Ἕρκος Ἀθηναίων: The Ajax Myth, the Trojan War, and Civic Ideology in Fifth-Century Athens
MetadataShow full item record
This project explores how fifth-century Athens attempted to appropriate the myth of Telamonian Ajax as a way to express its civic ideology and sociohistorical identity in the decades following the Second Persian Invasion. I argue that Athens used the Ajax myth in order to promote its political interests as Hellenic liberator to the larger Greek world. Because the Persian Wars were often treated as parallel with the Trojan War, Athens could propagandize its role in the Battle of Salamis by articulating the Ajax myth as an exemplum. The scope of the Ajax myth also provided Athens with a means to address its political anxieties, as it shifted during the fifth century from Greece’s dark-horse champion at the Battle of Salamis, to Delian League hegemon, and finally to imperial power. I first orient readers with the myth of Ajax in general, and the history of Athenian disputes with other poleis over his home island of Salamis. I then look at the Athenian artistic representation of “Ajax and Achilles playing a board game” and suggest reasons for its popularity. I turn next to Ajax in Homer, highlighting characteristics that Athens might find expedient for its projection of civic identity after the Persian Wars. This chapter also considers Ajax’s relationship with other figures, notably Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus, in order to provide a foundation for my project in toto. I look next at literature in the decade after the Persian Wars, the era of “celebration culture” after Greek victory. I explore the new Simonides’ Plataea elegy and epigrams from the Athenian Agora to demonstrate that Greeks employed the Trojan War to parallel the Persian War. I then examine Aeschylus’ Persians and argue that he uses the Iliadic Ajax in order to epicize Athens’ role in the battle of Salamis. Finally, I address Sophocles’ Ajax as a vehicle to examine the shift in Athens’ identity from Greek defender in the Persian Invasions to imperial aggressor in the Peloponnesian War. I argue that the Ajax alludes to Aeschylus’ Persians as a way to integrate Athens’ identity as defender of Greece in the battle of Salamis with its imperialist identity at the time of Ajax’s production. Lastly, I argue that Ajax recalls his single combat and gift exchange with Hector from the Iliad (Aj.654-665 alluding to Il.7.161-312), as a way for Athens to problematize shifting civic values and to incorporate that problematization into its civic identity.