern over the disruption her lamentation might bring to Achilles’ camp. While Briseis had no surviving male relations on whom she could call to avenge her losses, her words alone could be unsettling and a source of fear. This is the motive for Talthybius’ warning to Andromache in Trojan Women, that if, in her lamentation, she should anger the Greeks by hurling curses (ίπτειν ἀράς) at them, the army would not allow her son to be mourned and buried (734–736). Briseis’ desire to mourn her losses was great. Patroclus had to warn her repeatedly. Note emphatic negation and the iterative tense: οὐδὲ μὲν οὐδέ μ᾿ ἔασκες. After he is slain, Briseis does what Patroclus had prevented her from doing: she mourns for her husband, her brothers, and her lost city, insinuating her personal losses into the lamentation for Patroclus. The restraint that Patroclus had placed on her seems cruel in this context, despite Briseis’ statement that Patroclus had always been kind (μείλιχον) to her.
Patroclus’ refusal to allow Briseis to mourn is connected to his promise that he would arrange for her to marry Achilles in Phthia as his legitimate wife (κουριδίην ἄλοχον). Had the promised marriage come to pass, it would have represented the fulfillment of the idealizing reading, in which the noble conqueror and his noble captive fall in love. Nonetheless, one may question whether Briseis would want to marry the same man who killed her husband, the same man she singles out as the destroyer of her city. Weil writes with sensitivity and insight about the limited options of slaves such as Briseis, and notes the awful paradox in which slaves are forced to look with love and thankfulness to their masters in the hope of a better life, “even though these emotions are addressed to the very men who should, considering the very recent past, still reek with horror for them.” [30] Nonetheless, I will argue below, pace Weil, that Briseis, as a slave, was likely to have been averse to Patroclus’ promise of a marriage to Achilles, even if such a promise were sincere.
It is also useful to consider Briseis’ lament for Patroclus with reference to her status as a slave. In Slavery and Social Death Orlando Patterson described enslavement as a process in which a person is forced to renounce her natal identity, including any honor or status that had been hers by right as a free person, to accept a new and degraded identity as a slave, and thus to be incorporated into the enslavers’ community as a person without honor. This is the sense in which Patterson defines the enslaved person as a socially dead individual, a person lacking all social honor. [31] In slavery, Briseis lost her old identity and the community in which it had been configured. She acquired a new identity as a slave in the community to which her master belonged, the community of Achaean warriors and their hangers-on camped on the shore outside Troy. Briseis’ desire to lament her husband, her parents, her brothers, and her city thus constitutes an attempt to resist the erasure of her natal identity and social death. [32] Her lament for her lost family and city, as a type of servile resistance, had the potential to disrupt the order of Briseis’ new community. [33] Conversely, Patroclus’ refusal to allow her to mourn may be considered as an attempt to maintain community order, much like funerary legislation such as Solon’s, which restricted female lamentation out of concern for its potential disruptiveness to the polis community.
Briseis’ status as a slave also has particular bearing on her lament for Patroclus as a public utterance. Scott, in his study of discourse in relationships involving extreme domination, observed that dominated peoples seldom give direct expression in public to their thoughts and feelings. [34] Rather, the public speech of slaves and other dominated persons is marked by outward deference, disguise, and irony. Briseis addresses her lament to Patroclus but delivers it in the presence of her master Achilles, the other Achaean leaders, and other enslaved women in Achilles’ camp. Following Scott’s argument, we should hesitate to take Briseis’ words, the words of a slave spoken in public, at face value. I argued above that Briseis insinuates the long-suppressed lament for her own losses into a lament that is ostensibly for Patroclus. In particular, she implicitly substitutes her husband for Patroclus as the object of her lamentation, an act of mental substitution facilitated by the formulaic detail that both men were “pierced through by the sharp bronze”: δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέι χαλκῷ. [35] Homer makes such substitution explicit through the reference to Briseis’ fellow slaves, who use Patroclus as a pretext, a prophasis, each to mourn her own loss (19.301–302): Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες / Πάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ’ αὐτῶν κήδε’ ἑκάστη. [36] A reading that does not take what Briseis says at face-value raises the possibility that other aspects of her lament contain elements of servile disguise or irony. Briseis’ words asserting that Patroclus was “so very dear” to her heart (πλεῖστον κεχαρισμένε θυμῷ) could be ironic or even intended for her husband. Alexiou notes that Briseis’ statement of fact at the start of her lament, that Patroclus was dead, is a traditional element of the genre. [37] In this case, however, traditional form may disguise a slave’s grim satisfaction: “When I went from the tents, I left you alive, now returning, I find you dead.” Given that Patroclus’ death anticipates the death of Achilles, Briseis might even here taunt her master with the prospect of his own death. [38] At the end of her lament Briseis outwardly implies that Patroclus’ promises were evidence for his solicitude and concludes with the observation that he had always been kind (μείλιχον αἰεί). In the context of slavery, she may here hold back what she really thinks, like many dominated but duplicitous slaves. [39]
Achilles was “the best of the Achaeans.” But he was also the man who killed Briseis’ husband in a battle that also took the lives of her brothers. Her city’s defeat resulted in Briseis’ enslavement to Achilles. There is no evidence that she loved him—if we read her lament with the skepticism that may be applied to any public utterance by a slave. Rather, she appears to resist domination and social death with the tools available to her: servile disguise, the stubborn retention of her identity, and hostility toward her masters. Virgil, who made the hostility of the enslaved concubine explicit in the figure of Andromache, could himself have had in mind a similar reading of Briseis’ lament.

The antagonism that characterized the master-slave relationship involved the hostility of the master to the slave as well as the hostility of the slave to the master. If Briseis did not love Achilles, Achilles does not appear to have loved Briseis. Evidence for his feelings appears in the angry rejection of Agamemnon’s offer of compensation, which Odysseus presents in the embassy episode, and in Achilles’ own lament for Patroclus in Book 19. In the response to Odysseus, the hero continues to rage at the insult done his honor when Agamemnon took away Briseis, his allotted prize. Achilles rejects the compensation offer, which would include the return of Briseis, whom, Agamemnon will swear by solemn oath, he has not touched. [40] Though he has rejected an opportunity to take back Briseis, Achilles refers to her as his alochos, a word that ordinarily indicates a wife. “He has taken and keeps my dear wife,” Achilles says. “Let him lie beside her and be happy.” In indignation, he notes that the reason the Greeks are fighting the Trojans in the first place is to defend Menelaus’ marriage to Helen. He asks rhetorically, “Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal men the ones who love their wives?” He tells Odysseus that he loves Briseis, from his heart, even though she is his war-prize:

                    ἔχει δ’ ἄλοχον θυμαρέα· τῇ παριαύων
          τερπέσθω. τί δὲ δεῖ πολεμιζέμεναι Τρώεσσι
          Ἀργείους; τί δὲ λαὸν ἀνήγαγεν ἐνθάδ’ ἀγείρας
          Ἀτρεΐδης; ἦ οὐχ Ἑλένης ἕνεκ’ ἠϋκόμοιο;
340    ἦ μοῦνοι φιλέουσ’ ἀλόχους μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
          Ἀτρεΐδαι; ἐπεὶ ὅς τις ἀνὴρ ἀγαθὸς καὶ ἐχέφρων
          τὴν αὐτοῦ φιλέει καὶ κήδεται, ὡς καὶ ἐγὼ τὴν
          ἐκ θυμοῦ φίλεον δουρικτητήν περ ἐοῦσαν.


Still, Achilles later refers again to Briseis as the prize and symbol of his honor, or geras (367). He does speak of marriage, that is, when he rejects the offer of marriage to one of Agamemnon’s daughters and, thus, a political alliance with powerful Agamemnon himself. In rejecting this offer, Achilles uses several terms that refer to a legitimate wife. Such a wife, however, would not be a daughter of Agamemnon, much less Briseis, who as a captive taken in war had no political benefit to confer. If he returns home, Achilles declares, his father Peleus would find him a wife (gynaika). There are many women, he says, daughters of leading men in Greece or Phthia. He would make one of them his dear wife (philen akoitin) (9.388–397). It is from there, Achilles declares, in concluding his rejection of the marriage offer, that his heart was eager to take a lawfully wedded wife (mnesten alochon), a fitting spouse (eikuian akoitin), and to enjoy his inheritance from Peleus:

ἔνθα δέ μοι μάλα πολλὸν ἐπέσσυτο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ
γήμαντα μνηστὴν ἄλοχον, ἐϊκυῖαν ἄκοιτιν,
κτήμασι τέρπεσθαι τὰ γέρων ἐκτήσατο Πηλεύς·


The direct declaration of love here is posturing rather than an expression of sincere feeling. In the context of rhetorical engagement with Odysseus, Achilles finds it useful to equate Briseis, a slave concubine, with Helen, a wedded wife, in order to depict Agamemnon as another Paris, a man who steals other men’s wives. Later, in rejecting marriage to one of Agamemnon’s daughters, a marriage that would constitute a political alliance, Achilles notes his preference for a daughter of (and alliance with) another Achaean strongman over hated Agamemnon. Nagy notes a tradition that emphasized the rivalry between Achilles and Odysseus as respective representatives of the opposed concepts force and guile, bie and metis. Nagy remarks on the irony of the embassy episode in that Odysseus, famed for his metis, implores Achilles to return with his bie to the fight. But there is a corresponding irony: Achilles’ words to Odysseus, an artful display of rhetorical metis rather than a sincere declaration of love for Briseis, push Odysseus back on his own turf, rhetorical guile. [41] It is also relevant to this reading that in Book 1, when Achilles complains to Thetis that Agamemnon had dishonored him by taking his prize, his geras (1.355–356, ἦ γάρ μ’ Ἀτρεΐδης εὐρὺ κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων / ἠτίμησεν· ἑλὼν γὰρ ἔχει γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπούρας), he does not complain to his mother that Agamemnon had taken away the woman he loved, still less, the woman he wanted to marry. It would be curious if Achilles bares his heart in this matter not to his mother, but to Odysseus, a traditional antagonist. Granted, Briseis is important to Achilles as a geras, a symbol of his honor. Whatever his feelings are for her, in the embassy episode they appear subordinated to this.

Indirect evidence for Achilles’ feelings appears in his own lament for Patroclus, which formally aligns with that of Briseis. [42] After refusing to eat and drink, Achilles addresses his comrade in the presence of the Achaean leaders and, presumably, Briseis and the other enslaved women. He remembers how Patroclus used to prepare the meal before the battle—but now he is dead, “pierced through by the sharp bronze” (19.319, δεδαϊγμένος), a formulaic observation of the fact of death that connects Achilles’ lament to that of Briseis. He tells Patroclus that it is harder to bear his death than it would be to bear the death of his father or even his son. For he had always wished that he alone would die at Troy, but that Patroclus would retrieve Neoptolemus from Skyros and present him with his inheritance, his slaves and his great house.

          πρὶν μὲν γάρ μοι θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἐόλπει
          οἶον ἐμὲ φθίσεσθαι ἀπ᾿ Ἄργεος ἱπποβότοιο
330    αὐτοῦ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ, σὲ δέ τε Φθίηνδε νέεσθαι,
          ὡς ἄν μοι τὸν παῖδα θοῇ ἐνὶ νηὶ μελαίνῃ
          Σκυρόθεν ἐξαγάγοις καί οἱ δείξειας ἕκαστα,
          κτῆσιν ἐμὴν δμῶάς τε καὶ ὑψερεφὲς μέγα δῶμα.


Pucci suggests that Achilles’ declaration here is a response to Briseis’ reference to the marriage Patroclus told her he would arrange. The bereaved hero declares that he never intended to return to Achaia, much less (by implication) to marry Briseis. [43] Briseis would indeed be taken to Phthia, but not as his wife, rather as a slave inherited by his son along with his other possessions. He never intended to marry her as a legitimate wife.

If Achilles never intended to marry Briseis, Patroclus’ promise of such a marriage becomes suspect, intended, perhaps, to deter the slave from socially disruptive mourning rather than to give her reason to hope, if—and this is to be doubted—Briseis did indeed herself hope for marriage to Achilles. Her final appearance is in Book 24, after Priam and Achilles have mourned their individual losses together. Priam goes to sleep in the forecourt of Achilles’ tent, but Achilles goes within to sleep with the fair-cheeked Briseis at his side (24.675–676): αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς εὗδε μυχῷ κλισίης ἐυπήκτου· / τῷ δὲ Βρισηὶς παρελέξατο καλλιπάρῃος. Readings that posit a positive affective relationship, perhaps even love, between Achilles and Briseis see here the noble master and his noble slave (but not a “real” slave) aligned in grief and common loss. [44] The alternative reading I have promoted in this essay argues that no such affection existed, but rather the hostility that often characterized master-slave relations. Briseis departs unwillingly to sleep with the man who killed her husband and destroyed the life she knew. Achilles tries to find solace with a woman whom he does not love and who, he likely knows, does not love him. Sleeping with the enemy is cold comfort indeed.
The foregoing reading considers Andromache in the Aeneid and Briseis in the Iliad as representations of slaves with attention to the social context of slavery, “a cruel and repressive institution, enforced by hatred and fear,” characterized in particular by the efforts of slaveholders to dominate their slaves and the efforts of slaves to resist domination as best they could. [45] Conflict and antagonism were thus a characteristic feature of the master-slave relationship. The present focus on the nature of slavery suggests a reconsideration of the themes that Menelaos Christopoulos has connected with the motif of the captive concubine: Marriage is out of the question. Coerced concubinage might be thought of as a kind of rape. “Immigration” may be better described as enforced geographic dislocation, an aspect of deracination in the social death of the enslaved person. Finally, in the speeches of these two heroines, Andromache’s bitter account to Aeneas of her enslavement and the mourning that Briseis inserts for her family and city into an overt lament for Patroclus, we see not pitiful supplication, but resistance to slavery and the enslaver.
I acknowledge the contemporary political dimension of this reading, which aligns with our own abhorrence of slavery. However, Virgil’s representation of Andromache suggests that his reading of the “captive concubine” may align with what I have argued here. Finally, I suggest that the readings that posit an affectionate relationship between Achilles and his noble captive may be no less political, if unconsciously so: in their implicit alignment with the elite concept of innate nobility and a consequent glozing over the harsh realities of enslavement. [46]


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[ back ] 1. Whitman 1958:186–187, “It is no mere master-and-slave affair. … He loves her, even as he loves Patroclus, and the love of Achilles, like his hate, is likely to have cosmic implications.” Nagy 1979:106–109, Briseis is phílē to Achilles. Edwards 1991:270, “The relationship between them, though not romantic, shows the gentler side of Akhilleus and prepares for the effect of the final view of them together (24.676).” Taplin 1992:218, “… Briseïs is only one of a crowd of captured women, but it is part of the great-heartedness of the Iliad that elsewhere—δουρικτητήν περ ἐοῦϲαν (even though won by the spear)—she is far more than a mere foreign chattel.” Seaford 1994:169, “On his return home Achilles was to be married to Briseis, and would have led a long life (albeit without glory, 9.414–416).” Dué 2002:39, “Even though she is a captive of war, he loves her as a man loves his wife.” Hammer 2002:104–105, “Achilles says nothing about the character of Briseïs; he only distinguishes a different basis for his valuation of her. Before she was a war prize won by coercion; now he actually loves her even though she was won by coercion.” Louden 2006:124, “Briseis, a companion dear to Achilles.” However, Fantuzzi 2012:99–123, emphasizes the inexplicitness of the Iliad text regarding an erotic connection between Achilles and Briseis.
[ back ] 2. In his examination of master-slave relationships as reflected in the Life of Aesop, Hopkins 1993:5 observes: “Slavery was a cruel and repressive institution, enforced by hatred and fear. ‘All slaves are enemies’, stated a Roman proverb. The hostility of Roman slave-owners to their slaves, and of slaves to their owners, lay just below the surface of Roman civilization like an unexploded volcano.” The observation that Hopkins attaches specifically to Roman slavery may be fairly applied to slavery in general insofar as the institution was characterized by the opposed dynamics of domination and resistance.
[ back ] 3. Christopoulos 2020:879. Poseidon refers to the rape at Trojan Women 70.
[ back ] 4. Gaca 2015 reviews evidence in epic and drama suggesting that the sexual exploitation and rape of captives, especially girls and young women, was standard practice in ancient warfare.
[ back ] 5. However, Gaca 2015:287–288 argues that ἕλκειν is synonymous with rape and ἑλκηθμός with “sexual mauling.”
[ back ] 6. Ahl 2007:343 sees intentional cruelty in Aeneas’ question.
[ back ] 7. Patterson 1982.
[ back ] 8. Owens 2020:103–105.
[ back ] 9. Andromache has ample reason not to love her son Molossus. His father Pyrrhus was primarily responsible for the murder of Astyanax, her son with Hector (Little Iliad , fragment 18).
[ back ] 10. Cf. Williams 1962:124 on transmisit habendam : “the phrase is scornful, suggesting the transfer of property.”
[ back ] 11. On Euripides’ Andromache as a noble slave, cf. Foley 2001:97–102.
[ back ] 12. Cf. Horsfall 2006:262–263.
[ back ] 13. On the fantasy in which dominated peoples turn the tables on their oppressors, cf. Forsdyke 2012:49–53; on the desire for revenge, 59–73. Bradley 1987:152 suggests Phaedrus’ fox and the eagle fable (1.28) encodes a slave’s desire for vengeance.
[ back ] 14. Horsfall 2006:264. Also on this point, Williams 1962:118.
[ back ] 15. Cf. Mouritsen 2011:12–26.
[ back ] 16. Dué 2002:49–65.
[ back ] 17. The story of Peisidike is preserved in Parthenius 21.
[ back ] 18. Dué 2002:33–34, London E 258. The painter Oltos labeled both characters.
[ back ] 19. Alexiou 2002:133.
[ back ] 20. Alexiou 2002. Also Seaford 1994:74–105; Holst-Warhaft 1991; Dué 2006.
[ back ] 21. Patterson 1982; Scott 1990.
[ back ] 22. Dué 2006:38–39; Easterling 1991.
[ back ] 23. Easterling 1991:149.
[ back ] 24. See especially Holst-Warhaft 1991.
[ back ] 25. See Foley 1993 for other instances in tragedy where woman’s lament served to manipulate, to foment discord, and to move to avenge.
[ back ] 26. Hecuba hates Odysseus, her new master (Trojan Women 281–286); Cassandra prophesies that her “wedding” to Agamemnon will turn out to be his funeral (444–445); Andromache vainly calls on Hector to protect her (587) and Odysseus persuades the Greeks to put Astyanax, who one day could avenge his father, to death (723): λέξας ἀρίστου παῖδα μὴ τρέφειν πατρὸς.
[ back ] 27. Alexiou 2002:14–23; Seaford 1994:78–86.
[ back ] 28. Cf. Seaford 1994:74–78.
[ back ] 29. Correspondence between Patroclus’ restraint of Briseis and the restrictive funerary legislation attributed to Solon could be even closer if, as Nagy 1992, argues, performances of the Iliad had evolved to a definitive stage of “near-textual status” in Athens around 550 BCE.
[ back ] 30. Weil 1965:10.
[ back ] 31. Patterson 1982:38–65.
[ back ] 32. Considered as a slave intent on retaining her natal identity, Briseis might find an additional motive to shun marriage to Achilles in that it would involve emigration (cf. ἄξειν τ᾿ ἐνὶ νηυσὶν ἐς Φθίην) far from her homeland.
[ back ] 33. The concept of servile resistance gives an alternative context for Briseis’ unwillingness when she was escorted from Achilles’ camp (1.348, ἣ δ’ ἀέκουσ’ ἅμα τοῖσι γυνὴ κίεν). I suggest reading this unwillingness as the resistance of the enslaved person in general rather than the reluctance of Achilles’ concubine to be separated from him. In this reading, Briseis’ unwillingness would align her with Andromache, who, in Hector’s premonition, would be taken to Argos as a slave and forced, much against her will (6.459, πόλλ’ ἀεκαζομένη), to labor. Also on this point, Fantuzzi 2012:117.
[ back ] 34. Scott 1990:138: “The hidden transcript of many historically important subordinate groups is irrecoverable for all practical purposes. What is often available, however, is what they have been able to introduce in muted or veiled form into the public transcript.”
[ back ] 35. Cf. De Jong 1987:112–113.
[ back ] 36. The detail that the slave women mourn the loss of their own family members (σφῶν δ’ αὐτῶν κήδε’) attaches linguistically to Briseis’ lamentation for her dear brothers (τρεῖς τε κασιγνήτους, τούς μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ, / κηδείους). Note Edwards 1991:271 for the view that the women’s grief for Patroclus is sincere.
[ back ] 37. Alexiou 2002:136. Cf. Alexiou on other traditional elements in Briseis’ lament: 189–193, on Briseis’ reference to her departure from Achilles’ camp, when Patroclus was alive, and her return to find him dead, which may invert a topos in which the deceased go on a journey without return, and 193–195, on Briseis’ reference to Patroclus’ refusal to allow her to mourn, which, if taken as an act of kindness, would reflect a traditional element that remembered the support, now lost, that used to be rendered by the deceased.
[ back ] 38. In Euripides’ Trojan Women, Talthybius declares (408–410) that Cassandra’s apparent madness protects her from the punishment she would otherwise receive for proclaiming the harm she would bring Agamemnon as his “wife” (353–364); cf. Dué 2006:143–145. Wrenhaven 2012:122 notes that interviews with former African-American slaves reflect ambivalence and even happiness at the death of their masters and mistresses.
[ back ] 39. Scott 1990:17–44 describes how dominated persons may camouflage their public statements through ambiguity, coded speech, or partial sanitization, linguistic practices that contributed to the perception of Greek and Roman slaveholders that slaves were inherently dishonest, a character trait personified in the stock figure of the servus callidus of Roman Comedy.
[ back ] 40. On Achilles’ speech: Hainsworth 1993:99–102. Agamemnon swears the promised oath when he returns Briseis at 19.258–363.
[ back ] 41. Nagy 1979:42–58.
[ back ] 42. Edwards 1991:268–269. Pucci 1993 offers a close comparison and contrast and also suggests (258–259) that the two laments could have been differentiated in performance.
[ back ] 43. Cf. Pucci 1993:270–272.
[ back ] 44. Cf. Richardson 1985:347, “But the mention of Briseis sleeping with him, at the moment when we leave Akhilleus for the last time, has great poignancy, and if we recall book 9, where Patroklos too was mentioned at this point in the parallel scene (666–668), this adds a further tinge of sadness.” Taplin 1992:82 “… lines 675–676 are a distant and distorted echo of that wedding which Patroklos promised, the nearest that Achilleus and Briseïs will ever come to it.” Also, Edwards 1991:270.
[ back ] 45. Hopkins 1993:5.
[ back ] 46. This essay began as a talk, “Class Struggle Beyond Time and Space: Briseis and Andromache Enslaved,” delivered at the 2015 University of Patras conference “Time and Space in Greek Myth and Religion.” At several points I was anticipating, as a scholar, Pat Barker’s brilliant recreation of Briseis’ slavery in her 2018 novel The Silence of the Girls. I am thankful to the organizers of this volume, Athina Papachrysostomou and Andreas Antonopoulos, for giving me the opportunity to present what I hope is a fitting tribute to Menelaos Christopoulos, a friend and colleague.