The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s unsentimental and beautiful new novel, tells the story of the Iliad as experienced by women captives, from inside the Greek camp overlooking the walls of the besieged city of Troy. They are the Greek heroes’ prizes, taken from conquered outlying towns and villages to be prostitutes, domestic workers, and, on occasion, wives. Herodotus, in his Histories, tells of the Ionian Greek customs with regard to their captured women: they
married Carian girls, whose parents they had killed. The fact that these women were forced into marriage after the murder of their fathers, husbands, and sons was the origin of the law, established by oath and passed down to their female descendants, forbidding them to sit at table with their husbands or to address them by name.
The novel is told, mostly in the first person, by Briseis, the captive queen awarded to Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior. She becomes the motive for the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek troops, and the resulting destruction their troops suffer, caused by the two men’s personal feud.
Homer’s epic opens as Agamemnon, who had his daughter Iphigenia sacrificed as an offering for good sailing conditions to Troy, encounters another kind of father in the Greek camp, a priest of Apollo, who has taken an unprecedented risk and come to the enemy camp to ask for his beloved daughter, Chryseis, to be released from Agamemnon’s household. Agamemnon refuses. In the coarsest speech of the epic, he insults the priest and gratuitously, pornographically, forces on the father a haunting vision of his daughter’s future as the king’s sex slave and household drone. She will never again be free or safe, since Agamemnon’s impulses are sovereign; she is his to beat or to kill, if he wants. The priest beseeches Apollo to punish the Greeks, and the god responds, sending a devastating plague.
Achilles calls an assembly to find its cause. Under his protection, the divining priest Calchas reveals that the plague is of divine origin, and that Agamemnon’s prize, Chryseis, must be restored to her father in order to appease Apollo. Though Agamemnon is furious with the priest’s assessment (and insults him in the style of Trump’s attack on the CNN reporter Jim Acosta—“Prophet of evil, never yet have you spoken anything good for me”), he has no choice but to assent. However, while Achilles is the Greek’s greatest warrior, Agamemnon is his superior in rank. The command structure is an iron hierarchy, and to restore his prestige, Agamemnon demands Achilles’s own prize, Briseis, as a substitute, humiliating his most valuable war champion. Briseis is taken from Achilles’s tent and led to Agamemnon’s. Achilles then refuses to use his extraordinary martial powers to fight for the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.