Sophocles’ Ajax: The Struggle Over the Corpse

The end of the Ajax is a rhetorical battle over the corpse of Ajax, and, though it is a war of words, it is no less serious than the Homeric conflicts over the battle and armour of a fallen hero.  The basic antagonists are three:  Teucer, the two Atridae (who make much the same argument, though Agamemnon is more reasonable, perhaps because he is dealing with Odysseus), and Odysseus.

Rather than summarize the scene, I'd like to leave it up to the readers to give their response to the following questions:

First, what is the nub of each set of arguments.  Try to decide which points are fairly made and which unfair or off target.  Let us start with Teucer, then proceed to Menelaus, then Agamemnon, and then Odysseus.  In explaining the arguments, try to see what they tell us of the arguer.  What sort of a man is Teucer?  How is he different from the Atridae (and from his half-brother)?  What are his basic concerns?  On what principles does he rest his case?

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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

16 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    I got liquored up before seeing this, so it will have to wait. I’m going to give it a shot. Wish I hadn’t started drinking this evening.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    But wine, as the Greek poet says, is a peep-hole into the soul. I hate to drink alone.

  3. Jacob Johnson says:

    This is the first of the Greek plays I have read in full, for the following reasons: I was rather indifferent to Hellenistic things as a child; the perfunctory and inadequate exposure I had to them did not inspire my attention. Later on, in what is called “early adulthood”, I read various things which seemed to portray the value of the Greeks, and thus consumed literature on the subject from a variety of sources, most of them probably bad. When I read Nock ( the first big boy author I read really) write that Greek could not be understood in translation, as a lunatic twenty-three year old, decided I must not read a word of it unless I learned Greek so as not to be fooled, taking this to the point of extreme stupidity. Since this is my fist go at one of these plays, I can say, for all of the emphasis on their brilliance in the podcasts and articles on this website,I have found that certaily to be true. As the blacks might say, “this man ain’t lyin!” In such a short play there are so many things to consider, and I will attempt to compress all of these considerations into as little space as I can.

    Teucer asks Menelaus why he declares that Ajax must not be buried, to which Menelaus says that he has the authority and that Ajax tried to kill him in darkness like an underhanded sneak. “Indeed it is the mark of a villain for a subordinate to obey those in authority.” He goes on to say that if one person is allowed to be insolent others will be unafraid of the law and the order of the city will unravel. Ajax was heated in his insolence and now that he is dead it is our turn. He couldn’t be controlled when he was alive so now we will control him as he is dead. Teucer responds by dismissing his authority (Ajax sailed as his own chief) which sets off a series of threats and counter-threats. I wonder if Teucer is simply being stupid or has reason to back up his assertions. Menelaus says that the gods have protected him so he must be in the right to which Teucer says that in turn he should do their will in allowing a burial for Ajax. Menelaus becomes frustrated and leaves to send Agamemnon, asks Tuecer who he thinks he is to challenge their authority to which Tuecer says that the virtues of his brother outweigh that, to which Agamenon says although Ajax was in many ways impressive he was still low-born trash. It is not broad-shouldered me who we rely on but men of good sense. This reminds me vaguely of some of the features of some of the the Celtic vs. Anglo conflicts. Tuecer responds by saying you guys weren’t much different than us a few generations ago and that Ajax has saved their skins a number of times. Agamemnon is alarmed and surprised when Odysseus takes the side of burying Ajax and challenges him on this to which Odysseus says although he was my enemy he was noble and thus deserves a burial. Agamemnon concedes but says “it shall be considered your action, not mine.” There are many other things one may consider here.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    You are right, there are many things to consider. Teucer takes his stand on several points, one is the heroism of Ajax and his greatness in defending the Greeks including the Atridae–unquestionably true. The second is his own duty to bury his half-brother–just as true: this is the basic duty of male kinsmen in Athens. A third is the divine law that tells us to bury our dead–again, not able to be gainsaid.

    Menelaus (and Agamemnon later) take their stand on the need for obedience and order in the army–true; on a repudiation of the sort of equal-rights democracy that was being pushed in Athens–also right. He deduces from this that Teucer as illegitimate and therefore baseborn has no standing. Not true, as Teucer counters, since his mother was a Phrygian princess. He adds some of the disgraceful family history of Menelaus’ ancestors, who also derive from the Middle East. So, while this argument is generally true, it is misapplied to Teucer. The argument of class is not actually used against Ajax, since his father Telamon, Achilles’ uncle was a great hero married honorably to a noble woman.

    Teucer argues that cheaters get whats coming to them, and therefore since Menelaus conspired with the judges, he deserved to be attacked by Ajax. All we have is Teucer’s assertion, denied by Menelaus, so this can be dismissed, I think, as we can dismiss Teucer’s illegitimacy as an argument.

  5. Allen Wilson says:

    Well, I had a response partly written up, but the points in it have already been made by Mr Johnson and Dr Fleming.

    Dr Fleming, you have said more than once that the Greeks were generally quite open and not hypocritical. Well, Teucer, Agamamemnon and Menelaus sure don’t hold anything back in these arguments. They just let it all hang out.

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    Odysseus appeals to Agamemnon in the name of justice, since even a hated enemy, if a good and noble man, must be given due honors. Ajax was hostile, but his excellence should be honored. Men may be friendly or hateful to each other at different times, but an inflexible spirit is not advisable, and by allowing Ajax to be buried, the Greek leadership will show themselves to be men of justice to all the Greeks.

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    Teucer, despite his rough arguments with Menelaus and Agamemnon, certainly seems less hot headed than Ajax.

    Agamemnon and Menelaus seem to have been feeling the burden of leadership for a long time, and this may explain their attitudes, apart from what Ajax recently has done. They have the burden of an army to hold together and a war to win. They may think they can Ill afford any lapse in discipline.

    Odysseus, in making his argument for allowing the burial of Ajax as he does, seems a far cry from the Odysseus we see in the Odyssey. He is not the wily deceiver here, but an upholder of right and defender of even a hated enemy. Certainly he is the wisest of the lot, as is his reputation. If there is more to him than meets the eye, we see it here.

  8. Robert Reavis says:

    “Odysseus, in making his argument for allowing the burial of Ajax as he does, seems a far cry from the Odysseus we see in the Odyssey. He is not the wily deceiver here, but an upholder of right and defender of even a hated enemy.”

    This reminds me of the scene in the Iliad when Hector’s father, Priam, drives his team of horses into Achille’s camp to recover his son’s corpse and Achilles discovers something in this meeting about what true honor actually is and relinquishes the body of Hector to his father, the King.
    I don’t want to take the analogy too far but the current triumph of ignorance in Virginia in which an American hero like Robert E.Lee who exhibited these very qualities of duty and honor to an extraordinary degree is really worse than pathetic when one reflects upon it.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    to an extraordinary degree is “canceled” is really worse than pathetic …,,

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    In the Odyssey, Odysseus strikes us, as he struck later Greeks and the Romans, as wily, duplicitous, deceitful, but for Homer he epitomizes a kind of heroic virtue that is quite different from that of Achilles or Ajax. He is as brave as any of the heroes, and, apart from Achilles, and perhaps Ajax and Diomedes, he is the best warrior among the Achaeans. The writers of tragedy and choral lyric, while they generally adhered to traditional stories, felt free to change details, adopt obscure variants, and use the characters in any way they saw fit. In the Philoctetes, Sophocles sticks closer to the trickster than he does here. In the Ajax, he learns his lesson early, when Athena shows him his enemy in a fit of madness. He asked her not to do this, but she has her reasons. She pretends (as I think) to believe that Odysseus is now frightened of Ajax, which he never had been in the past, but it is far more reasonable to assume that she nows that this experience will give more definite shape to his character, which is prepared to be compassionate.

  11. Jacob Johnson says:

    This clarifies it all much more, thank you. A component of Menelaus’ argument which I did not understand was, after stating that Ajax had planned to kill him etc., in the translation says “For these reasons there is no man mighty enough to bury the body.” The choice of the word mighty seems to imply an inference I do not understand. One normally supposes that a lack of might should not disable somebody from the ability to bury a body. Perhaps he is implying that since Ajax defied the will of the gods and thus thinks he is like a god that therefore no man can burry him? Or that if Ajax defies the gods to injure us we will, in turn, defy the will of the gods to injure him? I have just now read Lloyd-Jones’ introduction, which was interesting in many ways, including the mention of the “pietist” and “hero-worshipper” interpretations, the latter of which I imagine is more common among the left.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    There is no man mighty enough among the Achaeans to stand up against the Atridae and their supporters. Since Diomedes is not mentioned–he would be inconvenient here–this leaves only Odysseus, whom they think they can count on. If Teucer tries anything, he will be stopped and most likely killed. This is sort of the situation Antigone found herself in, though only a girl. She did the right thing in burying her brother, albeit an enemy of the city in the end, bur she was caught by soldiers of her uncle, condemned to death, and walled up in a cave to starve to death–a manner of execution they hoped would avoid blood pollution.

    Greeks took burial very seriously. After the victory at Arginusae, a storm came up and prevented the Athenians from picking up survivors from shipwrecks and the dead, for which the commanders were condemned to death.

  13. Allen Wilson says:

    Imagine what the Greeks would have thought of the removal of a man like Forrest from his resting place in the park.

  14. Jacob Johnson says:

    I am not sure that those who carry out those types of things are aware of what a leap they are taking in relation to the ability to live in a world where the trains run on time. As for the recovery of bodies, this is a considerable moral issue. I can recall hearing discussions about the difference between the Army and Marines on recovering fallen comrades and whether or not the danger of causing increased casualties justified the policies. I have had a few questions which stem from my ignorance of the subjects. I have thought that in reading translations, I would be cheating myself out of the full effect of some of the highest literary experiences. I think I think I will have to get over this and start reading more of these in the near future.

  15. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, as magnificently untranslatable as Greek literature is, even in translation it strikes down deeper than most other literatures. Some of the more prosaic stuff–Plutarch for example–works very well in translation.

  16. Katherine Boyer says:

    In this exchange Teucer is certainly the man for me. He puts family honor first, is acting bravely, and makes a strong argument for the rightness of burying his brother. Even his final acceptance of Odysseus’ help shows his discernment–he is grateful, but not to the extent of allowing Odysseus to touch Ajax, knowing what Ajax would think about that. Menelaus has a good argument against insubordination–if a man is alive; to take revenge on a corpse is vengeful and too easy a victory over a man who can no longer strike back. Agamemnon’s speech to Teucer is almost entirely an ad hominem attack against Teucer as his brother’s defender, and that is always weak logic however satisfying it may be to say. Among other things it reminds this reader that the bastardy of Teucer is the same kind as that of Ajax’s own son, for whom we already feel pity.

    The back-and-forth match of wits between Odysseus and Agamemnon is one of my favorite parts of this play; Odysseus turns Agamemnon’s argument around the way a wrestler might use his opponent’s own body weight against him, and of course he is making the case for the very moderation that Ajax lacked.

    If this is a play in part about honor, then the two competing duties Sophocles examines here are what a man owes himself and what he owes to his family. I would say in general from the little I know about Greek tragedy that the warring requirements of the private person and the public one is one of its regular and very moving themes. In this play Ajax is disgraced and wants to end a life that has lost public honor, but he has another duty, to stay alive to guard his child and that child’s mother. Teucer will watch over them, but Ajax’s death nevertheless puts them at greater risk, and if he is not alive to serve his side in this war any longer, that makes defeat and his family’s enslavement only more likely. Tecmessa gets put in her place sharply, yes, but she would not be the first wife to barked at because her husband knew she had a point. I think Ajax rebukes her in an attempt to overmaster his grief at her coming danger, and to hide his acknowledgement that she is also arguing from right. He does admit pity for her in that (for him) strange speech starting at 644, in which he speaks in code (at least I think that is what he is doing) about his coming death, perhaps to fool Tecmessa and the chorus so that they leave him alone so he can go find it. But if there weren’t a good argument for him continuing to live, despite what he has done, or if living was just a weak woman’s argument, why would the chorus entreat him to moderate his humiliation? Or the seer say that he has a chance at life, if his brother can just keep him in his tent for this one day of his greatest despair–a prediction which seems to imply it would be right for Ajax to keep breathing? In this dilemma is his tragedy. It is turned, finally, to some good because in his suffering and suicide–the immoderate choice–there is a nobility that changes Odysseus’ heart and ends the enmity between the two families. Whether that was Athena’s intent is an open question, for me–