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In the final soliloquy of Ajax, his change of mood is
His imprecation upon the Greeks.
obscured by another sentiment which moderns might think inconsistent with it,—viz., his fierce vindictiveness towards those who had given the award of the arms against him (vv. 835 ff.):—

And I call for help to the maidens who live for ever, and ever look on all the woes of men, the dread, far-striding Furies; let them mark how my miserable life is blasted by the Atreidae. And may they overtake those evil men with doom most evil and with utter blight !...Come, ye swift and vengeful Furies, glut your wrath on all the host, and spare not!

To the ancients, however, such utterances would have seemed perfectly compatible with the altered mood of Ajax. He has come to see that he erred in his over-weening selfreliance; he ‘yields to the gods,’ and acknowledges that the office of human rulers claims respect: but he also feels implacable resentment for a wrong. ‘Benefit thy friends and hurt thy foes,’ was the received Greek maxim. Now and again a higher ethical teaching declares that the just man will not knowingly injure any one1. But a man might be morally good, in the ordinary Greek view, and also pious (“εὐσεβής”), without accepting that doctrine: Solon, who was esteemed both, prays that he may be ‘sweet to his friends and bitter to his foes2’; Pindar, a pre-eminently religious poet, who speaks as with the voice of Delphi, expresses a like sentiment3. A striking parallel to the case of Ajax here is presented by that of Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus has found rest and peace at the shrine of the Eumenides; he has been reconciled with the gods; he is already invested with a kind of sanctity; he is on his way— like Ajax—to consecration as a hero: and it is in these circumstances that he utters the appalling imprecations on his sons. Still, in one respect the vindictiveness of Ajax must appear monstrous; he invokes destruction, not only on the chiefs, but on ‘all the host.’ It can hardly be said that the army at large were involved in the guilt of the award4; they had nothing to do with it, and could not prevent or reverse it. A simpler account of the matter seems to be that the punishment of the army is conceived as a further penalty on the chiefs. This would be thoroughly Homeric. Apollo avenges his priest on Agamemnon by plaguing the whole army, just as he might have punished a wicked shepherd by a murrain.


1 E.g. Plat. Rep. 1. p. 335 Dοὐκ ἄρα τοῦ δικαίου βλάπτειν ἔργον...οὔτε φίλον οὔτ᾽ ἄλλον οὐδένα”: in opposition to the common maxim (ib. A), “δίκαιον εἶναι τὸν μὲν φίλον εὖ ποιεῖν, τὸν δὲ ἐχθρὸν κακῶς”.

2 Frag. 13. 5 (Bergk), “εἶναι δὲ γλυκὺν ὧδε φίλοις, ἐχθροῖσι δὲ πικρόν”.

3 Pyth. 2. 83 “φίλον εἴη φιλεῖν: ποτὶ δ᾽ ἐχθρὸν ἅτ᾽ ἐχθρὸς ἐὼν λύκοιο δίκαν ὑποθεύσομαι”.

4 This is the apology suggested by Welcker (Rhein. Mus. for 1829, III. p. 246), and by Thirlwall (Phil. Mus. I. p. 521: ‘the army had sanctioned and shared the iniquity of its chiefs’). I cannot think that it is satisfactory.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Plato, Republic, 335d
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