The Problem of Athena in Sophocles’ Ajax

Rebecca Futo Kennedy

Sophocles’ Ajax has troubled scholars for many years.  The trouble has come primarily from the fact that Ajax, dies mid-way through the play; his body lying on the middle of the stage to be wrangled over for 700 lines raises a few staging and dramatic challenges.  One aspect of the play, however, that seems to trouble almost no one is the appearance of the goddess Athena (1-133).  But how can one not be suspicious, or at least take notice when the city’s patron deity appears on stage at a civic event such as the Great Dionysia?  This paper will discuss tow points: first, why we should be concerned with Athena’s appearance; and second, how we might interpret her very interesting cameo.

First, Athena stands, I will argue, as a marker, a signifier that the subject under discussion in Ajax is not only ancient myth, but also contemporary Athens and her issues.  This relates first to the ideological and political aspects of Greek tragedy.  From the parade of the war-orphans, to the libation pouring of the strategoi, to the display of the tribute in the orchestra, to the inauguration of the naval campaigning season, the Great Dionysia is a veritable imperialist paradise.  Also, Athena is synonymous, on many levels, with Athens itself.  First, in earlier tragedy (Aeschylean), Athena is always the representative of Athenian interests.  This connection most likely carries over in the mind of the audience.  Second, the growing significance of the Panathenaia in the Empire only strengthened any association allies may have made between the city and the goddess when they came to deliver their first-fruits at her temple.

Second, I will suggest that Athena’s treatment of Ajax reflects the growing dilemma of Athenian imperial rule.  For Ajax is both and ally (according to Sophocles) and the embodiment of the heroic Marathonmaxoi and the sailors at Salamis in one.  His suicide signals the death of this idealized Athenian national identity.  This case will be made based first on a discussion of Athena’s characterization and second, on the use of summaxoi in the dialogue between Ajax and Athena.  Athena is vindictive and cruel and, though most scholars attribute her wanton desire to taunt Ajax to the Homeric ethic of “helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies,” this does not, in fact work.  For Athena and Ajax are summaxoi (Aj. 91;117).  An ally does not behave this way toward a “friend”.  Unless that ally is Athens and the “friend” is one of the subject-allies of her Empire.

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