Odysseus: Hero of Athenian Democracy

In this series of posts, I examine the various versions of Odysseus/Ulysses that appear in the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans in an attempt to create a clear picture of who Odysseus really is. Most of the content in this series was written in February of 2013, as part of an assignment for a advanced literature course at Santa Clara University called Classical Mythology in the Western Tradition. In this class, we traced two major mythological figures, Odysseus and Helen, through the western literary tradition, from the ancient days to their modern incarnations.


Odysseus: Hero of Athenian Democracy

As we move from heroic bronze-age epics of Homer to the tragic plays of Athenian drama, an important distinction must be made between the setting of these stories and the cultural, historical, and political backgrounds in which they were written.

Although many Greek tragedies take place in the mythological bronze age, the era which the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer come from, we must realize that this era was treated by the Athenian playwrights as a mere canvas of mythological material upon which they projected the ideas of their world: the world of a democratic Athens.

Sophocles’ play Ajax represents the rise of democratic ideals through the admirable and heroic moral adaptability of Odysseus. So, what is our first impression of Odysseus in this play? Athena begins by describing him in the following way: “Always I have seen you, son of Laertes, seeking to snatch some occasion against your enemies”[1].

This outlines the moral expectation of the bronze age: that a man should, at all times, be prepared to strike against his enemies. According to the events of the play, one of Odysseus’ enemies should be the warrior Ajax, for the simple reason that Ajax has just tried to kill him.

Here’s a quick summary: After the death of Achilles, the Greeks awarded his prized armor to Odysseus, not Ajax—and Ajax is absolutely furious. Seeking vengeance, Ajax tries to kill Odysseus, as well as the leaders of the Greek army, the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus,  whom he blames for taking what should be his prize away from him[2].

Athena redirects Ajax’s rage and causes him to kill livestock rather than his real targets[3], but she extends his madness far longer than necessary to simply protect Odysseus and the Atreidae (i.e., the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus).She takes the moral system of the bronze age to its logical conclusion: Ajax is an enemy of the Greeks now that he has turned against Odysseus and the Atreidae, and so, he must now be destroyed.

She utterly humiliates him by causing him to torture animals instead of men and then asks Odysseus to see “this madness openly, so that when you have seen it you may proclaim it to all the Greeks”[4], which would destroy Ajax’s reputation—an especially terrible fate for the ancient Greeks.

Athena seems to revel in the destruction of her enemies (remember that she is on the side of the Greek army during the Trojan War): she ironically humors Ajax by telling him “not to torture the wretch (Odysseus, but in fact a sheep) so cruelly”[5].

Odysseus, though, only feels pity for Ajax: “I pity him in his misery for all that he is my foe, because he is bound fast to a dread doom. I think of my own lot no less than his. For I see that we are but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows”[6].

The Athenians, in their system of democracy, favor those who are eutropulos—those who are good at turning or adapting. Odysseus, the polutropos man of twists and turns is one of those, for he can turn from the traditional morality of the bronze age—”destroy your enemies, but love your friends”—to a new, more flexible system.

After the death of Ajax, we see that Odysseus is able to perhaps not love but respect and honor his fallen foe. Ajax awakens from his madness and, believing that he has shamed himself by killing animals instead of men, decides to kill himself. Instead of displaying hatred for his enemy, Odysseus advocates for the proper burial of Ajax, against the wishes of the Atreidae, who, purely out of vengeance, wish to deny the burial[7]. It is his moral adaptability that allows Odysseus to conduct himself honorably.

Of course, Odysseus has a practical end goal in mind: he allows Ajax to be buried, for “I too shall come to that need.” Agamemnon criticizes this statement: “Truly, in all things alike each man works for himself!”[8] We might hope that an honorable hero would respect his foes purely out of altruism, rather than self-interest, but Odysseus is in fact following the Golden Rule: he treats others how he wants to be treated.

This is a democratic self-interest that promotes sympathetic, honorable behavior: he sees that “we are but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows.” Any of us might suffer a dreadful fate. We are all the same in the end, so we should treat each other equally and respectably, for that is what each individual would want.

Bernard Knox rightly points out that this “tolerance and restraint… is the mood of the new age, and of Athenian democracy at its best”[9]. Sophocles, in his portrayal of Odysseus, champions the rise of morally adaptable leaders of the admirable democratic variety, over those, like the Atreidae, who would take the vengeful justice of the bronze age to cruel extremes.

What makes the Ajax a tragedy is that this moral shift comes at the loss of those heroic individuals, like Ajax, who would battle to the death to defend their solid and immovable ideals.


The version of the Ajax that I read was from a book containing all seven of Sophocles’ surviving plays. The editor, Moses Hadas, took the old-fashioned Jebb translations of Sophocles and has apparently updated them for a modern audience.

However, though it is cheaper and more convenient to have all these tragedies collected together, this translation is probably not the easiest version to get through. It is decent, certainly, but the language is probably a bit too archaic for most readers.

Unfortunately, this version does not use line numbers, so that meant I needed to use page numbers when quoting from the play. If you want to follow along and see where certain quotes came from, you’ll need to use this exact version.

However, if you’d just like to read the Ajax play for your own knowledge or enjoyment (which I would suggest), here are some other editions I might recommend to you, even though I have not personally read them before.

First is the Sophocles II volume published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, containing the four plays of Sophocles that are not part of the Oedipus cycle (this includes Ajax, Philoctetes, The Women of Trachis, and Electra). The entire Greek tragedy collection of Grene and Lattimore has been the standard of translation for over fifty years, but has recently been updated in a third edition.

You might also want to try the translation by David Raeburn, the new edition from Oxford University Press, or the volume from Meineck and Woodruff. Again, I have not read these versions, but they are newer and more modern than the one that I read for class.

[1] Ajax, p. 3, The Complete Plays of Sophocles, R.C. Jebb, tr., (Bantam). Page numbers are used because line numbers are not listed. Because an electronic edition was used, the page numbers do not precisely match those of the physical text. Subsequent citations of the Ajax play are from this edition.
[2] Ajax, p. 12-3.
[3] Ajax, p. 4-5.
[4] Ajax, p. 5.
[5] Ajax, p. 6.
[6] Ajax, p. 7.
[7] Ajax, p. 25-36.
[8] Ajax, p. 33-4.
[9] B.M.W. Knox, “The Ajax of Sophocles,” HSCP 65 (1961) 1-37, p. 57.


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