How a Classical Homer occasionally downgrades the heroic glory of Ajax in order to save it: Part 1

2021.05.24 | By Gregory Nagy

Part 1 of a three-part essay dedicated to Gloria Ferrari Pinney

§0. Here in Part 1 of a three-part essay, building on two previous essays posted in Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2021.05.10, linked here, and 2021.05.10, linked here), I follow up on the idea of a “Classical Homer,” that is, the Homer of “our” Iliad and Odyssey as reflected in the textual tradition that has survived down to our own time. The myths represented by this Homer of ours correspond, more rather than less, to the myths represented by vase-painters in Athens during the classical period, that is, roughly, in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and even later—as distinct from the far more varied myths represented by painters who lived in Athens and elsewhere during the preclassical period, that is, roughly, in the sixth century BCE and even earlier. These varied myths, as we have already seen in the previous two essays, correspond less rather than more to the myths of the “Classical Homer,” and such earlier versions of myths can be attributed, in all their multiformity, to an amorphous “Preclassical Homer” whose poetry transcends the more regulated repertoire of “our” Classical Homer. Since the multiform myths retold by an imagined Preclassical Homer, credited with epics that go far beyond the repertoire of “our” Iliad and Odyssey, are often mutually contradictory, such a poet can be faulted as a transmitter of pseudea or ‘falsehoods’, as we have seen in the poetics of Pindar, who blames such a Preclassical Homer as secondarily responsible for harming the epic glory of the hero Ajax, though Odysseus himself as a rival hero is held primarily responsible. And here is where that Classical Homer of ours can come to the rescue. Our Homer can save the glory of Ajax by omitting versions of myths that detract from his glory. But such omissions, as we will now see, can result in a downgrading of glories that shine more brightly in some preclassical versions of epic. A case in point is the omission, in “our” Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, of a myth about a game of dice that was played, once upon a time, by Ajax and another rival hero, Achilles himself. This myth is rendered by one of the greatest masters of preclassical Athenian painting, Exekias, and I show here a full view of the vase as graced by the painting. In what follows, I will argue that this myth stems from an epic tradition, and that it cannot be seen as an invention stemming exclusively from the visual arts of the preclassical period.

Attic black-figure amphora by Exekias: Ajax and Achilles playing a game, ca. 530–540 BCE. Vatican Museums, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, inv. no. 16757. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Attic black-figure amphora by Exekias: Ajax and Achilles playing a game, ca. 530–540 BCE. Vatican Museums, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, inv. no. 16757. Drawing from Adolf Furtwängler and Karl Reichhold, Griechische Vasenmalerei: Auswahl hervorragender Vasenbilder (Munich, 1904–1932), Series III, Pl. 131.

§1. Over six years ago, in Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2015.03.13, linked here), I posted a relevant essay titled “A roll of the dice for Ajax,” where I commented on this game of dice as represented in the painting by Exekias that I have just shown here—and as also represented in another painting that I showed in that same essay, with the permission of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In what follows, I now show again the image of that other painting, followed by a rewriting of six paragraphs in my earlier essay (I renumber the original §§1–6 there as §1.1–6 here):

Oil flask (lekythos) with Achilles, Ajax and Athena Greek, Archaic Period, about 500 B.C. Place of Manufacture: Greece, Attica, Athens Ceramic, Black Figure Height x diameter: 28.4 x 14.4 cm (11 3/16 x 5 11/16 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Catherine Page Perkins Fund 95.15

§1.1. This vase, housed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Krupp Gallery, 215A, Accession Number 95.15), is dated to 500 BCE or so and originates, like the vase painted by Exekias, from Athens. Once again we see the hero Ajax engaged in a board game involving the throwing of dice. He is playing against the hero Achilles, and the goddess Athena stands in the center of the picture, presiding over the dice throws that the two heroes make.

§1.2. The Greek lettering on the vase shows ΑΧΙΛΛΥΣ over the head of Achilles and ΑΙΑΣ over the head of Ajax. In front of Achilles is a vertical inscription ΤΕΤΑΡΑΦΕΡΟ, meaning ‘I have four’, while the inscription in front of Ajax shows ΔΥΟΦΕΡΟ, meaning ‘I have two’. The goddess Athena, indicated by the lettering ΑΘΕΝΑΑΣ to the right of her head, gestures toward Achilles. The winner is clearly Achilles, since he has the higher number for his throw of the dice.

§1.3. I now return to the slightly earlier painting by Exekias, which as I already said is dated around 540 or 530 BCE. As of now, this painting is the earliest attested picturing of Ajax and Achilles engaged in a board game that involves the throwing of dice, and in this case the Greek lettering indicates that the number of the throw made by Achilles is four while the number of the throw made by Ajax is three.

§1.4. Here too, the higher number goes to Achilles. Here too, Achilles is the winner, and Ajax is the loser. To say it in terms of our Homeric Iliad, Achilles is the best of the Achaeans, and Ajax is only the second best.

§1.5. The very idea of Ajax and Achilles engaged in a game of dice is nowhere to be found, however, in the verbal art of epic as dated to the classical period, that is, in the poetry of our Homer. Why, then, is such an idea very much alive, as we have just seen, in the visual art of paintings that date back to the preclassical period? It could be supposed, at first sight, that the practice of gaming by way of throwing dice is incompatible with epic as epic, so that the preclassical picturing of Ajax and Achilles in the act of throwing dice in a board game could be viewed as an early innovation in visual art—an innovation that would be supposedly incompatible with the verbal art of epic, in all its seriousness as exemplified by our Homer’s Classical epic. And yet, I have reason to think that the very idea of such a game is dead serious. The die is cast here—or, to say it in the plural, dice are thrown—to determine who wins and who loses in an all-out competition where everything is suddenly at stake. Such competitions are actually compatible with the seriousness of epic—and they are in fact a most ancient aspect of some other epic narratives that derive, like Greek, from poetic traditions that have been reconstructed as belonging to the overall language-family described as “Indo-European” in historical linguistics. I cite here just one obvious example. In the cognate epic traditions of the Mahābhārata, which is the oldest and largest epic of India (the canonical version contains about 100,000 lines of Sanskrit poetry), the playing of dice is at the core of the overall plot of the whole story. The hero Yudhiṣṭhira gambles away his kingship, all his possessions, and even his own self in a catastrophic dice game that is narrated in Mahābhārata 2.53–70, as noted by Kevin McGrath (2017:65n64) in his engaging book about Yudhiṣṭhira..

§1.6. So also in the visual art of ancient Greece, as exemplified by the two paintings we have considered, a comparable epic scene comes to life. With a throw of the dice, Ajax dooms himself to an eternity of angry frustration over losing a chance to become the best of the Achaeans.

§2. In his incisive study of myths about the Trojan War as retold in both the visual and the verbal arts of the ancient Greeks, Guy Hedreen (2001) highlights the heroic seriousness of Ajax and Achilles in the first of the two pictures we have considered, where the painter Exekias depicts a variety of special details about Ajax as the two heroes engage in their momentous dice game. As Hedreen notes (p. 97), such details include “furrowed brow, hunched-over posture, nervous leg, clenched fist”—all of which adds up to signal that “Ajax is losing the game,” and which will result in his demotion to the status of second-best of the Achaeans. In this case, as Hedreen also notes (again, p. 97), such a demotion is reflected in the status of Ajax as the second-best hero in our Homeric Iliad, but the actual event of the dice game, as I have already noted, has been omitted in this epic.

§3. In the work of Hedreen (2001:91–119), this “event” has been compared to other “events” that are retold about the Trojan War in vase paintings, and many of these “events” (I am using this word in line with Hedreen’s usage, p. 103) are attested only in vase paintings but not in our Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. I list here four most salient examples of such non-attestations, and I start off my list with the example we have just considered

Event A. Ajax loses a game of dice to Achilles. So, he can be only second-best of the Achaeans. As I already noted, the “event” of the Game is not attested either in our Iliad or in our Odyssey. And, rather than saying “not attested” here, I can say “omitted” on the basis of what I have already argued about this Event A. Similarly with Events B C D in what follows, I will be arguing that non-attestation can be explained as outright omission. 

Event B. Ajax rescues the body of Achilles by carrying it back to safety after that hero’s death in the Trojan War. In some paintings, moreover, Ajax rescues not only the body but also the armor of Achilles. In a retelling of the Rescue in our Odyssey, 24.43, Ajax is omitted altogether, since the ghost of Agamemnon says merely that ‘we’ the Achaeans rescued ‘you’, that is, the body of Achilles. Also, the armor of Achilles is not mentioned in the context of the actual Rescue. I see here another omission.

Event C. Ajax loses a Vote taken by the Achaeans to adjudicate whether it will be he or his rival Odysseus who will be awarded the armor of Achilles, best of the Achaeans, after that hero’s death in the Trojan War. The paintings picture this Vote as a casting of pebbles that takes place conventionally on the surface of a “block,” as Hedreen describes it, and this casting of pebbles is made visually analogous to the casting of dice by Ajax and by his other rival Achilles—which likewise takes place conventionally on the surface of such a “block.” The loss of Ajax to Odysseus in this adjudication is mentioned in our Odyssey, 11.541–567, but there is no mention of the Vote itself. Again, an omission.

Event D. Ajax commits suicide by skewering himself on a sword that had been given to him by Hector, Iliad 7.303–304, in a gift-exchange after the two heroes fought each other to a draw in a duel as narrated in our Iliad, 7.206–312, where it is made clear that the objective of the duel is to determine who is the best of the Achaeans. Ajax fails to kill Hector in Iliad 7, whereas Achilles succeeds later, in Iliad 22. The death of Ajax is mentioned in our Odyssey, 11.541–567, but there is no mention of suicide as the cause of death. Again, an omission.

§4. There are questions that remain about the Events A B C D as I listed them in the previous paragraph. The most pressing question I have for the moment is about Event A. If, as I argue, the playing of dice games was an ancient topic of mythmaking about heroes in the verbal art of epic traditions and not an innovation restricted to the visual art of vase painting, then why, we may ask, is such a topic omitted in the epics of “Classical Homer”? At first sight, after all, it seems unmotivated to omit a topic that glorifies Ajax but does not harm the glory of other heroes. I say this because Ajax, even though he loses to Achilles in the dice game, has at least proved himself, by way of this game, to be second-best of all the Achaeans. On second thought, however, the inclusion of a myth about a dice game would in fact harm the epic glory of Odysseus, which in turn would harm the epic glory of Ajax in our Odyssey, since Odysseus himself is needed there to affirm that Ajax was the second-best of Achaeans.

§5. But why would the epic glory of Odysseus be threatened by a myth about playing dice? For an answer, I start by citing what is said by the traveler Pausanias (2.20.3) about his visit to the temple of the goddess Tukhē or ‘Fortune’ in Corinth: in this temple, he saw on display the first dice that were supposedly ever made, and the maker, according to the myth, was a crafty hero named Palamedes, who was the reputed inventor of dice-playing and who dedicated at the temple of ‘Fortune’ the first dice he ever created. Next, I cite what is said by Pausanias (10.31.2) about the death of Palamedes: because of this hero’s craftiness, he was a threat to another crafty hero, Odysseus himself, who contrived along with Diomedes to drown his rival—such is the myth that Pausanias says he had read in the text of the Epic Cycle (in this case, the epic text is the Cypria, and the report of Pausanias is quoted as F 21 on p. 124 in the edition of Allen 1912). It should come as no surprise, then, that the figure of Palamedes himself is omitted in our Homeric Odyssey—and even in our Iliad. And it follows that all references to dice-playing are likewise omitted.

§6. I return to a point I made at the end of §4: that Odysseus himself is needed to affirm, in our Odyssey, that Ajax was the second-best of Achaeans. To say it another way, the Odyssey of our Classical Homer is needed to save the glory of Ajax as the second-best of the Achaeans—a glory that was already granted to him by the Iliad of this Homer of ours. It happens in the context of an encounter between Odysseus and the sullen ghost of Ajax in Odyssey 11. At lines 469–470 and 550–551, Odysseus himself acknowledges this second-best status of Ajax. But “our” Classical Homer can do this only because Odysseus is emerging as the best of the Achaeans in terms of “his” Odyssey, while Achilles is now out of the picture, once he is outside of “his” Iliad.

§7. In sum, omissions in the verbal art of the Classical Homer can in fact downgrade, granted, the epic glory of Ajax, but at the same time they can also level out potential contradictions that would ultimately harm this glory in the overall retellings of our Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.


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