Nestor speaks; Briseis taken – Iliad Book 1, lines 254-348

Nestor tries to reconcile the quarrel. Achilles makes a final retort. Agamemnon’s men take Briseis from Achilles’ tent.

Nestor strikes me as a bit garrulous, the cliche of the old man who goes on and on about how things were better in his day.

Greek has a surprising grammatical feature, the dual number. English speakers are familiar with singular (I, thou, he) and plural (we, you-all, they), which are present in most languages. Greek also includes a number for dual, referring to exactly two. At first it seems very weird, but think about how many things occur, not singularly nor in multiples, but in pairs – eyes, ears, hands, and spouses. In this section, two of Agamemnon’s heralds go to Achilles’ tent to lead away Briseis. The words ερχεσθον, σφωιν, τω, αυτω are all in the dual.

Litotes is a rhetorical device in which one states the negative for emphasis. Smyth’s Greek Grammar describes litotes as “understatement so as to intensify, affirmation expressed by the negative of the contrary.” In English, we say “not bad” we frequently mean “very, very good.” Here:

ουδ` τω ιδων γηθησεν Ὰχιλλευς. – not, seeing them, rejoiced Achilles.

When translated word-for-word, Greek can sound a bit like Yoda in Star Wars. Where the phrases are short enough to make the meaning clear, I’ll try to preserve the word order. (Of course τω in the line above is dual, thus precisely meaning “the two of them.”) Translating that phrase as “Achilles was less than thrilled to see these two” would preserve the litotes.

What of Briseis? In modern times, the role of female slave-girl is not dismissed simply, but tends to be examined more carefully. She is led away αεκουσ` “against her will.” And that’s about all we know of Briseis’ thoughts on the matter. By inference she was in love with Achilles, who must have slaughtered her family and neighbors, and did not want to leave him for Agamemnon. That seems rather unlikely, in any realistic view of the situation. It’s better to accept Homer on his own terms, with the mores and values of the time.