The passion of Ajax

Ian Jenkins, Curator, ancient Greece, British Museum
I am often asked what my favourite object is in the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. I answer this by marching my interrogator past the great white marble sculptures glowing in the mysterious half-light of the gallery to a showcase containing a primitive and seemingly unprepossessing bronze figure, only seven centimetres high. I am usually greeted with a look of incredulity. But this is my favourite object; partly because I discovered it in 1996 in what we now call the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, and partly because of what it shows and how it shows it.

The object is a helmeted matchstick man, forged from solid metal tubing, drawn out to represent the subject, sitting on a low stool, with his arms extended in front of him and a dagger turned inwards. At a glance, you can see that this is, by virtue of the action, a suicide caught in the moment before the dagger is forced in.

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum 1865,1118.230

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum, London 1865,1118.230

The short version of the story of Ajax’s suicide as told in Greek myth goes something like this: Ajax was big dumb-dumb Ajax, brave and good-hearted but not a subtle thinker. It was he who carried the body of Achilles, dead from the battlefield, and it was he who should have had the armour Achilles was wearing – armour that was made by the god of smiths himself, Hephaestus. But with weasel words, wily Odysseus manages to deprive Ajax of this prize. In rage and shame a night-long fit of madness fell upon the hero, who thought he could hear an attack by the Trojans on the Greek camp and set about single-handedly defending his companions from the danger. It was not until the cold light of the morning lifted the veil of his madness that the nature of his folly was revealed. For in fact there had been no attack – only the sound of the herd of Greek cattle moving about in their pen, every member of which he had slaughtered. With nothing left by way of honour, now twice humiliated, Ajax killed himself.

The image of the death of Ajax that comes most readily to mind is that in Sophocles’ tragic dramatisation of the story, where the brooding hero prepares to fall on a sword set into the Trojan earth. This, as Ajax bitterly remarks, is a hostile soil and the sword is that of his old enemy Hector. The sad story of Ajax’s suicide is not told by Homer in the Iliad. This centres instead on a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, and its impact on the progress of the Trojan War and the lives of those people caught up in it. In this Achilles does not yet die but his eventual end is related in a number of other contemporary epic poems, including The Aithiopis, which relates the heroic life of Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, sometimes known as ‘The Black Hector’. The little bronze has none of the literary power of either 8th-century BC epic poetry, nor of the 5th-century BC tragedy. But it has an indefinable poetry all of its own that, in spite of its great simplicity, seems to capture something of the bleak and solitary circumstances of Ajax’s death.

Like the great Greek sculptors of a later age, the smith of this bronze has chosen not to represent the act of suicide itself, but the moment just before the dagger is buried in the body of the hero. What really, though, evokes absolutely the mental agony of Ajax is his large erection. This has nothing to do with any ideas of the erotic charge of death. It is instead a metaphor used to mark Ajax as a figure undergoing extreme trauma. In the symbolic use of the phallus, the smith is straining at the very limits of his powers. He has departed from actual representation and makes a metaphysical statement instead. When we compare such art with contemporary literature, we find nothing in the former of the narrative and descriptive power of the latter. Nonetheless, our little stick-man Ajax points at the direction in which Greek artists will go in their quest to tell stories of the kind that Homer had already mastered in the medium of words.

The object dates to around 720–700 BC and as such may be among the earliest representation to survive of a named mythological character in Greek art. Because of its phallic nature, it had been previously misclassified in the Museum’s collection, now dispersed, of erotica. Its appearance in our exhibition seems unpromising on first acquaintance but, on reflection, it turns out to be an object with great poetic presence and one which anticipates the visual power of later Greek art.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

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