In a different vein from my normal posts, I thought I’d share a passage which I found particularly moving in Homer: Briseis’ lamentation for Patroklos in book 19. I’ve found female speeches in classical literature particularly moving. My favorite passages in Livy from last semester were probably Lucretia’s speech, and the speech of the Sabine women on the eve of the final battle between the Sabines and the Romans. In the same vein, I offer a bit of Homer here.
For those like me, who aren’t exactly up on their Homer, Briseis’ husband was killed in battle, and she was claimed as spoil by the Greeks for Achilles. Agamemnon then claimed her after he had to give up his own “seized woman,” which provoked the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles that drives most of the Iliad. Patroklos, Achilles best-friend, was evidently gracious to Briseis, and here she morns his death after being brought to Achilles’ tent.
Βρισηῒς δ’ ἄρ’ ἔπειτ’ ἰκέλη χρυσέῃ Ἀφροδίτῃ
ὡς ἴδε Πάτροκλον δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγ’ ἐκώκυε, χερσὶ δ’ ἄμυσσε
στήθεά τ’ ἠδ’ ἁπαλὴν δειρὴν ἰδὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα. (285)
εἶπε δ’ ἄρα κλαίουσα γυνὴ ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσι·
Πάτροκλέ μοι δειλῇ πλεῖστον κεχαρισμένε θυμῷ
ζωὸν μέν σε ἔλειπον ἐγὼ κλισίηθεν ἰοῦσα,
νῦν δέ σε τεθνηῶτα κιχάνομαι ὄρχαμε λαῶν
ἂψ ἀνιοῦσ’· ὥς μοι δέχεται κακὸν ἐκ κακοῦ αἰεί. (290)
ἄνδρα μὲν ᾧ ἔδοσάν με πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ
εἶδον πρὸ πτόλιος δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
τρεῖς τε κασιγνήτους, τούς μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ,
κηδείους, οἳ πάντες ὀλέθριον ἦμαρ ἐπέσπον.
οὐδὲ μὲν οὐδέ μ’ ἔασκες, ὅτ’ ἄνδρ’ ἐμὸν ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεὺς
ἔκτεινεν, πέρσεν δὲ πόλιν θείοιο Μύνητος,
κλαίειν, ἀλλά μ’ ἔφασκες Ἀχιλλῆος θείοιο
κουριδίην ἄλοχον θήσειν, ἄξειν τ’ ἐνὶ νηυσὶν
ἐς Φθίην, δαίσειν δὲ γάμον μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσι.
τώ σ’ ἄμοτον κλαίω τεθνηότα μείλιχον αἰεί. (300)
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες
Πάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ’ αὐτῶν κήδε’ ἑκάστη.
My own translation (which has no ambitions of merit nor poetry):
Briseis, then, like golden Aphrodite, when she saw Patroklos lying slain by sharp bronze, wailed loudly, throwing herself around him. She tore with her hand at her breast, her tender neck, and lovely face. Then the wailing woman, like one of the goddesses, spoke:
“Patroklos! you were so kind in spirit to my wretched self! I left from you while you were yet living, yet now I come upon you dead, O leader of the peoples! Evil from evil pours down upon me always. I saw the man, to whom my father and queenly mother gave me, slain by sharp bronze before the city, and my three brothers, whom all were born by a single mother, so very dear to me, all fall on that cursed day. But you would not permit me, when swift Achilles slew my own husband, and sacked the city of divine Munes, to weep. Rather you declared me to be the bride of godlike Achilles, and to take me in a ship to Phthia, and to give me a wedding feast among the Murmidons. Thus I weep your death insatiably, you who were always most kind to me.”
Thus she spoke, weeping, and the other women mourned around her. Patroklos was their excuse, but each had her own grounds for tears.
Though Homer’s greek has been not a little challenging, I find passages like this make the difficult work more than worthwhile!