*Marking International Women’s Day* – This is a re-telling of part of the Iliad from (mostly) the viewpoint of Briseis, the princess given to Achilles as a prize of war and then claimed by King Agamemnon, leading Achilles to refuse to fight. The treatment of all the Trojan women in the Iliad is horrific – handed out to the men as trophies, enslaved, raped, even sacrificed – and it’s just accepted that this is the lot of women in wartime. In some cases, even today, that hasn’t changed – look at the treatment of Yazidi women by IS.
This isn’t a particularly well-written book, and some of it’s really rather silly, such as all the female slaves singing “Why was he born so beautiful?”. But it tells an important story. We don’t really know whether or not anything in the Iliad is based on truth, but it and the Odyssey play an important part in all Western cultures, and are indeed often described as the starting point of Western culture. I’ve climbed up a very steep hill to Mycenae in the heat, and walked round the ruins of both Troy and Sparta, partly out of historical interest but also partly because of the influence of Homer’s writings., How horrific is it that these stories, which have had such an impact and lasted for so many centuries, depict the role of women as being this?
They’re barely even given a voice. And that’s what Pat Barker’s tried to redress.
The story goes that Briseis, the young wife of Mynes, son of the King of Lyrnessus, is given as a prize to Achilles when the Greeks take Lyrnessus. Another young woman, Chryseis (Cressida) is given to Agamemnon. Apollo sends plague to the Greek camp and refuses to stop it unless Chryseis is returned to her family. Agamemnon is forced to give in, but takes Briseis as a replacement. Achilles is furious at the affront to his honour, and refuses to fight. He’s their star man, and, without him, things go badly. Patroclus, his best friend, probably also his lover, dresses in his armour and takes his place, but is killed by Hector. Agamemnon sends Briseis back, but Achilles is ready to fight anyway, to avenge his friend’s death. He kills Hector, but is then killed himself. Troy falls, and the women are raped and enslaved, apart from the young princess Polyxena, of whom the Greeks make a human sacrifice.
At one point in the Iliad, Achilles claims to love Briseis. That isn’t really shown in this book, and it doesn’t fit with what happens elsewhere, when both Achilles and, in a rare moment when Homer allows her to speak, Briseis make it clear that he sees her as a possession, a prize of war. The book talks a lot about the dehumanising of the women – not only are they being forced to act as sex slaves, and to the men who killed their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, other relatives and friends, but they’re not even seen as human beings any more, except by each other.
Patroclus shows Briseis some kindness. Agamemnon is violent. And there’s some weird fetish thing going on with Achilles, who likes her to smell of the sea because it reminds him of his sea-goddess mother – I’m not sure where Pat Barker got that from! Interesting points are made, though, about Achilles having “issues” because his mother abandoned him. Very 21st century, but fair points.
Some of the women, those who were from lower social ranks but are blessed with good looks, in some ways benefit from what’s happened, and some grow fond of their captors: it’s a way of coping. Briseis, as the slave of one of the top men, is at least in a better position than some of the other women, who are more or less thrown to the men to do with as they will. Pat Barker uses the term “rape camp”, associated with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It’s not inaccurate – but, as she says, it’s not what people associate with the Trojan War, the war of gods and heroes.
We also see quite a lot of the camp, and we see how Briseis is able to regain some dignity and sense of self by treating the sick and wounded. Books about heroes never tell you much about hospitals.
The focus is very much on the women, but the men obviously play a big part in the story. Apart from Patroclus, the one man who comes out of things well is elderly King Priam, who comes to the Greek camp alone and unarmed, to beg for the return of his son Hector’s body. But, however courageous and dignified he is, he can’t do anything to help Briseis. He recognises her, Pat Barker having fleshed out her back story to show her having a sister married to one of Priam’s sons, and having been friendly with Helen, but says that he can’t take her back to Troy with him, because the rules of war are that she belongs to Achilles.
The book ends with Briseis, expecting a baby by Achilles, being married off to Alcimus, a nice enough man, who’ll look after her. It’s a better fate than she might have met, but it’s not her choice – but, as she says, at least she’s no longer a part of someone else’s story.
It’s not a particularly well-written book, as I’ve said, but it’s a story that needs telling. Very few schools still provide a “classical education”, but these stories are still crucial to our culture, and the names of Achilles, Hector, Helen and Cassandra are still known to most people. Homer rarely allows the women to speak. The way they’re treated is horrific. Pat Barker’s tried to redress that, a little. Don’t be expecting writing of the quality of Homer’s, but this is still worth a read.