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The whole passage
Cyclic epics. The Aethiopis.
evidently presupposes some well-known work or works in which the contest for the arms had been related more at length. The scholiast says that ‘the story comes from the Cyclic poets1.’ There are two poems, and two only, which are known to have contained that story. One is the Aethiopis, by Arctînus of Miletus, which may be placed about 776 B.C. The other is the Little Iliad, which in later antiquity was commonly (though not universally) ascribed to Lesches2, of Pyrrha, near Mitylene, and of which the approximate date is 700 B.C.

In the Aethiopis, which contained the death of Achilles, Ajax played a foremost part in rescuing the corpse from the Trojans— an episode imitated from the fight over the body of Patroclus in the Iliad. As to the manner in which Arctînus conceived the contest for the arms, only two details are known. (1) After the award, Podaleirius—the physician, skilled in diagnosis of obscure ailments, as his brother Machaon was the great surgeon—perceived a fierce light in the eyes of Ajax, and a weight upon his spirit, which were the precursors of the end:—

ὅς ῥα καὶ Αἴαντος πρῶτος μάθε χωομένοιο ὄμματά τ᾽ ἀστράπτοντα βαρυνόμενόν τε νόημα3. (2) Arctînus described Ajax as killing himself ‘about dawn4’— doubtless on the morning after the award. There is no reason to think that Arctînus mentioned that delusion of Ajax by Athena which caused his slaughter of the cattle. The scanty evidence rather suggests that the rage in the hero's soul was not expressed in any deed of violence, but that he passed in seclusion, perhaps within his tent, the few hours of darkness between his defeat and his death5. It is highly probable that the older and simpler form of the Ajax-myth knew nothing of his insane onslaught on the cattle, by which Athena averted his vengeance from the Greek chiefs. The motive of his suicide, in this older version, seems to have been simply resentment at the award— not that feeling combined with a sense of disgrace incurred by his own action. Such is certainly the impression given by the passage in the Odyssey6. It is given also by Pindar, when he says, ‘The Danaoi paid court to Odysseus by secret votes, and Ajax, robbed of the golden arms, wrestled with death7.’ Pindar agrees with Arctînus in saying that Ajax died about dawn—a coincidence which can hardly be accidental8.

There is another point, however, in which it seems probable that they diverged. According to Pindar, the Greek chiefs were the judges in the contest for the arms. This account, which Sophocles follows, is fitted to win sympathy for Ajax, who appears as a victim of jealousy and of ingratitude on the part of men who had the best reason to know that he was second only to Achilles. But the Odyssey testifies to that other version according to which the judges were ‘the children of the Trojans and Pallas Athena.’ The words of the scholiast9 there deserve attention:—‘The story is from the Cyclic poets. Agamemnon, on his guard against seeming to favour either of the competitors for the arms of Achilles, brought some Trojan prisoners, and asked them by which of the two heroes they had been more injured,’ etc. There is no reason to doubt that the scholiast knew of this account as given in some poem (or poems) of the Epic Cycle. There is no warrant for assuming that he invented this statement to explain the verse on which he was commenting. But the Aethiopis and the Little Iliad are, so far as we know, the only Cyclic poems to which his allusion could refer. And in the Little Iliad the award of the arms was decided, not by Trojan prisoners in the Greek camp, but (as will be seen presently) by Trojan opinion reported from Troy itself. Presumably, then, it was in the Aethiopis that the Trojan prisoners acted as judges. Since that poem dated from the earlier part of the eighth century (circ. 776 B.C.), the verse in the Nekyia of the Odyssey, “παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη”, may have been founded upon it. The Nekyia is, in great part, older, probably, than 800 B.C., but unquestionably received some additions in the course of the eighth and seventh centuries. It is not necessary, however, to suppose that the Nekyia was here indebted to the Aethiopis. Both may have used some older source now unknown. When the Homeric poet associates ‘Pallas Athena’ with the Trojan judges, he need not be understood as conceiving that she actually presided over the award,—as in the Eumenides she presides at the first session of the Areiopagus,—but merely that she influenced the minds of the arbiters.

1 Schol. H on Od. 11. 547 δὲ ἱστορία ἐκ τῶν κυκλικῶν”.

2 As Carl Robert has pointed out in Bild und Lied (‘Arktinos und Lesches,’ pp. 222 ff.), the claim of Lesches is subject to much doubt. Hellanicus, himself a Lesbian, attributed the Little Iliad to Cinaethon of Lacedaemon, according to the scholiast on Eur. Tro. 821; where Thestorides of Phocis and Diodorus of Erythrae are mentioned as other writers to whom the poem had been attributed—while Lesches is not even named. The scholiast probably derived this statement from the Alexandrian Lysimachus, a learned mythographer, whose work entitled “Νόστοι” is often quoted.

3 Schol. Il. 11. 515(referring to the skill of Machaon in surgery): “τοῦτο ἔοικε καὶ Ἀρκτῖνος ἐν Ἰλίου πορθήσει νομίζειν ἐν οἷς φησιν” [here he quotes eight verses from Arctînus, on the skill of Machaon and Podaleirius respectively, ending with the two verses given above]. Arctînus was the author of two poems: (1) the “Αἰθιοπίς”, which ended with the contest between Ajax and Odysseus for the arms: (2) the “Ἰλίου πέρσις”, which (like the Little Iliad) probably included the healing of Philoctetes. The scholiast quotes these verses as being “ἐν Ἰλίου πορθήσει”. It has been supposed that they occurred in connection with the contest for the arms, and that therefore the scholiast ought to have said “ἐν Αἰθιοπίδι”. But it is also possible that the scholiast is right—that the verses came from the Iliupersis, and had to do with the healing of Philoctetes. Certainly, as Mr Monro has remarked (Journ. Hellen. Stud. vol. v. p. 29), ‘the two lines about Ajax have rather the appearance of a parenthesis.’ If, however, the skill of Podaleirius was thus illustrated by a glance backward at the insight which he had formerly shown with regard to Ajax, we can scarcely avoid supposing that in the Aethiopis, when the contest for the arms was being related, this observation by Podaleirius had already been mentioned. The parenthesis would be clumsy and out of place, if the fact was being noticed for the first time. Indeed, such an allusion might well suggest the inference that in the Aethiopis the contest for the arms, and the effect of his defeat upon Ajax, were described with some fulness.

4 Schol. Pind. Isthm. 4.(3.) 58 γὰρ τὴν Αἰθιοπίδα γράφων περὶ τὸν ὄρθρον φησὶ τὸν Αἴαντα ἑαυτὸν ἀνελεῖν”.

5 We have just seen that, according to Arctînus, it was the acute physician Podaleirius who ‘first’ detected the symptoms of anger and deep mental trouble in Ajax. This clearly implies that Ajax, though with rage in his soul, retained his self-command. What the physician was ‘the first’ to see, others saw only in the light of the tragic event—the hero's suicide, which so quickly ensued. So, at least, I understand the force of “πρῶτος μάθε”. The antithesis might be, of course, with the later perception caused in others by an outbreak of fury on the part of Ajax: but, in connection with the fact that he was here represented as dying almost immediately after the award, this seems less probable.

6 Od. 11. 543 ff.: not merely because it is silent respecting madness and outrage, but because it implies (556 f.) that Ajax had died, like Achilles, in unclouded renown —without having done anything to offend the Greeks, who in the play of Sophocles (v. 726) threaten to stone Teucer, as ‘the kinsman of the maniac, the plotter against the host.’

7 Nem. 8. 26 f. Precisely the same impression—that the suicide was the immediate consequence of the award—is conveyed in

οὔ κεν ὅπλων χολωθεὶς
καρτερὸς Αἴας ἔπαξε διὰ φρενῶν
λευρὸν ξίφος

. Eustathius (p. 1698. 51), in commenting on Od. 11. 543 ff., thus closes his paraphrase of the account given by some ‘others’ (who probably include Arctînus)—“καὶ εὐθὺς Ὀδυσσεὺς μὲν ἔλαβε τὰ ὅπλα, Αἴας δὲ ἀπῆλθε” [“ἀπέθανε”?] “ξίφει πεσών”.

8 Isthm. 3. 53ὀψίᾳ ἐν νυκτί”, i.e. ‘at the end of the night,’=“περὶ ὄρθρον” (see above, note 1).

9 Schol. H on Od. 11. 547.Eustathius (p. 1698) cannot, I think, be regarded as a witness of independent authority on this point, though that has sometimes been assumed. Commenting on “παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν”, he says:—“ἰστέον δὲ ὅτι” (1) “οἱ μὲν ἁπλοϊκώτερόν φασι Τρῶας καὶ Ἀθηνᾶν δικάσαι Ὀδυσσεῖ καὶ Αἴαντι περὶ τῶν Ἀχιλλέως ὅπλων ἐρίζουσι, καὶ δὴ καὶ Κόϊντος” [ Quint. Smyrn. 5. 128 ff.] “διασκευάζει ἐν τοῖς αὑτοῦ τὴν δίκην ῥητορικῶς”. (2) “ἕτεροι δέ φασιν ὅτι ἐπίτηδες Ἀγαμέμνων φυλαττόμενος τὸ δόξαι θατέρῳ τῶν ἡρώων χαρίσασθαι, αἰχμαλώτους τῶν Τρώων συναγαγών, ἤρετο κ.τ.λ.” Here he is repeating, partly verbatim, Schol. H on Hom. Od. 11. 547, to which he adds nothing new. Thus he distinguishes two versions. (1) That in which the judges are simply ‘the Trojans,’ with Athena—as in the Odyssey. He names Quintus Smyrnaeus in connection with this version—and for a reason which can, I think, be perceived; Quintus makes Nestor say, “τοὔνεκα Τρωσὶν ἐφῶμεν ἐΰφροσι τήνδε δικάσσαι κ.τ.λ.” (5. 157). Eustathius noticed or remembered this,—but not that, by “Τρωσίν”, the Nestor of Quintus meant the Trojan prisoners in the camp (as he presently explains, v. 160). (2) The version given by ‘others’ (“ἕτεροι”)—in which the Trojan prisoners judged— was manifestly known to Eustathius only from the scholium on the Odyssey, which he reproduces.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (8):
    • Euripides, Trojan Women, 821
    • Homer, Iliad, 11.515
    • Homer, Odyssey, 11.543
    • Homer, Odyssey, 11.547
    • Pindar, Isthmean, 3
    • Pindar, Isthmean, 4
    • Pindar, Nemean, 7
    • Pindar, Nemean, 8
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