The Trojan War, as told in Homer’s Iliad, is perhaps one of the most famous tales to come down to us from antiquity. We are all familiar with the story of the capture of the beautiful Helen by the Trojan prince Paris, and the ten-year war that ensued to get her back. We know the famous legend of the wooden horse, built by Odysseus, which carried the Greeks into Troy to burn the city down. We might even, perhaps, be familiar with the story told within the Iliad: the wrath of Achilles when Agamemnon took his prize, his withdrawal from the war, the death of Patroclus and Achilles’ return to kill Hector, prince of the Trojans, in revenge.
But there’s another story, one which most of us haven’t heard: the story of the women of the Trojan War.
When I set about writing For the Most Beautiful, one of my main aims was to bring the women of the Trojan War to the forefront – not just the familiar stories of men like Achilles, Hector and Patroclus. It’s often been remarked that the Iliad is a remarkably ‘masculine’ tale, filled with overweening heroes, blood, guts and battles. Yet the poem also contains glimpses of real women, hidden between the lines of the poem – and there’s a wealth of information about their lives, their concerns and their experiences, if only we’d take the time to look.
Take Briseis, for example, one of the narrators of For the Most Beautiful and the slave over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel. Briseis was a princess, taken captive by Achilles when he sacked the city of Lyrnessus (the Greeks regularly sacked the towns nearby Troy during the war in order to loot food supplies, treasure and women). Her story is swiftly described in only a couple of lines in Homer’s Iliad: her husband and three brothers killed, she is taken captive as a sex slave by Achilles and hauled off to the Greek camp. It’s a typical tale. Krisayis*, the second protagonist of For the Most Beautiful, is captured and enslaved by the Greek king Agamemnon until her father comes to ransom her from him. These are the real women of the Trojan War, with their own experiences, their own stories to tell.
And, from their point of view, the tale of Troy looks completely different.
On the one hand, of course, it’s a particularly challenging endeavour to recover the voices of the women of Troy. Women are largely silenced in the textual and archaeological record from antiquity – mostly because they were often, quite literally, silenced in the ancient world. Andromache, wife of Hector prince of Troy, receives a very typical dismissal from her husband when she tries to interfere in matters of war: ‘go home and attend to the things that concern you … war concerns the men of Troy, and me most of all.’ Andromache is effectively silenced by Hector’s words: she turns around and goes back to her house and to her weaving, the proper province of a woman in the Bronze Age Aegean.
So how do we find the stories of the women of Troy in this male-centred world? When I decided to tell the tales of Briseis and Krisayis I started with Homer and worked from there. These two women, although central to the action of the story, are frequently silenced, shunted to the side of the action, or mentioned in cast-away half lines. The Iliad opens with the famous quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon: and what are they quarrelling about? Nothing less than a couple of women.
The events go something like this: Krisayis, who was taken as a slave by the Greek king Agamemnon, is demanded back by her father, a priest of Apollo. Agamemnon refuses. The god Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks in punishment for their disrespect of his priest, and Agamemnon takes Briseis, Achilles’ girl, to replace the woman he is forced to give up. Achilles is enraged at Agamemnon’s insult to his honour and leaves the war. And yet, in spite of their central place in the opening of the Iliad and the unfolding of its plot, Krisayis is shipped off the scene back to her father halfway through the first book of the Iliad; Briseis is taken to Agamemnon as his slave, then, later, when Achilles returns to the war, is carted back to him like a shipment of war booty. What’s notable about this story that starts with the exchange of two captive women is just how much it focuses on the men, Achilles and Agamemnon: their wounded pride, their battle prizes, their quarrels, their war.
But when I looked beyond the stories of the men and dug a little deeper, I discovered it was possible to discover the women’s stories. A couple of throwaway lines (set in the midst of a long catalogue of the Greek forces) provide the clue to Briseis’ story: princess of Pedasus, married to Mynes of Lyrnessus; her husband, father and three brothers killed by Achilles, captured as his sex slave. That was enough to begin to build up a picture of what the Trojan War would have looked like, seen through her eyes – to me, just as compelling a tale as Achilles’ wounded pride. And, delving into the story of Krisayis, which was handed down and developed over the years by poets including Chaucer and Shakespeare (where Krisayis becomes Cressida), I discovered a tragic subplot involving her desperate love for Troilus, prince of Troy; the prophecy against him; her capture and release from the Greek camp.
The point is that it’s not only about recovering the stories of the women of Troy – although, to me, this is an important endeavour in and of itself. It’s also about learning to see Troy, and the Trojan War, from a different point of view. When we focus only on the rage and glory of Achilles without thinking about the cost of that rage – the deaths of the Greeks and Trojans, and the terrible losses experienced by their mothers, wives and daughters – then we ignore half the story. When we focus only on Agamemnon’s pride, and forget that it is his pride that forces a woman who was a freeborn Trojan to be handed from one captor to another, her body transferred between them as their property to use and abuse, then we forget the stakes of the war for all involved, not just the men.
And that, to me as a researcher of the ancient world, is a side to the Trojan War that we need to uncover. These are women whose tales are just as important, and just as captivating, as the stories of the men of the Iliad – and they are stories that really need to be told.
* Krisayis’ name is conventionally spelled Chryseis in its transliteration from the ancient Greek; both are accurate phonetically. I chose to spell her name Krisayis in For The Most Beautiful in order to give it a more Anatolian, and less Greek, feel, as well as to differentiate her from Briseis. (Interestingly, in the Middle Ages the names of Briseis and Chryseis were in fact often confused, so there is a precedent.)
Emily Hauser is a classicist, author and researcher. She is currently completing her PhD in Classics at Yale University. Her research focuses on women in antiquity, archaic Greek poetry, and the theory and practice of classical reception, particularly in contemporary fiction.
Her debut novel, For the Most Beautiful, is out now.
- Pot depicting the taking away of Briseis, Louvre Museum, Marie-Lan Nguyen
- The ruins of troy, David Spender