Introduction and Synopsis for

Ovid, Heroides III

Text of the Poem

The Basic Situation

Achilles is the greatest of the Greek warriors fighting in the Trojan War.  He conquered the city of Lyrnessos and took Briseis, the daughter of the king, as his war-prize.  During the siege of Troy itself, Briseis is taken from Achilles by the leader of the Greek armies, Agamemnon. Achilles, incensed at the insult and declaring his deep affection for Briseis, retires to his tents and refuses to fight for the Greeks any further. The war then goes very badly for the Greeks.  In an attempt to resolve the dispute, Agamemnon sends emissaries to Achilles, who offer to return Briseis and to give him lavish gifts in addition if he will return to the fighting. Achilles refuses.  Briseis writes to him, reproaching him with his lack of concern for her, professing her own love for him, and begging him to take her back on any terms.

The Background

The background starts with the parents of Achilles:  Peleus and Thetis.  Peleus was the son of Aeacus, king of Aegina, and the grandson of Jove, the king of the gods.  Peleus was forced to flee his father's kingdom, and later became king of Phthia.  He acquired a reputation for virtue which impressed even the gods themselves.  

Thetis was the immortal daughter of the sea-god Nereus.  Both Jove and Neptune (the chief god of the sea) loved her, but there was a prophecy that she would bear a son who was mightier than his father.  Neither god wanted a son who might overthrow him, so they arranged for Thetis to marry a mortal.  Peleus was chosen as a husband for her because he was deemed the most worthy of mortals.  

The wedding of Peleus and Thetis had unfortunate consequences.  It was a grand affair, to which all the gods and goddesses were invited, except for one--Eris, the goddess of discord.  In order to be revenged for her exclusion, Eris showed up at the festivities and threw a golden apple into a group of goddesses.  The apple was inscribed, "For the fairest."  The goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus quarreled over who deserved the apple, and appealed to Jove to settle the matter.  Jove did not want to get involved in such a touchy issue (Juno was his wife, and Minerva and Venus were his daughters), and so he referred the question to Paris, a son of King Priam of Troy who was supposed to be an expert on feminine charms.  What followed was the famous Judgement of Paris.  Each of the goddesses tried to bribe Paris to give the apple to her:  Juno promised a kingdom, Minerva promised wisdom, and Venus offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.  Paris awarded the apple to Venus.  

Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world--the one whose love Venus had promised to Paris--was Helen, and Helen was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta, in Greece.  All the kings of Greece had wanted Helen for a wife, and before Helen's father had allowed a marriage, he had made all the kings swear an oath to defend the marriage rights of the chosen suitor.  When Paris eloped with Helen, Menelaus called upon this oath and formed a military alliance, under the general leadership of his brother, Agamemnon, to get her back.  The result was the Trojan War, a ten-year siege of the city of Troy which ultimately resulted in Troy's complete destruction.

All these events following the wedding took some time to unfold.  In the meantime, Peleus and Thetis had a son--Achilles.  Thetis, although she does not seem to have been thrilled at being the wife of a mortal, was very solicitous for the welfare of her son.  She tried to make him immortal, either by burning away his mortal portions in a fire, or by dipping him in the river Styx (a river of the underworld).  The second version of the story is probably the most famous.  In this version, every part of Achilles' body that was touched by the water became invulnerable to harm; but Thetis held him by the heel of one foot as she dipped him, so the heel remained dry, and therefore was his one vulnerable spot (and, yes, this is where the term "Achilles' heel" comes from).  

Thetis also knew of a prophecy that Achilles would either live a short and glorious life, or a long and uneventful one.  The gathering of the forces for the Trojan War made this a pressing problem, for Achilles was already known as a mighty warrior, and there was even a prophecy that Troy could not be taken without his help.  So Thetis, wanting to preserve her son's life at all costs, disguised Achilles as a girl and hid him away among the maidens at the court of King Lycomedes of Scyros.  There Achilles fell in love with Deidamia, the daughter of the king, and they had a son, Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus).  The Greeks, of course, wanted to recruit Achilles, and sent emissaries to Scyros.  One of these emissaries, the wily Ulysses, placed some weapons and armor among a display of feminine finery, and Achilles betrayed his identity by his interest in the "masculine" items.  He then went off, apparently quite willingly, to fight in the Trojan War.

It was some time after this that Briseis entered the story.  She was the daughter of Briseus, the king of Lyrnessus, and was married to a man named Mynes.  Lyrnessus was allied with Troy, and Achilles attacked and conquered it during the course of the Trojan War.  He killed Briseis' husband and her three brothers, and took Briseis herself as his "war-prize"--essentially, she was his slave and concubine.  He seems to have become genuinely attached to her.  His best friend, Patroclus, apparently even said that he would persuade Achilles to marry Briseis after they got back to Greece.

But Achilles was not on good terms with Agamemnon, the chief leader of the Greek forces.  Agamemnon had taken a "war-prize" of his own, a woman named Chryseis.  Chryseis was the daughter of Chryses, a priest of the god Apollo.  Chryses asked for Agamemnon to return his daughter, and Agamemnon refused.  Chryses then prayed for Apollo to punish the Greeks, and Apollo sent a plague which ravaged the Greek camp.  The Greeks consulted their own seer, Calchas, who informed them that Chryseis must be returned to her father.  Agamemnon did not want to let her go, and Achilles rebuked him, publicly and rather insultingly, for his reluctance during a meeting of the Greek leaders.  In a fit of kingly rage, Agamemnon agreed to return Chryseis, but insisted on taking Briseis from Achilles as compensation for his loss.  Achilles was now the one who was enraged.  Professing his strong affection for Briseis, he vowed not to fight for the Greeks any longer and stalked back to his tents to sulk.

Re-enter Thetis, Achilles' protective mother.  Angry at the injury done to her son, she persuaded Jove to turn the tide of war against the Greeks in Achilles' absence.  The Trojans, led by their greatest warrior, Hector, attacked and drove the Greeks back almost into the sea, setting fire to some of their ships in the process.  At this point, the Greeks became desperate to get Achilles back into the fighting.  Agamemnon sent emissaries to Achilles' camp, offering to return Briseis to him, as well as offering him lavish gifts in addition.  Achilles refused their offers, but he did agree to allow his friend Patroclus to borrow his armor and impersonate him in combat--the idea, apparently, was that the Trojans were so afraid of Achilles that they would retreat if they thought they had to face him again.  The plan worked, at least partially.  The Greeks were able to push the Trojan forces back, but then Patroclus, acting against Achilles' express instructions, engaged the Trojan Hector in single combat.  Hector killed Patroclus and stripped him of Achilles' armor.  

Achilles was consumed with grief and anger over the death of Patroclus.  He agreed to re-enter the fighting and swore to be revenged on Hector.  Briseis was finally returned to him, and she too grieved over the body of Patroclus.  After the funeral of his friend, Achilles stormed back into battle, wearing wonderful new armor that his mother had persuaded the god Vulcan to make for him.  He pursued Hector and finally killed him, desecrating the body by dragging it behind his chariot in full view of the city of Troy.  He refused even to give the body up for burial until King Priam himself, coming secretly and at great risk into the Greek camp at night, pleaded with him for its return.

After the death of Hector, Achilles' days were numbered.  He was killed by an arrow shot by Paris, the son of King Priam who had eloped with Helen.  Paris was assisted by the god Apollo, and the the arrow struck Achilles in his one vulnerable spot, his heel.  

Even after his death, Achilles continued to have an impact on the Greek war effort.  His son, Neoptolemus, came to Troy and distinguished himself as a great warrior, eventually killing King Priam himself.  The Greek leaders Ajax and Ulysses contended for possession of Achilles' divinely forged armor, debating their own merits in front of the assembled Greek forces.  Ajax was a mighty warrior, second only to Achilles himself, but he was somewhat slow of speech and wit; Ulysses was the cleverest of the Greek leaders, and was the better speaker.  After the armor was awarded to Ulysses, Ajax went mad, slaughtered a herd of cattle thinking that they were Greek soldiers, and committed suicide.  We know little of Briseis' eventual fate.  

Briseis writes her letter in the brief period between Agamemnon's offer to return her to Achilles and the death of Patroclus.  In her letter she complains that Achilles' love must be lukewarm since he not only made no strenuous efforts to secure her return, but even refused to take her when Agamemnon offered to give her back.

The Letter

Lines 1-4:  The letter opens on a note of pathos.  Briseis identifies herself as "stolen Brieseis" (because she was "stolen" from Achilles by Agamemnon, but perhaps also because she was "stolen" when she was captured in war and enslaved by Achilles).  She emphasizes her place as an outsider by pointing out that Greek is not even her native language ("written with difficulty in Greek by her barbarian hand").  She even points out the stains of her tears on the letter, and hopes that they may "have the strength of a voice" in persuading him.

Lines 5-16:  In this section, she introduces her complaint against Achilles with a tone of hesitant meekness.  She calls Achilles "master and husband," and says that she will "complain a little," "if it is right" for her to do so.  She says that it "was not your fault" that she was "delivered so quickly" to Agamemnon ("the king")--but then says immediately that it was his fault after all.  Even Eurybates and Talthybius, the two heralds who were sent to fetch her, "asked silently where our love was" because Achilles did not even arrange a delay in her departure.  She did not even kiss Achilles goodbye, although she did exhibit the conventional signs of great grief, weeping and tearing her hair.  She ends the section by saying that she "seemed taken prisoner a second time," reminding Achilles both of her status as a slave and of his own responsibility for taking her away from her home and family.

Lines 17-20:  In this section, she digresses briefly to speak of her own wish to escape and return to Achilles.  Once again she emphasizes her own helplessness as a "fearful girl" and presents her fear as a slave that she would be "captured" by "enemies" and then "sent as a gift to one of Priam's daughters-in-law." 

Lines 21-24:  In this next short section, she returns to her complaint against Achilles.  Even granted that "I was given because I had to be given," she says, Achilles still been slow to demand her return.  Even Achilles' best friend, Patroclus ("son of Menoetius") had expected her to return shortly.

Lines 25-42:  In this section, she continues her complaint.  Not only has Achilles failed to demand her return, she says, but he has actually refused to take her back; she taunts him for this, urging him to "earn the name of an eager lover."  Agamemnon had offered to return her and had offered lavish gifts as well, if Achilles would return to the fighting.  Briseis names the delegation of high-ranking Greek leaders who approached Achilles with the offer:  Ajax (son of Telamon), the mightiest of the Greek warriors after Achilles himself; Phoenix (son of Amyntor), who had been Achilles' tutor; and Ulysses ("Laertes' offspring"), one of the most respected and certainly the cleverest of the Greek kings.  She then goes on to enumerate the riches that were offered along with her:  twenty bronze vessels, seven tripods, ten talents of gold, a dozen fine horses, and "maidens of Lesbos" who were among the spoils of war (she objects to the feminine competition implied by this last item, calling the maidens "certainly unnecessary").  Agamemnon even offered one of his own daughters in marriage (an addition that Briseis again objects to, pointing out that Achilles "had no need of a wife").  She contrasts these regal gifts with what Achilles would have had to pay if he had wanted to "buy me back from" Agamemnon ("the son of Atreus").  She closes the section by reproaching Achilles, asking "what crime" she has committed to deserve such treatment, and calling his love "fickle."

Lines 43-58:   In this section, Briseis recounts her own tragic past, which brought her into Achilles' hands.  She starts by asking whether she is doomed never to be happy again "once evils have begun."  Then she speaks of the destruction of her homeland by Achilles ("the Lyrnessian walls demolished by your soldiers") and the deaths of her three brothers ("three ... who were equally companions/In birth and in death"), and follows with a moving short account of her husband's death ("heaving his bleeding breast on the bloody ground").  Her only compensation for these losses, she says, was Achilles, who became her "lord," her "husband," and her "brother."  She says that he swore by his mother, the goddess Thetis ("your water-dwelling mother") to treat her well ("my captivity itself was benefit").  Then she points out once more, with heavy sarcasm, that he has refused to take her back, even though she comes with a "dowry" this time (i.e., the gifts offered by Agamemnon).  She closes the section with the most painful "rumor"--that Achilles is planning to sail away from Troy the next day.

Lines 59-82:  In this section, she pleads with Achilles to take her with him if he does indeed return to his home in Phthia.  She speaks in highly colored terms of her own desolation at being left behind, asking for the earth to swallow her up, or that she "be consumed by the ruddy fire of a hurled thunderbolt" before he leaves without her.  She begs to be taken with him even in the most menial capacity ("as a captive I will follow my conqueror, not as a wife her husband").  Even if Achilles marries a Greek wife ("the most beautiful of the women of the Achaeans"), Briseis says that she will continue as a maid-servant, spinning :the assigned wool."  She closes the section by saying that all she asks is that he not allow his wife to mistreat her ("allow her to tear my hair in public")--and then adds that, even if he did allow it, she at least would not be "left behind, despised," which is her greatest fear.

Lines 83-102:  In this section, she urges Achilles to yield to the entreaties of the Greeks.  Since "Agamemnon repents his wrath," Achilles should oppose "busy Hector" and return to the fighting ("seize your arms")--but only after "having taken me back first," of course.  She points out that, since she was the cause of his anger at Agamemnon, she should also be "the limit of your harshness."  She then adds weight to her appeal ("do not consider it shameful to yield to my pleas") by citing the example of the Greek hero Meleager ("the son of Oeneus"), who was moved to join the fighting to defend his homeland by the pleas of his wife, after all other appeals had failed.  She ends the section by once again recalling her servile status:  unlike Meleager's wife, she is not married to Achilles, but has simply "been often called as a slave to my master's bed," and cannot claim the title of "mistress" among the other servants.

Lines 103-120:  In this section, she insists that she has been faithful to Achilles, and then rebukes him for his own soft and self-indulgent behavior.  She swears by her husband's bones and by the spirits of her dead brothers, as well as by her union with Achilles ("by your head and mine, which we joined together") and by his own sword, that Agamemnon ("the Mycenean") "shared no bed with me."  She suggests that Achilles could not make a similar claim, and pictures him playing the lyre while he lies in the arms of a lover.  She closes the section by questioning his courage and saying that this is really why he refuses to fight--he prefers the safety of these sensual pleasures to the dangerous rigors of battle.

Lines 121-134:  In this section, she follows up on her accusation of cowardice by reminding Achilles of his heroic past ("exploits of note once pleased you more than safety"), and asks whether he stopped being a hero when he captured her.  She urges him back into battle ("may the spear of Pelion ... pierce Hector's side"), and suggests that she herself should be sent by the Greeks as an envoy to persuade him ("send me, Danaans").  She would be more persuasive than the other emissaries were, she says, because "it is something to have touched his neck with familiar arms."  She ends the section by telling Achilles that, even if he should be "more fierce than your mother's [the sea-goddess Thetis'] waves," her tears would soften him.

Lines 135-148:  In this section, she begins her final appeal to Achilles.  She urges him to hasten her return, and declares that it is only the thought of him that keeps her alive; if he has grown tired of her and casts her off, she will die, and "return to my husband and my brothers."  She even urges him to "attack my body with drawn steel," and she reminds him that he would have killed Agamemnon with that same sword for taking her away if Minerva ("the goddess") had not restrained him.

Lines 149-154:  She ends the letter by asking Achilles to "save my life," and urges him to seek for enemies to kill in Troy ("Neptunian Pergamum") instead.  Her final appeal is, whether he leaves or stays, that he "order by your right as master for me to come."




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Last updated 06/22/2013