The Bucket List Book Adventure: Book 11 - Ajax

Dear Henry,

Book 11, Sophocles's Ajax, of the Bucket List Book Adventure (read about that here), is done! Let me tell you all about it.
It is thought that Ajax is the oldest of Sophocles's seven surviving plays and that it was written sometime between 450 BC to 430 BC. The rest of the play's history, including when it was first performed at the Festival of Dionysus, is unknown.

The Greek warrior Ajax was the son of King Telamon and Periboea and a grandson of the god Zeus. He was always described as a physically powerful man trained by the Centaur Chiron and second only to Achilles in skill. He fought Hector twice, with both fights ending in a draw (Zeus had aided Hector), and finally, Ajax was the one who won the battle to get the body of Patrocles back from the Trojans. Ajax also fought with Odysseus to get Achilles's body back after Achilles was killed by Paris. It was this joint mission that caused problems because both men felt they deserved to have the armor made by the god Hephaestus that Achilles was wearing when he died. Odysseus, aided by Athena, was the better speaker at the war council and won the armor.  

To say Ajax lost his mind is an understatement.

The play opens outside  Ajax's tent. There are corpses of dead animals everywhere, and  Athena tells Odysseus how she had created the illusion that the army's herds are the Greek army and its commanders. Some animals are inside the tent, one of which Ajax is currently torturing, believing it to be Odysseus. Eventually, Ajax realizes that he is torturing cows and goats and that he behaved very badly and decides to do what every well-mannered Greek warrior would do after doing something so shameful, which is to end his life.

His wife, Tecmessa, daughter of Teleutas, whom Ajax had stolen after he ransacked her father's kingdom, begged him not to. Ajax appears to relent and heads outside to clean his sword.

Of course, immediately after Ajax leaves, a messenger named Calchas appears with the prophecy that he would die if Ajax leaves the tent.

And he did. Ajax threw himself on his sword, cursing Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, and the rest of the Greek army.  

Menelaus and Agamemnon both feel that Ajax should be left to the vultures and refuse to let Teucer, Ajax's half-brother, bury him, but Odysseus insists. Teucer finally buries him and takes his son, Eurysaces, and his sword to Salamis Island and his father, Telamon. I'm not sure what happened to Tecmessa, the wife/hostage of Ajax. Neither the play nor the legend mentions her again.

First and foremost, this play is an excellent example of how not to behave when you lose.

There was something else I noticed: Ajax, despite being the grandson of Zeus, didn't seem to have any patron among the gods, and during one battle in the Iliad, he ignored the gods' advice completely. And was bested by less capable men who actively sought the divine. One can almost see a correlation between the behavior of Ajax during the Trojan War and the hubris of the "self-made man" of modernity.

This play is also the only one that offers Odysseus any redemption. As I've mentioned before, in my posts on The Odyssey and Philoctetes, I'm not a big fan of Odysseus and have always thought he sacrificed a significant number of people to get what he wanted, but, in this play, his insistence upon Ajax's burial, because it was the right thing to do, and despite heavy resistance, is noteworthy. 

Still, this play wasn't one of my favorites. It was pretty dark, and I'm a little upset that no one knows what happened to Tecmessa, although I suspect she was passed along to another commander in the Greek army. 

Next book up, the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. I'll let you know what I think soon.

xoxo a.d. elliott 


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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