Ajax 430-595  End of First Episode

In this passage, dialogue between Ajax and Tecmessa, Ajax and the Chorus, Ajax and Eurysaces, the embittered hero sticks to his decision to kill himself, despite the appeals of his “wife”—she may as well be—son, and followers, all of whom depend on him.  It is a bit like the Book of Job, except these are Greeks, for whom friendship—which includes kinship—is a primary moral quality.

Ajax begins with a typically Greek play of words on his own name, Aias, which he relates to his opening ejaculation of woe: “Aiai”.  Again, typically Greek, he thinks immediately of his father, who had won great renown at an earlier attack on Troy, and whom he is ashamed to face.  His shame is worse, because the Atridae have preferred a worthless trickster, Odysseus, to the greatest hero alive in the army, and that trickster will be overjoyed with his enemy’s disgrace, though as we know already, Odysseus is anything but happy.  

Ajax, as a Greek hero, must resent deeply the loss of honor and respect, which is, for a man such as he is, the summit of good fortune and happiness. He blames the gods, who have the power to overthrow the better/stronger man and elevate the coward (kakos). He is hated by everyone—the gods, his comrades, and even Troy itself.  Since there is no hope of relief—he had hoped to regain his honor by slaughtering the Greek leaders—he has only one choice as a man of honor.  The eugenes—(well-born/noble) man must either live well (that is, finely, nobly) or die well—a magnificently pithy expression.

Tecmessa appeals to her lord’s affection and innate kindness.  What will become of her after his death?  He destroyed her family and country, and she has nothing left but her master.  (She is sort of a counterpart to Homer’s Andromache, who has only Hector, because the enemy Achilles has killed everyone in her family.)  When pleasure comes to us, we repay kindness with kindness, and if a man fails to keep in mind the kindness he has received, he cannot be accounted well-born/noble.  This would seem to be a different definition of eugenes, not simply one who has good blood and maintains the family standards of heroism, but upholds the moral responsibility incurred by receiving a charis (favor, act of kindness).  Charis breeds charis—or at least is supposed to.  Ajax’s only response is to wish her gone.

Ajax asks to see his son Eurysaces, whose name means broad-shielded, a clear reference to Ajax’ most famous weapon.  One might expect that a father would think twice about suicide, if he once considered the future of his son, but Ajax hopes only that his son will grow up to be a warrior as brave as but more fortunate than himself.  In fact the boy does grow up to be a hero venerated by Athenians.

Tecmessa makes one more effort, in her hopeless campaign to dissuade Ajax, who ridicules her to some effect.  How could she possibly think she was going to change the mind of such a man?

His last words are grim.  Translated literally, he tells her:  “You seem to/or I think that you have your mind set on foolish things if at this late date (or just now) you think you can educate, that is, bring me up like a boy, my character (ethos).  Ajax is a grown man, he is what he is, and he is not about to take elementary school instruction from a woman, no matter how fond he might be of her.

I’ll leave it to you readers to tell us what you think of Ajax after this scene.  He is certainly manly, forceful, without a drop of weakness.  Though he begins by bitterly resenting his fate, he accepts the consequence like a man, and no considerations of affection or duty will deter him from doing what he believes—he knows—a man must do.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    My interpretation of this scene is that Ajax chose suicide due to his loss of honor and respect. It is not that he didn’t love his wife but she was subordinate to him. I think his weakness was that he honored himself above above the gods.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    The first things which comes to mind are the practices of the Japanese warrior tradition. Are there any particularly distinctive ways in which the conventions regarding suicide in Greek culture differed from others?

  3. Dot says:

    The idea for the Greeks was and may still be, is to act Godlike not God. I think humility comes in here and Ajax lacked it. He seemed to be a very proud man and pride is supposed to be the worst of faults. We all have limitations.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    To understand this play, we have to begin by taking it on its own terms without importing moral absolutes the Athenians would not have understood. One of the greatest differences between the Greek attitudes and our own lies in the Greek understanding of nobility: the nobility of blood–that is, to be eugenes, as Ajax certainly is–and the nobility of character which is supposed to be a gift of good blood. Pride based on reality was not only not a great fault, it was in fact a virtue, and the assumed humility that too many Christians affect would have disgusted them. Aristotle, who believed that virtuous excellence lies in the mean between two extremes, say, courage which is between pusillanimity, on the one hand, and audacity on the other, sets the idea as to be megathumos, which translates roughly into English as magnanimous, that is, great in spirit, and it is the mean between servility and unfounded pride which is arrogance. Ajax’s pride and sense of honor, that is his sense of what is owed to him as a descendant of a god and a hero, are quite well founded, even though his stubborn insistence on them brings him to ruin, much as Oedipus laudable thirst for understanding and self-reliance bring him to ruin, and Creon’s (in the Antigone) energetic defense of the commonwealth is both great statesmanship and a reckless rejection of divine injunctions sanctioned by tradition.

    As for being godlike, it is a quality attributed to Homeric heroes who are descended from gods, not a status one claims for himself. By the classical period, such language is probably irrelevant since the strongest admonitions can be boiled down to the Delphic wisdom of “Know thyself,” that thou art only, not matter how great, a mortal. Odysseus gets that point at the very beginning of the play.

  5. Harry Colin says:

    Among the things that struck me in this play is the assumption that the audience would be familiar with the characters and their ‘backstory,” if I can use so inelegant a term. Those of us in this time period and culture require explanation to grasp the play, but there seems to be a considerable awareness of Homer and much of Greek culture required of the Athenian audiences.

    I contrast that with today in America; upon which pieces of literature could an author presume his audience was well-acquainted? Good luck finding that answer.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    An excellent point. There is an argument among scholars about how much an Athenian could be expected to know, but this play presupposes a knowledge of the Iliad and Odyssey and of other works of the epic cycle or, at the very least, the name and story of half a dozen characters of heroic legends. When I first started teaching, I took it for granted that a reference to Hemingway or Mark Twain would be understood. When I got over that, I tried classic movies–Casablanca, The Searchers, High Noon. When I was disillusioned about classic film, I turned to classic rock and roll. No dice. I finally realized that with college kids, I could only refer to fairly recent TV shows, movies, and songs–basically no more than five years old. Of course there were many exceptions, but they constituted the minority of students worth preparing a lecture for.

  7. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming: Thank you for your explanation. I read the Iliad, Odyssey, Oedipus Rex and Antigone 65 years ago to be exact and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then for me. You asked precisely what we readers thought about Ajax after the scene you presented in the piece. I did exactly that although I think now I was putting current thought into a time period that is remote.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for the thanks and for your illustration and awareness of the temptation shared even by the greatest historians. The so-called Whig interpretation of history is nothing but a reading, not always naive, into the past of the political agenda of the 19th and 20th historians who wrote the books.