The ambivalent heroism of Ajax in the Odes of Pindar.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
Ajax appears throughout Greek literature as a hero whose downfall is at odds with his heroic credibility. Ajax is celebrated among the best of the Homeric heroes, but the narratives of his suicide in the lost parts of the Epic Cycle suggest that his heroism was sharply scrutinised even in early literature. Pindar and Sophocles take up these lost narratives of the Epic Cycle and present Ajax in a state of failure, in the aftermath of the hoplōn krisis (the judgement for the arms of Achilles). Sophocles’ Ajax explores the complexities of Ajax’s heroism and characterises him with blindness, φθόνος (envy) and disease. These tropes, alongside ineloquence, appear as major shortfalls in Ajax’s character throughout the Epic Cycle, possibly in Aeschylus’ lost play Hoplōn Krisis and in later speech narratives of Antisthenes, Ovid and Quintus Smyrnaeus. Pindar’s three major Ajax narratives in Nemean 7, Isthmian 4 and Nemean 8 also address blindness, φθόνος and ineloquence, but scholars have largely associated blindness and φθόνος in particular with the antagonists of Ajax’s downfall such as Odysseus and the Greek army. Instead I argue that these tropes identify character weaknesses in Ajax himself and thus present him as a more ambivalent hero than just the good and truthful antithesis of his enemies. Pindar’s use of blindness, φθόνος and ineloquence therefore answer to and anticipate Ajax’s ambivalent heroism in surrounding literature. In addition, I compare Ajax to athletes such as Kleomedes of Astypalaia and Dioxippus of Athens, who exhibited similar character weaknesses, succumbed to dishonour and failed to reintegrate into their social communities. In doing so I suggest that Pindar uses the ambivalence and downfall of Ajax in the epinician context to represent the archetype of the mytho-historical hero-athlete.
Current scholarship on Pindar’s Ajax narratives tends to focus on the external factors that drive Ajax’s downfall such as Odysseus, the Greeks, φθόνος and πάρφασις (deceptive speech). I outline the extent of this focus in my literature review below. Emphasis on the antagonism of Odysseus in particular has led to widespread dismissal of Ajax’s characterisation, who is merely perceived as the good, dishonoured victim of Odysseus’ actions. Scholars have viewed Pindar’s desire to correct Ajax’s dishonour as evidence for his personal favouritism towards Ajax. This lasting idea of favouritism in Pindaric scholarship is particularly significant for its counter-intuitiveness to Elroy Bundy’s pivotal thesis in 1962, which states that Pindar’s primary motive in each of his odes was to praise the athletic victor above any “personal preoccupations” that he may have had towards his historic or mythical subjects.3 Scholars’ lack of interest in the characterisation of Ajax specifically is problematic firstly because the narratives are primarily about Ajax’s fate. Secondly, Ajax’s weaknesses that lead to his downfall in Pindar’s narratives – namely his own blindness, for which I suggest is apparent in Nemean 7, and his ineloquence in Nemean 8 – can tell us a great deal about the way wider ancient literature characterised Ajax and the way audiences perceived him.
Φθόνος is a major theme in Pindar’s odes and it is widely discussed in Pindaric scholarship. It is a dangerous force for athletic victors whose remarkable achievements are particularly prone to attracting the φθόνος of others. Scholars have thus viewed it as one of Pindar’s most pressing concerns.4 As part of my argument I explore the extent to which Ajax’s weaknesses allow φθόνος to infect him within the Nemean 8 narrative. Up to this point, the connection between Ajax and φθόνος remains under-explored, as scholars have largely associated φθόνος in Nemean 8 only with Odysseus and the Greeks. But Pindar heavily relies on Ajax’s weakness, being ἄγλωσσος (ineloquent, speechless), to warn athletes about the dangerous nature of φθόνος. The similarities between Ajax and Dioxippus of Athens, who likewise succumbs to the dangers of φθόνος through his own weaknesses and resorts to suicide, suggest that Ajax’s ambivalences may have had a lasting effect on later stories of hero-athletes.5 But there are no in-depth studies on the similarities between Ajax and such stories. I see this as a major oversight considering the extent of the similarities, especially since Pindar was active around the same time as many of these athletes, and so the hero-athlete archetype would have been prominent in fifth century BCE athletic culture.6
There is an opportunity, therefore, to carry out a comprehensive study on the characterisation of Ajax in the odes in order to decipher Pindar’s purpose for Ajax as an ambivalent hero. My predominant aim for this thesis is to bring to light the character weaknesses such as φθόνος, blindness, ineloquence and disease that support Ajax’s ambivalent heroism in Pindar’s narratives, and consequently show how these weaknesses feed into the major character shortfalls that other ancient authors associate with Ajax. In turn, comparisons between Ajax’s ambivalence and that of mytho-historical hero-athletes can provide insight into Pindar’s exact purpose for Ajax in the epinician context.
In order to achieve my aim, I provide my own readings of the three main odes of Pindar that address the Ajax narrative: Nemean 7, Isthmian 4 and Nemean 8. I then apply these readings to the wider scope of Greek literature and particular narratives of hero-athletes in order to identify similar thematic tropes. I focus specifically on the characterisation of Ajax, as opposed to his constant rival Odysseus, in an attempt to counterbalance the amount of scholarship that has previously been weighted towards Odysseus’ role and characterisation. At times I also read Pindar’s Ajax narratives collectively, in the sense that there can only be so much differentiation in a poet’s view and treatment of a single myth or mythical figure. Pindar is far from consistent in his meaning and use of myths and figures, as shall be made apparent in this thesis, but I shall argue that the concept of Ajax as an ambivalent hero remains consistent throughout the odes.
In chapter one of this thesis I introduce early characterisations of Ajax within the Epic Cycle, especially in Homer’s Iliad, which provides the most extant material on the character and achievements of Ajax prior to the hoplōn krisis. These early characterisations shall support the points that I then make in chapters two and three in my readings of Pindar’s three major Ajax narratives. In chapter two I explore the narrative ambiguities in Nemean 7 and Isthmian 4 that allude to blindness in Ajax and the Greeks’ blame towards him. These weaknesses support my points in chapter three, in which φθόνος can be seen to infect Ajax by way of his detrimental weakness of being ἄγλωσσος. In chapter four I explore the Ajax narrative in Aeschylus’ Hoplōn Krisis and Sophocles’ Ajax, reviewing the presentations of disease and potential allusions to φθόνος. I conclude chapter four with a vital review of Antisthenes’ statement that φθόνος is the specific disease of Ajax. I explore how this may be the explicit point that proves Pindar, Sophocles and Aeschylus’ earlier implications about φθόνος as a disease-like quality. Finally in chapter five I explore the narratives of hero-athletes and scholars’ athletic journey models such as the nostos loop in order to suggest that Pindar uses Ajax to represent a hero of social reintegration failure, comparable to the failure of hero-athletes.7 I begin first though with a review of the major problems and gaps in current scholarship, which will allow me to outline the extent of my opportunity to fill the lack of in-depth analysis on the character and significance of Ajax within Pindar’s narratives.