The Silence of Classical Literature’s Women

Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad imagines the Trojan War from the perspective of a female slave fought over by two Greek heroes.

A first-century fresco depicts Briseis (right) being led from the tent of Achilles (left)
A first-century fresco depicts Briseis (right) being led from the tent of Achilles (left) (Naples National Archeological Museum / Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of The Silence of the Girls, Briseis, a princess taken as a slave by Achilles, considers the cost of the Trojan War. Fragments of songs are running through her head, stories about voyages and adventure and “the glorious deaths of heroes.” Briseis is sick of them. The death of young men in war is a tragedy, she thinks, but worse is the fate of the women who survive. Their husbands, brothers, and children are all dead; the women are traded as sexual trophies by the same men who murdered their families. “I looked at Andromache,” Briseis thinks, “who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought, We need a new song.

In Homer’s The Iliad, Briseis is less a character than a plot twist: She’s the chief point of contention in a spat between the ruling Greek fighters Agamemnon and Achilles that threatens the Greeks’ ability to win the war. Awarded to Achilles as a prize for his valor in conquering her home, the city of Lyrnessus, she’s referred to by name fewer than a dozen times in the entirety of the epic, and then only to emphasize her beauty. Briseis with the radiant eyes. Fair Briseis. Briseis, like the blooming rose. Briseis, radiant as the queen of love. But The Silence of the Girls, a new retelling of The Iliad by the British writer and novelist Pat Barker (best known for her Regeneration trilogy set during the First World War), gives Briseis a voice.

“Great Achilles,” is how she begins her story. “Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.’”

At the beginning of Barker’s story, Briseis and the other women of Lyrnessus have taken shelter from the Greek invasion in the citadel, with little hope that their male relatives will survive. From outside, they hear Achilles’s battle cry, “as inhuman as the howling of a wolf,” and they watch as the Greeks’ golden hero lays waste to their armies. Briseis observes Achilles kill her youngest brother with a spear with “fastidious precision,” then her husband, then her two older brothers. After the battle, the surviving women are inspected, with the most desirable taken as trophies by the Greeks. Briseis is claimed by Achilles. But after Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands her for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight.

With Briseis, Barker has a blank canvas from which to work. The great trick of The Silence of the Girls is that it fills in the borders of one character in literature while uncovering the vast gaps that persist in the rest of the Western canon. How many stories like this one remain to be told? It’s a question writers are considering more frequently. Madeline Miller’s stunning 2018 book, Circe, centers an entire novel around an ancillary character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who fleetingly becomes the protagonist Odysseus’s lover. In England, the playwright Jeanie O’Hare has crafted a new production focused on Queen Margaret of Anjou, the character Shakespeare gave more lines to than any other woman he wrote.

The Silence of the Girls is the new song Briseis dreams of: a narrative that weighs what war means to women. The Iliad makes no space for how Briseis felt when she watched Achilles pull a spear from her youngest brother’s neck. Barker does (“For the first and only time in my life,” Briseis recounts, “I was glad my mother was dead”). Entire books have been written about the tragedy of Hector, “a martyr to loyalties, a witness to the things of this world, a hero ready to die for the precious imperfections of ordinary life,” as the classics professor James Redfield put it. But Barker, through Briseis, considers the more prolonged torture of Hector’s widow, Andromache, “dazed with grief,” whose infant son has been thrown from the walls of Troy and who’s given as a sex slave to the teenage son of Hector’s killer.

One of the most potent encapsulations of how differently history treats men and women comes when King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body. On his knees, Priam says, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” The moment is among the most celebrated and poignant entreaties in literature, and yet Briseis is unmoved. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

Barker’s language is often coarse and colloquial, as if she’s trying to erase the notion that art can make war beautiful. When Briseis is captured and paraded in front of the Greek soldiers for the first time, she hears catcalls: “Hey, will you look at the knockers on that.” After Briseis is raped by Achilles for the first time, she struggles with how to describe what happened, finally observing that “he fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing.” Briseis notes that the Greek soldiers argue over whether King Menelaus should simply execute his wife, Helen—the reason the war was waged in the first place—or “fuck her first, then kill her.” And the Greeks write obscene drinking songs about Helen and her necessary fate: “When she’s dead but not forgotten / Dig her up and fuck her rotten.”

Barker also includes anachronisms that can be jarring. Achilles is teased that he’s gained weight, as much as “half a stone.” When he claims Briseis as his property, he does so by saying, “Cheers, lads. She’ll do.” If the moments sometimes clash awkwardly with the more classical sections of prose, they also force readers to compare the misogyny of ancient Greece with the misogyny of the present. I winced when Briseis described Helen recounting how she’d been raped as a child by a riverbank. “Of course I believed her,” Briseis says. “It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

Would women’s stories be believed more often if hearing women’s stories at all wasn’t such a novel phenomenon? If narratives about women hadn’t been disregarded and erased for so many centuries, while songs and plays and books lionized the valor of the men who abused them? Reading The Silence of the Girls almost a year into the #MeToo moment means confronting a literary tradition that’s long pushed women’s voices into the margins of history. “Silence,” the Greek warrior Ajax says, “becomes a woman.” Books like this one prove not just how absurd that sentiment is, but also how powerful the silent voices have been all along.