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It is interesting to inquire how far the influence of the
Illustrations from ancient
Art.poets can be traced in such works of Greek art as are concerned with the tragic end of Ajax. A favourite subject was the actual contest for the arms. Some red-figured vases, of the fifth century B.C., show Ajax and Odysseus vehemently disputing the possession of the prize,—ready, indeed, to rush at each other, while their friends on either side hold them back: Agamemnon, as judge, stands between them. This type seems to have been created, or at least developed, by the vase-painter 1. But an earlier form of the same subject occurs on black-figured vases of the sixth century B.C. Here there are only the three principal figures,—Ajax, Odysseus, and Agamemnon,—and the “ἀγὼν” for the arms approaches still more nearly to the character of a fight. The competitors are advancing against each other with drawn swords, while Agamemnon tries to keep them apart2. The black-figured vases prove that the original literary source was not the “Ὅπλων κρίσις” of Aeschylus, —as the red-figured vases would have allowed us to suppose,— but some older poem. Other works of art represent the close of the contest. A relief on a sarcophagus found at Ostia3 shows Odysseus seizing the arms which have just been awarded to him, while Ajax, escorted by indignant friends, is retiring, with visible fury in his eyes,—the “ὄμματα ἀστράπτοντα” of the Iliupersis4. The same moment is depicted on a vase in the British Museum5: Athena herself presides over the court, indicating the artist's literal interpretation of the verse in the Odyssey (11. 547 “παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη”). On a stone in front of the goddess are seen the “ψῆφοι” by which the arms have just been adjudged to Odysseus,—a detail which recalls the language of Pindar and Sophocles, who both speak of the award as decided by ballot6.

The painters Parrhasius and Timanthes (c. 400 B.C.) are said to have competed at Samos in an “ἀγὼν γραφικός”, the subject of their pictures being Ajax and Odysseus contending for the arms7. But the famous picture on this subject was by Timomachus of Byzantium8, whose work was directly inspired by Sophocles. It represented Ajax, as the poet describes him, sitting among the slaughtered cattle, and brooding on selfdestruction, in that gloomy despair which followed his frenzy9. An epigram in the Anthology attests the vivid impression which this picture made on the beholder10. It was kindred in conception to another celebrated work of the same painter, Medea meditating the murder of her children. Both pictures were at Cyzicus in the early part of the first century B.C.; they were purchased by Julius Caesar, and placed in the temple of Venus Genetrix at Rome. Ovid in exile remembered both:—

Utque sedet vultu fassus Telamonius iram,
Inque oculis facinus barbara mater habet

The Tabula Iliaca in the Capitoline Museum contains a small picture, inscribed “ΑΙΑΣ ΜΑΝΙΩΔΗΣ”, which probably shows the influence of Timomachus; Ajax is seated in an attitude of deep dejection, and near him lies the severed head of a ram,—a detail taken from the play of Sophocles (vv. 237 ff.)11. The hero's suicide is the subject of some Etruscan vase-paintings. One of these shows the sword planted in the ground, as Sophocles describes it (v. 815)12.


1 A Duris vase-painting on this subject by Duris may be seen in Baumeister, Denkmäler, p. 29, plate 30.

2 C. Robert, Bild und Lied, p. 217, gives a copy of this scene from a black-figured lekythos in the Berlin Museum.

3 Figured in Baumeister, p. 29, pl. 31.

4 See above, § 2.

5 No. 829: discussed by Robert in Bild und Lied, pp. 218 ff.

6 Pind. Nem. 8. 26: Soph. Ai. 449, Soph. Ai. 1135.

7 Pliny, N. H. 35. 36 § 72: Aelian, V. H. 9. 11. Timanthes gained the prize; when Parrhasius said that he condoled with Ajax on having for a second time got the worst of it.

8 The date of Timomachus is uncertain. Brunn (Gesch. d. gr. Künstler, vol. II. p. 282) would refer him to ‘the time of the Diadochi’ (i.e., circ. 320—270 B.C.), on account of the tendencies shown in his choice and treatment of subjects. At any rate Pliny is evidently wrong in saying that Timomachus painted in the time of Julius Caesar (N. H. 35. 40 § 30), as he already had the fame of an ‘old master’ in 70 B.C. ( Cic. In Verr. 2. 4. 60.

9 Philostratus, Vit. Apoll. 2. 22 § 5: see n. below on verse 346.

10 Jacobs, Anthol. vol. II. p. 648, no. 83: “Αἶαν, Τιμομάχου πλέον πατρός: ἥρπασε τέχνα τὴν φύσιν. γράψας εἶδέ σε μαινόμενον, καὶ συνελυσσήθη χεὶρ ἀνέρι, καὶ τὰ κεραστὰ δάκρυα τοὺς λύπης πάντας ἔμιξε πόνους”. The style is somewhat affected and obscure. ‘Ajax, Timomachus, not Telamon, is thy sire: Art has made Nature's claim her own! The painter saw thee in thy frenzy,— his hand raged with the rage of his hero, and the mingled pigments from his brush have blended all the throes of pain.’ The last words have point; for it was in portraying a conflict of emotions that Timomachus peculiarly excelled.

11 See the reproduction of the Tabula Iliaca in Baumeister's Denkmäler, p. 716, pl. 775: the small picture of Ajax is numbered 80 in the plate.

12 Baumeister, p. 30 b.

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hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (4):
    • Pindar, Nemean, 8
    • Sophocles, Ajax, 1135
    • Sophocles, Ajax, 449
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.4.60
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