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Briseis, Slave of Achilles

Briseis (Βρισηίς), the daughter of Bryseus of Lyrnessus, became a prize of Achilles and his sex slave. Achilles sacked Hypoplacian Thebe, the hometown of Briseis and killed Bryseus, his sons and Mynes, the king and husband of Briseis. He took her into his camp and lay with her in his bed. Patroclus promised her that he would make her the wife of Achilles, but Patroclus died before he could accomplish this. Before he died Achilles fell in love with Penthesilia. He forced Polyxena to be sacrificed on his grave, perhaps in a necrophiliac wedding ceremony. Some say that Achilles married Helen in the afterlife, so Briseis never rose above the level of slave in his eyes. Nothing is known of what happened to her after Achilles died, but she probably became the slave of another Greek warrior.

A picture of her follows:

Briseis, Slave of Achilles

The beauty of Briseis was very important to her, and probably saved her life, but it also made her the slave of Achilles. Though Achilles thought of Briseis as a valuable possession, in fact a sex object, she was not an object that he possessed without trouble. When the gods denied Agamemnon his sex slave, Chryseis, he demanded Breseis of Achilles. This caused Achilles to pout insufferably and remove himself from battle. The result was that the forces of Agamemnon began to lose ground. It was only the death of Patroclus that caused the great king, Agamemnon, to relent and give Briseis back. Briseis was not only a sex slave, but a pawn between these powerful men. Her beauty made her a valuable possession but one that others coveted. This caused a great commotion that was not productive. The moral may be interpreted as beautiful women get men into trouble, but it is more properly that greed causes suffering to men and women.

The name “Briseis” is a bit of a mystery. She is also called Hippodamia. This is a name that is more surely Indo-European. The first part of this name is from the Indo-European ekwo- which means horse. The second part of the name is from the Indo-European deme-2 that means to tame. So the name means horse tamer. But it also may refer to the fact that young women were fillys to be tamed. That the Indo-European roots include a word for horse means that these people were long familiar with horses and may have brought them to Greece. The many female names in Greek that reference horses may reflect that fact. The name “Briseis” may be from a language of the people in Greece that preceeded the Indo Europeans. Some of these languages have been translated and others have not. most sources indicate that the name Briseis is patronomic for Bryseus but her father’s name remains untranslated as well. Interestingly Sarpedon, the brother of Minos, is listed as an ally of the Trojans. It is possible that the Minoans colonized the region called Lycia. So a Minoan source of the name “Briseis” cannot be ruled out.

Briseis in the Illiad has inspired numerous other stories. With the Roman de Troie Briseis becomes Briseida and is the daughter of Calchas. Her lovers include Troilus and then Diomedes. In later stories he is confused with Chryseis and it is under variations of that name that the character is developed further, becoming Shakespeare’s Cressida. A number of names are derived from Briseis including Breezy, Brisa, Brisha, Brisia, Brissa, Briza, and Bryssa. These names are all thought to mean beloved but they refer to the love Achilles had for Briseis.


Briseis, Slave of Achilles

Questions and Answers

I really appreciate your site as it has been useful to me in trying to
understand Briseis’ perspective on the Trojan War. My questions

  1. Did daily life in the Achaean war camp differ substantially from the daily life you have otherwise described?
  2. It sounds from the Iliad like the Achaeans lived in tent-like structures. Any idea what these were like? Any idea if the person’s doing the siege settled down or moved around for the ten years?
  3. Obviously there were fighting men and their slaves in the camp, along with a few seers and tutors. Who else would have been there? Am I correct that if the slaves used contraception there wouldn’t have been children?
  4. Can the Iliad be taken as happening in fairly rapid sequence; does it seem to you that Chryseis and Briseis were captured in the 9th year of the war or much earlier?

I realize these questions are probably out of the scope of your site. I’m sorry! If you could recommend a book or website or two that deal with the sort of daily life Briseis might have experienced in a war camp (or research that might deal with her life before capture) I would be very grateful!

Answer: There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from the Iliad and other writings about the Trojan War.

  1. The Acheans at Troy.
    1. The Achaeans knew little about Troy before they attacked. They did not even know where it was and attacked the wrong city at first. They did not have the advantage of surprise and were unable to perform an amphibious landing. All they could manage was to establish an area along the beach.
    2. They were not able to maintain supply lines with their home country. They survived by farming and pillaging.
    3. What they maintained was a war camp that probably consisted of soldiers, slaves, and camp followers. Sanitation was poor but only slightly worse than at home. The waste should have been carried to the fields that they farmed nearby. Good water was a bit more of a problem. It probably was surface water that is often contaminated. So daily life was cramped and rugged.
  2. The soldiers mainly slept in huts, not tents. The huts were made of anything they could find. The hut of Achilles seems to have had at least three rooms.
  3. There were also doctors, slaves, and camp followers. Camp followers are mainly prostitutes. There were substances that inhibited pregnancy but no contraceptives. There would have been many children born in the camp. Prostitutes could have avoided pregnancy by avoiding genital sex or practicing coitus interruptus. Female slaves would have been at the mercy of their owner in this regard.
  4. The Trojan War was very protracted. It took nine years for the Acheans to get their army together. Fighting involved one skirmish after another with no decisive battles for at least 9 years. The Achaeans were not strong enough to mount a siege or a war of attrition. Briseis and Chryseis were spoils just divided. They may have been captured the previous week. After this incident the war moved much more quickly. Within a year Troy was burnt to the ground.

Note: The Achaeans seemed only to maintain women slaves. The pretty ones they married and the others did weaving and other housework. The weaving slaves were not allowed to have babies because it would interfere with the weaving. During the Trojan War they did not seem to find slaves that wove. The few pretty women that were captured were given to the higher-ranking officers. The rest of their opponents were simply killed. These few women slaves would have been treated pretty well because they would have been kept in the officer housing.