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The Role of Women in The Iliad

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  • 0:03 The Women in the Story
  • 0:30 Women in Ancient Greece
  • 1:47 Helen and Briseis
  • 3:27 Andromache
  • 4:24 Immortals
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patrick O'Reilly
Though best remembered as a war story with a predominantly male cast, ''The Iliad'' depends on several female characters to further its plot and add to its emotional power. In this lesson, we will discuss these women and their role in ''The Iliad.''

Women in the Story

Homer's The Iliad is remembered as a story of war between the Greeks and Trojans, where fierce and heroic men slaughter each other by the thousands. This warlike depiction of The Iliad leaves little room for the female characters who, while scarcely seen on the battlefield, prove crucial to the story of this bloody ancient conflict. In this lesson, we will look at some of the female characters of The Iliad, the roles they play, and how these roles serve the themes of the epic.

Women in Ancient Greece

To understand the role of the women in The Iliad, we must first understand the role of Greek women in Homer's time. Considered equals under the law, women nevertheless lived separate and segregated from men, performing domestic work and avoiding male spaces unless invited and accompanied. Women were regarded as extensions of their husbands, fathers, or captors. This is often the case in The Iliad as well, where most women are either indistinguishable as persons from their husbands or treated as spoils of war. That does not mean that the female characters in The Iliad are one-dimensional or unimportant. In fact, many of them are shown to have a range of emotions and opinions, and women are often central to the plot of The Iliad.

The first thing we notice about the women of The Iliad is that they are all, by birth, marriage, or location, allied with the Trojans. The Greeks, as invading soldiers, consist entirely of men. Among the Greeks are legendary warriors like Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus. While Hector, the Trojan prince and general, is celebrated as a tactician and fighter, the Trojans are outclassed and outnumbered by the far more skilled Greeks and must rely on the impenetrable Trojan wall for protection. So Homer distinguishes between warlike Greek masculinity and passive Trojan femininity.

Helen and Briseis

The most important woman in The Iliad is undoubtedly Helen, the wife of the Spartan king and general Menelaus. It was Helen's escape to Troy with the Trojan prince Paris that caused the Trojan War. Although she is famous for her beauty, Helen is much more than a trophy. In fact, Helen is one of the most complete and complex characters in the story.

In Book 3, we see Helen arguing with Aphrodite. Here we learn that not only does she neither hate her husband nor love Paris, but she did not want to go to Troy at all. Cursed by Aphrodite, Helen continues to love and follow Paris against her own wishes. Helen is blameless, but she knows she is blamed and hated by Greeks and Trojans alike. While her husband, brothers, and brother-in-law fight for her return to Sparta, she has no choice but to stay with a family that despises her. Like all other characters in The Iliad, Helen is a victim to the whims of the gods. This lack of control is an overarching theme. But Helen's frustration with her lack of agency makes her a unique character and, in some sense, an early literary feminist.

Helen has a parallel in Briseis, the Trojan priestess held captive by Achilles. The Iliad itself is specifically about how Achilles refuses to fight in the war when Briseis is taken away from him by the Greek general Agamemnon, and how he is later drawn back into the war. Just as Helen's abduction by Paris leads to the Trojan War, so does Briseis' abduction from Achilles lead to the events of The Iliad. And while she is almost never mentioned (and only mentioned by name in certain translations), Briseis serves, like Helen, as a woman who is treated as a trophy by two men and whose role in the conflict is beyond her control.

Andromache

Despite her Trojan birth and captive status, later books of The Iliad find Briseis bound in something like a marriage with Achilles, and she mourns his death as a wife would. But against this backdrop of conflicts caused by the abuse and abduction of women, only one example of a functional marriage is truly depicted. The Iliad is a war story, but Homer is also concerned with themes of household propriety; thus Andromache and Hector personify the ideal Grecian home.

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