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Briseis
Βρισηίς

7034: Patroclus separates Briseis from Achilles. Pompeii, casa del Poeta Tragico (VI 8,3), atrio (3). National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

"… all these nights I am absent from your side, and not demanded back; you delay, and your anger is slow." (Briseis to Achilles. Ovid, Heroides 3.21).


Briseis lost family, country and freedom when Achilles sacked Lyrnessus where she lived; yet she found her captivity sweet, until the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, which costed so many lives, made her captive of the latter.

Women and trouble

For the sake of golden-haired Briseis great trouble came about. But this should cause no particular surprise, some think, since not seldom there is a woman behind devastating wars, overthrown households, and other disasters. For example Agamemnon, they reason, was destroyed by his own wife Clytaemnestra on account of Iphigenia and Cassandra; and Jason's past and prospective houses were turned into ashes by Medea on account of his marriage with Glauce 4; and Athamas 1, by wedding a second wife and then a third, let intrigue enter his home, going mad himself; and Theseus cursed his own son and caused his death on account of Phaedra; and Heracles 1 was destroyed by Deianira 1 because of Iole; and for Hermione's sake Orestes 2 slew Neoptolemus, whose household was already a ruin because of Andromache. And for the sake of Helen, a huge army gathered to sail against Troy; and when ten years later that same army was still beleaguering the city, a terrible pestilence decimated it because of Chryseis 3. And Briseis, they reason, is the cause of Achilles' wrath, which:

"... brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls ..." (Homer, Iliad 1.1).

But others say that Achilles is the sole responsible; for he forgot that he had come to Troy in order to fight, and not for the purpose of spending a wonderful time with a new sweetheart. Besides, they argue, a man is angry when he wishes to be and not because someone else makes him so. Similarly, they add, it was not the death of Patroclus 1 who caused Achilles' deep grief, for other men do not act like Achilles when their friends die, but it was Achilles' own wish to grieve deeply that caused his grief.

Achilles' prize

Briseis was married to King Mynes 2 of Lyrnessus, a city east of Mount Ida that was Troy's ally. When Achilles sacked Lyrnessus, he slew Briseis' husband and her three brothers, and brought her to the Achaean camp as her prize and concubine. This was a sad day for this girl; for no one loses family and country without pain. But Patroclus 1 comforted her saying that he would make her Achilles' wedded wife, and that on their return to Phthia after the war, he would arrange a marriage-feast.

Agamemnon's prize

In the tenth year of the Trojan War, however, while sacking the city of Thebe, east of Mount Ida, Agamemnon captured Chryseis 3, and intended to keep the girl as a prize, take her home, and turn her into both a slave and a concubine. But her father Chryses 3, a priest of Apollo, came to see Agamemnon, and blessing the whole army, he offered a generous ransom for her daughter's freedom. The troops applauded the priest, but Agamemnon nevertheless denied Chryses 3's request , threatening the old man, who left the Achaean camp humiliated.

Apollo darker than night

So soon he found himself alone, Chryses 3 prayed to Apollo, asking him to let the Achaeans pay with the god's arrows the tears he was shedding. And the god, having learned the outrage his priest had suffered, came down from Olympus darker than night, though he is known as the bright one; and shooting his golden arrows against the Achaean camp, he caused a plague that decimated the army.

Agamemnon's threat

When an assembly was called to discuss the plague, the seer Calchas declared that the reason for it was to be found in Apollo's anger, which Agamemnon had aroused by insulting the priest and keeping his daughter. On hearing this, the king first called Calchas prophet of evil, but he nevertheless accepted to give up his prize, provided another fresh prize was found to replace Chryseis 3; and if not, he said, he would help himself to someone else's prize. Because of this threat, Achilles called the king shameless schemer, and accused him of always taking the lion's share, and using others to pile wealth and luxuries for himself. But Agamemnon, displaying his authority as commander in chief, answered by letting Achilles know that, in the same way that Apollo was robbing him of Chryseis 3, he was now going to pay a visit to Achilles' tent, and by taking away his sweetheart Briseis, teach him a lesson in power and kingship. Agamemnon then set Chryseis 3 in a ship under Odysseus' command, instructing him to sail to her father and give him his daughter back. But to his heralds Eurybates and Talthybius he gave the following orders:

"Go to the hut of Achilles ... take the lady Briseis into your custody, and bring her here. If he refuses to let her go, I will myself go with a larger company and take her, which will be all the worse for him." (Agamemnon to his heralds. Homer, Iliad 1.320).

These two came to Achilles' ship and hut, where they halted abashed without uttering a word; for those who carry out orders, which they themselves deem as unjust, suffer a great disgrace and are filled with shame. But Achilles helped them out, breaking the silence himself:

"Heralds ... I welcome you. Come forward. My quarrel is not with you but with Agamemnon, who sent you here to fetch the girl Briseis." (Achilles to the heralds. Homer, Iliad 1.333).

And addressing Patroclus 1, he said for all to hear:

"... will you bring the lady out and hand her over to these men? I shall count on them to be my witnesses before the happy gods, before mankind, before the brutal king himself, if the Achaeans ever need me again to save them from disaster." (Achilles to Patroclus 1. Homer, Iliad 1.335).

Thus began the wrath of Achilles, who henceforth refused to fight, and instead amused himself with the cithara in his tent. Then Patroclus 1, doing as his friend has told him, brought out Briseis; and whispering in her ear, he said:

"Why do you weep? But a short time ... will you be here." (Patroclus 1 to Briseis. Ovid, Heroides 3.24).

With those words he gave her up to the heralds, who made their way back to Agamemnon's tent. Briseis, who followed them to her second captivity unwilling and unhappy, is said to have later reproached her lover the readiness with which she was delivered to the heralds, without even a farewell kiss. And while she was away, she wrote to him saying that his wrath was not deep enough:

"... all these nights I am absent from your side, and not demanded back; you delay, and your anger is slow." (Briseis to Achilles. Ovid, Heroides 3.21).

For having lost Chryseis 3 (here embarked by Odysseus to be given back to her father), Agamemnon compensated himself by taking Briseis from Achilles. 4435: Joseph-Marie Vien 1716-1809: L'embarquement de Chryséis confiée à Ulysse par Agamemnon, vers 1780/85. Musée des beaux arts, Rouen.

Agamemnon at odds with heaven

But whereas Achilles' wrath was, in the eyes of Briseis, not strong enough, in those of the Achaean army it meant disaster. For Achilles' mother Thetis obtained of Zeus the promise to teach Agamemnon a lesson for the outrage her son had suffered, by letting the army be defeated, for a while, by the Trojans.

Briseis untouched

Yet it was not before the military situation had considerably deteriorated that Agamemnon tried to appease Achilles' wrath so that he would fight again, by offering him the seven tripods, the seven women, the seven cities, and many other gifts which included Briseis, whom Agamemnon swore he had not touched, an oath that never has been openly questioned and that also Briseis took:

"By the bones of my wedded lord, ill covered in hasty sepulture, bones ever to be held sacred in my eyes; and by the brave souls of my three brothers ... who died well for their country ... and by your head and mine, which we have laid each to each; and by your sword ... I swear that the Mycenaean has shared no couch with me ..." (Briseis to Achilles. Ovid, Heroides 3.103).

Gifts rejected

But Achilles' considered Agamemnon's gifts hateful, since the king, being Menelaus' brother, had done to him what Paris had done to Menelaus, and it was just this kind of outrage the Achaeans had come to avenge at Troy. Said Achilles:

"Why has he gathered and led here his host, this son of Atreus? Was it not for Helen's sake? Do they then alone of mortal men love their wives, these sons of Atreus? No, for he who is a true man loves his own and cherishes her, as I too loved Briseis with all my heart." (Achilles to Agamemnon's envoys. Homer, Iliad 9.340).

Patroclus 1's death

This is how Achilles rejected Agamemnon's gifts, keeping himself and his men idle. However, when the Trojans and their fire reached the ships, he sent Patroclus 1 with a force of Myrmidons to avoid complete disaster. But when his dear friend died in battle, then Achilles, nurturing a grief that was greater than his wrath, came to life again. He then called a council and, without asking anything, officially ended his feud with Agamemnon. The king in turn, acknowledging that he himself had been the one whom the gods blinded, declared that he was ready to make amends and pay Achilles the compensation of the seven tripods, the seven women, the seven cities, and all other magnificent gifts which included Briseis. Yet Achilles, who now had his mind in the battlefield, replied that Agamemnon could produce the gifts or keep them at his convenience. And regarding Briseis, he uttered these thoughtless words:

"Has it proved a good thing, either for you or for me, to keep up this desperate feud about a girl? I only wish that Artemis had killed her ... that day I chose her for myself." (Achilles to Agamemnon. Homer, Iliad 19.55).

In this manner the quarrel was ended, and while the Myrmidons carried the king's gifts to Achilles' ship, Briseis returned to his hut, where she discovered Patroclus 1 lying dead; and tearing her breast, neck, and cheeks, she mourned him who had always been so gentle towards her, and had never let her weep.

Briseis' farewell to Achilles

Briseis remained with Achilles until his death, which soon came in the shape of an arrow shot by Paris. This plunged her in even greater grief; for her lover is said to have been an example of gentleness and courtesy: a warrior who never dishonoured the daughters of his foes, as do those who, letting their minds be perverted by war, exercise their cowardice upon the defenceless. That is why Briseis, although a captive, could say before laying her shorn tresses on Achilles' corpse:

"Never on me came anguish like to this—not when my brethren died, my fatherland was wasted—like this anguish for your death! You were my day, my sunlight, my sweet life, my hope of good, my strong defence from harm, dearer than all my beauty—yes, more dear than my lost parents! You were all in all to me, you only, captive though I be. You took from me every bondmaid's task and like a wife you hold me." (Briseis to the dead Achilles. Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 3.560).

Reports missing

Briseis was still heard of at the time when Achilles' son Neoptolemus—in her eyes looking like his father—came to Troy. But Neoptolemus, who after the sack of Troy received Hector 1's wife Andromache, did not take home his father's prize; and Briseis, who once had been the cause of so much trouble, disappeared then from the chronicles.


Family 

Parentage

Mates

Offspring

Notes

Briseus & unknown


Briseus, Brises or Brisa was a priest from Lyrnessus.

Mynes 2

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Mynes 2 inherited the throne from his father Evenus 3, son of Selepus.


Achilles

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Related sections Achilles, Agamemnon, Trojan War  
Sources
Abbreviations

Apd.Ep.4.1, 4.3, 4.7; Ath.13.560; Bacch.13.135; CYP.1; Epict.1.11.31, 1.28.4; Hom.Il.1.184, 1.322, 1.335, 1.345, 1.390, 19.246, 19.260, 19.282, 19.295, 24.676; Hyg.Fab.106; Prop.2.28.35, 2.9.9, 2.22.29; QS.3.552, 687, 4.276, 7.723.

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