Homer’s Ajax

The relevance that the themes of tragedy could have to issues affecting the
city-state even in plays whose plots had ostensibly nothing to do with life in a
polis shows up clearly in Sophocles’ play entitled Ajax, presented in the early
440s B.C. The play bore the name of the second-best warrior (Achilles had been
preeminent) in the Greek army that besieged Troy in the Trojan War. When his
fellow Greek soldiers voted to award the armor of the dead Achilles to the wily
Odysseus instead of himself, Ajax went on a berserk rampage against his former
friends which the goddess Athena thwarted because Ajax had once rejected her
help in battle. Disgraced by his failure to secure revenge Ajax committed
suicide. Odysseus then stepped in to convince the Greek chiefs to bury Ajax
despite his attempted treachery because the future security of the army and the
obligations of friendship demanded that they obey the divine injunction always
to bury the dead. Odysseus’ arguments in favor of burying Ajax anachronistically
treat the army as if it were a polis, and his use of persuasive speech to
achieve accommodation of conflicting individual interests to the benefit of the
community corresponds to the way in which disputes in the polis were supposed to
be resolved.