Athenian Justice: Re-thinking the Fragments of Sophocles' Ajax Locrus

Rebecca Futo Kennedy

Tragic fragments don’t get much attention.  This is most likely because they are fragments and scholars find it difficult to make heads or tails of them.  One set of fragments, however, is long overdue for re-evaluation—Sophocles’ Ajax Locrus.  One of the most substantial fragments is what appears to be a trial scene.  This is odd since there is no trial in the epic tradition concerning Lesser Ajax.  There, he rapes Cassandra, knocks over Athena’s statue and then goes on his way.  There is, however, a version of this myth containing a trial scene.  It is not in a text, however, but hung on the walls of the Stoa Poikile. This paper will re-evaluate the fragments of Ajax Locrus in light of this painting demonstrating that Sophocles’ play is part of a larger cultural project aimed at glorifying the justice system of Athens.

The paintings of the Iliupersis both at the Stoa  and the Knidian Lesche were done by Polygnotos, a friend of Cimon and, perhaps, Sophocles.  The Stoa was paid for by Cimon and contained both mythical and historical paintings.  One represented Cimon’s father, Miltiades, at the battle of Marathon.  Another, the great victory of Theseus over the Amazons (a purely Athenian myth).  This monument was built in praise of Athens merging their mythic and recent heroic pasts.  But what is a picture of the Iliupersis doing in such a group?  Considered the ultimate act of hubris, how does it praise Athens?

The key to understanding this questions lies in reading the paintings and fragments of Ajax Locrus together.  For there is a continuity between them that could only have been created in the Athenian imaginary.  What binds these two sources together and what enables them to exist in a monument in praise of Athens is the trial depicted in both.

In order to make this point, I will first discuss briefly the traditional myth of Lesser Ajax and then compare it to what remains of Ajax Locrus. Interesting similarities and dissimilarities appear.  Under careful evaluation, the story Sophocles presents to his audience appears to emerge out of the tradition but in a way only an Athenian could have imagined.  For example, in the Sack of Ilium, Odysseus suggests that the Argives stone Ajax.  In Ajax Locrus, the Greeks cast stones, but into a voting urn.  The scene has moved from ancient Troy to fifth-century Athens.

Once the traditional story has been discussed, I will turn my attention to descriptions and reconstructions of Polygnotos’ paintings and discuss how these compare with Sophocles’ play.  Specifically, I will look at the portrayal of Ajax at the altar.  This altar is Athena’s altar where Arctinus in the Sack of Ilium says Ajax fled in refuge.  The position in which he stands at the altar is not, however, as a suppliant but rather as if taking an oath.  The text of Sophocles’ Ajax Locrus reveals this oath as part of a courtroom proceeding.  Legal terms such as apopséphizesthai and ta pséphismata and pséphos ekranthé round out the picture.         

What will emerge from the discussion of the tradition, the paintings and the fragments together will be a picture that suggests continuity between the projects of Polygnotos and Sophocles.  This continuity exists, I will argue, because both artists are Athenians and, as such, subject to certain ideological constraints. 

What will also emerge from this discussion is the striking similarity between these two projects and Aeschylus’ Eumenides.  There, in another addition to an old story, Athena establishes the court of the Areopagus to stop the violence of the House of Atreus.  This has a parallel in Ajax Locrus.  Athenian justice leads to an end of violence.  And it is this justice that justifies the growing Athenian hegemony.  It was also this justice that the Athenians used as a tool for their empire.  The transformation of the myth of Ajax Locrus prefigures Athenian judicial imperialism as does Eumenides and the paintings. 

Primary Works Cited

  • Boedeker, D. “Presenting the Past in Fifth-Century Athens” in D. Boedeker and K. Raaflaub (eds.) Democracy, Empire and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (Cambridge, 1998).
  • Castriota, D. Myth, Ethos and Actuality:  Official Art in Fifth-Century Athens (Madison, 1992).
  • Halsam, M. in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri v. 44 (London, 1976).
  • Stansbury-O’Donnell, M. “Polygnotos’ Iliupersis: A New Reconstruction” AJA 93 (1989) 203-215.
  • Zeilinsky, T. “De Aiacis Locrensis Fabula Sophoclea” Eos (1925) 37-43.

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