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Ajax carrying the dead Achilles on a black figure vase from Athens in the 500s BC

Ajax in the Iliad carrying the dead Achilles

He brought back the body of Achilles

Ajax was one of the great heroes of the Trojan War. He was the king of Salamis, near AthensHomer says Ajax was a very big and strong man. Only his cousin Achilles, who he had gone to school with, was a better fighter. When Achilles was killed, Ajax rescued his body.

The story of the Trojan War
A summary of the Iliad
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Ajax kills himself (Vase by Exekias, ca. 540 BC)

Ajax kills himself (Vase by Exekias, ca. 540 BC)

Then he went crazy

But afterwards, since he had gotten Achilles’ body, Ajax thought he should get Achilles’ armor as a reward. When the Greeks decided to give the armor to Odysseus instead, Ajax went crazy and killed a whole flock of sheep, thinking they were Greeks. Ajax thought he was killing Odysseus and Agamemnon.

It’s a great story, because it shows how this mental illness, this psychosis, which was completely not Ajax’s fault, was so terrible.

Who was Odysseus?
Who was Agamemnon?

Then Ajax killed himself

When Ajax realized what he had done, he was so ashamed that he killed himself by fixing his sword upright in the ground and then throwing himself on it. So that’s even worse: not just the tragedy of psychosis, but the shame piled on top of it, that led him to kill himself.

Even later on, when Odysseus visited the underworld, Ajax’s ghost was so ashamed that he wouldn’t speak to Odysseus.

More about the Greek underworld

I love this Greek vase showing the suicide, because it creates such a feeling of tension. You don’t see Ajax killing himself. He’s not really doing anything much: kneeling down, fixing his sword in the ground so that it points upward. He’s taken off his armor and piled it up next to him, so he’s naked. But if you know the story, you know that the next thing he does is to fall on his sword and die. It’s so sad, but it doesn’t show the bloody part – it leaves that for you to imagine.

Note: This guy is not the same Ajax that raped Cassandra (that’s Ajax the Lesser).

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More about the Iliad

Bibliography and further reading about Ajax:

The Iliad of Homer (Oxford Myths and Legends), by Barbara Leonie Picard. A retelling of the story.

The Iliad (Penguin Classics) by Homer. Translated by Robert Fagles. A great translation!

Approaches to Teaching Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, by Kostas Myrsiades (1987).

A summary of the Iliad
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