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Ajax: Exploring the Anguish of War in Ancient Greece

Ajax
The suicide of Ajax. Etrurian calyx-crater c. 400-350-BC. Public Domain

Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, about a triumphant Greek hero of the Trojan War who was driven to suicide, powerfully explores the anguish of war.

It also deals with the searing challenges that soldiers face when coming home from war, whether they are safe and sound, or injured.

Along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ajax — Aias in Greek — probes the accounts of wars and their consequences, a theme which is at the very foundation of western culture and society.

Ajax is a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, one of the earliest of his seven tragedies that have survived. It was most likely performed in 442 or 441 BC when Sophocles was 55 years old.

The plot of Ajax

After the great warrior Achilles has been killed in battle, Ajax feels he should be given his armor as he is now considered the greatest Greek warrior.

However, the two kings Agamemnon and Menelaus, award the armor to Odysseus instead, which makes Ajax so furious that he decides to kill them.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, interferes and deludes Ajax; instead of killing the two kings, he is to kill the spoil of the Greek army, which includes cattle as well as the herdsmen.

Ajax then slaughters the animals and the herdsmen, but suddenly comes to his senses and realizes what he has done.

Overwhelmed by shame, he decides to kill himself. But his concubine, Tecmessa, pleads for him not to leave her and their child, Eurysaces, unprotected.

Tormented, Ajax gives his son his shield, and leaves them, saying that he is going out to purify himself and to bury the sword given to him by Hector.

Now, Teucer, Ajax’s half-brother, enters the scene. Teucer has learned from the soothsayer Calchas that Ajax should not be allowed to leave his tent until the end of the day or he will die.

Tecmessa and the soldiers then try to find Ajax, but they are tragically too late. The war hero has indeed buried his sword – but by impaling himself upon it.

Before his suicide, Ajax calls for vengeance against the sons of Menelaus and Agamemnon and the whole Greek army.

Teucer orders that Ajax’s son be brought to him so that he will be safe from his foes. Menelaus appears and orders the body not to be moved.

An angry dispute follows regarding what to do with Ajax’s body. Agamemnon and Menelaus want to leave the body unburied for scavengers to ravage, while Ajax’s half-brother Teucer wants to bury it honorably.

Odysseus arrives and persuades Agamemnon and Menelaus to allow the war hero a proper funeral. The warrior points out that even one’s enemies deserve respect in death. The play then ends with Teucer making arrangements for the burial.

Ajax
Ajax prepares his sword to impale himself, as portrayed on an Attican black amphora by Exekias; 530-535 BC. Credit: Ptyx/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The psychological stages of the war hero

Sophocles pays special attention to the psychological stages the hero goes through: from madness to a rational state and the realization of a sad reality; and from there to rage and despair.

The Greek author shows a great knowledge of human psychology and presents to his audience the mental processes of traumatized soldiers in a brilliant way.

In his first appearance, Ajax is possessed by mania. The ancient Greeks were well aware of mental disorders, categorizing some as “mania”, “menos”, “estrus” and “rage” to describe the wide scope of anger, from righteous indignation all the way to insanity.

Those possessed by madness, or rage, could have delusions, irrational fears, temporary amnesia, and aggression, and execute violent acts — involving killing people and/or animals.

They also exhibit signs of alienation – including leaving their city and their social contacts, as well as experiencing physical disorders and depression.

There are modern models in psychology that define insanity; their counterparts can be easily found in antiquity.

Let us not forget that in the 5th century BC, the medicine of Hippocrates and his circle flourished in Athens.

Also, the miraculous medicine of the priests of Asclepius may have influenced the poetic depiction of the “mental disease” by ancient tragic poets. In such works written in the 5th century BC, mental diseases are due to exogenous forces.

Interpretation of mental illness by Greek tragedists

Since Homer, mental illness has been seen as interference of extra-human forces in human life that affect the thinking and behavior of the hero.

Sophocles, however, hints at the responsibility of the hero himself for his mental state. Ajax himself is responsible for the deadly attack against his enemies, not the goddess.

Athena actually interceded to prevent the murders. Also, when the hero returns to the rational state he decides to end his life consciously, without the intervention of any god.

At the end of the play, the hero redeems himself by committing suicide, and, consequently, the order is restored; however, this does not occur with divine aid, from Athena, but with the assistance of Odysseus, a mortal man.

In the hero’s tragedy, Sophocles attaches great importance to the human factor — without ignoring the divine.

Ajax’s madness seems to have its roots in the character of the hero himself, his war trauma, his fears, and his internal conflicts.

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