An Introduction to Ajax the Polis Hero

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In Sophocles’ ‘Ajax’, Ajax possesses many qualities of the heroic ideal and some less desirable qualities as a hero.  Ajax is mostly known for his physical strength and military prowess as recounted by Odysseus in Sophocles after Ajax’s death.  Wilson assesses Sophocles’ Ajax as courageous and self reliant which can also be attributed to the heroic ideal, it can be evaluated from Sophocles that Ajax was a man of few words.  It can be observed from ‘Ajax’ 670-83 that though blunt in speech, Ajax had certain “clarity of insight” which also asserts wisdom of sorts that can be attributed to Ajax as a hero; he can be seen as the Sophoclean hero who has gained wisdom through experience.  However, Ajax can also be assesses as proud and boastful, also he becomes angry and unpredictable when he loses Achilles’ armour which are much less desirable qualities.

In order to assess Ajax’s feelings we must look at the definitions of shame and guilt.  The OED defines shame as “a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by awareness of wrong behaviour, loss or respect or esteem” and guilt as the recognition of wrongdoing.  An assessment of Ajax’s behaviour does indicate that he does feel shame and guilt in Sophocles, as agreed by Platzner and Harris. However, Wilson asserts that Ajax thinks primarily of himself and maintaining heroic status.  This suggests that it may not be shame and guilt that Ajax is feeling in the sense of feeling sorry for his actions, but arrogance in that he is first concerned with his image as a hero and his loss of honour, instead of the damage he did.  Ajax may have felt shame and guilt but this seems to be primarily concerning his loss of honour and heroic reputation.

 Ajax can be seen as similar to Homer’s Achilles.  Homer represents Achilles as larger that life, a superman type figure; this can also be said of Sophocles’ Ajax.  Pausanias describes how angry Ajax became at being dishonoured concerning Achilles’ armour; this concern for personal honour is also seen in Homer’s Achilles in his feeling relating to Agamemnon.  This suggests that both characters possess a great sense of glory and honour as their first and foremost priorities.  Both heroes also seem to have a great loyalty to one another as seen in black figure pottery of them playing games together. Another similarity is the idea of invulnerability as displayed in some texts.  There are also differences between the two characters.  Ajax in Sophocles refuses the gods for example where as Achilles has a sense of piety, Achilles unlike Ajax, choice the more honourable death.

 Plato explains the importance of every community to have a hero; Ajax can be assessed as a hero of the polis in the manner of him being the local hero and of family ancestry in both Salamis and Athens.  An assessment of these traits in relation to the importance before expressed by Plato, Ajax became a polis hero.  Hesiod explains how the Heroes of the Polis defended it.  This suggests that Ajax was a hero for the Polis because he would defend it, however, this can be seen as an example of mutual obligation between the people and the hero, Ajax was interested in honour, by honouring him, the people of the polis were thought to be protected. Ajax is a polis hero as he is a representation of defence and power that would help to protect it, Ajax’s strength and fighting ability is seen in Attic red figure pottery.

 

Bibliography

Adams, S.M, The “Ajax” of Sophocles, Phoenix, Vol 9 no 3 (1955) pp. 93-110

Evelyn, H.G, Hesiod, Works and Days, University Press, London, William Heinemann Ltd.159-169

Green, P. A Concise History of Ancient Greece, Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 44-47

Harris, S.L. and Platzner, G. (2001), Classical Mythology, Images and Insights, Third Edition, Mayfield Publishing, California, pp. 797

Homer, Iliad, Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, Book 1

Jebb R.C, Sophocles 7, Cambridge (1907) xii

Kerenyi, C. (1997), The Heroes of the Greeks, Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 319-330

Knox, B.M.W, The Ajax of Sophocles, Harvard studies in classical philology (1961), Vol 65 pp.1-37

Millard A, Ancient Greece, Usborne Publishing, London, pp. 36

Oxford English Dictionary

Pausanias 1.35.3, Translated by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Oremrod, Heinemann, London

R.G. Bury, Plato’s Laws, Harvard University Press, London, William Heinemann Ltd. 738d

Sophocles, Ajax, Translated by R.C. Trevelyan London, G. Allen and Unwin (1919)

Tzetze, On Lycrphon 455-461

Wilson J.P, The Hero and the City, University of Michigan Press, America, pp.60, 176, 179-185

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