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. Ajax prevailed in the first match. Today, the match we were all waiting for.
In the Odyssey, Ajax is 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 in the Iliad he is curiously the “best of men while Achilles was raging” (ἀνδρῶν αὖ μέγ’ ἄριστος ἔην Τελαμώνιος Αἴας ὄφρ’ ᾿Αχιλεὺς μήνιεν, 1.768-769). I think that these moments acknowledge how important Ajax is in the Trojan War, but indicate, perhaps, that this importance is softened in the Iliad. In iconography of the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE, Ajax appears in some of the most memorable repeated images: seated, playing a game with Achilles; carrying Achilles’ corpse from the battle field; fighting with Odysseus over Achilles’ weapons; and taking his own life on Hektor’s sword. In the Iliad, he is really important in book 9 (when he is part of the embassy to Achilles) but on the battle field, he lags behind Diomedes, Odysseus, Patroklus, and Achilles (check this info-graphic). Ajax is a versatile killer: in the Iliad he slays with spear, sword and stone. Compared to Diomedes, however, Ajax may be just a replacement level Achilles.
So, maybe Ajax’s secondariness was always important in the Homeric tradition? Well, now we have a chance to make it official
Diomedes has some important presence in myth outside of the Iliad too, most famously for taking Thebes with the Epigonoi (a lost epic), giving him the right to claim himself better than his father. He is important following the events of the Iliad where he helps Odysseus get the palladion from Troy (only to almost get murdered for it.
Homer seems to have a special place for Diomedes. He is there doing what Achilles should be when Peleus’ son is absent; and he mostly disappears when Achilles is gone. (He even gets wounded in the foot by Paris!) He has the greatest number of kills of all the Achaeans, but, a good third of them are against unarmed men. There may be a little two much Odysseus to this figure—which may be the point. Diomedes is, in a way, something of a compromise between the ruthless intelligence of Odysseus and the brute force of Achilles. Importantly, Diomedes accomplishes a lot of his action through speech, perhaps allowing him to become the kind of political figure Achilles could have been, if not for his overpowering rage.
May the (second) best hero win.