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Sophocles' Ajax Homeric Elements Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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From a Homeric hero to an Attic one; how have Homer's Troy and its values been reshaped and reconfigured in the Ajax? What happens to Ajax over the course of the play?
It has been said that Homer is the epic Sophocles and Sophocles is the tragic Homer; the Ajax certainly supports this with the many Homeric values and characters are present in some form throughout the play. Ajax was one of the great heroes of the Iliad but by the fifth century he was still deeply respected by the Athenians since he was one of the ten cult heroes on whom the tribal system was based. Demosthenes says that Ajax's love of honour and suicidal aversion to disgrace spurred on the military exploits of his military tribe; this seems to be a response to the character in the Sophocles play, but his representation of Ajax strongly reflects many of Homer's heroes. One of the concepts fundamental to the world of Homer's Troy is that of charis; this is the foundation of the reciprocal relationship between heroes which Agamemnon foolishly ruptures and causes Achilles to withdraw from the fighting. The aggrieved hero complains in book nine that charis was not forthcoming for all the fighting he was doing on behalf of the Greeks and that he deserved more recognition since their success was largely based on his exploits. The importance of this concept is not lost in Sophocles; for example Tecmessa tells Ajax when trying to convince him not to commit suicide that, "a man should remember, should some pleasure come his way; for it is always one kindness that begets another, and if a man allows the memory of a kindness to slip away, he can no longer be counted noble." The word she uses for kindness is "charis charin" and she is asking Ajax not to break their mutual bond of care and responsibility which is the basis of their relationship as hero and his concubine. She says that if he kills himself then she will be abandoned to a life of slavery since she will have no other man to protect her, this would betray the understood agreement that he would defend her presumably in return for her performing her 'womanly function' in the tent. The character of Odysseus is also important for the understanding of the role of charis in Sophocles' Ajax since he is shown extending it to the dead man who, when alive, was his bitterest enemy. He begs Agamemnon to bury Ajax because even though they were enemies he cannot deny that he was valiant, "It is unjust to injure a noble man, if he is dead, and even if it happens that you hate him." Odysseus here calls to mind the greatest act of pity and respect in the whole Iliad, Achilles' magnanimity towards Priam with regards to the body of Hector; in both cases charis is given to enemy when it need not have been. On the other hand the notion of reciprocity centred around charis is expressed most fully in the Iliad by Sarpedon when talking to his compatriot Glaucus; he says that they are given the best food and plentiful drink at the feasts but only on the proviso that they fight amongst the front ranks and be willing to give their lives in defence of their homes. Their community honours them as a means of defending itself, if the heroes no longer defend it then all that the community did for them has been for nothing and in essence they have betrayed the system. It is necessary to understand this Homeric conception in order to fully

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