Shivani Mohan on the Suicide of Ajax

Ajax suicide 2Around 540 BCE, Exekias illustrated the epic hero Ajax preparing to commit suicide on an Attic black figure amphora. Exekias focused on a single, poignant moment, one that inspires discussion to this day. Ajax prepares to impale himself on a blade stuck in the ground. The context behind this scene is that Ajax was denied the armor of the dead warrior, Achilles; it was, instead, given to Odysseus. That act enraged Ajax; in a maddened state he believed that he had slaughtered his comrades but then learned that he had actually killed some sheep. Shocked by his own actions, Ajax prepares his suicide.

Exekias freezes an instant while alluding to the future action of Ajax taking his own life.[1] Ajax is poised and prepared. His face is determined; no hesitation is apparent. Painted on an amphora, this scene acts as a piece of conversation while dining. Ajax, an epic hero, valued the armor of Achilles and specifically the significance of passing down the armor in accordance with tradition. However, during this period, the use of weaponry as a symbol of social status was rare[2]. This indicates that the armor of the story (Achilles’ armor) was more important for the discussion it started, rather than the value it held.

The story the amphora conveys evokes the 7th century BCE poet Callinus of Ephesos. Callinus states, “A man, as he dies, should make one last throw with his spear. It is a high thing, a bright honor, for a man to do battle.” For Ajax, this battle was with himself. “Often a man who has fled from the flight…goes his way, and death falls him in his own house.” Ajax does not flee. He takes control to ensure that he is remembered for his heroic acts, because as Callinus says, “the great and small alike mourn when a hero dies. For all the populace is grieved for the high-hearted warrior after his death.” By his actions, Ajax dies a hero’s death and secures his “bright honor.”

[1] Neer, Richard T. Greek Art and Archaeology. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2012. 144-45.


[2] Hans van Wees, “Greeks Bearing Arms: The state, the leisure class, and the display of weapons in archaic Greece,” in Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence, N. Fisher and H. van Wees, eds. (London: Duckworth, 1998), pp. 333-79.