Sophocles’ Ajax as the Iliadic Achilles in the Extreme

  Karakantza, Efimia. 2023. “Sophocles’ Ajax as the Iliadic Achilles in the Extreme.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.

Part 1. An Excessive Pursuit of the Heroic timê: The Dishonored and Raging Hero

In the Iliad, Ajax is one of the ἄριστοι Ἀχαιῶν; however, despite his over-vaunted bravery and unique stature we are constantly reminded that he is second best to Achilles. In the present paper, I shall be arguing that in Sophocles Ajax, the protagonist appropriates the mode of behavior and mentality of the Iliadic Achilles; he resembles the champion of the Achaeans in at least two major areas of his conduct: firstly, in the excessive pursuit of his heroic timê and secondly, in that, while pursuing his timê, he harms his philoi and not his enemies. I shall also argue that this transformation of the Homeric Ajax into a facsimile of the Homeric Achilles is consciously masterminded by Sophocles, who deliberates over the sustainability of “actions and words” (behavior) that, although illustrious and deeply moving (as are the heroic activities of both Achilles and Ajax), promote individual instead of communal interests; and as a result they do not support, and thus do not belong to, the structures of the system of polis.
The exploration of the similarities between the Sophoclean Ajax and the Iliadic Achilles will be divided into two parts: in part one (the current essay) I will reflect on the dishonoring of the two heroes and their subsequent enraged behavior as a consequence of having their timê undermined. In part two (in a forthcoming publication), I will explore the second major point of convergence between the two heroes: namely that, in reactiοn to the plight of their honor, they harm their friends instead of their enemies in a blatant reversal of the popular dictum ‘helping friends, harming enemies’ that permeates classical ethics. I will briefly comment on the latter in the conclusion of the current essay so as to provide the reader with the basic outline of my complete argument. I begin now with exploring the former.

It is all about heroic timê—some theoretical remarks

The literature on the construction and pursuit of the heroic timê in the Homeric epics is very rich. A number of publications on the Homeric morality and ethics per se, and a separate body of publications on Achilles in particular, all touch upon—in one way or another—the meaning and function of the term timê, which is regularly translated as “heroic honor” and is related also to the notion of public esteem [1] that a hero enjoys and the material tokens bearing witness to this; namely spoils of war. [2] The semantics of the word timê connects also with substantives such as kleos and kûdos and to adjectives such as agathos and aristos. My intention is not to take a critical stance in regard to all the existing literature. I shall be referring only to views that have a bearing on the formulation of my present thesis, which can be stated as follows: the thoughts and ensuing behavior (ethos) of Achilles in the Homeric Iliad are better seen not as a norm of the Homeric ethics but rather as a violation of them. Consequently, following my proposition that the Sophoclean Ajax is shaped after the Iliadic Achilles, Ajax can be also seen as violating the codes of heroic behavior in Sophocles’ play.
It is interesting to note, before embarking on the specific arguments about Ajax and Achilles, an influential perspective on Homeric ethics/morality that, although refuted by later scholars, still exerts some influence on the relevant literature and the way the Homeric world is viewed. I refer to the well-known distinction between the cooperative and competitive values of Homeric society argued by Adkins in his book Merit and Responsibility. [3] In the author’s view, the competitive values (those that promote recognition of the individual through personal achievement) override the cooperative (or “quiet”) values that ideally would promote cooperation at a communal level. Competitive values override co-operative ones, as these attract less admiration from society. [4] In Adkins’ interpretive framework, not only do intentions not matter, [5] but martial prowess alone is paramount. [6] If one follows this reasoning, then Homeric heroes could very well seek their personal timê and kleos at the cost of others’ timê and kleos, and this would be considered as a normal, and normative, ethos. In this respect, Achilles, whose pursuit of his timê is the most “egotistic” and obsessive, could be seen as the prototype or paradigmatic hero against whom all others are measured. [7]
In fact, this belies the truth: Achilles’ behavior is neither the norm in the Iliad, nor does it comply with the commonly accepted ethics of his fellow warriors, [8] as many incidents in the Iliad bear witness. He puts his heroic timê above the communal wellbeing of the Achaeans, and consequently spurns the battlefield. He does not act as expected of him, something evidenced by the strong disapproval of his friends of the embassy (book 9). Moreover, when he actually returns to the fray, he violates all conceivable aspects of the heroic code in a cumulative frenzy of killing (book 21), and finally treats the body of the dead Hector in blatant defiance of both human and divine laws (books 22–24). [9] Achilles violates the ethics of the Iliadic warrior as upheld by heroes such as Ajax, Diomedes, Odysseus, Menelaus, Hector and Aeneas; and by himself before the outburst of his mênis. Andromache in her last meeting with Hector describes how Achilles both treated her father, whom he himself had killed, with honor by giving him a proper heroic burial and also accepted the ransoms brought for her mother and set her free. In addition, Achilles used to fight in the front rank to achieve both: laboring for the Achaeans and gaining his personal kleos (book 1).
Combining personal gain and collective cause while observing the code of honor of other warriors, as the mode of fighting proper to an Iliadic warrior, is illustrated by Cairns in his book Aidos (1993), which offers a better insight into the Homeric ethics than the earlier dichotomy of Adkins: [10]

To be concerned with one’s own honour is to envisage oneself as one among others, also bearers of honour; thus to limit one’s own claim to honour is to accept one’s status vis-à-vis others, to inhibit self-assertion is to recognize how this conduct would impinge upon the honour of others,<…>. [11]

In this sense, “<the code of honour> integrates self-regarding and other-regarding, competitive and co-operative standards into a remarkably unified whole.” [12] This last idea is put forward by Herman in another wording:

Homeric society constructs the notion of action in such a way that the excellences to which Adkins points are tied to an issue of community maintenance. […] although excellence appears to create a competitive individualism, it is an excellence carefully tied to the internal gradations of status and obligation within the community. [13]

This is exactly what the Iliad conveys to its audience/readers. I subscribe to the view that the code of honor observes individual and collective interests, and that the overvaluation of personal interests at the expense of the common wellbeing is what I term “excessive.” Achilles in the Iliad and Ajax in Sophocles pursue their timê while encroaching on the honor of others, as will be argued in detail in the course of the present paper.

Dishonoring Achilles

One of the most famous stories of western literature is the assault on the honor of Achilles and the ensuing mênis of the hero that give rise to the Homeric Iliad. As we all know, Achilles is deprived of his γέρας, a beautiful maiden, allotted to him as spoils of war. This constitutes such a blow to his timê that the hero threatens to abandon the expedition and return home, [14] because depriving of his γέρας equates with becoming an ἄτιμος, as Achilles states when reproaching Agamemnon (1.170–171): [15]

ἐπεὶ ἦ πολὺ φέρτερόν ἐστιν
οἴκαδ᾽ ἴμεν σὺν νηυσὶ κορωνίσιν, οὐδέ σ’ ὀΐω
ἐνθάδ’ ἄτιμος ἐὼν ἄφενος καὶ πλοῦτον ἀφύξειν

Far better
to head home with my curved ships than stay here,
Unhonored myself and piling up a fortune for you. [16]

Similarly, Thetis, when she travels to Olympus to elicit the promise that the Achaeans will suffer defeat until they entreat her son to return to the fight, presents Achilles’ cause as a case of a slighted timê that seeks to be restored by the highest authority, that of Zeus (1.505–507):

τίμησόν μοι υἱὸν ὃς ὠκυμορώτατος ἄλλων
ἔπλετ’· ἀτάρ μιν νῦν γε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων
ἠτίμησεν· ἑλὼν γὰρ ἔχει γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπούρας.

Honor my son, doomed to die young,
And yet dishonored by King Agamemnon,
Who stole his prize, a personal affront.

As it happens, in this narrative the promise that Zeus gives to Thetis, with its subsequent modifications, [17] is actually the plot of the Homeric version of the Iliadic war, our Iliad.

Material tokens of timê are equally important as the public esteem that a hero enjoys in his community. Thus, fighting a war without receiving his allotted share of the spoils of raiding is an unthinkable situation for a warrior of the Homeric era. The famous little speech of Sarpedon to Glaukos (12.310–321), [18] when he urges him to take their stand at the front of the battlefield, lays out the twofold character of the timê: their esteem runs very high among the Lycians, as if they were gods; and their fighting at the front brings them fine estates, beautiful orchards, riverside fields, and prime portions at symposia.
As a result, it strikes the audience/reader as a great injustice when Achilles complains that his war-spoils never equal Agamemnon’s (1.163) considering that he is the bravest warrior and that he alone contests the fiercest encounters in this war until he succumbs to fatigue (1.165–166, 168). He also complains with indignation that he himself was never wronged by the Trojans (1.152–153), so has no cause to retaliate; [19] in this sense, this war is not his. In a bitterer mode, he tells the embassy of his fellow warriors that, because of Agamemnon’s behavior, he is reduced to the lowest kind of a social outcast deprived of all rights, a vagabond beggar (9.647–648):

[…] ὥς μ’ ἀσύφηλον ἐν Ἀργείοισιν ἔρεξεν
Ἀτρεΐδης ὡς εἴ τιν’ ἀτίμητον μετανάστην

[…] The son of Atreus treated me like dirt,
In public, as if I were some worthless tramp

Those very words (ἀτίμητον μετανάστην, repeated again to Patroclus in 16.59) are the strongest possible formulation of how unbearable it is to be deprived of one’s timê, with the social degradation it entails. This conviction is so much embedded in Homeric ethics that it resonates in the speech of sympathy that Achilles addresses to Priam in book 24. When Achilles advises him to endure the misfortunes of life, he resorts to the metaphor of the two jars at the doorstep of Zeus, and he concludes that a man that receiving only evil (i.e. in consequence of which, without material resources) is ἀτίμητος by gods and men alike, and hunger drives him over the earth (24.532–533):

[…] λωβητὸν ἔθηκε, / καὶ ἑ κακὴ βούβρωστις ἐπὶ χθόνα δῖαν ἐλαύνει,
φοιτᾷ δ᾽ οὔτε θεοῖσι τετιμημένος οὔτε βροτοῖσιν.

You become a pariah, and hunger drives you
Over the bright earth, dishonored by gods and men.

He is the lowest social outcast and this is how Achilles sees his own dishonoring.

Excessive pursuit of heroic timê by Achilles: The raging hero

Achilles seeks to restore his timê. For this hero, however, so exceptional in many respects (in bravery, physical strength, and, not least, in having a divine mother, constantly active in her son’s life) restoring his timê could not be a simple matter. He stands accused that even before the outbreak of the conflict he was overly concerned with his own timê trespassing without regard on the honor of others and transgressing the social order (1.287–291). [20]

ἀλλ’ ὅδ’ ἀνὴρ ἐθέλει περὶ πάντων ἔμμεναι ἄλλων͵
πάντων μὲν κρατέειν ἐθέλει͵ πάντεσσι δ΄ ἀνάσσειν͵
πᾶσι δὲ σημαίνειν͵ ἅ τιν’ οὐ πείσεσθαι ὀΐω·
εἰ δέ μιν αἰχμητὴν ἔθεσαν θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες
τοὔνεκά οἱ προθέουσιν ὀνείδεα μυθήσασθαι;

But this man wants to be ahead of everyone else,
He wants to rule everyone, give orders to everyone,
Lord it over everyone, and he’s not going to get away with it.
If the gods eternal made him a spearman, does that mean,
They gave him permission to be insolent as well?

Of course, this statement is Agamemnon’s angry (and biased) description of Achilles’ behavior in book 1 of the Iliad. Nevertheless, we are led to the realization of Achilles’ stubbornness when he dismisses Nestor’s advice to yield to Agamemnon, since, according to the social and political order, Agamemnon’s kingly timê is superior, as his fame and honor (kûdos) are allotted to him directly by Zeus (1.277–279): [21]

μήτε σὺ Πηλείδη θελ’ ἐριζέμεναι βασιλῆϊ
ἀντιβίην͵ ἐπεὶ οὔ που’ ὁμοίης ἔμμορε τιμῆς
σκηπτοῦχος βασιλεύς͵ ᾧ τε Ζεὺς κῦδος ἔδωκεν.

Nor should you, son of Peleus, want to lock horns with a king.
A scepter-holding king has honor beyond the rest of men,
Power and glory given by Zeus himself.

In this line of argument, Achilles may be physically strong (σὺ καρτερός ἐσσι, 1.280) but Agamemnon is more powerful (ὅ γε φέρτερός ἐστιν, 1.281), since he reigns over more. Nevertheless, Agamemnon, contrary to Nestor’s advice redistributes the spoils of war, taking Briseis away from Achilles. The latter, contrary again to Nestor’s advice, abuses Agamemnon [22] and challenges his authority (ἄλλοισιν δὴ ταῦτ᾽ ἐπιτέλλεο, μὴ γὰρ ἐμοί γε / σήμαιν<ε>, try that on somebody else, but not on me, 1.295–296); if he yielded to him, he would have been thought of as coward and next to nothing.

Achilles does not relent of his anger in book 1 of the Iliad, despite the advice of Nestor (αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε / λίσσομ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆι μεθέμεν χόλον, and I appeal personally to Achilles to “dispose of his anger,” 1.282–283); he only obeys the goddess Athena to control his temper and end his menos (ἦλθον ἐγὼ παύσουσα τὸ σὸν μένος, 1.207) that was driving him to kill Agamemnon. His favored goddess predicts the lavish recompense that Agamemnon will offer to lure him back to battle. This is how gradually the plan of the Iliad develops. Achilles declares obedience to the gods; but, at the same time, he solemnly swears at the assembly that the time will come when every single Greek will long for him because of the raging man-killer Hector, who will ravage the ranks of the Achaeans shedding their blood (1.239–243).
This is the moment that the plan “harming friends and helping enemies” starts taking shape. Achilles’ withdrawal will result in great casualties among the Achaeans—he even wishes for his fellow warriors to perish. For the sake of my argument, though, I shall be dealing with it in greater detail later in the second part of this paper, when this motif will be examined as the second point of convergence between the Homeric Achilles and the Sophoclean Ajax. It will suffice to say, for the moment, that for three quarters of the narrative of the Iliad this is the plan that is followed and the ranks of the Achaeans suffered much bloodshed and humiliation.
Harboring one’s anger by deliberately allowing harm to come to one’s own kind (what I call later in this paper “Achilles against his philoi”), is one aspect of the excessive pursuit of one’s timê. A second, equally severe excess is committed when Achilles, after relinquishing his mênis (μήνιδος ἀπόρρησις, book 19), returns to action and behaves as a raging warrior disregarding the ethical order that should be observed in battle. In this sense, a second vicious circle of anger is instigated as the great warrior is once again possessed by rage; this time venting all his rage and fury on the Trojans (aiming ultimately at Hector) in a notorious frenzy of killing (book 21) that fills the river Scamandrus with corpses. The killing begins in book 20 where Homer describing the murder of Anastorides (a no-name Trojan), who begs Achilles as a suppliant to spare his life, notes that the supplication is declined because: οὐ γάρ τι γλυκύθυμος ἀνὴρ ἦν οὐδ’ ἀγανόφρων͵ / ἀλλὰ μάλ’ ἐμμεμαώς (=enraged) (20.467–468). This fury crowns the end of book 20 with the picture of the enraged Achilles in his chariot darting forth, spear in hand, to kill. Blood flows on dark earth (20.494) and, as Achilles’ divine horses trample corpses and shields indiscriminately (20.499), the underside of his chariot is splashed with blood kicked up by the wheels and horses’ hooves (20.499–500); Achilles’ hands are also spattered with gore (20.503).
After this panorama of killing, book 21 opens with more specific details of how this ἐμμανής warrior kills without mercy, without stopping like a killing “machine” released to satiate his need for revenge (21.100–105); he kills another suppliant and takes twelve Trojans captive to sacrifice them to Patroclus (21.114–119, 27–32). [23] He burdens the waters of Scamandrus so heavily with corpses that the river groans under the heavy load of dead, unable to flow to the sea (21.218–221). The river asks his brother, the river Simoeis, to help him stop this wild man who rages like a god [24] (21.314–315). Filled with fear, Priam orders the gates of the city to be held open so that the terrified army can flee within the city and be saved from Achilles, who is “maniacal in his rage and lust for glory” (λύσσα δέ οἱ κῆρ αἰὲν ἔχε κρατερή͵ μενέαινε δὲ κῦδος ἀρέσθαι, 21.542–543).
The more Achilles regresses to a state of mind of self-assertion (κῦδος ἀρέσθαι), the more he violates the code of Homeric ethics. Nowhere is this violation more evident than in the slaying of Hector and the ensuing treatment of his body at the hands of Achilles. The Achaean hero denies the dying Hector the chance to be given a proper burial by his family (22.345–354), although at that moment Hector assumes the status of a suppliant (22.338). He “promises” him to be left unburied, prey to the dogs and birds, a catastrophe every warrior dreads. The proemion of the Iliad bears witness to the appalling thought of the unburied dead on the battlefield, as do the Ajax and Antigone of Sophocles, and the Suppliants of Euripides in classical times. But he does not stop there. In the notorious scene after Hector’s death, he pierced his tendons above his heels and cinched them with leather thongs to his chariot and dragged the body in the dust (22.396–404). Even after the Patroclus’ funeral games, Achilles still defiled the body of Hector by dragging him around the tomb of Patroclus and leaving it lying in the dust, in the hope of the body being devoured by dogs. To determine the extent such a behavior could attract divine retribution in other literary genres, it will suffice to refer to Antigone and the detriment to Creon’s oikos as a result of his prohibition of Polyneikes being buried. In our Iliad, however, Achilles is not punished for the maltreatment of the body that continues for eleven days (24.22–30), for Homer reserves for his hero a way back to restoring humanity and ethics in the final book of the poem. Before this moment, however, Achilles in his rage had been defiling the corpse, while the gods felt pity for the dead (ὥς ὃ μὲν Ἕκτορα δῖον ἀείκιζεν μενεαίνων· / τὸν δ’ ἐλεαίρεσκον μάκαρες θεοὶ εἰσορόωντες, 24.22–23).
The combination of the two verbal forms, ἀείκιζεν μενεαίνων, leads us to the raging Ajax in Sophocles, who defiles the bodies of his enemies, as we shall see. Thus, in a reverse order I shall proceed from the depiction of Ajax in Sophocles as a raging warrior, then move to his portrait in the Iliad to establish which patterns of behavior Sophocles had in mind when writing his tragedy. I hope it will become clear that Ajax in the Iliad is a model hero, fighting a fair fight with all his strength to help the army of the Achaeans. Then the dishonoring of Ajax would come as a blatant injustice, if only in the Greek Epic Cycle did we not have a shift of favoritism towards Odysseus; Ajax in the Little Iliad comes out as a lesser hero. Finally, a stroke of innovation by Sophocles follows, who imbues Ajax with hybris, so that his doomed course of life has a consistent justification in the context of the dramatic work.

Excessive pursuit of heroic timê by Ajax: The raging hero

The tragedy Ajax opens at a peak of heroic violence where the eponymous hero as a raging warrior seeks to extract his revenge in accumulative killing. Deprived of the arms of Achilles, [25] and feeling deeply wronged by the chieftains of the Achaeans, particularly the Atreidae and Odysseus, Ajax decides to make them pay the penalty for their injustice by killing them. Reconstructing the fragmented pieces of the narrative in Ajax, the picture of the bloody raid launched by Ajax performed at “dead of night,” [26] ἄκρας νυχτός, on the camp of the Achaeans is laid bare in front of our eyes. His original plan of slaughtering his “enemies” is being thwarted by the goddess Athena who blurs his vision (δυσφόρους ἐπ’ ὄμμασι / γνώμας βαλοῦσα, 51–52) [27] so that he wreaks vengeance on animals and herdsmen. Noteworthy is the savage violence of the attack, as are the feelings of satisfaction and joy that Ajax savors while performing it. He massacres many animals on the spot cleaving their spines around him (ἔκειρε πολύκερων φόνον / κύκλω αχίζων, 55–56) in frenzy until he has sated his lust for blood. [28] Those left living he leaves off in fetters (62).
Thus far, our source of information has been the goddess Athena, present at the massacre to prevent human casualties and lead Ajax deeper in his diseased folly and the web of evils that are beginning to ensnare him (ἐγὼ δὲ φοιτῶντ’ ἄνδρα μανιάσιν νόσοις / ὤτρυνον, εἰσέβαλλον εἰς ἔρκη κακά, [29] 59–60). Now the narrator changes and the most sinister and bloodiest details of Ajax’s revenge are announced as the hero himself boasts to Athena of how he intends to torture Odysseus, to his utmost delight (ἥδιστος, ὦ δέσποινα, δεσμώτης ἔσω / θακεῖ· θανεῖν γὰρ αὐτὸν οὔ τί πω θέλω, 105–106). He intends to bind him to the post of his tent and flay him alive until he bleeds (108, 110), says to his “beloved” goddess. Tecmessa, some two hundred verses later on, recounts the same episode by adding more killings in the tent, the mutilation of the tethered animals, [30] Ajax’s insane laughter and his shouted insults to the Atreidae (thought by him already dead) and to Odysseus (296–304). The sinister picture of Ajax loping alone around the Trojan plain in the darkness of night, bloody sword in hand dripping with the gore of those just slaughtered ([…] ὀπτὴρ αὐτὸν εἰσιδὼν μόνον / πηδῶντα πεδία σὺν νεορράντῳ ξίφει, 29–30) evokes the blood-spattered Achilles of the end of book 20 of the Iliad.
This raging warrior, who chose the darkness of night to initiate his revenge, notes with emphasis in the prologue that with the Atreidae dead, he will never again be deprived of his timê (ὥστ’ οὔποτ’ Αἴαντ’͵ οἶδ’͵ ἀτιμάσουσ’ ἔτι, 98). Thus, this violent attack of Ajax is an act of revenge aimed at restoring his timê by punishing the Atreidae and Odysseus who have wronged him (ὅσην κατ’ αὐτῶν ὕβριν ἐκτείσαιτ’ ἰών, 304; κεῖνος δὲ <Ὀδυσσεὺς> τείσει τήνδε κοὐκ ἄλλην δίκην, 113). The medium chosen for the realization of his revenge is the massacre of the Achaeans in a crescendo of violence (235–239): [31]

ὧν τὴν μὲν ἔσω σφάζ’ ἐπὶ γαίας͵
τὰ δὲ πλευροκοπῶν δίχ’ ἀνερρήγνυ·
δύο δ’ ἀργίποδας κριοὺς ἀνελών͵
τοῦ μὲν κεφαλὴν καὶ γλῶσσαν ἄκραν
ιπτεῖ θερίσας͵ […]

Some of them he slaughtered indoors, on the ground,
and the rest he tore apart, hacking at their sides.
Taking two white-footed rams he slashed off
and hurled away the head of one
and the tip of its tongue […] [32]

Thus, we see Ajax mutilating the bodies of the rams he thinks are the Atreidae and capturing other animals binding them to the poles of his tent before defiling them (καὶ νῦν κατ’ οἴκους συνδέτους αἰκίζεται, 65; and also, τοὺς δὲ δεσμίους ᾐκίζεθ’ ὥστε φῶτας ἐν ποίμναις πίτνων, 299–300). One animal that is taken to be Odysseus is tied to a pole to be flogged to death ([…] τὸν δ’ ὀρθὸν ἄνω / κίονι δήσας͵ / μέγαν ἱπποδέτην υτῆρα λαβὼν / παίει λιγυρᾷ μάστιγι διπλῇ͵ 239–242; cf. also μάστιγι πρῶτον νῶτα φοινιχθεὶς θάνῃ, 110). Athena, in her ironic address to Ajax asks him not to torture (αἰκίζειν) Odysseus (μὴ δῆτα τὸν δύστηνον ὧδέ γ’ αἰκίσῃ, 111). We should be reminded, at this point, that it was strictly prohibited to flog to death or torture in any way a free man in classical Athens, so that the picture of Odysseus dying, lashed to a pole, like a common slave or criminal would have provoked terror in the audience, since it entailed a further dishonoring of the captured enemy. It comes as no surprise the widespread use of the various verbal forms of αἰκίζειν in the relevant Sophoclean passages, which highlight the defilement of the dead Hector by the raging Achilles. In Ajax, though, in a poignant reversal, so typical in dramatic plays, it is Ajax who is actually defiled and tortured, and not his enemies. The fallen hero, when he comes to his senses and sees clearly the heap of the dead animals around him, realizes that it is Athena who has tortured him all along (401–402):

ἀλλά μ’ ἁ Διός
ἀλκίμα θεὸς
ὀλέθριον αἰκίζει,

But the daughter of Zeus,
the mighty goddess,
tortures me to death.

Having been through the picture of the raging Ajax in the eponymous tragedy some questions loom large in our understanding of this particular Sophoclean hero. Is there any indication in the Iliadic Ajax that would prepare the audience for such behavior? How is Ajax in the Iliad? Does he connect with Achilles and in what way? And, finally, is Ajax worthy of Achilles’ arms?

Ajax in the Iliad: The second best of the Achaeans

If we take the text of the Iliad “at face value,” we have no doubt as to who is the second best of the Achaeans and to whom the arms would have been allotted. The intriguing plot of the epic poem makes the central hero of the Iliadic war (Achilles) eschew the battlefield for three quarters of the narrated events. While Achilles nurtures his anger in his tent along with his Myrmidons, many others perform heroic feats, but it is Ajax who shoulders the burden of defense for the Greek army, is summoned at every critical moment of the war and performs all the deeds that we would have expected Achilles to perform. Symbolically he takes Achilles’ place, as in the semantics of the topography of the Greek camp he holds the left wing while Achilles holds the right.
I will retell only three of the most important instances in Ajax’s heroic action in the Iliad that show that he actually takes the place of Achilles and acts as his surrogate. In book 7 there is a lottery between the ἄριστοι Ἀχαιῶν to decide who will face Hector in single combat; when the lot of Ajax falls out of the helmet, the hero rejoices in his heart (γήθησε δὲ θυμῷ, … χαίρω δὲ καὶ αὐτὸς / θυμῷ…, 7.189, 191–192). He feels confident of victory (ἐπεὶ δοκέω νικησέμεν Ἕκτορα δῖον, 7.192), and indeed he is the only Achaean ever to encounter Hector man to man apart from Achilles. The outcome of their combat is not decided in favor of Ajax, although it is clear that he has supremacy over Hector. In all the exchanges of blows (the typical sequence of a Homeric duel) Ajax proves stronger and of surer eye. Hector is wounded and he succumbs (collapses on his back) when Ajax hurls against him a huge stone -much bigger that Hector’s (πολὺ μείζονα λᾶαν ἀείρας, 7.268). Without divine intervention, [33] Ajax would have triumphed and Hector would have been killed. [34] Of course, this is not possible because in the mythical tradition Ajax was not meant to kill Hector and in the Homeric narrative the death of Hector marks the end of the Iliad. Thus, in mythical and narratological terms the duel has to end in a draw. The Homeric text, however, by allowing Ajax’s superiority, foreshadows the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles in book 22, since this early encounter is like a “dress rehearsal” for the main act to be performed later with the real “actors” rather than a surrogate Achilles. Moreover, this duel gives us a preview of the injustice which will also be inflicted later on Ajax, since despite his courage, bravery and physical strength Ajax will lose to various fellow warriors during the funeral games honoring Patroclus (in book 23) and to Odysseus over the arms of Achilles (in Aethiopis and Little Iliad, and other sources).
In book 15, when fierce fighting breaks out around the ships, it is Hector and Ajax that fight hand-to-hand at one of the ships; Ajax standing his ground, although pressed by Hector, and preventing him from torching the ship. At the end of book 15, Ajax retreats slowly as the pressure grows irresistible—by the will of Zeus—without, however, giving up the defence of the ship and letting the Trojans advance. In the critical book 16, however, Ajax breaks. The Homeric narrative describing the battling hero just before his final retreat is eloquent for it seems that he alone holds the Greek line. His helmet “clashing under repeated blows,” “his left shoulder ached with labor” [35] as he held his oversized shield around to protect his body. His renowned bodily strength is fading (16.109–111):

αἰεὶ δ΄ ἀργαλέῳ ἔχετ΄ ἄσθματι͵ κὰδ δέ οἱ ἱδρὼς
πάντοθεν ἐκ μελέων πολὺς ἔρρεεν͵ οὐδέ πῃ εἶχεν
ἀμπνεῦσαι· πάντῃ δὲ κακὸν κακῷ ἐστήρικτο

Again and again
he fought for breath, gasping, bathed in sweat
rivering down his body, his limbs soaked and sleek…
where could he find some breathing room in battle?
Wherever he looked, pains heaped on pains. [36]

At this moment, Ajax represents the whole of the Achaean army that succumbs to the raging Trojans and in fulfillment of Zeus’ promise to Thetis (15.598–599). The moment is so critical that Homer interrupts his narrative and addresses the Muse again (16.112) asking her to take over and narrate how Hector comes at the exhausted hero, shatters his spear, forcing him to retreat, then sets the ships on fire. This triggers the events that will culminate in the death of Patroclus, the quelling of the wrath of Achilles, the death of Hector and the end of the Iliad that concludes with the ransom of Hector and his burial.

But most importantly, the incident that marks the interchanging of roles between Achilles and Ajax is the role that the latter plays in the fierce combat over Patroclus’ corpse. Patroclus was Achilles’ responsibility since the former found refuge at Peleus’ palace (23.84–90). They set off on the Trojan expedition together, and he is the closest and dearest friend of Achilles, as the Homeric narrative always binds them together. When Achilles learns of his death he breaks into such a violent lament that his mother emerges from the depths of the sea to console him. To her warning that when he kills Hector to avenge Patroclus he will bring on his own death, Achilles replies (18.98–99):

αὐτίκα τεθναίην͵ ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἄρ’ ἔμελλον ἑταίρῳ
κτεινομένῳ ἐπαμῦναι·

Then let me die now. I was not help
to him when he was killed out there

Achilles did not prevent Patroclus’ death, but Ajax prevented the mutilation of the dead Patroclus since, from all the ἄριστοι Ἀχαιῶν, it was he who protected and retrieved the dead body as if he were Achilles. The rescue of the body of Patroclus is very significant in the Homeric narrative; it also becomes the prototype upon which the rescue of the body of Achilles proper is based later in Aethiopis by Arctinus (to which we shall return later). In book 17, Menelaus who is near the body cannot withstand the force of the waves of Trojan soldiers, retreats and abandons the body, seeking Ajax while the corpse is stripped of its illustrious armor. Ajax comes bearing his huge tower like shield (Αἴας δ’ ἐγγύθεν ἦλθε φέρων σάκος ἠΰτε πύργον, 17.128) and uses it to cover the prone body of Patroclus (Αἴας δ’ ἀμφὶ Μενοιτιάδῃ σάκος εὐρὺ καλύψας, 17.132). This action is so protective that the Homeric narrative passes into a simile describing a lion that shepherding his cubs and leading them through woods when harried by hunters, while exulting in his power (17.133–135). [37]

The fighting is extremely fierce; the forces of the two armies clash feverously as the best Greek fighters circle the body exhorted by Ajax and Menelaus, and the best fighters from the Trojans and their allies charge against them. The fighting is orchestrated at every crucial moment by the staunch Telemonian; Homer repeats again on this occasion that Ajax is second only to Achilles in physical strength and deeds of war (Αἴας͵ ὃς περὶ μὲν εἶδος͵ περὶ δ΄ ἔργα τέτυκτο τῶν ἄλλων Δαναῶν μετ΄ ἀμύμονα Πηλεΐωνα, 17.279–280). He urges his comrades in arms to fight in tight formation, clustered around the dead Patroclus, neither retreating nor advancing for single combat (17.356–359):

Αἴας γὰρ μάλα πάντας ἐπῴχετο πολλὰ κελεύων·
οὔτέ τιν’ ἐξοπίσω νεκροῦ χάζεσθαι ἀνώγει
οὔτέ τινα προμάχεσθαι Ἀχαιῶν ἔξοχον ἄλλων͵
ἀλλὰ μάλ’ ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ βεβάμεν͵ σχεδόθεν δὲ μάχεσθαι.

Ajax was everywhere among them, seeing to it,
That not a man took one step backward
From the body, or went out in front to show off,
But that all stood together and fought close in.

The struggle over the body is strangely situated in the middle of the battlefield amidst a generalized battle, where there is no relief from accumulated fatigue and raining blows, and where dense mist covers the combatants (…τοὶ δ’ ἐν μέσῳ ἄλγε’ ἔπασχον / ἠέρι καὶ πολέμῳ͵ τείροντο δὲ νηλέϊ χαλκῷ / ὅσσοι ἄριστοι ἔσαν·…, 17.375–377). It lasts a whole day (τοῖς δὲ πανημερίοις ἔριδος μέγα νεῖκος ὀρώρει / ἀργαλέης·…, 17.384–385) (in narratological terms it takes up a whole book) and it would seem to have no end if it were not for Ajax who in indignation asks Zeus to lift the mist so that, at least, they can see while fighting (17.645–647). He also initiates the removal of the body from the field by Meriones and Menelaus, while he fights a rearguard action (17.717–721). It is obvious that this book and the rescue of, and struggle for the possession of Patroclus’ body is Ajax’s personal aristeia, [38] although the struggle continues well into book 18. Here, again, Hector encounters the two Ajaxes trying to drag the body by its ankle (18.155–156), until, finally, Achilles himself arrives on the battlefield and frightens Hector and the Trojans with his stupendous war cry (18.203–229). In terms of semiological analysis of this episode, the “naked” Achilles (now that his divinely manufactured armor covers the body of Hector) needs the outsized shield of Ajax to dress, the only other panoply worthy of Achilles (18.192–195):

ἄλλου δ’ οὔ τευ οἶδα τεῦ ἂν κλυτὰ τεύχεα δύω͵
εἰ μὴ Αἴαντός γε σάκος Τελαμωνιάδαο.
ἀλλὰ καὶ αὐτὸς ὅ γ΄ ἔλπομ’ ἐνὶ πρώτοισιν ὁμιλεῖ
ἔγχεϊ δηϊόων περὶ Πατρόκλοιο θανόντος.

I don’t know any other armor that would fit,
unless maybe the shield of Telamonian Ajax.
But he is out there in the front ranks, I hope,
fighting with his spear over Patroclus dead.

Taking these Iliadic instances into account, we can reestablish a point made earlier in the present argument: if we take the Iliad at face value, Ajax is indeed the second best after Achilles, far outstripping the other heroes in bravery, stature, effectiveness, physical strength, determination, and staunchness. It comes as a complete injustice, then, for him to be denied the arms of Achilles in favor of Odysseus, arms that should rightly be allotted to him as a token of heroic excellence. Additionally, it is even more interesting to consider the way that later (or contemporary) [39] to the Iliad literary sources treated the Judgment of Arms, so that this allotment comes out less unjust.

Dishonoring Ajax: The Judgment of Arms

The Judgment of Arms is narrated to a certain extent in the Little Iliad of Lesches (as the sketchy resume of Proclus allows us to think) and, perhaps, in the Aethiopis of Arctinus. How was the judgment decided? If one has the Iliad in mind together with the picture of Ajax drawn there, one would reasonably expect a decision taken by the army of the Achaeans. If, on the other hand, one considers the only allusion to the event in the Odyssey (τήν <νίκην> μιν ἐγὼ νίκησα δικαζόμενος παρὰ νηυσὶ / τεύχεσιν ἀμφ’ Ἀχιλῆος· ἔθηκε δὲ πότνια μήτηρ͵ / παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη, 11.545–547), one is surely in the mental framework of the relevant works of the cyclic epics. The Scholiast on the above passage of the Odyssey (11.547) reports that Agamemnon, unwilling to decide between the two rival heroes, asks some Trojan prisoners which of the two did them most harm. This version of the story might have been included in the Aethiopis. [40] The version of the Little Iliad comes from the Scholiast on Aristophanes’ Knights (1056), who reports that the Achaeans, following the suggestion of Nestor, sent spies to the walls of Troy to eavesdrop on the enemy. There, two maidens (parthenoi) debate the matter: one suggesting Ajax, who retrieved the body of Achilles as the braver (Αἴας μὲν γὰρ ἄειρε καὶ ἔκφερε δηϊοτῆτος / ἥρω Πηλεΐδην͵ οὐδ’ ἤθελε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς, F2A Davies); the other, guided by Athena, challenges this as a lie (πῶς ἐπεφωνήσω; πῶς οὐ κατὰ κόσμον ἔειπες / ψεῦδος; F2A Davies). The decisive argument concerning this version is provided by line 1056 of Aristophanes’ Knights (on which the Scholiast is commenting), which states that even a woman can carry a burden, if ordained by a man, but she would not fight (καί κε γυνὴ φέροι ἄχθος͵ ἐπεί κεν ἀνὴρ ἀναθείη· / ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἂν μαχέσαιτο, Knights 1056–1057). [41]
Thus, we have come to the decisive point of Ajax’s heroic activity, i.e. the struggle over the possession of the body of Achilles, which is obviously fashioned after the struggle for the body of Patroclus in book 17 of the Iliad. It is extremely significant, in my opinion, that the hero who withstands, in the Iliad, the violent attacks of the Trojans in the characteristic manner of the “bulwark of the Achaeans” (ἕρκος Ἀχαιῶν), orchestrates the protection of the body of Patroclus, and masterminds its final retrieval is reduced to a womanlike status in the Little Iliad. The intention implied in this version of the story is to render Ajax a lesser hero, so that the outcome of the Judgment of Arms would not strike the audience/reader as an egregious injustice. In this version of the story, Ajax is the one doing woman’s work, while Odysseus (absent in the Iliadic description of the struggle over Patroclus’ corpse) defies the enemy. The Odyssey seems to conform to this tradition allowing the issue to be decided by Trojans [42] and the goddess Athena. Another tradition is recorded in Pindar, Aeschylus [43] and Sophocles, according to which the judges are Ajax’s peers-in-arms or the leaders of the Achaean army.
However, no matter who decided the allotment of the arms to Odysseus, an important factor remains: the outcome of the judgment was unfair, either because there is a shift in narrative (rescue of the body of Achilles by Odysseus) or because Athena interferes and falsifies the voting of the Greeks (evident also in iconography where Athena stands in the middle and supervises the procedure). All versions of the story point to the simple fact that Ajax is wronged and his heroic timê is compromised.
The picture delineated in the words of Ajax when protecting Patroclus’ body may metonymically represent his own attitude in the Iliadic war: not retreating, nor going out in front, but in tight formation protecting the body, always seeking to support rather than excelling for his own benefit; his way of fighting is symmachesthai. When it is promachesthai, it is to protect his fellow-warriors, and the ships. His prayer to Zeus to disperse the mist covering the battlefield when fighting over Patroclus (17.645–647) was admired by ancient commentators as a sign of marked bravery of the hero who asks not for personal protection but for conditions for a fair fight. [44]

Ajax’s hybris

This fair warrior undergoes a major change in the Sophoclean tragedy to becoming a raging warrior. We have seen his attempts to defile the bodies of his enemies, and we shall see, in the second part of this paper, that his enemies were actually his former friends and fellow warriors on whom he wreaked vengeance. But Sophocles goes even further: he invents yet another solid point upon which the edifice of the insolence of Ajax is built, and this is his arrogant boasting against the gods that completes his hybris.
In two instances in Ajax does the hero boast without a sense of moderation (ὑψικόμπως κἀφρόνως, 766) about his martial prowess. [45] First, when his father advised him to rely on the gods for his success in battle, he replied as follows (767–769):

Πάτερ, θεοῖς μὲν κἄν ὁ μηδὲν ὤν ὁμοῦ,
κράτος κατακτήσαιτ᾽· ἐγὼ δὲ καὶ δίχα
κείνων πέποιθα τοῦτ᾽ ἐπισπάσειν κλέος

Father, together with the gods,
even one who amounts to nothing may win victory;
but I am confident that I can grasp this glory even without them.

This is clearly a very insolent attitude of a warrior that cannot be found even in the most insolent moments of Homeric warfare; [46] even Achilles, whose attitude in the Iliad lacks often enough any consideration for the code of behavior among the ranks of other warriors, is very careful to respect and obey any advise or command sent by the gods. Achilles stops short of killing Agamemnon as soon as Athena advises him accordingly; “it is better to obey the gods,” says Achilles, “because they listen when you pray” (ὅς τε θεοῖσ᾽ ἐπιπείθηται, μάλα τ᾽ ἔκλυον αὐτοῦ, 1.218); and he immediately agrees to release the body of Hector when divine word arrives from Olympus.

The insolence of Ajax is doubled few lines further down when he dismisses Athena herself, when the goddess attempted to stand by him in battle (774–775):

Ἄνασσα, τοῖς ἄλλοισιν Ἀργείων πέλας,
ἵστω, καθ᾽ ἡμᾶς δ᾽ οὔποτ᾽ ἐκρήξει μάχη.

Queen, stand by the other Argives;
where I am, the enemy shall never break through.

Is this spoken insolence Ajax’s hybris? Of course, defining the hero’s hubris is a complex matter. Fisher in his classic book Hybris interprets these particular remarks as a form of hybris, but “as mild a form as could easily be entertained,” and that they “are better seen as a sign of the pervasive and foolish blindness to the general limits of human endeavours that is itself a consequence of his single-minded and unyielding pursuit of aretê and timê.” [47] It is obvious that Fisher tries to undermine the importance of these boasting replies of Ajax because he challenges the widespread belief that an offense against the gods may arouse divine jealousy or anger and result in the punishment of the human agent; he terms this belief a “traditional view” of hybris which should be dismissed as a common fallacy. [48] I strongly disagree with the “mild” notion of Fisher, since such an arrogant rejection of divine aid expressed by Ajax is hard to find in extant archaic and classical literary sources and it is openly interpreted as the cause of Ajax’s downfall in the play. The herald to the assembly of the Greeks twice remarks that these boastful words characterize somebody who does “not think according to his human nature” (οὐ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον φρονῶν, 761, 777), and this way of thinking invite divinely sent calamities (758–761). After listening to the herald’s message, it makes better sense in retrospect, of what Athena said in the prologue to Odysseus when pointing out at Ajax’s humiliation (127–130):

τοιαῦτα τοίνυν εἰσορῶν ὑπέρκοπον
μηδέν ποτ᾽ εἴπῃς αὐτὸς ἐς θεοὺς ἔπος,
μηδ᾽ ὄγκον ἄρῃ μηδέν᾽, εἴ τινος πλέον,
ἣ χερὶ βρίθεις ἣ μακροῦ πλούτου βάθει.

Look, then, at such things, and never yourself utter
an arrogant word against the gods,
nor assume conceit because you outweigh another in strength
or in profusion of great wealth.

This whole nexus of insolent thoughts and behavior is clearly an invention of Sophocles. A reader of Homer would have great trouble finding a single fault in Ajax’s behavior. [49] A reader of the cyclic epics could perhaps glean some clues to justify the arrogance and disrespect shown by the hero in the Sophoclean drama; but this is mere speculation, since we lack sufficient evidence to support this view. However, the reader of Sophocles definitely understands how the outspoken arrogance of Ajax stirs up the anger of Athena and precipitates his own downfall; it is Ajax’s over boasting that dooms him that particular day that amounts to the dramatic time of Ajax. [50]

Along this line of interpretation we should consider that over boasting or “thinking big” are terms that refer to the “subjective, dispositional aspect of hybris” and ultimately hybris and terms such as mega phronein (or ou kat’ anthropon fronein) “can amount to the same thing.” [51] On the other hand, I agree with Fisher when he notes that the hybris of Ajax is a complex issue, not confined to the reckless boasting aimed at Athena and the gods, but consisting also of a “blindness to the human condition, and, more seriously and disastrously, the consequential attempt to inflict savage revenge on those friends he believed had wronged him”; and all of them come as a result of his “own interpretation of heroic values” and his “desperate pursuit of timê and aretê.” [52]
Those last remarks remedy the “mild form of hybris” that the author supported in the beginning, and take us full circle back to the fundamental thesis of my reading: the real background of Ajax’s behavior in this tragedy is his idiosyncratic interpretation of heroic values and his excessive pursuit of his heroic timê. This is Sophocles’ interpretation. [53] Thus, with this new component of arrogant boasting aiming at the gods is the hybris of Ajax fully developed and completed, thus inviting and justifying divine retribution. The downfall of Ajax in this dramatic work is not attributed to a mere misjudgment, or to his folly that overcame him and led to his suicide. The comfortable length of a dramatic work and the new ideological framework of this genre give us a complex picture of why Ajax falls: he is overconfident, he boasts of his martial prowess, he rejects the aid of the gods, he masterminds an awful revenge against the Greeks, and he cannot deal with his hurt honor. It remains to be seen, in the course of the second part of this paper, how he confuses his loyalties by turning against his own friends; a world where such a reverse order prevails cannot accommodate the mentality of an Ajax, of the Sophoclean Ajax.

In lieu of an epilogue: Harming friends and helping enemies

The second major convergence in the behavior and thoughts of the Iliadic Achilles and the Sophoclean Ajax is that both harm their friends and not their enemies in a blatant reversal of the maxim helping friends/harming enemies, [54] which is part of the Greek system of values in archaic and classical times. [55] To honor this maxim one needs to establish his loyalties, i. e. who is a friend and who is an enemy. As already shown in works about ancient Greek friendship the word philos (friend) has a wider meaning and more complex connotations than the English translation of the word implies. Friends in ancient Greece are first and foremost your family: immediate and extended family; secondly, your fellow-citizens. The third category approximates more closely to modern conceptions of a personal friend, someone to whom we are bound by ties of reciprocal favor and affection; within this category fall political alliances and marital affiliations. [56]
As is well known, the plot of the Homeric Iliad is woven around the wrath of Achilles and not around the Iliadic war in its wider sense; and this wrath is directed against his friends (philoi) and not his enemies. The ingenuity of the poet makes a single instance of the war the main focus of his narrative. [57] The anger has immediate implications for the plot of the poem. [58] There is only one way that Achilles can think of to make the Achaeans restore his timê and reestablish his humiliated esteem and this is to abstain from the action, and thus ensure defeat and numerous casualties among the Greek ranks. This is repeated many times by Achilles or other persons either as threat or as an acknowledged fact (1.422, 1.559).
Similarly, one of the thematic nuclei around which Ajax revolves is the breaking down (collapse) of the notion of philoi. The tragedy opens with an attempted “harming friends” coup, [59] when the protagonist sets out to kill his former hetairoi. The tragedy ends with a fierce debate over the ambiguity of the status of the dead Ajax; shall he be treated as a friend or as an enemy? Between the two, lies the exquisite, and highly ambiguous, statement of Ajax in his controversial deception speech again proclaiming a forceful reversal of the maxim (678–683):

ἐγὼ δ’ ἐπίσταμαι γὰρ ἀρτίως ὅτι
ὅ τ΄ ἐχθρὸς ἡμῖν ἐς τοσόνδ’ ἐχθαρτέος͵
ὡς καὶ φιλήσων αὖθις͵ ἔς τε τὸν φίλον
τοσαῦθ’ ὑπουργῶν ὠφελεῖν βουλήσομαι͵
ὡς αἰὲν οὐ μενοῦντα· τοῖς πολλοῖσι γὰρ
βροτῶν ἄπιστός ἐσθ’ ἑταιρείας λιμήν. [60]
For I have lately learned that our enemy must be hated as one who will sometime become a friend, and in helping a friend I shall aim to assist him as one assists a man who will not remain a friend forever, since for most mortals the harbor of friendship cannot be trusted.

The “harming friends / helping enemies” module that connects the two heroes will be treated extensively in another essay. As a closing remark for the purpose of this paper, it suffices to say that Ajax “adopts” every single trait of his first cousin Achilles, and that he behaves as the best of the Achaeans—the only difference being that he is more extreme than his famous relative.


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———. 2014. “Who is Liable for Blame? Patroclus’ Death in Book 16 of the Iliad.” In Crime and Punishment in Homeric and Archaic Epic, ed. Μ. Χριστόπουλος and Μ. Παΐζη, 121–140. Ithaca.
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[ back ] 1. I cite only a few from the vast literature on the subject: Dodds 1959 [1951]:17; Adkins 1960:34; Adkins 2009 [1997]:853–856; Fisher 1992; Yamagata 1994:121–144; Lawrence 2005:21–22; MacIntyre 20073:141–151; Murnaghan 2014:202; Karakantza 2014:123–125.
[ back ] 2. Bryant 1996:31–32; Herman 2006:262–264. Adkins 2009 [1997]:851–853.
[ back ] 3. Adkins 1960.
[ back ] 4. Adkins 1960:55; See also p. 36: “In comparison with the competitive excellences, the quieter co-operative excellences must take an inferior position; for it is not evident at this time that the security of the group depends to any large extent upon these excellences,” an idea which is repeated again in pp. 40, 46 (“as soon as a crisis forces the essential framework of values into view, the competitive values are so much more powerful than the cooperative that the situation is not treated in terms of the quiet values at all; and as it is precisely with such crises that the concept of moral responsibility is concerned, it is evident that such terms as aidos and aeikes, however useful to society in general, cannot affect the development of the concept of moral responsibility, for they are ineffective at the crucial moment”). In this framework of interpretation, the author claims that even when Agamemnon admits his wrongdoing against Achilles in book 19 there is not moral responsibility for his actions (:52); the only flow of Agamemnon is that he “falls short in success of war” (:51) which for Adkins requires only competitive values.
[ back ] 5. Adkins 1960:35, 36, 49.
[ back ] 6. Adkins 1960:51–52.
[ back ] 7. Achilles as the archetypal warrior for his “self-awareness and for his wrath,” but also oscillating between excellence and bestiality (best and be<a>st): King 1987:2, 2–28; he serves as a paradigm of a war hero for later literature (King passim). Many more studies have noted the peculiarity of his character and position in the Iliad; as the “best of the Achaeans” (Nagy 1999:26–41); as having an evolving character shifting from anger to pity (Schein 1984:89–167); withdrawing from suffering and receding to the politics of pity (Hammer 2002:207–229); representing an internal ambiguity of the heroic code consisting of values of cooperation and erosion (Zanker 1994:42); Muellner (1996) studies his mênis not in qualitative terms but as a driving theme of the Iliad (starting at book 1) and follows its teleology that dissolves into philotês (book 24). For more on Achilles see also: Muellner 2012, 2020; Burgess 1995; Farred 2011; duBois 2012; Fantuzzi 2012; Evzonas 2017; Monsacré 2017 [1984].
[ back ] 8. Lloyd-Jones 1983:17.
[ back ] 9. This behavior is dictated by what I call “the second round of Achilles anger” (books 19–24). I do not use the term mênis since this is the technical term to describe the anger addressed against Agamemnon, which is officially denounced in book 19 (μήνιδος ἀπόρρησις). It should be noted, however, that various verbal forms deriving form mênis are used by the poet to describe Achilles’ maniacal killing of the Trojans and the maltreatment of Hector’s body (observe the use of words ἐμμανής, μεμεώς).
[ back ] 10. This dichotomy, to my mind plainly artificial, has, nevertheless, influenced certain views on the subject: is a particular Homeric hero more to the cooperative or competitive side? Cairns’ thesis gives an answer to this false dilemma: “self-assertion itself becomes the violation of the code.”
[ back ] 11. Cairns 1993:13.
[ back ] 12. Cairns 1993:14.
[ back ] 13. Herman 2006:79, my emphasis.
[ back ] 14. A threat that nearly materializes in book 9, when Achilles announces to the embassy of the Achaeans his intention to go home there and then. It takes the power of persuasion of his old guardian, Phoenix, to abort the plan.
[ back ] 15. González González 2018:34.
[ back ] 16. All translations from the Iliad are by Stanley Lombardo unless otherwise stated.
[ back ] 17. The subtle and intricate modifications of the original “plan” of the Iliad, the starting point of which is the promise of Zeus to Thetis, is explored in length in Karakantza 2014:126–127. The final “modification” falls out of the original plan, for Achilles sets an extra condition for his return to battle: only when the fire reaches the ships of the Myrmidons.
[ back ] 18. Γλαῦκε τί ἢ δὴ νῶϊ τετιμήμεσθα μάλιστα
ἕδρῃ τε κρέασίν τε ἰδὲ πλείοις δεπάεσσιν
ἐν Λυκίῃ͵ πάντες δὲ θεοὺς ὣς εἰσορόωσι͵
καὶ τέμενος νεμόμεσθα μέγα Ξάνθοιο παρ΄ ὄχθας
καλὸν φυταλιῆς καὶ ἀρούρης πυροφόροιο;
τὼ νῦν χρὴ Λυκίοισι μέτα πρώτοισιν ἐόντας
ἑστάμεν ἠδὲ μάχης καυστείρης ἀντιβολῆσαι͵
ὄφρά τις ὧδ΄ εἴπῃ Λυκίων πύκα θωρηκτάων·
οὐ μὰν ἀκλεέες Λυκίην κάτα κοιρανέουσιν
ἡμέτεροι βασιλῆες͵ ἔδουσί τε πίονα μῆλα
οἶνόν τ’ ἔξαιτον μελιηδέα· ἀλλ΄ ἄρα καὶ ἲς
ἐσθλή͵ ἐπεὶ Λυκίοισι μέτα πρώτοισι μάχονται.

Glaukus, you know how you and I / have the best of everything in Lycia— / seats, cuts of meat, full cups, everybody / looking at us as if we were gods? / Not to mention our estates on the Xanthus, / fine orchards and riverside wheat fields. / Well, now we have to take our stand at the front, / where all the best fight, and face the heat of battle, / so that many armored Lycian will say, / “So they’re not inglorious after all, / our Lycian lords who eat fat sheep / and drink the sweetest wine. No, / they’re strong, and fight with our best.”

[ back ] 19. This is true, of course, for all the Achaeans, since the wronged party is Menelaos only. What is conveniently reminded here, though, is that Achilles was the only Greek leader who was no bound with an oath to the father of Helen. His participation to the Trojan expedition was purely to gain glory and honor (κλέος and τιμή).
[ back ] 20. Although we know that this has not always been the case, since Andromache relates to Hector how Achilles killed her brothers and father when raiding their city, but offered a proper heroic burial to her father and let her mother free by accepting the ransom brought for her.
[ back ] 21. Kirk 2003 [1985] on lines 276–281.
[ back ] 22. Indeed, Achilles had abused Agamemnon earlier by using insulting and foul language: he accused him of being shameless (ἀναιδείην, 1.149, μέγ’ ἀναιδὲς, 1.158), shrewd with greed (κερδαλεόφρον, 1.149), dog-faced (κυνῶπα, 1.159, κυνὸς ὄμματ’ ἔχων͵ 1. 225), staggering drunk (οἰνοβαρές͵ 1.225), and with a fawn’s heart (κραδίην δ’ ἐλάφοιο, 1.225). His foul language is a substitute for the violent act he was about to perform: to kill Agamemnon. The goddess Athena deterred Achilles from doing so, allowing him however, to abuse Agamemnon verbally as much as he wanted (ἀλλ’ ἤτοι ἔπεσιν μὲν ὀνείδισον ὡς ἔσεταί περ·, 1.211). For the emotions of Achilles as producing “possible scenarios” for the Iliad see González González 2018:30–44; see also Muellner 2012; duBois 2012; Monsacré 2017 [1984] and supra note 7.
[ back ] 23. González 2018:50, 54.
[ back ] 24. See also δαίμονι ἶσος (20.493).
[ back ] 25. This episode is famously known as The Judgment of the Arms, which is narrated in Aithiopis by Arctinus and the Little Iliad by Lesches; it is also alluded to in the Odyssey. See Davies 1989:60–61; Hesk 2003:26; Karakantza 2010:2–3; Murnaghan 2020:175–177.
[ back ] 26. Also Ajax 21, 47.
[ back ] 27. ἴδεσθέ μ΄ οἷον ἄρτι κῦμα φοινίας ὑπὸ ζάλης / ἀμφίδρομον κυκλεῖται, Ajax 352–353; see also ἐγὼ σκοτώσω βλέφαρα καὶ δεδορκότα, Ajax 85.
[ back ] 28. I accept here the “φόνου” of the codices L and A that Stanford and Kamerbeek also accept (unlike Pearson, Jebb, and Lloyd-Jones that read “πόνου” with a number of MSS). I believe that the meaning of this passage is that Ajax stops the killing when this desire was satiated, which comes clearer out of the “λωφήσας φόνου,” i.e. when he has exhausted his desire to kill. Conversely, λωφήσας πόνου would simply mean “when rested from his work” (because he was tired?); cf. ὡς ἂν τὸ Δῖον ὄμμα λωφήσῃ πόθου (Prometheus Bound 654), so that Zeus’s eye may be assuaged of its desire (trans. A. H. Sommerstein).
[ back ] 29. One cannot but recall the powerful imagery surrounding the murder of Agamemnon in Aeschylus that shows the king trapped in a net, like fish, just before he was given the three fatal blows by Clytemnestra (ἦ δίκτυόν τί γ΄ Ἅιδου. ἀλλ΄ ἄρκυς ἡ ξύνευνος, Agamemnon 1116–1117; ἄπειρον ἀμφίβληστρον͵ ὥσπερ ἰχθύων͵ περιστιχίζω͵ πλοῦτον εἵματος κακόν, Agamemnon 1382–1383). I have argued elsewhere that Sophocles “reads” the Oresteia in his Electra, Karakantza 2013:63.
[ back ] 30. We should note that torturing a free man was not allowed in classical Athens; this treatment was only deserved for slaves.
[ back ] 31. The individual blows described by the playwright (see also κύκλῳ αχίζων, cleaving their spines all around him, Ajax 56) reminds us of the careful description of individual blows in battlefield in the Iliad.
[ back ] 32. The translation used for Sophocles’ Ajax is by Lloyd-Jones.
[ back ] 33. Apollo made Hector stand on his feet again (τὸν δ’ αἶψ’ ὤρθωσεν Ἀπόλλων, 7.272) and Zeus is said to love them both equally so that the combat cannot be decided on either side (ἀμφοτέρω γὰρ σφῶϊ φιλεῖ νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς͵ 7.280).
[ back ] 34. Serious encounters between Ajax and Hector will be repeated in the Iliad. In book 14 Ajax wounds Hector with a huge rock (409–439) requiring the intervention of Apollo to heal Hector (15.220–262).
[ back ] 35. 16. 105,106–107; translation by Robert Fagles.
[ back ] 36. I have chosen here the translation by Robert Fagles for the poetic rendering of this beautiful passage.
[ back ] 37. ἑστήκει ὥς τίς τε λέων περὶ οἷσι τέκεσσιν͵
ά τε νήπι’ ἄγοντι συναντήσωνται ἐν ὕλῃ
ἄνδρες ἐπακτῆρες· ὃ δέ τε σθένεϊ βλεμεαίνει.
[ back ] 38. Βook 17, however, is titled “Menelaus’ aristeia.” It seems that this downscaling of the hero’s achievement “foreshadows” the disgrace and dishonoring that he will experience in later literature. My former student, Efstathia Athanasopoulou, in her exceptional graduate thesis (2010), interprets this disgrace as the result of Ajax’s special relationship to the gods (distant and arrogant instead of relying on their help or asking for “favors”).
[ back ] 39. Two major issues are raised here, since we are referring to the Greek Epic Cycle and other sources that deal with the Judgment of Arms. First, what is the date of the poems known as the Greek Epic Cycle, especially that of Aethiopis and the Little Iliad, so as to be able to date the versions of the story. I have presented briefly elsewhere the debate over the date of the epic fragments (Karakantza 2010:2n7; also, Davies 1989, 2001). Critics agree generally that the fragments are later than the two Homeric poems. Secondly, and equally important, is whether one subscribes to the view that even a version of a mythical story recorded in a later source is necessarily a late version, since it might have been circulating earlier but only recorded later. To these two reasonable questions, I shall add a third one: a version of a given story may be the product of the specific demands of a literary genre that dictates modifications to suit its character (i.e. epic vs dramatic poetry). To my mind, there is not any safe way to date a version of a story, even if one suspects the deliberate intervention of the creative hand of the author.
[ back ] 40. Hesk 2003:26; Davies 1989:62; Karakantza 2010:3–4.
[ back ] 41. This part of the argument is taken from my earlier publication 2010:3–4.
[ back ] 42. We cannot tell whether the judges are Trojan men or women, since παῖδες can be used for both genders (ὁ, ἡ παῖς).
[ back ] 43. The trilogy by Aeschylus: The Judgment of Arms, The Thracian Women, The Women of Salamis. According to J. March (1991–1993:5–6) the frequency of vase paintings depicting a judgment by Ajax’s peers in the first quarter of fifth century might be due to the influence of the Aeschylean text.
[ back ] 44. Edwards 2003 [1991] ad loc.
[ back ] 45. See Gasti 1992.
[ back ] 46. With the exception of course of Diomedes wounding Ares and Aphrodite.
[ back ] 47. Fisher 1992:325, 327.
[ back ] 48. Fisher 1992:2–4. The definition of the notion of hubris by Fisher is as follows: “hybris is essentially the serious assault on the honour of another, which is likely to cause shame, and lead to anger and attempts at revenge. Hybris is often, but by no means necessarily, an act of violence; it is essentially deliberate activity, and the typical motive for such an infliction of dishonour is the pleasure of expressing a sense of superiority…” (:1). Or, as Cairns put it simply: the fundamental sense of the term is “the attempt to dishonour another person” (229).
[ back ] 49. However, there is an interesting (one may even say idiosyncratic) relationship of Ajax to the gods in the Iliad. Two points need to be mentioned: First, he is the only hero that he does not have a divine protector when he fights. Second, he prays only once, to Zeus, only to ask him to lift the mist that covers the spot where he and other Achaeans labor over the body of Patroclus. Even then, the typical form of a prayer is not respected and previous favors of the god to the hero are not mentioned. Ajax only asks for the minimum conditions of fair fighting. If these instances allow us to suspect that Ajax can become an insolent hero in later literature, who does not rely on the gods’ aid and boasts about this, we cannot tell with any certainty. For this and other parameters of Ajax’s relationship to the gods I am indebted to my student E. Athanasopoulou and her thesis Ajax and the gods in Homer and Sophocles, submitted at the University of Patras in Fall 2010. More scholarship on Ajax (or Sophocles’ heroes) and the gods: Podlecki 1980; Bradshow 1991; Pucci 1994; Sourvinou-Inwood 1997; Parker 1999; Mikalson 2012; Finglass 2012; Jouanna 2018 [2008].
[ back ] 50. See Erp Taalman Kip 2007.
[ back ] 51. Cairns 1996:11
[ back ] 52. 1992:328
[ back ] 53. Another line of interpretation is put forward by Gasti 1992:83 who sees the hybris of the hero as military, representative of Homeric values in contrast to the “cooperative, civilized, rational values of the hoplite fighting ethic, represented in this case by Odysseus and Athena”; however, she does not distinguish between the Homeric values represented by Hector and Ajax (in the Iliad) fighting for their personal honor and the good of the community and those represented by Achilles whose personal honor override the good of the community. For more approaches on Ajax’s hubris see Whitman 1951:67–70; Winnington-Ingram 1980:40–42; Crane 1990:99–101; Zanker 1992:21–22n6. Defining hybris and its connection to retribution is a very complex matter, especially in tragedy. Fisher challenges the widespread belief that an offense against the gods (in some cases unintentional) may arouse divine jealousy or anger and result in the punishment of the human agent (what he labels the “traditional view” of hybris, 1992:2–3). Cairns 1996:10–22 refutes this view and Herman 2006:102–103 warns us about the danger of applying modern concepts on ancient terminology. Without wishing to enter this debate now, I would like to note that in the genre of tragedy there is a causal connection between violation of value codes observable by the members of the society (whether or not this is termed hybris) and punishment (by death or exile) of the “offender.” This is not to say, though, that this is a rigid pattern applicable to all extant tragedies; variations and nuances are to be seen in the whole spectrum of the surviving Attic drama.
[ back ] 54. The classic study of this maxim in Sophocles is the book by Blundell Helping Friends and Harming Enemies (1989). Interestingly, Herman (2006:278) claims that the influence of the maxim “helping friends and harming enemies” upon Athenian behavior in classical times is negligible, something shown by the exercise of other qualities such as forgiveness, moderation and self-restraint. It is also evident, the author argues, in the forensic speeches of the fourth ca. BCE that “lay claim to the principle of not harming enemies which is expected to be regarded as a virtue.” This, according to the author, marks a transition from the Homeric society to the Athenian classical city. However, we should bear in mind that in attic tragedy the dichotomy is still strong and the blurring between friends and enemies and the consequent reversal of the maxim entails a severe crisis, as is argued elsewhere (Karakantza 2011). See also Hesk (2003:90–91) for relevant discussion on the matter.
[ back ] 55. It is interesting to note that Bias of Priene (Diogenis Laertius 1.5.87) advocated the reversal of the maxim: ἔλεγέ τε τὸν βίον οὕτω μετρεῖν <δεῖν> ὡς καὶ πολὺν καὶ ὀλίγον χρόνον βιωσομένους, καὶ φιλεῖν ὡς μισήσοντας· τοὺς γὰρ πλείστους εἶναι κακούς. It might well be that this was considered as a cynical approach since Aristotle advices the contrary (Rhetoric 2.21.13): οὐ δεῖ, ὥσπερ φασί, φιλεῖν ὡς μισήσοντας, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον μισεῖν ὡς φιλήσοντας; Jebb 1896 Appendix on 679ff. For further implications of this maxim (or its reversal) see the analysis of the similar wording used by Ajax in his deception speech (678–683) in Karakantza 2011.
[ back ] 56. I follow here the classification of philoi by Blundell 1989:39–49. Belfiore (2000:6) follows similar lines by considering as belonging to the category of philoi in tragedy “not only close and more distant blood kinship, but also the formal reciprocal relationships of marriage, xenia and suppliancy.” She ascribes to philia a broad concept by accepting “formal relationships involving reciprocal rights and obligations.” On the contrary, Konstan (1997:55–56) challenges the broad concept of philoi in classical time and suggests a category much closer to the modern concept of friendship that “designates a party to a voluntary bond of affection and good will, and normally excludes both close kin and more distant acquaintances, whether neighbors or fellow-citizens” (53). He accepts of course that in Homer the use of the word philos, which often is a mere possessive meaning “one’s own,” is broad and refers to members of the Achaean army or of one’s own community (:28–31). The hetairos, on the other hand, paired with philos and pistos denotes “a select relationship between non-kin grounded in mutual affection […] and loyalty or trust” (:33). In my argument I use the word philos as denoting people to whom we are bound by ties of mutual affection and reciprocal obligations, who are either kin, or comrades in arms, or belonging to the same community.
[ back ] 57. Or as Latacz (1996: 75–77) puts it “the originality of perspective” in this particular retelling of the Trojan saga, i.e. the wrath rather than the entire war, an “internal rather than eternal perspective,” a “view from within.”
[ back ] 58. For the wrath of Achilles as a dominant theme that gives coherence to the whole poem see Kirk 2003 [1985]: 46.
[ back ] 59. The attack on Ajax’s former friends is explored at the beginning of the present chapter. In the course of the present sub-chapter it will be argued that the original friends of Ajax are his fellow comrades-in-arms and that the attack against them, as a retaliation to their injustice inflicted on him, marks the breaking down of the notion of philoi. The same idea is put forward also elsewhere (Karakantza 2011), where the assimilation between Achilles and Ajax is suggested on the basis of this very reversal of human loyalties: Achilles, as Ajax, in his anger harms his friends (the Achaeans) and not his enemies (the Trojans), until book 19 of the Iliad and the quelling of his wrath.
[ back ] 60. Compare the very similar wording in Theognis: μήποτε τὸν κακὸν ἄνδρα φίλον ποιεῖσθαι ἑταῖρον /͵ ἀλλ΄ αἰεὶ φεύγειν ὥστε κακὸν λιμένα (Elegies 1.113–114).