2021.06.14 | By Gregory Nagy
§0. In fragments from Hesiodic poetry, we read that the hero Ajax was one of many heroes who converged on Sparta to compete with each other as rival suitors of a most eligible bride, Helen, daughter of Zeus. Some of these heroes came to Sparta in person, while others may have sent emissaries. Helen was being “given away” as a bride by not only her mortal would-be father Tyndareos but also by her semi-immortal twin brothers Kastor and Polydeukes (Castor and Pollux). Though Ajax entered the contest with impressive credentials that are described in some detail by the poetry, he was a loser in the competition—like all the other heroes competing to be chosen as the bridegroom for Helen. The one exception was Menelaos, brother of Agamemnon. As we read in the fragments from Hesiodic poetry, it had been decided that Menelaos must become the bridegroom of Helen. But we also read in these fragments that Achilles, if he had been a suitor of Helen, should have won the contest. Such a poetic declaration need not surprise us, since we read in the same set of Hesiodic fragments that Achilles would have been the most eligible of all suitors if he had wooed Helen. But the fact is, Achilles was not a suitor of Helen. Consequently, he was not even obligated to fight in the Trojan War, unlike all the suitors of Helen, who had all sworn an oath—it must have happened before Menelaos won Helen as his bride—to fight for the restoration of this bride, yes, to fight as a band of warriors united on behalf of the bridegroom who won Helen, whoever he might be, if any other man should ever dare to take her away from the chosen bridegroom. There is a familiar retelling of this myth about the Oath of the Suitors in the Library of “Apollodorus” (3.10.9), and we can find clear traces of the Oath in the Hesiodic fragments, but there remain many questions to be asked about the myth as myth. And my very first question is this: where is the poetic justice here? As we read in the Homeric Iliad, Achilles the Achaean was the very best of all the Achaeans who came to Troy in their quest to recover Helen after she had been taken away from Sparta and carried off to Troy by the Trojan prince Paris—this, despite the fact that Achilles was not even obligated by oath to be part of the Trojan War! And now a related question arises: who was the second-best of the Achaeans who came to Troy? The answer, as we also read in our Homeric Iliad, was Ajax. Well, then, why was it, really, that Menelaos and not Ajax had been chosen as the bridegroom of Helen? Were not Achilles and Ajax, as the best and the second-best of the Achaeans in our Iliad, the most eligible bridegrooms for that most eligible of brides, Helen? When we think of the idealized way these two Achaeans are pictured in the visual arts, we can see them as symmetrically bonded even in death, not only in life, as the most perfect specimens of male attractiveness. We can see such a picturing clearly in the illustration I have chosen for the cover of my essay here. But there is an eclipsing of Ajax, second-best of the Achaeans after Achilles, as the potentially most eligible suitor of Helen in both the Homeric and the Hesiodic traditions of poetry. So, I ask my first question again: is there any poetic justice in all this? My essay offers a guarded answer: there really is no justice to be seen here, and “our” poet knows it. Or, to say it another way, both “Homer” and “Hesiod” know it.
§1. In my previous five essays posted in Classical Inquiries, all of which center on Ajax (Nagy 2021.05.10, 2021.05.17, 2021.05.24, 2021.06.01, 2021.06.07), I have already been thinking about this question of poetic justice for the heroic figure of Ajax as the second-best of the Achaeans. And, in one of those essays (2021.05.17), I even used a most relevant picture for the cover of that essay: it is a copy of a picture I had used for the cover my book, The Best of the Achaeans (Nagy 1979/1999), and that picture is in turn a synthesized copy of the earliest attested representation, in the visual arts, of the primal epic moment when the enormous figure of Ajax struggles to lift and carry the even more enormous body of his fallen comrade-in-arms, Achilles. The enormity of the lifeless body of Achilles here has to do with the idea that a hero becomes larger-than-life in death (as we see in the description of the fallen Achilles in Odyssey 24.40). But I concentrate here on Ajax, not on Achilles, who had never courted Helen. The picturing of Ajax as a most eligible suitor of Helen evokes for me the relevance of a later book, Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990), which in turn evokes the further relevance of a later article “Pindar’s Homer is not ‘our’ Homer” (Nagy 2015.12.24).
§2. These publications of mine are all relevant to the evolution of my thinking about Ajax as second-best of the Achaeans. What I now think is this: questions of poetic justice about the heroic status of Ajax are addressed more directly in the poetics of “Pindar’s Homer” and only less directly in the poetics of “our” Homer. To take this thinking further here, I need to give some more background by quoting from the book Pindar’s Homer my view of the poetics represented by the so-called Epic Cycle as compared with the poetics represented by Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. Here is what I said in Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990:73 = 2§39):
The older layers [of epic poetry] represented by the Cycle kept developing alongside the emerging core of the Homeric tradition and, being the more local versions, had the relative freedom to develop for a longer time, albeit at a slower pace, toward a point of textual fixation that still seems like a case of arrested development in contrast with the ultimate Homeric form.
And then I added (2§39n106):
A similar point can be made in the case of the contrast between Iliad 2.557–570 and Hesiod F 204.44–51 [ed. Merkelbach and West 1967], where both passages describe the extent of the dominion of the hero Ajax. As [Margalit] Finkelberg 1988 argues, the Homeric passage from the Iliad, part of the Catalogue of Ships, is more innovative than the Hesiodic passage in drastically restricting the realm of Ajax, even though the text fixation of the Homeric passage is presumably earlier than that of the Hesiodic. As Finkelberg also argues (pp. 39–40), the Homeric version is politically advantageous to Athens under the Peisistratidai and, secondarily, to Argos in the era of Pheidon, as also to Corinth and even to Sparta, while it is disadvantageous primarily to Megara. Such a version, which suits the politics of the more powerful city-states, is clearly more Panhellenic in scope than the Hesiodic version (which itself is distinct from the overtly pro-Megarian version [recorded by Strabo 9.1.10 C394]. I should add that the parallelisms between Iliad 2.557–570 and Hesiod F 204.44–51 (as illustrated by the underlinings in Finkelberg, pp. 32–33) suggest that the Homeric version reduces the realm of Ajax not so much by deleting elements found in the Hesiodic version but by augmenting the traditional elements and then reassigning the greater portion to figures other than Ajax.
§3. I still agree for the most part with this formulation, which is now over thirty years old, except for my wording where I say “As Finkelberg also argues (pp. 39–40), the Homeric version is politically advantageous to Athens under the Peisistratidai.” In what follows, I will have to change what I said about “our” Homeric version, where I describe it as “politically advantageous to Athens under the Peisistratidai.” Also, I will have to modify my wording “dominion” and “realm” in referring to the spheres of influence attributed to Ajax in Hesiod F 204.44–51. My modifications, as we will see, are prompted by counter-arguments in a learned article by Ettore Cingano (2005), who questions the arguments of Finkelberg. (Cingano also questions at his p. 145n92 my relevant formulations in Nagy 1990:73 = 2§39 n106 as quoted above at §2). But my changing what I once said about the Peisistratidai does not take away, as we will also see, from my abiding appreciation of the insights I once learned from the article of Finkelberg.
§4. I now quote the two most relevant texts, followed by my working translations. The first text will be the Hesiodic fragment, already mentioned, about Ajax the suitor, and the second will be a corresponding passage, also already mentioned, about Ajax in the Catalogue of Ships as transmitted in “our” Homeric Iliad.
Αἴας δ’ ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος ἀμώμ̣ητος πολεμ̣ι̣σ̣τὴς
45 μνᾶτο· δίδου δ’ ἄρα ἕδνα ἐ̣[ο]ι̣κότα, θαυματὰ ἔργα·
οἳ γὰρ ἔχον Τροιζῆνα καὶ ἀγ[χ]ίαλον Ἐπίδαυρον
νῆσόν τ’ Αἴγιναν Μάση̣τά τε κοῦρ̣ο̣[ι] Ἀχαιῶν
καὶ Μέγαρα σκιόεντα καὶ ὀφρυόεντα Κό̣ρ̣ινθον,
Ἑρμιόνην Ἀσίνην τε παρὲξ ἅλ̣α̣ ν̣αιετα̣ώσας,
50 τῶν ἔφατ’ εἰλίποδάς τε βόας κ[α]ὶ̣ [ἴ]φ̣ι̣α̣ μ̣ῆ̣λα
συνελάσας δώσειν· ἐκέκαστο γὰρ ἔγ̣χεϊ μ̣α̣κρῶι̣.
Ajax, coming from Salamis, a faultless warrior, |45 was-a-suitor [mnâsthai] (of Helen). He was offering wedding-presents that were quite seemly, (showing that) his deeds were awesome. | You see, people who held (the territories of) Troizen, also Epidaurus by-the-sea, and the island of Aegina, and Masēs—yes, people who were sons of the Achaeans | and who held also Megara, with its shady [palatial-] halls, and Corinth, with its looming citadel, | also Hermione and Asine, situated beyond the sea, |50 —the shambling cattle and sturdy sheep of all these people | he said he would herd together and offer them all as presents. That is how dominant he was, with his long spear.
Hesiod F 204.44–51
Αἴας δ’ ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος ἄγεν δυοκαίδεκα νῆας,
στῆσε δ’ ἄγων ἵν’ Ἀθηναίων ἵσταντο φάλαγγες.
Ajax, coming from Salamis, brought twelve ships. | And he stationed them by bringing them to the place where the ranks of the Athenians were stationed.
§5. I now proceed to compare these two passages, one from the Hesiodic fragment telling about the eligibility of Ajax as a suitor of Helen and the other from the Catalogue of Ships in “our” Homeric Iliad, this time telling about the same hero as a leader of a small contingent of warriors who joined all the other Achaeans who went off to fight at Troy for the sake of restoring Helen to Menelaos. I start my comparison by highlighting the brevity of the Homeric passage, to be contrasted with the relative lengthiness of the corresponding Hesiodic passage. The brevity of the Homeric version is correlated with its exclusion of places that are included in the lengthier Hesiodic version. And such exclusion in the Homeric passage evidently diminishes the stature of Ajax, which is then further diminished by the small number of ships carrying what must be a comparatively small contingent of Achaean warriors, and even these Achaeans seem to be subordinate to the Athenian warriors whose ranks they join upon arrival at the shores of Troy.
§6. Clearly, the brevity of “our” Homeric passage points to the political subordination of Salamis, the island of Ajax, to the city-state of Athens, but I will now argue—changing my mind about what I had once said, as cited above in §3—that such subordination should be down-dated from the era of the Peisistratidai, who controlled Athens in the sixth century, to a later era, within a time-frame that post-dates the Peisistratidai. By contrast, as I will now also argue, the time frame of the Hesiodic text that I just quoted, Fragment 204.44–51, which is part of a series of fragments numbered from 196 through 204 in the Fragmenta Hesiodea (Merkelbach and West 1967), can best be explained as typical of epic traditions of performance that were current in Athens during the era of the Peisistratidai. Before I can start my overall argumentation, however, I need to make two preliminary points.
First, I must emphasize something that may not be already obvious to my readers: that the Hesiodic Fragments 196–204 are all part of what was once a “catalogue within a catalogue”—to cite the apt description by Cingano (2005) in his article about the Achaean suitors of Helen. The inner catalogue, which Cingano calls The Suitors of Helen, was embedded in an outer catalogue, which is a Hesiodic composition commonly known as the Catalogue of Women or Ehoiai.
Second, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, containing the Hesiodic Suitors of Helen, clearly dates from the sixth century BCE, which corresponds generally to the era of the Peisistratidai. For relevant comments on the dating and on the poetics of the Catalogue of Women, I recommend the incisive formulations to be found in a book by Richard P. Martin (2020:328–333). In an earlier posting for Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2017.12.09, linked here), I have more to say about the importance of this book by Martin (2020).
Having made these two preliminary points, I begin my argumentation by reviewing some relevant background that I had put together ten years ago about Hesiodic and Homeric poetry as performed at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens during the sixth century BCE (Nagy 2011a:41–43, here rearranged as §6.1–6):
§6.1. In two books, Homer the Classic (Nagy 2009|2008) and Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010|2009), I reconstructed two distinct phases of epic poetry as performed at the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia in Athens. One of these two phases of epic was the “Classical” period of the fifth century BCE. In this phase, epic was understood to be the Iliad and Odyssey as we know them, attributed to Homer. The other phase was a “Preclassical” period dating back to the era of the Peisistratidai, a dynasty of tyrants who ruled Athens in the sixth century BCE. As I argue in Homer the Preclassic, two features of this Preclassical epic distinguished it from its Classical counterpart. First, the Homer of the sixth century was understood to be the poet of not only the Iliad and Odyssey but also of other epics collectively known as the Epic Cycle. Second, the epic poetry attributed to this preclassical Homer coexisted with epic poetry attributed to other poets, especially to Hesiod. In other words, the epics performed at the Panathenaia in the sixth century BCE included not only the epics attributed to Homer but also epics attributed to rival figures like Hesiod. Such a coexistence between Homeric and Hesiodic poetry in the sixth century became obsolete in the fifth. By the time of the fifth century, as I argue in Homer the Classic, only the Iliad and Odyssey were performed at the Panathenaia, and only these two epics were attributed to Homer. To be contrasted is the preclassical version of Homer, which coexisted with Hesiod at the Panathenaia. In the preclassical period of epic as performed in Athens, Homer had still shared the stage, as it were, with Hesiod.
§6.2. In the poetry of Pindar, we can find traces of such a preclassical Homer, and I analyzed these traces in the book titled Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990). In that book, I concentrated on Pindar’s use of epic themes he attributed to Homer as the poet of the Cycle. But I also kept in mind Pindar’s use of epic themes he attributed to Hesiod. And these themes of Hesiod are not necessarily incompatible with a Preclassical Homer. In other words, Pindar’s Hesiod is at least partly compatible with Pindar’s Homer.
§6.3. One Hesiodic text stands out: it is the Catalogue of Women, or the Ehoiai. And here I repeat a most important point made by Cingano (2005), which I already noted in introducing §6.1–6. As Cingano points out, we find embedded within this Catalogue an inner catalogue, The Suitors of Helen. And now I must add that the overall text of this Hesiodic Catalogue of Women represents an epic tradition linked directly to the Hesiodic Theogony. The beginning of the Catalogue, Hesiod F 1 in the Fragmenta Hesiodea (Merkelbach and West 1967), was designed as a continuation of the narrative that leaves off at verse 1020 of the Theogony, while verses 1019–1020 of the Theogony were designed as a transition into the narrative that begins with the Catalogue.
§6.4. What I just formulated about the link between the narratives of the Hesiodic Theogony and the Hesiodic Catalogue is in general agreement with the formulation of Martin West in his book on the Hesiodic Catalogue (West 1985:126), except that I disagree with him when he says that the Theogony and the Catalogue were composed by different individual poets and that “our poet [that is, the poet of the Catalogue] rewrote the end of Hesiod’s Theogony in his own style” (West p. 167). My view is that the continuity of narration in the transition from Theogony to Catalogue is an aspect of the same oral traditions that resulted in the texts that we know as the Theogony and Catalogue. It is also my view that the composition of Hesiodic poetry cannot be divorced from the reception of that poetry in the sixth century BCE. Here again I cite the relevant comments of Richard Martin (2020:328–333).
§6.5. West (1985:136) argues that the epic text of the Catalogue was composed in Athens sometime between 580 and 520 BCE and, “if the addition of [Theogony] 965–1020 was contemporary, the range may perhaps be narrowed to [around] 540–520 [BCE].” The broader and the narrower time-frames, (1) 580–520 and (2) 540–520, are based on dating criteria linked respectively to (1) the contents of the Catalogue and (2) the contents of verses 965–1020 of the Theogony. From West’s point of view, the Hesiodic Catalogue was composed in Athens as a text to be added to the text of the Theogony. I agree, but I add a qualification: this overall text of Hesiod, as reconstructed by West, resulted from the reception of living oral traditions. These traditions cannot be viewed exclusively on a synchronic level, as if they resulted in individualized poetic compositions. That is because the actual process of composition was a matter of ongoing recomposition-in-performance, and such a process needs to be viewed diachronically as well as synchronically (on my use of the terms “synchronic” and “diachronic,” I cite Nagy 2003:1).
§6.6. With this qualification in place, I offer a reformulation of the relationship between the Hesiodic Theogony and Catalogue. From my point of view, the narrative of the Catalogue was performed in Athens as an organic continuation from the narrative of the Theogony. And the venue for such a performance, in my view, was the festival of the Panathenaia at Athens in the era of the Peisistratidai. The time frame of 540–520 BCE, which is the dating assigned by West (1985:136) to the transitional verses 965–1024 of the Theogony, neatly matches that era. In sum, the ideology of the Catalogue can be traced back to Athens in the era of the Peisistratidai. What I have just summed up here about the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, I must add, corresponds more closely to the formulation of Douglas Frame (2009:318–319 §2.160; also p. 326n228 2§165) and less closely to the earlier formulation of West.
§7. Using as background the six points I have just reviewed in §6.1–6, I am ready to consider the content of “Hesiod” F 204.44–51, quoted at §4. This Hesiodic passage, then, is part of an inner catalogue, the Hesiodic Suitors of Helen, which is in turn part of an outer catalogue, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. For now, I concentrate on what we learn about the spheres of influence dominated by Ajax. These “spheres,” as I have vaguely referred to them here, include the following places, as we see from the text of “Hesiod” F 204.44–51: Salamis, Troizen, Epidaurus, Aegina, Masēs, Megara, Corinth, Hermione, Asine. By contrast, in the text of the Catalogue of Ships in the Classical version of Homer, also quoted at §4, all these places as listed by “Hesiod” have been taken away from Ajax—except for Salamis. In all the other places, from the standpoint of the Catalogue of Ships in the Classical version of Homer, Ajax has by implication lost his dominion ‘by the spear’—as this dominion is described in the Hesiodic fragment. But here I must insist that such dominion cannot be viewed as some kind of prehistoric kingdom—or even empire—that was somehow politically controlled by the hero. Instead, I see a different reason for the viewing of Ajax as a dominant figure in the places that are listed in the fragment: it was because he was worshipped as a cult hero in these places. The domain of this hero as delineated in the Hesiodic fragment—and in the Homeric Catalogue of Ships—is determined by his status as a cult hero. In other words, if we are inclined to look for the politics of control over the domains of heroes, we need to consider the ever-evolving politics of various different hero-cults as owned and operated by various different places that competed with each other over the possession, as it were, of a given cult hero. And, as I argued in an essay about the poetics of hero cults (Nagy 2012), the power politics involved in the cults of heroes would have had a strong influence on what was said and what was not said about the domains of heroes in epic poetry, and, more specifically, in the Classical phases of Homeric poetry.
§8. To illustrate the politics and poetics of hero cult in the case of Ajax, I draw attention to the contrast between the mentioning of Megara as one of the places dominated by Ajax in the Hesiodic passage and the omission of this city in the Homeric passage taken from the Catalogue of Ships as we have it. In fact, there is no mention of Megara anywhere in “our” Classical version of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. By contrast, the Megarian version of the epic verses about Ajax and Megara in the “Catalogue of Ships” tradition is still attested by way of Strabo (9.1.10 C394; I rely on the commentary by Figueira 1985:265). The omission of Megara in “our” Classical version of the Catalogue is a matter of Athenian politics. The island of Salamis, which had been the primary center for the hero cult of Ajax, used to be controlled by Megara, but control was lost to Athens already in the early sixth century BCE (Figueira 1985:261). There have survived only traces of information about the hero cult of Ajax in Megara (such information is noted in passing by Finkelberg 1988:41n51). An important source is Pausanias (1.42.4), from whom we learn two details of considerable interest:
(1) Ajax had a special relationship, inside the sacred spaces of Megara, with the goddess Athena, who was invoked there by way of the epithet Aiantis, which can be translated as ‘linked with Ajax’.
(2) The mother of Ajax, Eriboia/Periboia, was the daughter of the hero Alkathoos, king of Megara, and Ajax succeeded to the kingship.
§9. While the island of Salamis, homeland of Ajax, lost contact politically with the state of Megara in the sixth century BCE, it retained strong cultural contacts with the island-state of Aegina during that period—despite the fact that Salamis, once it was lost to Megara, was now becoming increasingly dominated politically by Athens. As I argue in the essay that I introduced at §6 (Nagy 2011a), the hero cult of Ajax in Salamis was viewed in the sixth century as a cultural legacy that could still be “shared” by Athens with Aegina; only later, in the fifth century, as Aegina was gradually losing its own independence to the ever-increasing political power of Athens, did the Athenian appropriation of Salamis become coextensive with the appropriation of Ajax himself as a primarily Athenian cult hero. But the question remains: why should there have been any “sharing,” as I just described it, between Athens and Aegina in the preclassical era? The answer, as I pointed out the same essay I just cited again (Nagy 2011a:78), can be found in an overall historical insight achieved by Thomas Figueira (1993): in the era of the Peisistratidai, there existed a political entente between Athens and Aegina—an entente that broke down only after the expulsion of the Peisistratidai from Athens toward the end of the sixth century.
§10. So, I stand by the argument I started to make at §6 of this essay: that the appropriation of Ajax, hero of Salamis, as an Athenian hero in “our” Homeric Catalogue of Ships should be down-dated from the era of the Peisistratidai, who controlled Athens in the sixth century, to a later era, within a time-frame that post-dates the Peisistratidai.
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Nagy, G. 2021.06.01. “How a Classical Homer occasionally downgrades the heroic glory of Ajax in order to save it: Part 2.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/how-a-classical-homer-occasionally-downgrades-the-heroic-glory-of-ajax-in-order-to-save-it-part-2/.
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