Fate Considered in Sophocles’s Ajax

Ajax, one of Sophocles’s seven surviving plays, is a horrifying Greek tragedy that describes the downfall of Ajax among the Achaeans. The action takes place shortly after the end of the Iliad but before the conclusion of the Trojan War. Achilles has been killed and the Atridae decide to award his armor to Odysseus, rather than Ajax, though Ajax believes himself to be the stronger Achaean soldier. In the heat of anger, Ajax decides to turn on the Achaeans. He tries to slaughter Menelaus and Agamemnon, but he his blinded by Athena, and instead he murders the sheep and cattle. He explains to Athena that has saved a special retribution for Odysseus, a whipping and killing. However, Ajax soon realizes his fate. He has been replaced in rank and honor among his allies, and the god has deceived him. In disgrace after loudly proclaiming his state of affairs, he retires to the wilderness and kills himself, falling on the sword he won from his enemy, Hector. He dies by impaling himself, just as his brother, Teucer, is quickly arriving as he has been warned by Calches, the prophet, not to let Ajax leave during that day or else he will die.

An illustration of Ajax’s suicide on an ancient vase by a Greek artist named Exekias

Teucer comes upon the corpse of Ajax, impaled and alone in the wilderness. Agamemnon and Menelaus argue in favor of leaving his body to be consumed by the birds as he was a traitor, but wily Odysseus takes the side of Teucer, arguing for a proper burial. Even an enemy is deserving of a proper burial, as is customary. Odysseus is the moral arbiter, the gate keeper of the customs of the Greeks. His presence stands in preservation of virtue among the Achaeans.

Several questions emerge from the text focused on Ajax, whom the author has asked us to consider in his most tragic state. How does a man best bear shame and disgrace? Does Ajax display grace and virtue, or disgrace and vice? Like the biblical character, Job, Ajax bemoans his state to the Chorus. To his concubine, he loudly wails about his misfortunes. He does not bear his sufferings with grace and silence. Similarly in the Book of Job, The Lord and The Adversary are deceptive with humans, seemingly for no reason. Likewise, in Ajax Athena is highly deceptive, allowing for the death of Ajax and the elevation of Odysseus, as her chosen man. Ultimately, Ajax’s death is not an honorable one, and if we look to the ends of men, as Solon asks us to in Herodotus’s Histories, then we see a tempered view of Ajax, colored by his last moments. What could Ajax have done instead? Rather than falling on his sword, quite literally, Ajax could have embraced his fate, and allowed the armor of Achilles to pass to Odysseus. After all, Homer acknowledges that the war against Ilium was not won by force, as would give credence to Ajax and Achilles, but rather the war was won by Odysseus, the tactician. It was a war of intellect, and perhaps Homer was slyly engaging in the debate between arms and intellect. Ajax exposes himself in his moment of weakness as an ignoble man, even disgracing his name by comparing it to closely similar word, “aia”, implying a wail of lament, or a pitiful noise. Like King Lear, he is thought to be insane by his own tribesmen, who see him return with animal carcasses, covered in blood.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with a translation by John Moore.

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