When it comes to Greek history, the heroes of the stories are always men. Sure, you’ve got the Olympian gods (which out of twelve, seven – one over par – are male), but in mortal history, men are usually the heroes.
War can be majestic in history – think of Troy. Achilles, Ajax and Odysseus fighting their way over the battlefields, bringing men together, drinking in the spoils. But on of the other side of the coin, war is the plight that burns down cities, kills sons and brothers, rapes daughters and sisters. And who is the cause of the downfall of Troy? Not the men that pillaged and burned their way to it, not Achilles cutting his way through men like barley in a field… but Helen. Helen is the cause of all this terror and bloodshed. Helen is the one to blame.
Men have always been the heroes of history, and women are vilified for it. This is why I enjoyed ‘The Silence of the Girls’ so much. It’s written by Pat Barker, and follows Briseis, a young queen, and the sacking of her city, Lyrnessos. It follows her subsequent life living as a war prize among the men who killed her family, sacked her home, and burned down her city. Pat takes us through the particularly rough experience of being a woman in Ancient Greece, women whose stories are largely ignored by mainstream history. For once to be able to see these glorified men through a woman’s point of view paints them in a not-so-forgiving light.
The tale of Achilles heroic but short life lives on in glorified legend. What happens to Briseis, his war-prize, his partner of sorts, is not mentioned. In fact, if I asked you, in all your knowledge of Ancient Greece, who Briseis was – you probably couldn’t tell me. Prior to this novel, I couldn’t have told you either.
But Briseis is a hero in her own right. She watched countless deaths of her family and friends, experiences the fall of grace from being a queen to being a common slave, endures multiple rapes from multiple Greek “heroes”, and still finds the courage to go on. This is a marvellous (yet brutal) book about the forbearing condition and endurance of being a woman. The trials and tribulations we have to face, the line she walks between hating her enemy, and having to silently serve and service them every day.
It’s important to remember that there are more characters in a story than just the heroes, and that perhaps the silent characters in the background may be as heroic and magnificent as shining fleet-footed Achilles bellowing his war-cry on the battlefield. We can only hope to be as firm and steadfast as Briseis in times of strife. Achilles’ story may have ended there on the front line, but Briseis story continues on, into the aether of legends past…
A book for feminists, history buffs, and men who need a clue, ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker is a book you just can’t miss.