BMCR 2024.02.34

Telamonian Ajax: the myth in Archaic and Classical Greece

, Telamonian Ajax: the myth in Archaic and Classical Greece. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780198864769.



Bocksberger’s goal in this monograph, based on her PhD research at the University of Oxford, is to investigate the developments and transitions in Ajax’s myth and to understand these dynamics through literary, historical, and iconographical analyses. The chronological scope is limited to the archaic and classical periods, with the author’s reasons for such a timespan clearly stated in the introduction. The whole project is ambitious, and the final effect deserves much praise, resulting, in fact, in the most complex and successful treatment of the hero’s Gesta to date. Bocksberger’s claims and arguments are well-stated, original, and, much of the time, seem highly persuasive. She sheds new light on some complexities of the hero’s representations in art and literature and the role the hero played in the political lives of the Athenian and Aeginetan milieux.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first, entitled ‘Ajax from Salamis,’ is, in essence, the search for a pre-Homeric depiction(s) of the hero. Here, Bocksberger’s argument concerns some elements and motifs which, as she convincingly argues, had to have been established before the composition of the Homeric poems. She sets the stage with a brief discussion of the possible Mycenaean origins of the hero. She leaves the question open but raises relevant arguments which point to the hero’s great antiquity. Next, Bocksberger moves to the earliest iconographical representations of the hero from the Archaic period. She argues that even before the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey we can discern two prominent motifs associated with Ajax: his invulnerability and the tradition of his and Athena’s eventual animosity. The notion of Ajax as an invulnerable hero is visible in Herodotus’ and Pindar’s accounts, but what makes Bocksberger’s study truly interesting is the evidence she brings to argue that also the Homeric poems have been influenced by this motif. Worth mentioning are also Bocksberger’s remarks on the otherwise left-in-the-shadow reasons behind Ajax’s and Athena’s conflict, as well as the discussion on the motif of Ajax’s suicide, which she convincingly argues is also pre-Homeric. The suicide story would be even more meaningful when we consider it a convenient way to make the invulnerable hero meet his end at Troy. Bocksberger opts as well for the interpretation that both Ajaxes (Telamonian and Oilean) stem from one mythological character, as they share suspiciously similar and, at the same time, distinctive characteristics. Another valid observation is that the Iliads poet perhaps consciously diminishes Ajax’s role in the poem to give Achilles even more space and credit.[1] All these arguments seem well in line with the literary aims of the Iliad as I see it, which, at least for me, strengthens the persuasiveness of these analyses.

In the second chapter, Bocksberger analyzes the hero’s representation in the Aeginetan milieu, concentrating on the period between the establishment of democracy in Athens and its subjugation of Aegina. Bocksberger’s thesis is, to put it simply, that retellings of Ajax’s deeds and the appropriation of the hero were highly relevant in the rivalry between Athens and Aegina in this period. She claims that in Pindar’s and Bacchylides’ epinikia composed for Aeginetan patrons, the figure of Ajax serves on multiple occasions as a symbolic representation of Aeginetans. The stories of Telamon’s and Ajax’s fight against Trojans are so presented to mirror the Aeginetans’ efforts in the clash with the Persian invaders. According to this view, the hero’s representation and actions were shaped in concordance with the temporary goals of the propaganda of the Aeginetans, who sought to represent themselves as a worthy (if not supreme) force in Greece. So, looking at the epinikia, she points out the emphasis on Ajax’s and the Aecidae’s connections to the island, which are, in her opinion, a response to recent Athenian actions. Athenians had been highlighting the hero’s relationships with their city and the island of Salamis, where they seized control. Bocksberger accurately opts for the historicity of tradition concerning awarding the aristeia (prize for bravery) to the Aeginetans after the battle of Salamis. She rightly observes that the discrepancies in Herodotus’ account came from the fact that he was partially influenced by the sources, which were the product of Athenian propaganda, which tried to diminish the role of Aeginetans. However, he still got access to the accounts unbiased by this perspective and reported that the Aeginetans were considered to have fought most bravely in this battle. Bocksberger states that the Athenian policy of being the leading force in the anti-Persian struggle in the following years resulted in overshadowing or even denying the glory that the Hellenes gave Aeginetans after Salamis.  Perhaps the most spectacular use of the hero’s agenda in this rivalry is, as Bocksberger argues, embedded in the retellings of the story of the conflict over the arms of deceased Achilles in which Ajax and Odysseus competed against each other (so-called ὅπλων κρίσις). So, in the retellings of the story about Ajax’s denied aristeia (which differ significantly from the previous ones), Pindar was able, in a very artful manner, to present the Aeginetans as the true heroes who are denied their deserved glory (this is most visible in Nemean 7 and 8). Accordingly, the Athenians will then reflect the figure of Odysseus, who (in this version of the story), through treachery, is awarded the unearned (or even stolen) praise.

The final chapter deals with the hero’s representation in Athens. It begins with a brief discussion of Ajax’s entries in early hexameter catalogues and their impact on shaping the hero’s legacy. Here, Bocksberger follows a relatively widespread view that the form of Ajax’s entry in the Iliadic Catalogue of Ships is, presumably, a manipulation from the times of Pisistratids. If so, she notes, someone behind these changes aimed to hide connections to Aegina and show Ajax’s close relations with Athenians instead; for sure, very little was added, so the matter of what is missing – what the interpolator cut out – is especially significant.[2] These considerations are followed by the investigation of Ajax’s more straightforward links to Athenian politics: his representation as the ancestor of the Philaidae (i.a., in the political advertising of Miltiades and Cimon) and of being the eponymous hero of the tribe of Aiantis (a unique case when the hero is a non-Athenian, an outsider). The next piece of evidence discussed by Bocksberger is Aeschylus’ tetralogy on Ajax (or, as she aptly argues, on the Aeacidae). Especially welcome are the author’s reflections on the Thracian Women. She argues that the piece was, in fact, a satyr play, and she accurately shows in it some “satyrical” elements like the unsuccessful suicide.[3] The final section of this chapter deals with Sophocles’ Ajax. After vividly summarizing this play’s influence on the hero’s representation in the later tradition, Bocksberger moves to her central argument. She states that “three distinct paradigms of Ajax co-existed by the end of the first half of the fifth century”: Ajax as a: A) self-sufficient, B) blameless, and C) failed hero, and they all impact the Sophoclean rendering of the character. Bocksberger directs our attention to how the poet represents all these patterns and how, by giving voice to various characters and their different points of view, he gives us an even more ambivalent version of the story. She argues that Ajax’s most unique and problematic quality is central to the play’s dramatic and ethical dynamics: his self-sufficiency. This quality makes his interaction with the religious and social system highly complex and ambivalent. According to this view, Sophocles, as Bocksberger puts it, has “managed to juxtapose all [three main] paradigms, without giving preference to any of them”. This analysis of the plays, although tending overly to systematize its subject matter through artificially selected motifs (this seems to be an excessive tendency of the author), points, in fact, to some valid observations on Sophocles’ poetic art.

The author’s scholarship deserves much praise as the book is highly original and insightful. A few points of criticism should, however, be raised. It is best to begin with the author’s rather vaguely stated attitude towards the Homeric Question. Bocksberger’s method and analysis depend strongly on the treatment of the Homeric poems. Jasper Griffin’s observation that the Homeric poems, and especially the Iliad, tend to avoid any wondrous or fantastic elements, which, on the other hand, were common in the Cycle Epics, has a programmatic importance for Bocksberger’s.[4] Nevertheless, this perspective seems valid only if we accept Griffin’s idea of the poems and consider the Iliad a coherent literary creation.[5] Elsewhere, however, it is Jonathan Burgess and Gregory Nagy whom Bocksberger presents as the ones who have influenced her perspectives on the epic tradition the most. However, their perspectives (neoanalytic or diachronical, as we may call them) are often incompatible with Griffin’s model. In fact, Nagy argues against Griffin’s views on the poems in one of his books.[6]. Burgess remains hesitant about why Homeric poems have relatively few supernatural elements. Griffin’s perspective is, in fact, a challenge to the views on the Homeric poems presented by scholars like Nagy and Burgess.[7] All this does not necessarily mean that the author’s position is discrepant. However, the reader is left in the dark about understanding some of the author’s statements and according to what assumptions one should follow her analysis. The fact that Bocksberger’s views on the subject are hard to unravel denies the reader the possibility of following her argument comprehensibly and critically. Another questionable issue is Bocksberger’s (unstated but clear) supposition that iconographic evidence concerning Ajax has to be based solely on epic poetry. In her analysis, it is as if every visual representation corresponds to some episode narrated in the hexameter poetry. That, however, is a risky, if not inaccurate, supposition. We must be aware that heroic deeds could have been transmitted through other (and not exclusively poetic) media.[8] A similar sort of oversimplification is visible in Bocksberger’s treatment of the history of the reception of the Homeric poems in the Archaic Period, which concentrates exclusively on the presumed lack of narrative influence of the Homeric Poems in the iconographic and literary evidence of the time. The question of the possible stylistic impact of the Homeric art on poets earlier than Pindar (who, as Bocksberger acknowledges, avoids retelling stories from Homer, but was surely a great admirer of his poetry) remains left out[9]. I would also like to note, given the general importance of the topic, that Boscksberger’s views on τιμή which do not take into account recent studies on the subject conducted by a group of scholars from the University of Edinburgh, which, although perfectly understandable given the recent date of these publications, makes her analysis on the subject slightly outdated[10].

Occasionally there are some minor incoherences or confusions: e.g., on pages 67-70, Bocksberger argues that it is highly possible that in Ilias Parva, Ajax had killed the Achaean cattle and that he had done it consciously. However, on page 198, note 294, Bocksberger writes that she argued above that the motif of the cattle massacre was absent from the epic and was inserted by Proclus under the influence of Sophocles’ Ajax. The book is well illustrated (although unfortunately only in black and white), which helps the reader consult the iconographical evidence. The few maps included in this edition will benefit a general reader. There are three detailed indexes (an index of Greek words, a locorum, and a general one). However, it must be noted that there are some errors and omissions. In the index locorum on pages 76-7, where, according to the index should be a reference to the Pythian 1, there is nothing on the subject. Also, on one of the pages mentioned above (77), we find a reference to Paean 6, which is not included under the appropriate entry in the index. Typographical errors and misspellings are only incidental (e.g., he instead of she on page 67). None of this detracts from the fact that the book is a significant achievement. The final effect is the best overview of the complicated history of representing Telamonian Ajax in Archaic and Classical Greece, presumably for years to come.



[1] Bocksberger argues that Ajax’s Aeacid lineage has to be pre-Homeric as well. The Iliad’s puzzling silence on the hero’s ancestry is explained by the poet’s aim to not distract his audience from the main hero – Achilles, as well as the presumable pruning of Ajax’s entry in the Catalogue of Ships during the poem’s transmission.

[2] Bocksberger is right to point out that the original entry had to be longer and contain at least some references to the hero’s ancestry and the lands under his rule.

[3] As to the presumable lack of satyrs in the play, Bocksberger baffles this argument and points to the Nurses of Dionysus, unambiguously a satyr play, where traditionally satyrs’ role is taken by a chorus of women.

[4] Bocksberger (following Griffin) is reading the Iliad as a poetic composition that tends deliberately to exclude what is fantastic. See pp: 43, 53, 75.

[5] “The fantastic, the miraculous, and the romantic, all exceeded in the Cycle the austere limits to which the Iliad confines them, notes Griffin. Cf. ‘The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer’, in JHS 97 (1977), p. 40.

[6] Gregory Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. (Baltimore & London 1990), p. 72 n.99

[7] Cf. Jonathan Burgess, The tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the epic cycle. (Baltimore 2001), p. 169.

[8] Cf. Richard Buxton’s insightful remarks in his Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology. (Cambridge 1994) pp. 18-21. See also Thomas Carpenter’s remark: “To be comprehensible, most images of myth depend on prior knowledge of the event depicted, but from the images themselves, it is rarely possible to determine precisely what the sources of that prior knowledge may have been. Archaic images can tell when and where a story was known, but they cannot tell how it was known. Even when a text exists (e.g., Iliad), it is not possible to move confidently from an image to a text, much less so when all that survives are fragments of texts or summaries”. Cf. p. 178 of Thomas H. Carpenter “The Trojan War in early Greek art”, Chapter 10 in: Marco Fantuzzi, Christos Tsagalis, The Greek Epic Cycle and Its Ancient Reception: A Companion. (Cambridge 2015).

[9] For the recent and very balanced overview on the question of the Homeric poems’ popularity and impact among the early archaic poets see Lawrence Kim’s section on ‘Homer in Antiquity’ in: Corinne Ondine Pache (ed.) (2020) The Cambridge Guide to Homer.

[10] Some of the research on the subject of ancient Greek τιμή was presented by Mirko Canevaro (who runs the project together with Douglas Cairns) in the series of four seminars presented in autumn 2022 at l’EHESS in Paris. Preliminary studies exploring the issue are: Mirko Canevaro, “I diritti come spazio di socialità: la timē tra diritto e dovere”. in: A. Camerotto & F. Pontatni (eds.) Dike. Ovvero della giustizia tra l’Olimpo e la terra. p. 157-177 (Milano-Udine 2020), Douglas Cairns, Mirko Canevaro & Kleanthis Mantzouranis, “Recognition and Redistribution in Aristotle’s Account of Stasis” in Polis 39.1: 1-34. (2022). On the project see here.