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“The Ajax in Aeneas: Tragedy and Epic in the Boxing Ring in Aeneid 5”

Alice Hu

University of Pennsylvania

Allusion to Ajax has long been identified as a vector for the introduction of “further voices,” particularly voices questioning Aeneas’ leadership, into the Aeneid (Lyne, Panoussi). Most notably, in Aeneid 12, Vergil deploys an allusion to Ajax’s tragic tradition that shows Aeneas “as playing the role of the tragic Ajax” in a way that is “significant, and disturbing,” and that undermines the strain of the epic that portrays Aeneas as a selfless, dispassionate leader (Lyne).

I take as my starting point Lyne’s comment that “the suggestion of an Ajax in Aeneas is not large; it would welcome confirmation.” I focus on Aeneid 5, a book that scrutinizes Aeneas’ transformation into a proto-Roman and pater-figure for his followers. Given that Aeneid 5 functions as an Aeneid in parvo (Galinsky), whatever further voices Vergil builds into Aeneas’ pivotal transition in this book will guide our assessment of the hero overall and his actions at the climax of the epic.

In a close reading of the boxing match of Anchises’ funeral games, I show that Vergil deploys a network of allusions to Ajax. The episode mirrors Iliad 7’s duel between Hector and Ajax: just as when Hector issues the challenge to a duel, no volunteers step up to fight the champion Dares. When Dares throws down his well-worn seven-layered gloves, the spectators tremble, just as the Iliad’s Trojans tremble when Ajax steps forward with his signature seven-layered shield. At this point in their respective scenes, both Vergil and Homer linger on the objects’ unusual size, make, and history (Hom. Il. 7.206-25; Verg. Aen. 5.387-406). Affinities between Entellus and Ajax are further reinforced when the lumbering Entellus, tripped up by the nimbler Dares, falls, likened to a besieged city or tower (Verg. Aen. 539-40)—the tower being Ajax’s customary simile in both epic and tragedy (Hom. Il. 17.128-34, Soph. Aj. 158-9). I argue further that Entellus’ fall is an aggregate of Ajax’s humiliations and losses in Iliad 23’s funeral games. But, I argue, alongside heavy allusion to the Homeric Ajax are strong resemblances between Vergil’s Entellus and the tragic Ajax, particularly when the victorious Entellus substitutes animal sacrifice for human sacrifice at the end of the boxing match. Entellus’ substitution aligns with Ajax’s unwitting slaughter of sheep instead of those who awarded Achilles’ arms to Odysseus. The effect of this combination of epic and tragic Ajax in Entellus is to suggest that Entellus, like Ajax, exemplifies individualistic and asocial Achillean heroism at a time when Achillean heroism is increasingly outmoded, ambivalent, and potentially destabilizing to the collective and society.

Vergil’s casting of Entellus as an Ajax-like figure turns the boxing match of Aeneid 5 into an exploration of Ajax’s heroic identity, its potential dangers, and its obsolescence. Exactly such a debate about the advantages and drawbacks of various styles of heroism had, by Vergil’s time, assumed a kind of paradigmatic status: the contest between potential successors to Achilles, whether Ajax, Odysseus, or Neoptolemus (Michelakis, cf. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 13.1-398. This debate ultimately bears on our assessment of the hero Aeneas. If we understand Aeneid 5 as an Aeneid in parvo, then Aeneas’ role presiding over his father’s funeral games, as Achilles presides over those in Iliad 23, prefigures Aeneas’ identification as an alter Achilles in the Aeneid final half. Much of our interpretation of the Aeneid hinges on how we interpret that wildly ambiguous identification of Aeneas as a potential successor to Achilles. Is Aeneas an alter Achilles in the same sense that tragic tradition casts Ajax, the best of the Achaeans after Achilles, as an alter Achilles: a too-Achillean hero who has outlived his era? I find that the suggestion of Ajax in Aeneas is, in fact, a large one, and that the boxing match, with its heavy allusion to Ajax, enacts in parvo the central debate of the last half of the Aeneid about Aeneas’ heroism and his identification as an alter Achilles.

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Vergil and Tragedy

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