Go Get Briseis

This selection from the Iliad begins with Agamemnon, ends with Achilles, and has at its center Briseis, a woman captured in war and warred over by the Achaean heroes.

Iliad 1.318-350

Agamemnon did not threaten Achilles
and leave it at that. No, he told his able servants,
the heralds Talthybius and Eurybates:
“Go to Achilles’ hut, take Briseis by the arm,
and bring her here. If he won’t give her up,
well, I’ll go with more men and take her myself—
and all the worse for him.”

With that harsh instruction, he sent them on their way.
Reluctant, they walked the shore of the barren sea
to the Myrmidon encampment. And there they found him,
Achilles, idling by his hut and black ship,
not glad to see them. Frightened, awestruck,
they stood before the king saying nothing,
asking nothing. But, in his heart he knew.
He spoke: “Greetings, heralds. Messengers of Zeus and men,
come closer. You’re not to blame; Agamemnon is.
He’s the one who sent you for the girl, Briseis.
Come then, Zeus-born Patroclus, bring the girl out.
Give her to them to take away . . .”

And so Patroclus obeyed his dear comrade:
he brought Briseis from the hut and gave her over
to be led away. The men went back the way they came,
along the Achaean ships. The woman, reluctant,
went with them. Achilles was in tears.
He left his comrades, sat down on the grey sea’s shore,
and looked out on the boundless waters.

I want to highlight a word which occurs twice in the passage: ἀέκων, which I translate “reluctant.” Homer uses it to describe the heralds as they go to collect Briseis from Achilles. Some lines later he uses it to describe Briseis as the heralds return with her to Agamemnon.

What to make of this symmetry? Does it make sense to suggest the heralds and Briseis are in the same boat? The heralds seem to be reluctant because they fear Achilles. But Briseis is unconsenting in a more fundamental way: she’s a sex slave; all that’s happening is against her will. In other words, there’s reluctance, and then there’s reluctance. Homer, I suspect, is neither so monstrous nor so obtuse as to elide the difference.

So try this: in the passage above, reluctance isn’t a disposition of minds, but a disposition of bodies. Whether it’s the heralds or Briseis we’re talking about, the phenomenology of reluctantly going someplace would be largely the same: dragging feet; nervous glancing; head down; unsmiling expression, etc.

That’s one way to justify the symmetry suggested by ἀέκων (“reluctant”), but is that satisfying? I can’t resolve the matter. But what I’m sure of is that conundrums of this sort contribute to the Iliad’s claim on our attention.

Iliad 1.318-350

. . . οὐδ᾽ Ἀγαμέμνων
λῆγ᾽ ἔριδος τὴν πρῶτον ἐπηπείλησ᾽ Ἀχιλῆϊ,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε Ταλθύβιόν τε καὶ Εὐρυβάτην προσέειπε,
τώ οἱ ἔσαν κήρυκε καὶ ὀτρηρὼ θεράποντε:
ἔρχεσθον κλισίην Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος:
χειρὸς ἑλόντ᾽ ἀγέμεν Βρισηΐδα καλλιπάρῃον:
εἰ δέ κε μὴ δώῃσιν ἐγὼ δέ κεν αὐτὸς ἕλωμαι
ἐλθὼν σὺν πλεόνεσσι: τό οἱ καὶ ῥίγιον ἔσται.

ὣς εἰπὼν προΐει, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:
τὼ δ᾽ ἀέκοντε βάτην παρὰ θῖν᾽ ἁλὸς ἀτρυγέτοιο,
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον παρά τε κλισίῃ καὶ νηῒ μελαίνῃ
ἥμενον: οὐδ᾽ ἄρα τώ γε ἰδὼν γήθησεν Ἀχιλλεύς.
τὼ μὲν ταρβήσαντε καὶ αἰδομένω βασιλῆα
στήτην, οὐδέ τί μιν προσεφώνεον οὐδ᾽ ἐρέοντο:
αὐτὰρ ὃ ἔγνω ᾗσιν ἐνὶ φρεσὶ φώνησέν τε:
χαίρετε κήρυκες Διὸς ἄγγελοι ἠδὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν,
ἆσσον ἴτ᾽: οὔ τί μοι ὔμμες ἐπαίτιοι ἀλλ᾽ Ἀγαμέμνων,
ὃ σφῶϊ προΐει Βρισηΐδος εἵνεκα κούρης.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε διογενὲς Πατρόκλεες ἔξαγε κούρην
καί σφωϊν δὸς ἄγειν . . .

ὣς φάτο, Πάτροκλος δὲ φίλῳ ἐπεπείθεθ᾽ ἑταίρῳ,
ἐκ δ᾽ ἄγαγε κλισίης Βρισηΐδα καλλιπάρῃον,
δῶκε δ᾽ ἄγειν: τὼ δ᾽ αὖτις ἴτην παρὰ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν:
ἣ δ᾽ ἀέκουσ᾽ ἅμα τοῖσι γυνὴ κίεν: αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς
δακρύσας ἑτάρων ἄφαρ ἕζετο νόσφι λιασθείς,
θῖν᾽ ἔφ᾽ ἁλὸς πολιῆς, ὁρόων ἐπ᾽ ἀπείρονα πόντον:

 Photograph by Hans Bellmer, German Surrealist (1902-1975). The intimations of fear, sex, and violence seem appropriate.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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