Welcome to the semifinal of the #NANAIHB (the Non-Atreid, Non-Achilles Iliadic hero Bracket), the definitive tournament to decide who really is the second best of the Achaeans. The first round saw six contests, most of which were blowouts. The second round was equally lopsided, leaving us with two ‘classic’ matches. Odysseus vs. Ajax and Patroklos vs. Diomedes.
Semifinal 1: Odysseus vs. Ajax
Imagine if Rocky 2 happened before Rocky? That’s kind of what this contest is like. The clash between Odysseus and Ajax over Achilles’ arms after his death was well known in the 6th century BCE when it appears on many black figure vases. The tension between them is arguably felt in our Iliad where they meet in a wrestling match so evenly that Achilles stops it:
“Stop competing, the two of you! don’t wear yourselves out with injuries.
Both of you win! Leave the contest now and take equal prizes
So that the rest of the Achaeans can compete!”
μηκέτ’ ἐρείδεσθον, μὴ δὲ τρίβεσθε κακοῖσι·
νίκη δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν· ἀέθλια δ’ ἶσ’ ἀνελόντες
ἔρχεσθ’, ὄφρα καὶ ἄλλοι ἀεθλεύωσιν ᾿Αχαιοί.
The origin of the conflict between these two heroes is, I think, probably part of a redefinition of what a hero is and what qualities are most important. Ajax is definitely the biggest and baddest dude after Achilles, but Odysseus is a survivor and a schemer. Both figures are important to Achilles as well: Gregory Nagy argues that Ajax and Odysseus are a thematic pair during the embassy to Achilles in book 9. As Nagy notes, Phoinix calls them “the best men in the Achaean army” (9.520-1).
The real difficulty is where they really are the best: Ajax is second in the Iliad but Odysseus is the first in the Odyssey, even if only because he’s still alive! Odysseus is definitely in on their differences: he bestows faint praise upon him when he describes: “Ajax, who was best in size and looks / of all the Danaans after Peleus’ blameless son” Αἴαντός θ’, ὃς ἄριστος ἔην εἶδός τε δέμας τε / τῶν ἄλλων Δαναῶν μετ’ ἀμύμονα Πηλεΐωνα. (11.469-470). And he allegedly addressed him when he went to consult the ghost of Teiresias.
Odyssey 11. 543-562
“Only the ghost of Telamon’s son, Ajax
Stood apart, still angry over the victory
That I won over him in when I competed near the ships
For Achilles’ weapons. His divine mother set the competition
And the Trojan children judged it along with Pallas Athen.
Oh, I wish that I had never won in that kind of a contest!
The earth covered over such a man as Ajax over these things,
A man who was preeminent in size and accomplishments
Among the rest of the Danaans after Peleus’ blameless son.
I was trying to address him with kind words:
“Ajax, blameless child of Telamon, even in death
Were you not ready to give up your anger with me over the weapons,
Those ruinous weapons which the gods gave as pain to the Argives!
For you were lost as such a tower over them! The Achaians
Grieved over your passing endlessly even equal to
The loss of the life of Peleus’ son Achilles.
No one is to blame apart from Zeus who tortured the army
Of the spear-carrying Danaans so terribly, he set this fate for you.
Come, lord, com here to listen to my word and speech.
Master your anger and your proud heart.”
οἴη δ’ Αἴαντος ψυχὴ Τελαμωνιάδαο
νόσφιν ἀφεστήκει, κεχολωμένη εἵνεκα νίκης,
τήν μιν ἐγὼ νίκησα δικαζόμενος παρὰ νηυσὶ
τεύχεσιν ἀμφ’ ᾿Αχιλῆος· ἔθηκε δὲ πότνια μήτηρ,
παῖδες δὲ Τρώων δίκασαν καὶ Παλλὰς ᾿Αθήνη.
ὡς δὴ μὴ ὄφελον νικᾶν τοιῷδ’ ἐπ’ ἀέθλῳ·
τοίην γὰρ κεφαλὴν ἕνεκ’ αὐτῶν γαῖα κατέσχεν,
Αἴανθ’, ὃς περὶ μὲν εἶδος, περὶ δ’ ἔργα τέτυκτο
τῶν ἄλλων Δαναῶν μετ’ ἀμύμονα Πηλεΐωνα.
τὸν μὲν ἐγὼν ἐπέεσσι προσηύδων μειλιχίοισιν·
‘Αἶαν, παῖ Τελαμῶνος ἀμύμονος, οὐκ ἄρ’ ἔμελλες
οὐδὲ θανὼν λήσεσθαι ἐμοὶ χόλου εἵνεκα τευχέων
οὐλομένων; τὰ δὲ πῆμα θεοὶ θέσαν ᾿Αργείοισι·
τοῖος γάρ σφιν πύργος ἀπώλεο· σεῖο δ’ ᾿Αχαιοὶ
ἶσον ᾿Αχιλλῆος κεφαλῇ Πηληϊάδαο
ἀχνύμεθα φθιμένοιο διαμπερές· οὐδέ τις ἄλλος
αἴτιος, ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς Δαναῶν στρατὸν αἰχμητάων
ἐκπάγλως ἤχθηρε, τεῒν δ’ ἐπὶ μοῖραν ἔθηκεν.
ἀλλ’ ἄγε δεῦρο, ἄναξ, ἵν’ ἔπος καὶ μῦθον ἀκούσῃς
ἡμέτερον· δάμασον δὲ μένος καὶ ἀγήνορα θυμόν.’
Personally, I don’t know if Odysseus is entirely serious when he laments “Oh, I wish that I had never won in that kind of a contest!” And it seems typical of this particular hero that he does not allow us to hear Ajax speak.
This passage is typically taken as our earliest evidence of the conflict. According to a scholion, the “Trojan children” were captives Agamemnon assigned to judge, asking which of the two heroes had caused the Trojans the most harm (Schol. In Hom. Od H. 11.547). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the two of them deliver orations explaining why they deserve the weapons and the people vote. In Sophocles’ play, it seems that the Atreids made the choice together.
The conflict over the weapons is in some sources over the glory of retrieving the Palladion for the city (see Gantz 1993, 645-6) while more sources place the argument over the arms in the lost Aithiopis or the Little Iliad where Odysseus wins through Athena’s help and, as best dramatized in Sophocles’ Ajax, Telamon’s son loses his mind and kills himself.
I am not saying that we could redress an injustice committed long ago, but think about Odysseus’ words when you cast your vote.