Ajax the Great
Aias the Great
To distinguish him from Aias, son of Oileus ("Aias the Lesser"), he was called Aias the Great or Telamonian Aias. In Homer's Iliad he is described as of great stature and colossal frame, the tallest among all the Achaeans, second only to his cousin Achilles in strength and bravery, and the 'bulwark of the Achaeans'. He was trained by the centaur Chiron (who had also trained his father, Telamon, and Achilles' father Peleus), at the same time as Achilles was. Outshone only by his cousin, Ajax was the most valuable king in the battlefield, though not as smart as Nestor, Idomeneus, or, of course, Odysseus. He commanded his army wielding a great axe and a huge shield made of seven ox-hides with a layer of bronze. He was indeed a great asset to king Agamemnon's army. He is not wounded in any of the battles described in the Iliad, and he is the only principal character on either side who does not receive personal assistance from any of the gods who take part in the battles. As such, he embodies the virtues of hard work and perseverance. He was half-brother to Teucer.
During the Iliad, Ajax is notable for his strength and courage, which he displays in abundance, particularly in two fights with Hector. In Book VII, Ajax is chosen by lot to meet Hector in a duel which lasts most of a whole day. Ajax at first gets the better of the encounter, wounding Hector with his spear and knocking him down with a large stone, but Hector fights on until the heralds, acting at the direction of Zeus, call a draw: the action ends without a winner and with the two combatants exchanging gifts.
In Book IX, Agamemnon and the other Greek chiefs send Ajax, accompanied by Odysseus and Phoenix, to the tent of Achilles, in an attempt to reconcile with the great warrior and induce him to return to the fight. Although Ajax speaks earnestly and is well received, he does not succeed in convincing Achilles.
The second fight between Ajax and Hector occurs when the latter breaks into the Achaean camp, and fights with the Greeks among the ships. In Book XIV, Ajax throws a giant rock at Hector which almost kills him. In Book XV, Hector is restored to his strength by Apollo and returns to attack the ships. Ajax, wielding a spear as a weapon and leaping from ship to ship, holds off the Trojan armies virtually single-handedly. In Book XVI, Hector is able to disarm Ajax (although Ajax is not hurt) and Ajax is forced to retreat under heavy fire. Hector and the Trojans succeed in burning one Greek ship, the culmination of an assault that almost finishes the war.
All of the foregoing encounters happened when Achilles was not on the battlefield, because he was angered with Agamemnon. Ajax did manage to kill many of the other Trojan lords, including Phorkys.
When Patroclus dies, the Trojans try to steal his body and feed him to the dogs, accusing him of being a liar. Ajax is the man who fights to protect the body, and take it back safely to the camp, back to Achilles, the best friend and lover of Patroclus. Ajax, assisted by Menelaus, succeeds in fighting off the Trojans and taking the body back with his chariot; of course, the Trojans had already stolen the armor and left the body naked. Ajax's prayer to Zeus, to remove the fog which has descended on the battle - even if the Greeks are destined to lose - to allow them to die in the light, has become proverbial.
Like most of the other Greek leaders, Ajax is alive and well as the Iliad comes to a close.
Later, when Achilles dies, killed by Paris, Ajax and Odysseus are the heroes that fight against the Trojans to get the body and bury it next to his friend, Patroclus. Ajax, with his great axe, manages to get the Trojans away, while Odysseus pulls the body towards his chariot, and rides away. After the burial, both claim the armor for themselves, as recognition for their efforts. But in the end, after some discussion, Odysseus is given the armor. Ajax is furious about it, and falls to the ground, exhausted. When he wakes up, he becomes mad and goes to a group of sheep, and slaughters them, imagining they are the Trojan leaders, as well as Odysseus and Agamemnon. When he comes to his senses, covered in blood, and realises what he did, he decides that he prefers to kill himself rather than to live in shame. He did it with the same sword Hector had given him when they exchanged presents. (Odyssey, XI. 541). From his blood sprang a red flower, as at the death of Hyacinthus, which bore on its leaves the initial letters of his name Ai, also expressive of lament (Pausanias I. 35.4). His ashes were deposited in a golden urn on the Rhoetean promontory at the entrance of the Hellespont.
The foregoing account of his death is from the Ajax of Sophocles; in Pindar's "Nemea", 7; and in Ovid, Metamorphoses, xiii. 1. Homer is somewhat vague about the precise manner of Ajax's death but does ascribe it to his loss in the dispute over Achilles's armour: when Odysseus visits Hades, he begs the soul of Ajax to speak to him, but Ajax, still resentful over the old quarrel, refuses and descends silently back into Erebus.
Like Achilles, he is represented (although not by Homer) as living after his death in the island of Leuke at the mouth of the Danube (Pausanias iii. 19. 11). Ajax, who in the post-Homeric legend is described as the grandson of Aeacus and the great-grandson of Zeus, was the tutelary hero of the island of Salamis, where he had a temple and an image, and where a festival called Aianteia was celebrated in his honour (Pausanias i. 35). At this festival a couch was set up, on which the panoply of the hero was placed, a practice which recalls the Roman Lectisternium. The identification of Ajax with the family of Aeacus was chiefly a matter which concerned the Athenians, after Salamis had come into their possession, on which occasion Solon is said to have inserted a line in the Iliad (II. 557 or 558), for the purpose of supporting the Athenian claim to the island. Ajax then became an Attic hero; he was worshipped at Athens, where he had a statue in the market-place, and the tribe Aiantis was named after him.
Ajax is the son of Telamon, who was the son of Aeacus, son of Zeus. He is the cousin of Achilles, the most remembered Greek warrior. Many illustrious Athenians -- Cimon, Miltiades, Alcibiades, the historian Thucydides -- traced their descent from Ajax.