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Women Notes

Classics Notes > Homer's Iliad Notes

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In so far as the Iliad is a poem of war, women do not take part in the action. What is their contribution to the poem?
The Iliad is, in the first instance, a narrative of a war, from a time when only men could fight in battle. For this reason, it is only natural that the principal protagonists of the narrative should be the male warriors who can become involved in the battlefield. However, this does not mean that there are no important female characters, or that they do not contribute to the poem in a meaningful way. In fact, if the Iliad were only a poem about war it would not be nearly so interesting, and the women of the poem are one of the aspects that make it so compelling. Women may not take part in the actual fighting of the Trojan war, but the fighting takes place on their behalf. The abduction of Helen by Paris is the pretext for the war as a whole, the reason for which Agamemnon and Menelaus have led the entire Greek expedition to Troy. In the same way, Agamemnon taking Briseis back from Achilles is what sparks off the conflict between the two men. It is this conflict which fuels the narrative of the Iliad itself, causing Achilles to withdraw from the battle and Thetis to appeal to Zeus that the Trojans should gain the upper hand of the battle. On a smaller scale, by Agamemnon refusing to ransom the girl Chryseis, the plague on the Greeks happens. These women whom the men are fighting over - particularly captive women such as Briseis and Chryseis - do not, however, have any control themselves over what happens. Their function is more like that of pawns in the story. Chryseis especially has no voice of her own, but is simply moved around between the different men who are in her life. She does not even have a proper name of her own: 'Chryseis' really means just 'daughter of Chryses'. In Agamemnon's eyes, she is his geras, the physical representation of his honour, just as Briseis is the geras of Achilles. Women therefore do have a value: they are prized as desirable objects, and can be exchanged between men. For example, Achilles offers them as prizes at the funeral games of Patroclus in book 23, and Thersites lists them among the prizes of war in book 2. The exchange of women reflects the relative power and honour of the men they are owned by: when a woman is captured in war, for example, and taken by another man, it is a symbol of the fact that he has conquered her father or

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husband. In the opposite way, in times of peace, men exchange women through marriage to strengthen the bonds between them. Women in general also give a reason for all of the men to fight in the war. Warriors on both sides have wives and other female relations whom they care for and who will mourn their deaths if they die in combat. Nestor urges on the Greek troops by saying: Friends, be men...and be mindful, each man of you, of children and wife, of possessions and parents, whether they are living or dead. For the sake of those who are distant I here beg you to stand firm, and not turn back in flight.1

The fate of the Trojan women also adds extra impetus for the Trojans to fight: everyone knows that the fate of the women from a town that is sacked is not a happy one, as Hector says to Andromache: Some bronze-clad Achaean will lead you away weeping and rob you of your day of freedom. Then perhaps in Argos will you ply the loom at another woman's bidding, or carry water from Messeis or Hypereia, much against your will, and strong necessity will be laid on you. 2

Homer's descriptions of the daily life of the Trojan women, and of the family life of Hector, Andromache and Astyanax in book 6 (who act as sort of model family), add much pathos to the poem as we know that their world will be destroyed imminently. This makes the poem not just one about the individual battles of a war, but of the more far-reaching effects of war, and in this way the women stand for what is going to be lost. What is interesting about the effect that the war is going to have on the Trojan families is how the war is being fought ostensibly to save one Greek family - that of Menelaus and Helen and Hermione. The women of the Iliad occupy a different sphere to that of the men. Hector summarises this to Andromache when he tells her: But go to the house and busy yourself with your own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and tell your handmaids to ply their work: and war will be the concern for men, all those who live in Ilios, but especially for me.3

There is a strong sense in book 6 when Hector enters the city that he does not belong there: he tells his mother that he cannot pour libations because his hands are bloodied, and he refuses the female 1 15.661 2 6.454 3 6.490 06/06/2016 10:04 2/6

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