Briseis and force

When I first read The Iliad, I was struck by Briseis’ mourning of Patroclus (Book 19, starting with line 300 in Lombardo’s translation for Hackett). Briseis was captured after Achilles killed her husband and laid waste to her home city. Her three brothers also died in the battle. Yet Briseis praises Patroclus for assuring her that she would become Achilles’ wife. Not a very well-developed character, I thought; she’s just there to fall for the action hero even after he killed her husband.

Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” had a much more interesting reading of this scene. Weil begins her essay by saying that “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away” (3). For Weil, force “is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3). Thus, Briseis is turned into a thing when she is enslaved by Achilles.

And what does it take to make the slave weep? The misfortune of his master, his oppressor, despoiler, pillager, of the man who laid waste his town and killed his dear ones under his very eyes. This man suffers or dies; then the slave’s tears come. And really why not? This is for him the only occasion on which tears are permitted, are, indeed, required. A slave will always cry whenever he can do so with impunity — his situation keeps tears on tap for him.

She spoke, weeping, and the women groaned,

Using the pretext of Patroclus to bewail their own torments.*

Since the slave has no license to express anything except what is pleasing to his master, it follows that the only emotion that can touch or enliven him a little, that can reach him in the desolation of his life, is the emotion of love for his master. There is no place else to send the gift of love; all other outlets are barred, just as, with the horse in harness, bit, shafts, reins bar every way but one. And if, by some miracle, in the slave’s breast a hope is born, the hope of becoming, some day, through somebody’s influence, someone once again, how far won’t these captives go to show love and thankfulness, even though these emotions are addressed to the very men who should, considering the very recent past, still reek with horror for them: [she then quotes the passage that I summarized above in which Briseis mourns Patroclus]…

To lose more than the slave does is impossible, for her loses his whole inner life. A fragment of it he may get back if he sees the possibility of changing his fate, but this is his only hope. Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature. (9-10)

I think I would say that slaves tend to find ways to preserve their inner lives in creative ways, though not on entirely their own terms, of course. So while there may be some oversimplification by Weil, I appreciated her interpretation.

* Lombardo’s rendering of the Iliad passage in Weil’s essay is “Thus Briseis, and the women mourned with her,/ For Patroclus, yes, but each woman also/ For her own private sorrows” (Book 19, lines 320-322).

Update (12/5/16): Weil also says in the essay that the wielder of violence is also transforms the soldier into a thing as he cuts himself off from his own humanness.



  1. The essay itself is just about 40 pages (you may well know that already). The edition that I read (War and the Iliad) had an essay written about the same time by Rachel Bespaloff that considered a series of topics from the Iliad.

    I hope to post a bit more soon from that book.

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