Among the plays of Sophocles there were many, as titles and fragments show, of which the scene was laid at Troy, and of which the action was founded on the epics of the Trojan cycle. This series ranged over the whole course of the ten years' war, from its earliest incidents, as told in the Cypria, down to the fall of the city, as told in the Iliupersis. The Philoctetes is connected with this series, but the Ajax is the only remaining piece which actually belongs to it. The story is taken from sources later than the Iliad, but the conception of the hero, though modified by that later legend, is fundamentally Homeric.

In the Iliad, Ajax, the son of Telamon, comes to Troy

The Ajax of the Iliad.
from Salamis with twelve ships, and is stationed on the extreme left of the army, at the east end of the camp,—as Achilles holds the corresponding post of honour on the right1. He is an independent chief,—subject only to the allegiance which all the chiefs owe to the Captain General, Agamemnon. There is no reference to his descent from Aeacus; nor is there anything that connects him especially with Athens2. He has a well-recognised rank as being, next to Achilles, the greatest warrior in the Greek army3. Gigantic in stature—taller by a head and shoulders than his fellows—and of a massive frame, he is emphatically the ‘bulwark’ of the Greek host4. In comeliness, too, he is second only to the son of Peleus5; but ‘huge Ares’ is the god to whom he is compared; and when he is described ‘with a smile on his grim face,’ it is in the joy of battle6. The Homeric poet illustrates the qualities of his valour—both impetuous and obstinate—by likening him, first, to a lion in his onset, and then, when he is forced back by superior numbers, to a stubborn ass, whom boys, with feeble but incessant blows, laboriously cudgel out of a cornfield7. Staunch and steadfast, he never fails his friends at need —whether it be some individual comrade, such as his half-brother Teucer, whom he protects8, or whether he comes to the rescue of the whole army at some crisis9. In the absence of Achilles, it is only Ajax who is a match for Hector10. The sevenfold shield11 of Ajax is not only his characteristic attribute, but the symbol of his service,—great in attack, but especially signal in defence: and as the mighty shield is compared in the Iliad to a tower, so its owner himself is elsewhere called ‘a tower of strength’ to the Achaeans12.

The Athena of Sophocles speaks of Ajax as pre-eminent not only for bravery but for prudence13. This is true to the picture of him in the Iliad. Once, indeed, after he has uttered a defiant and menacing challenge, Hector calls him ‘a blunderer, a clumsy braggart14’; as, in Shakespeare, Thersites calls him a ‘beef-witted lord,’ and Ulysses, ‘the lubber Ajax15.’ In another place, however,—when he agrees, at the herald's suggestion, to break off his combat with Hector, though he was having the best of it,—his chivalrous opponent recognises Ajax as one to whom the gods have given, not only ‘stature and might,’ but ‘understanding16.’ His good sense is conspicuous in the embassy to Achilles, where he is the colleague of Odysseus and Phoenix. It is he who perceives when the moment has come for ceasing to press the inexorable hero. ‘Let us go hence; for I do not think that the end of our message can be gained by this mission.’ He points out to his companions that it seems hopeless to move Achilles at present: and then, turning to Achilles himself, he addresses him in words of frank reproach, but also of friendly appeal and of cordial good-will17.

One trait, however, marks an important difference between the Homeric and the later conception. In the play of Sophocles Ajax appears as one who has offended Athena by the presumptuous self-confidence with which he has rejected divine aid in war. There is no trace of this in the Iliad. While he is arming for the combat with Hector, he exhorts the Greeks to pray that Zeus may help him18. In the battle at the ships, after splendid deeds of valour, he retreats when he perceives, with a thrill of awe, that, for the time, the gods are against him19. During the battle over the body of Patroclus, when a thick mist has fallen on the field, his prayer for light breathes reverent submission to the will of Zeus20.

Such is the Ajax of the Iliad; a mighty champion of the Greeks in their sorest need; a man of good sense and good feeling, sparing of words, but able to speak wisely in season; loyal to his friends; straightforward and unselfish; frankly conscious of his strength, but placing his reliance on the help of the gods, and yielding, even in the fiercest struggle, to revelations of their mind.

A contest between Ajax and Odysseus for the arms of Achilles, resulting in the defeat and suicide of Ajax, is first mentioned in the Odyssey21, where the sullen shade of the injured hero refuses to hold converse with the victor. It was the goddess Thetis who set her son's arms for a prize; ‘the judges were the children of the Trojans and Pallas Athena.’

1 Il. 11. 7—9.

2 In the Catalogue only two verses are given to Ajax,

Αἴας δ᾽ ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος ἄγεν δυοκαίδεκα νῆας:
στῆσε δ᾽ ἄγων ἵν᾽ Ἀθηναίων ἵσταντο φάλαγγες

. The second verse is absent from our best MSS., as it was from some of the editions known to Quintilian (5. 11 § 40). Aristotle (Rhet. I. 15 § 13) alludes to it as having been quoted by the Athenians in support of their claim to Salamis, and the interpolation must be at least as old as the date of their controversy with the Megarians (circ. 600—595 B.C.), whether the author was Solon or not. The Alexandrian critics rejected the verse, pointing out that Ajax, on the extreme left, had the Thessalians for his neighbours on the right ( Il. 13. 681), while Odysseus, at the middle of the camp, was next to the Athenians ( Il. 4. 329): Strabo 9. p. 394. Verse 557 may have been interpolated along with v. 558. If, however, it belonged to the genuine text, it must originally have been followed by more than one verse relating to Ajax, who was too important to be dismissed so curtly.


ἀνδρῶν αὖ μέγ᾽ ἄριστος ἔην Τελαμώνιος Αἴας
ὄφρ᾽ Ἀχιλεὺς μήνιεν

. He holds the same rank in the Odyssey (11. 468); with Alcaeus (fr. 48 “τὸν ἄριστον πεδ᾽ Ἀχίλλεα”); with Pindar ( N. 7. 27κράτιστον Ἀχιλέος ἄτερ”); with Sophocles ( Ai. 1340); and in later literature ( Hor. S. 2. 3. 193heros ab Achille secundus;” Philostratus Heroic. 719 f.; Dictys 4. 5, etc.).

4 Il. 3. 227ἔξοχος Ἀργείων κεφαλήν τε καὶ εὐρέας ὤμους”: 229πελώριος, ἕρκος Ἀχαιῶν”.

5 Il. 17. 279.

6 Il. 7. 208σεύατ᾽ ἔπειθ᾽ οἷός τε πελώριος ἔρχεται Ἄρης”: 212μειδιόων βλοσυροῖσι προσώπασι”.

7 Il. 11. 548-562.

8 Il. 8. 266, etc.

9 As in the battle at the ships, when he wounds Hector ( Il. 14. 409 ff.); or in the fight over the body of Patroclus (17. 281 ff.).

10 The Greek chiefs rejoice when it falls to the lot of Ajax to meet Hector in single combat ( Il. 7. 182).

11 Made of seven layers of bull's hide, with a layer of metal nailed on the top,— “χἁλκεον, ἑπταβόειον”—as described in Il. 7. 219-223.

12 Il. 7. 219φέρων σάκος ἠΰτε πύργον”: Od. 11. 556῾οφ αjαχ̓ τοῖος γάρ σφιν πύργος ἀπώλεο”.


τούτου τίς ἄν σοι τἀνδρὸς προνούστερος,
δρᾶν ἀμείνων ηὑρέθη τὰ καίρια;

14 Il. 13. 824Αἶαν ἁμαρτοεπές, βουγάϊε”.

15 Troilus and Cressida, 2. 1. 12, 3. 3. 139.


Αἶαν, ἐπεί τοι δῶκε θεὸς μέγεθός τε βίην τε
καὶ πινυτήν


17 Il. 9. 624-642.

18 Il. 7. 193 ff.


γνῶ δ᾽ Αἴας κατὰ θυμὸν ἀμύμονα ῥίγησέν τε
ἔργα θεῶν


20 Il. 17. 645 ff.


οἴη δ᾽ Αἴαντος ψυχὴ Τελαμωνιάδαο
νόσφιν ἀφεστήκει, κεχολωμένη εἵνεκα νίκης
τήν μιν ἐγὼ νίκησα δικαζόμενος παρὰ νῃυσὶ
τεύχεσιν ἀμφ᾽ Ἀχιλῆος: ἔθηκε δὲ πότνια μήτηρ,
παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη

. On the last verse (547) the schol. (H) says, “ἀθετεῖ Ἀρίσταρχος”. It is not known on what grounds he rejected it; whether because the verse was absent from some copies; or because it conflicted with some other version of the matter which he regarded as having better authority; or for both reasons. The context itself affords no reason for suspecting this particular verse; on the contrary, the mention of the person who proposed the prize (“ἔθηκε”) is most naturally followed by a mention of the persons who made the award; and the passage would be maimed by the omission. W. Christ holds that Aristarchus was mistaken in condemning verse 547, and that it represents an early version of the story, probably that given by Arctînus in the Aethiopis (Jahr. f. Philol. 1881 p. 444): see also Kirchhoff (Hom. Odyss. p. 231); and K. F. Ameis ad loc. The whole passage relating to the contest of the arms may, no doubt, be later than other parts of the “Νέκυια”.

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