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AJAX: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 1

I don’t mean the bleach, and I don’t mean Amsterdam football. I’m talking about the mighty Greek hero.

No one ever thinks about Ajax, the Salaminian hero. Homer described him as “Telamonian” or “Greater” Ajax, a mighty Achaian warrior. Unlike in the movie “Troy”, Ajax does NOT die early in the Trojan War. In fact, he does not die until after the War is over, after Achilles is dead, and then he only dies because he takes his own life. He is probably the only person in the entire Trojan War not to suffer any injury¬† — even Aphrodite gets cut by a sword! — and yet… yet you may not really know who he is. Poor Ajax, he always gets the shaft.

In Homer’s Iliad, Ajax is described as a warrior of great stature, having a colossal frame and the strongest of all the Achaians. Known as the “bulwark of the Mycenaeans,” he was trained by the centaur Chiron, who was also tutor to Achilles (Ajax’s cousin and dear friend). He was described as vicious, fearless, strong and powerful but also with a very high level of combat intelligence. In Book 15, Hector leads the Trojans into the Greek camp and attacks the ships. Ajax, wielding an enormous spear as a weapon and leaping from ship to ship, holds off the Trojan armies virtually single-handedly (this is just one example of his many super-human feats during the Trojan War). Sadly, Ajax is the only major character either Trojan or Greek who does not receive personal assistance from any of the gods who take part in the battles.

Despite his mighty prowess, Ajax (the poor guy) always gets the short end of the stick. He doesn’t get assistance from the Olympian gods (Athena is so cruel!), he doesn’t get Achilles’ armor even though HE was his good (best?) friend AND the one to save his dead body from the battlefield scavengers (stupid Odysseus and and eloquent way with words), and he couldn’t stand the shame of it all to the point that he, “conquered by his own sorrow,” committed suicide by falling on his sword.

As for his hero aspect, the kind of hero that was actually worshiped in real life, well… the Salaminians believed Ajax fought with them against the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC (Hdt. 8.64) and dedicated a captured trireme to him after (Hdt. 8.121). Ajax, who in the post-Homeric legend is described as the grandson of Aiakos and the great-grandson of Zeus, was the tutelary hero of the island of Salamis, near Athens, where he had a temple and an image, and where a festival called Aianteia was celebrated in his honor. He was also the Eponymous Hero of the Attic tribe Aiantis, and a statue of him was worshiped in the Athenian Agora (Hdt. 5.66). Can Achilles say that? No. Can Odysseus? No. Can Agamemnon? No. Finally Ajax gets a little credit!

But what aspect of Ajax’s life does the Athenian vase-painting actually portray? NOT his mighty prowess in battle, but instead his losses and struggles in life and also his friendship with Achilles — though even then he’s shown LOSING to Achilles. Sometimes Athena is present in those scenes, just to rub it in that she’s there to support Achilles and not there for Ajax. The scenes mainly depicted are very emotional: 1) playing a boardgame with Achilles; 2) carrying Achilles’ dead body; 3) quarreling with Odysseus over the armor of Achilles; and 4) his suicide.

The earliest depiction of Ajax in Attic art is on the Francois Vase c.575BC (him carrying the body of Achilles).

Ajax carrying the dead Achilles, Francois Vase handle

Exekias, Ajax and Achilles playing a boardgame

After this, Exekias (the second half of the 6th century BC) played a major role in developing the popularity of Ajax in Attic vase-painting.

Exekias, Ajax preparing for suicide

He was the first to compose the ‘boardgame’ scene and the first to compose Ajax’s contemplation of his suicide (rather than the act of the suicide itself, which involves more gore but much less emotion). In Exekias’ depictions of Ajax, and those influenced by his subject matter decisions (such as Douris, Makron and the Brygos Painter), the manner in which they portray Ajax reflects an interest in the hero not just as a character from Homeric lore but as an exemplar of a particular kind of relentless logic that results in personal destruction.

According to the Beazley Archive, almost 400 vases depict Ajax, and all of those are scenes from the Homeric epics — not one of them is in any way a religious scene. Apart from his suicide scene, he is always associated with Achilles, and sometimes with Odysseus. Though he is the strong-man hero of the Achaians, he does not receive the respect he deserves nor will he ever measure up to Achilles. In the Iliad, Ajax is characterized as the premier defensive warrior on the Achaian side, but the visual narrative challenges this conception, since he is always coming in second place to both Achilles and Odysseus. It is the noble but sad mythological hero of Homer that the vase-painters choose to portray, not the Attic hero honored with a shrine and cult rites.

And if the scenes of him contemplating and then committing suicide weren’t emotional enough, I’ll end this post with a soliloquy from Sophocles’ “Ajax”:

“Have I not learned this, only so much to hate my enemy as though he might again become my friend, and so much good to wish to do my friend, as knowing he may yet become my foe: most men have found friendship a treacherous harbor” (670-83, J. Moore’s translation, 1975).