This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
This article’s featured image, above, is a photograph of a metope from the sanctuary complex dedicated to Hera that was once located at the mouth of the Sele river, close to Paestum. It dates from the middle of the sixth century BC and is on display, along with many other metopes, at the wonderful archaeological museum of Paestum.
It depicts a male figure, who has impaled himself with his sword. This figure is invariably identified as Ajax, son of Telamon, also known as the “Greater” Ajax to distinguish him from the “Lesser” Ajax. Both Aiantes (i.e. the plural of Aias, the original Greek form of the Latinized Ajax) played important roles in the story of the Trojan War.
This motif was popular in Archaic Greek art (i.e. between the eighth and early fifth centuries BC). We find this impaled figure on, for example, bronze shield bands from Olympia, painted pottery, and stone reliefs like the metope that adorns the top of this article.
Beyond the Homeric
As far as the Trojan War is concerned, the Homeric epics known as the Iliad and Odyssey loom large in the modern mind. It’s tempting to think that the motif of Ajax having killed himself was taken from these poems, but nothing is further from the truth. The Homeric poems themselves were part of a larger collection of poems about the Trojan War (the so-called “Epic Cycle”), most of which have survived only as scattered fragments or in summaries compiled by later authors.
In his book Homer and the Artists, published in 1998, archaeologist Anthony Snodgrass showed, contrary to popular opinion at the time, that early Greek painters and sculptors often chose to depict scenes that specifically weren’t based on the Homeric epics. Instead, they depicted heroes, scenes, or events from other poems or drawn from different oral traditions.
The Greater Ajax was one of the strongest of the Greek heroes who had ventured to Troy. Most of his key stories focus on events set after the conclusion of Homer’s Iliad. For example, he was the one who carried Achilles off the battlefield after the champion had been slain by Paris. He then welcomed Achilles’ son Neoptolomus to Troy and fought beside him. But for all the glory that he amassed on the battlefield, his end was tragic. In the Odyssey, Ajax’ shade is one of many spirits that Odysseus encounters in the Underworld. Ajax is angry with Odysseus, but we learn precious little aside from the fact that Ajax’ anger is connected to ownership of Achilles’ armour and a judgement that involved Athena.
For the details of Ajax’ death, we have to turn to the Aithiopis and Lesches’ Little Iliad, two of the poems from the Epic Cycle that are now largely lost. After the death of Achilles, the Greeks organized funeral games, after which a dispute arose between Odysseus and Ajax over who would own the champion’s divine armour. According to Lesches, Odysseus won the armour with the help of the goddess Athena, that is to say: dishonestly. This drove Ajax mad with rage. In his bloodlust, he killed the cattle of the Greeks. Regaining his senses, Ajax was so ashamed that he killed himself.
Later writers expanded on the story surrounding Ajax’ death. Pindar, in Nemean 7.23-30, states that the Greeks ignored the truth when they valued Odysseus above Ajax, causing the latter to kill himself.
Aeschylus composed a trilogy based on the death of Ajax, of which only fragments remain. An interesting detail is that Ajax was said to be vulnerable only in the arm pit, although depictions of his corpse usually depict the sword stuck through his belly. Sophocles also wrote a play on the same topic. Ajax is angry with the Greek leaders for awarding Achilles’ armour to Odysseus and plots to kill Agamemnon and Menelaus. But Athena clouds his mind and, believing them to be the Greek army, he kills the Greeks’ lifestock instead, including a herdsman. When he regains his senses, he kills himself out of shame.
The story of Ajax’ death serves three important purposes. The first is that it forces us to recognize that there are more sources for the Trojan War than just the Homeric epics. Ancient artists often depicted events for which surviving literary sources are scarce. The second is that Ajax’ death emphasizes an important, somewhat alien aspect of ancient society, in which suicide is preferable to dishonour, even when you yourself are not personally responsible for it.
The third and final point to be made is that the events surrounding Ajax’ death paint a picture of Odysseus that is not exactly flattering. But let us not forget that Odysseus also smiled in the Iliad when the Trojan scout Dolon was decapitated and that, in the Odyssey, he ruthlessly murdered all the suitors and their associates (including slaves) upon his return home. The epic world was brutal.