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The Misjudging of Ajax the Great

Ajax plays a dice game with Achilles. Black figure amphora. Sixth c. BCE.
Ajax plays a dice game with Achilles. Black figure amphora. Sixth c. BCE.

Anyone that has even briefly passed by my Twitter account will know that I am a fan of Telamonian Ajax. It must be pretty comical looking in from the outside, as a grown woman cheer-leads her favourite 3,000-year-old dead Greek warrior as if she were leading a teenage fan club.

I admit, it is fun – as I firmly believe Classical reception should be. It is fun stanning your 'one' - defending him against all reason and logic from those who would suggest he were anything less than perfect. But the men in these stories were not perfect. That is one of the beauties of poems such as The Iliad and the plays that borrow from the wider Epic Cycle. They allow for endless scrutiny. Whilst some of their actions were in many ways fantastical and difficult to comprehend, often their motivations and drivers remain all too human.

That is something that I have been reflecting on a lot recently and it has helped me in more ways that I realised possible.

Robert Graves, in his Greek Myths describes Ajax as second only to Achilles in courage, strength and beauty - it that seemed so dissonant with all of the images that appear of him everywhere. From Shakespeare to Hollywood to Disney, in retelling after retelling; he seems always to be presented as the brute, and I get that - to a point.

His role in Sophocles' Ajax was allegorical after all. It told of a man who had committed inconceivably brutal acts and, in being unable to manage his emotions, or reason his way out of it, had committed the final deadly act of taking his own life. Throughout the play Ajax's focus is, for the most part, upon himself alone.

Despite the remonstrations of others, both in relation to his welfare and that of those he loves, he has no capacity for compromise. His position is set in stark contrast to the resourceful Odysseus who shows adaptability, empathy, and deference to the gods in advocating for the burial of his adversary who, just hours earlier, had sought to murder him.

The allegory was intended to present the enlightenment of Athens as superior to the uncompromising warmongering of what had gone before, and to point to the futility of conflict.

Likewise, in the contest for the arms related in the Metamorphoses, Ovid presents an Ajax who is outmanoeuvred by Odysseus. Whilst Ajax is capable of delivering a pretty convincing argument as to why he should be presented the arms of his dead cousin, his arguments are nimbly deconstructed and turned on him.

Both Sophocles and Ovid chose to present Ajax as a man who is now bested by 'new' and more valuable qualities: namely enlightened rhetoric and debate.

It is perhaps important to add some context as to what led to these two presentations of the man. Within the wider paradigm of the myth, after Achilles' death, his armour was recovered with a view to awarding as a prize. It was a prize that would identify the victor as Achilles' replacement and notionally the Best of the Greeks.

In line with Robert Graves' assertion, Ajax was defined by Homer as “the best after Achilles”. He assumes elsewhere in the poem the title “Herkos Akhaion” (Bulwark of the Achaeans) – the same title with which Achilles is labelled in book one. This suggests Ajax has assumed the role of primary defence for the combined Greek forces – a position of duty and responsibility. As such, Homer implies that not only is Ajax considered Achilles' second, but that during the course of his withdrawal, Ajax is actively performing the function of his replacement.

The arms though are not solely symbolic of the bearer's role at Troy. They are also representative of the honour of the entire House of Aeacus. With all other eligible beneficiaries now dead, Ajax views the arms as his sole inheritance.

Indeed, it is not clear as to why Odysseus should be in contention for the arms at all. It is this notion of inheritance that both Sophocles and Ovid press – to the point where it is easy to form the view that the Ajax within each work views it as his duty to retain that familial honour.

Eventually, albeit via myriad different means, the armour is awarded to Odysseus and it is the loss of these arms which is commonly held to provoke the madness of Ajax – leading to his seeking revenge against those who cheated him. However, his rage is deflected onto the livestock of the Greek camp and instead of those who he feels are culpable, Ajax ends up slaughtering sheep and cattle.

The culmination of his myth is violent and Ajax's actions are unjustifiable; but the common interpretation of these acts and his resulting suicide as being the result of a fit of pique, I find to be reductivist and damaging. I believe this is evident in the subsequent reception of his character as a fool and a brute: big and oafish and inarticulate.

Both Sophocles and Ovid present Ajax in respect of very narrow windows of time and in ways that focus on specific elements of his personality, yet it is these elements that seem to have passed down as the received perception of the man. Given the assessment of Ajax as second only to Achilles, these have always jarred with me.

With my very partial hat on: it just didn't seem fair.

Ajax battling Hector, engraving by John Flaxman, 1795.
Ajax battling Hector, engraving by John Flaxman, 1795.

Graves is not my only source for this sense of injustice. The Iliad, which must in some part have formed the basis of both Sophocles's and Ovid's characterisations, demonstrates many ways in which Hector and Ajax are reflective of each other, with parallel after parallel drawn to connect them.

They are magnetically drawn to each other throughout the poem and beyond; after all, it is Hector's sword that eventually kills Ajax. This doesn't feel a co-incidence. In their deaths, both are deceived by Athena, both continue their course because they cannot accept the shame that would taint them in life, both of them die, ultimately, unnecessarily.

Yet the reception of the two men is entirely different. Hector is lauded as the hero of Troy, but again, Ajax's final acts, however abhorrent, seem to eclipse everything else, and I find this extremely problematic. It is almost as if he has been denied his humanity as a means of explaining his action.

Just like Hector though, Ajax more than once exhibits compassion and grief in response to fallen comrades.

In Ajax, the fact that Tecmessa, his wife (or concubine) feels that she is able to appeal to this part of him is further evidence that Sophocles also intended to hint that some level of tenderness or compassion was once there. Admittedly, many point to the way in which he interacts with his son Eurysaces in the play as showing how distinct he was from Hector.

As Sophie Mills in 'Shield of the Achaeans' points out about their relationship: Sophocles almost uses Hector's words from that famous passage in Book 6 (as wishing his own son to be better than his father) and turns them in Ajax's mouth to be wishing his son to grow up luckier than his father. Ajax here is so self-centred, so utterly focussed on his own wretchedness, that I think this is key to understanding him. In The Iliad, for the most part, he is presented as a solid wall of defence: protective and loyal, focussed on the welfare of his comrades. We can see that from his speech during the Embassy to Achilles – his concern is for the “friendship of his companions” and that Achilles should show mercy for the sake of their comrades. It is his passion in this that keeps Achilles from sailing there and then. In the play by contrast, we see an Ajax that has been broken, as if war has destroyed him and he has diverged completely from the man he was.

I believe Homer deploys markers pointing towards the wider arc of Ajax's myth in the funeral games for Patroclus in Book 23 of The Iliad: setting the scene for events that Ovid and Sophocles later explore. In these games, Ajax takes part in three events and is not victorious in any of them. This is the man who is considered to be the strongest and best after Achilles. What happened to him over the course of the 55 or so days described in The Iliad, that he cannot win a single contest?

As we know from the rest of the poem, there are a series of events that must cause Ajax to question his self-worth – the near mortal wounding of his brother, being forced to concede a draw in the duel with Hector, and the battle for the ships where his defensive position – that of Bulwark of the Achaeans - is over-run.

Dolores O'Higgins goes further in 'The Second Best of the Achaeans' to assert that “not only success [but] the brilliant failure of death eludes Ajax also: the privilege of dying in Achilles' stead falls to Patroclus.” I would argue that Homer's depiction of Ajax during these games points to a man on the verge of, if not already in crisis.

If Sophocles is borrowing from this Homeric tradition to form the basis of his character: rather than a disproportionate, pride-laden, explosive response to the single event of the contest for the arms; how much of a stretch is it to view the loss of the armour as the last in a series of events that had eroded his capacity to cope? If so, this was a man in desperate need of help, yet remains subject to blame and ridicule.

Suicide of Ajax vase. Black figure. Sixth c. BCE.
Suicide of Ajax vase. Black figure. Sixth c. BCE.

Ajax himself acknowledges the the ways in which he has been changed within his 'deception speech' when he says: “I was strong once, as strong as toughened iron”. Admittedly, he identifies the cause of his new weakness as Tecmessa's words, rather than the war itself, but how plausible is that in isolation, truly? Reference to this part in the play as the 'Deception Speech' is something else that rankles with me. He is spoken of as having deceived his friends and having committed suicide. These are both words that are very loaded – the implication being that Ajax is at fault here.

We still use this phrase when speaking of suicide now: committed – a hangover from when it was a criminal act. It is all very pejorative, but there are some little nuggets within his speech that suggest, far from being Ajax deceiving, he may actually be reaching out.

For example: a meaning of Ajax's name may be “Of the Earth.” I have to thank Derek McCann and Frederick Armour here for their helping me understand some of the nuances in the original Greek. Within Ajax's speech, he speaks of hiding Hector's sword (the source of his disgrace) in the earth. A. F. Garvie points out that the Greek verb used here for 'to hide' (κρύπτω or kryptō) is one that is frequently used in the context of the burial of a corpse.

He goes on, through a beautifully eloquent speech (quite marked from his lines whilst subject of his madness, or his dawning realisation) to committing to concede to Agamemnon's will as his Commander. Ajax has already referred to this will earlier in the play when suggesting that he could single-handedly attack the walls of Troy to regain some of his kudos. He immediately rejects the notion, as to do so would necessarily aid Agamemnon's cause.

It is also, however, a patently impossible suggestion. Greater men even than Ajax have failed to breach the walls. The suggestion seems delusional, highlighting the contrast with his rational, measured reflections in his 'Deception Speech'. It is as if he has had an epiphany that moves him from his assertion that “a hero has two options: to live in glory or die in glory. And that to me is everything”; to an acceptance of his fate. If Sophocles has borrowed from the wider Epic Cycle in building his character, then presumably his audience would have been familiar of the myth relating to Palamedes and his execution for allegations of treason and sabotage – something that Ajax would also have been well aware of. The Author possibly hints at this likely outcome for Ajax's treacherous deeds later in the play with his treatment of Teucer at his return from Mysia. So is it in fact this will of Agamemnon that Ajax subsequently refers to? That of his own execution, to which he now concedes to bend?

In his 'deception' then, Ajax could be argued to be deliberately playing with words (something he is not often given credit as being able to do) – telling his friends that he was going to fulfil Agamemnon's will by burying the sword in himself as much as in the earth. Far from being deceptive, Ajax is instead being obliquely truthful.

Unfortunately, it seems that his friends just weren't listening. The Ajax here is articulate, cool, and collected. I find this speech incredibly chilling. It strikes me that Sophocles is presenting that moment of quiet resolve that is often spoken about when a person has made peace with their plan of action. To my mind this is the true Ajax, a window into the Ajax of The Iliad who was capable of giving rousing speeches and stood as a man of action – not the broken, tormented soul we know is presented within the rest of the play.

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles. Attic black-figure lekythos, ca. 510 BC. From Sicily.
Ajax carrying the body of Achilles. Attic black-figure lekythos, ca. 510 BC. From Sicily.

Vicki Feltham is a Civil Servant and a Mum to two small children. She fell in love with the Iliad over a decade ago and now spends her evenings reading and writing.

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Jan 02

I want to thank you for this incredible analyzation, I myself am very very fond of his story but haven't quite been able to find tellings such as these that could gather my thoughts in such a collected way as that they would make sense. I look forward to read other posts from you! :)

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