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As the intervention of the Atreidae
The issue thus raised.
has thus a strict coherence with the earlier part of the play, so also the issue which they raise is one which must necessarily be decided, if the earlier action is to reach a dramatic conclusion. For Ajax, at the beginning of the play, has been shown in the deepest humiliation,—a maniac whom Athena exhibits, with his fatuous boasting and his frantic laughter, for the admonition of his successful rival. Yet this Ajax is the same to whom the Athenian spectators, like their fathers before them, had been taught to pay divine honours1; the Ajax whose statue they were accustomed to see in the market-place among those of the ten heroes from whom the Attic tribes derived their names2, —his renown being further commemorated by special distinctions which the tribe Aiantis enjoyed3; the ancestor of two families with which the most illustrious Athenians were proud to be linked4; the mighty champion who was believed to have been present with the Greeks at Salamis, and who, in the thank-offerings awarded after the victory, was associated with Poseidon and Athena5. In following the progress of the play, it would be impossible for Athenians to think of him merely as a great warrior, whose honour had been restored by his resolve to die. They would necessarily think of him also as a sacred ‘hero,’ in the religious sense of that word. The restoration of his honour would not be complete, in their view, unless, at the end, he appeared as a fitting recipient of the worship which they paid to him. But, for such an end, it was indispensable that he should receive funeral rites. The cult of a ‘hero’ meant the worship of the spirit of a dead man, who in life had been pre-eminent for great qualities. The first condition of such worship was that the departed spirit should have been duly admitted to the realm of the nether gods by the rendering of funeral rites. The central point in the cult of a ‘hero’ was his tomb. The offerings at the hero's tomb (or at a ‘herôon’ which represented it) corresponded, in that cult, with the sacrifices offered to the gods at their altars6. The prehistoric tumuli on the shore of the Hellespont, associated with the names of Achilles, Patroclus, and Ajax, were regarded as the monuments which attested that those heroes had received due sepulture, and were, in fact, the primary shrines of their respective cults—honoured, as such, in every age of Greek antiquity7. So when an Athenian audience heard the Atreidae insisting that the corpse of Ajax should be ‘food for the birds by the sea,’ and Teucer insisting that it should be duly buried the interest of the dispute for them did not depend merely on the importance of burial as a condition of peace for any departed spirit. The question involved much more than that,—viz., the whole claim of Ajax to the sanctity of a ‘hero,’—one with which so many traditions of Athens were bound up. The Athenian feeling would be analogous to that of a medieval audience witnessing a drama which concerned the life of a canonized saint, in which the doubtful issue was whether the powers of evil would succeed in making him commit some sin which would doom his soul beyond the hope of pardon. Such an audience would have followed, with a like depth of interest, the process by which the wiles of the tempter were defeated at the moment when they seemed about to triumph, and the man emerged at the end, notwithstanding weaknesses and lapses, as a worthy object of religious veneration.

These, then, are the grounds on which the dramatic unity of the Ajax rests. First, the veto upon the burial of Ajax is an inevitable consequence of his action, and one for which the spectator has been prepared; so that the latter part of the play is not an arbitrary addition to the former, but a natural, indeed a necessary, development of it. Secondly, this veto raises an issue still more momentous, for Athenians, than the question whether Ajax is to live or die; viz., the issue whether he is, or is not, to attain the sanctity of a hero. Hence the true climax of the play is not his death, but the decision that he shall be buried.

1 The Athenian cult of Ajax still existed in the time of Pausanias, who says (1. 35. 3): —“διαμένουσι δὲ καὶ ἐς τόδε τῷ Αἴαντι παρὰ Ἀθηναίοις τιμαί, αὐτῷ τε καὶ Εὐρυσάκει: καὶ γὰρ Εὐρυσάκους βωμός ἐστιν ἐν Ἀθήναις”. After the Athenian conquest of Salamis from the Megarians (circ. 595 B.C.), that island became an Attic deme. It was customary for the Athenian ephebi to take part in the annual celebration of the “Αἰάντεια” at Salamis (C. I. G. 108, 232: Mommsen, Heortologie p. 411). At Athens a sort of lectisternium was held in honour of Ajax (schol. Pind. N. 2. 19κλίνην αὐτῷ μετὰ πανοπλίας κοσμεῖν”): see on this C. F. Hermann, Grk. Ant. II. 62 § 46.

2 Paus. 1. 5. 1.Köhler (in Hermes v. p. 340) thinks it almost certain that the statues of the ten “ἐπώνυμοι” were erected at, or soon after, the time when Cleisthenes instituted the ten tribes ( Her. 5. 66). Wachsmuth (Die Stadt Athen, I. p. 506 n. 2), while recognising that this inference, though probable, is not certain, does not suggest a later date for these statues than the age of Pericles.

3 See Plutarch Mor. 628B—629 According A. to some elegiac verses of Aeschylus, the Aiantidae were posted on the right wing of the army at Marathon. After the battle of Plataea, they were chosen, as a special honour, to offer the sacrifice on Cithaeron to the “Σφραγίτιδες”—as the Nymphs of that mountain were called from the cave “Σφραγίδιον” ( Paus. 9. 3. 9). It was also a tradition (Plutarch says) that, in a competition of tribal choruses, the “Αἰαντίς” should never be placed last: “οὐ γὰρ εὔκολος ἐνεγκεῖν ἧτταν Τελαμώνιος”. Welcker (Rhein. Mus. for 1829, part 3, p. 61) thinks that in v. 861 of the Ajax, “κλειναί τ᾽ Ἀθῆναι καὶ τὸ σύντροφον γένος”, the reference is to the “Αἰαντὶς φυλή”—an ingenious suggestion which Thirlwall approves (Phil. Mus. I. p. 524 n. 17). But this would narrow the phrase too much.

4 Ajax had two sons, “Φιλαῖος” (by Lysidica), and Eurysaces (by Tecmessa). According to the Attic legend ( Solon 10), these brothers, having been made Athenian citizens, transferred their rights over Salamis to the Athenians, and settled in Attica,—Philaeus at Brauron, Eurysaces at Melitè. The “Φιλαΐδαι” and “Εὐρυσακίδαι” were among the noblest families of Athens. Peisistratus ( Plut. Sol. 10), Miltiades ( Her. 6. 35) with his son Cimon, and the historian Thucydides (Marcell. Vit. Thuc. § 3), traced their descent from Ajax through Philaeus; Alcibiades ( Plut. Alc. 1), through Eurysaces. [Pausanias 1. 35. 2 calls Philaeus a son of Eurysaces.]

5 Her. 8. 121: see p. xviii, n. 1.

6ἐναγίζειν” is the ordinary term for making offerings at a grave to the departed spirit (Isae. or. 6 § 51 “ἐπὶ τὰ μνήματα ἰέναι χεόμενον καὶ ἐναγιοῦντα”), and is regularly used with reference to the cult of a hero, as opposed to “θύειν”: Her. 2. 44τῷ μὲν ὡς ἀθανάτῳ...θύουσι, τῷ δὲ ἑτέρῳ ὡς ἥρωι ἐναγίζουσι”. (Cp. Paus. 2. 11. 7.) See also Diod. Sic. 4. 39 (referring to Heracles) “ὡς ἥρωι ποιήσαντες ἁγισμοὺς καὶ χώματα κατασκευάσαντες”: i.e., they erected mounds, which were to be symbols of his tomb in the several localities—“ἡρῷα”—and directed that the “ἁγισμοί” (=“ἐναγίσματα”) should be offered there. Thuc. 5. 11§ 1 (of Brasidas) “περιέρξαντες αὐτοῦ τὸ μνημεῖον ὡς ἥρωί τε ἐντέμνουσι” (=“ἐναγίζουσι”) “καὶ τιμὰς δεδώκασιν”.

7 See Preller, Gr. Myth. II. p. 6, as to the bearing of such mounds, or of supposed ‘relics,’ on the earlier cult of heroes.

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hide References (13 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (13):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.44
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.66
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.35
    • Herodotus, Histories, 8.121
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.5.1
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.11.7
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.3.9
    • Pindar, Nemean, 2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.11
    • Plutarch, Alcibiades, 1
    • Plutarch, Solon, 10
    • Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales, 628b
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 4.39
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