220. Ajax

220. Ajax

H: c. 29 cm. L(greatest): c. 33 cm (toe-arm muscle); tip of beard-top of head: 7.7 cm
Allegedly from Asia Minor
Early Augustan

Hollow-cast by the lost wax method in five parts [1] joined to each other by fusion-welding, extensively cold-worked: patched, chased, burnished and polished. The eyes silver, the inlaid irises missing. Lips, nipples and button on pommel of sword inlaid in copper.

Condition: patina light olive green to blackish green, copper-coloured metal showing through in places, specks of light green cuprous chloride here and there, the odd spot of cuprite, traces of light-coloured earth incrustation; the surface, originally very smooth, in places scraped with superficial spots of pitting, a few pin-points - casting faults at join of arms and upper left thigh to body.

Missing the sword blade, the scabbard, the base on which he would have been seated, and at the join with the head a rectangular patch on the upper left side of his neck and a small one on the nape, at the hairline.

Ajax at daybreak comes to his senses. The instant when dawns upon him the terrible realization that only death can cleanse his honour. This is the Sophoclean version of Ajax [2].

Meditating his suicide, brooding and despondent, he would have been seated on a rock [3] probably cast at one with a small section of landscape figuring slain cattle and sheep. In his upraised right hand he held the unsheathed sword - maybe Hector's which he exchanged for his belt - of which the blade might have been of copper or silver, and in his left the scabbard.

Until recently [4], this was the only known representation of him in the round. The best previous comparison for the subject was a bronze patera in Lyon [5] with, on its omphalos in low relief, the same representation at this very pathetic moment of the drama. His right hand also in the same position holds the sword and he is seated on a draped rock with dead cattle at his feet; across his upper left thigh rests a scabbard and over his left forearm is the strap that would have held it. The latter an added indication, if one be needed, that the representation is Ajax, son of Telamon, King of Salamis; for Telamon means baldric in Greek. The Lyon patera has been dated by its handle and decorative elements to the 1st century A.D. Another revealing comparison is a terracotta lamp [6] reputedly from Naples in Vienna. The scene is almost identical but in addition there is a tree in the background. There are numerous gems illustrating the scene, among which one in Munich [7] shows a very similar representation.

In archaic times Ajax would have been shown in action, or dead. Only the great Black-Figure artist Exekias shows him contemplating suicide, and here, as with all the comparisons mentioned, we have a psychological study where the moment represented is before the action. Why a representation of Ajax at this time? B. Shefton [8] says: "It is very well possible that a Classical prototype, perhaps under the influence of Sophocles' play is indeed behind this particular iconography. It is then, however, puzzling that all its surviving precipitation should come at the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire". At first the author in his talk at Stara Zagora thought that this work harked back to a Classical original of the late 4th century, maybe a work by Lysippos, or in his tradition, though at his Getty conference he rhetorically asked "What is the date and what is the purpose or function of this admirable statuette? On account of its close parallel to the Belvedere Torso, its best comparison, its classical spirit and yet its Roman characteristics (such as the treatment of certain details, the left thigh, the shoulder-blades, the head and hair very well modelled and chiselled, the furrowed brow, also the stressed musculature, almost exaggerated, and the spinal groove, his beard and hair somewhat similar to the Boxer), we perceive between its classical inspiration and its execution reminiscences of baroque Pergamene art with eastern influences expressed in the muscles and thorax. I feel that we should place him in the second half of the 1st century B.C. and probably in the early reign of Augustus." The 1st century B.C. is a very eclectic period, but in spirit it is classicizing: Greek artists worked for Augustus. Ajax' expression bears strong resemblance with cameos of his time. J. Marszal, on a visit, pointed out that a detail such as his very severe eyebrows are characteristic of the Augustan Age. The subject of Ajax in a similar position was represented on a painting by Timomachos, one of the two paintings [9] which Julius Caesar brought back to Rome from Kyzikos for the temple of Venus Victrix. Whatever the date of the painting, whether 3rd or 1st century B.C., it reveals, with other examples such as the scene representing Ajax on the Tabula Iliaca Capitolina of the last quarter of the 1st century B.C., that Romans of the period were keenly aware of the subject.

The Torso Belvedere, contemporary in date, third quarter of the 1st century B.C., is the closest parallel and is also primarily to be seen from one viewpoint: "einansichtig".

Historically, psychologically and philosophically such a representation of Ajax is most appropriate for the period.

The last century B.C. was a terribly difficult time. There is civil war when Octavian becomes Augustus, with an atmosphere of perpetual uncertainty and insecurity. A representation of Ajax would have served a political purpose, have been a warning against dissension and disorder, and by inference would have been meant to be dissuasive.

Suetonius (Frgs. on the works of Augustus, 85,2) tells that Augustus was very interested in the psychology of Ajax and wrote a tragedy on the subject which he later destroyed. When his friends asked him what was becoming of his "Ajax", he answered "that he had thrown himself on a sponge". Augustus is here making a pun on the title of his tragedy, for Ajax threw himself on his sword, while Augustus has thrown himself on a sponge to erase any traces of his verses.

Historically both suicide and Ajax were in fashion just before and during the time of Augustus. Ajax was a very popular subject, for in a certain manner he incarnated the tragic condition of man, victim of the injustice of his peers. In philosophy the renewal of Stoicism honours the hero for his moral strength and will-power, thus serving as an example for all humans. As with Ajax who, shown in a moment of disarray and despair, feeling dishonoured, commits suicide; an act which the Stoics admitted, even approved of, if well planned. Suicide was an acceptable form of escape and served also as a mark of opposition to a bad prince or emperor.

Romans in official speeches, wishing to extol the virtues of an emperor, always referred to Ajax, Achilles or Hector.

In conclusion, it is probable that this work was made in the metropolis after an original of the 2nd century B.C. by a Greek artist, just as was his closest comparison, the Belvedere Torso, whose identity the author had suggested the Ajax might reveal. It is however R. Wünsche who appropriated the idea, developed and published it. It is, nevertheless, also possible that our Ajax was made in one of the great workshops of the Eastern Roman Empire for a Roman general or a philhellene prince or ruler.

On view: Antikenmuseum, Basel: 1988-1992

Mentioned: Wünsche, R.: Deutung und Wirkung des Torso vom Belvedere, Nürnberger Blätter zur Archäologie 8, 1991-92, pp. 61-69 ill. 57. - id.: Der Torso vom Belvedere. Denkmal des sinnenden Aias, MüJb 3. Folge, XLIV, 1993, pp. 7-46.

The author gave a twenty-minute exposé on this statuette of Ajax on 30 May at the VIIIth International Colloquium on Ancient Bronzes which took place at Stara Zagora on 28 May to 1 June 1984, and a one-hour talk at The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, entitled "Ajax contemplating suicide" on 25 April 1985. On these occasions he discussed different aspects and at the Malibu talk developed the historical context of the statuette covering the last two centuries that led up to it. But in both he drew attention to its closest parallel and comparison, the Belvedere Torso of which he showed several slides, matching views with the Ajax and said "en passant" that the present statuette could furnish the indication for the identification of the torso.

Subsequent to the author's 1985 talk and a visit to his collection by R. Wünsche when the author suggested the identification for the Belvedere Torso, Wünsche obtained photographs for study purposes only; but later he published a photograph and the identification in an article in 1991-92, neither acknowledging the paternity of the idea nor informing the author. This accomplished, a more thorough publication appeared in 1993, of which the author, once again, was not informed; but since he had written a letter of protest to Wünsche after the first publication, this time minimal acknowledgment was given.

At the closing of the George Ortiz Collection in the Hermitage, in a small symposium, George Ortiz spoke of Ajax, cat. no. 220, in detail, showing its closest comparison to be the Belvedere Torso and suggesting once again that the bronze could be the explanation for the latter's identification.

1 These are: the body with the right leg, the head (the join circling the base of the beard and continuing around at the hairline), both arms (the join below the shoulders), the left leg (the join running under the thigh where it meets the buttock following naturally the inguinal line and crossing on top at the back of the thigh and on its outer side). In fusion-welding the two parts are melted together at the join, adding superheated metal of similar composition. This is both a difficult and wasteful process: one has to fill the two parts with clay to avoid the hot metal running in (here it partially filled the left leg) and mount a mould inserting ducts and vents to allow the wax and gases to escape. Here, considerable cold-work has been carried out to attenuate the fusion-welding imperfections.

Below the buttocks traces of the soldering (probably soft solder - roughly 50% Pb & 50% Sn) that served to hold the figure on its base; a long oval opening below the right foot surely for the same purpose; the iron rod running down through the core of the right leg probably once extended into the base through the opening in the foot, though it may have been only to hold the core in place.

2 The tragedy (446-420 B.C.) of which a résumé of the argument is given us in F. Storr, Sophocles, Vol. II Loeb Classical Library (London/New York, 1919) as follows: "The arms of Achilles, claimed by Ajax as the bravest warrior in the host", bulwark of the Achaeans, erchos Achaion (Homer, Iliad III 229), the greatest hero after Achilles, whose body he recovered at great risk from under the walls of Troy that he might receive appropriate burial among his own "were through intrigue given to Odysseus, and Ajax vows vengeance both on the winner and on the awarders of the prize. But Athena, his patron goddess, whom his arrogance has estranged," for he committed the sin of hubris - he told her when she came to help him 'Go and look after other Achaeans, the line will never break where I stand' and to his father Telamon, King of Salamis, who asked him if he had sacrificed to the gods, that he could win glory without their help. He is punished for his arrogance and through intrigue the Achaean chieftains vote with a bare majority that the arms go to Odysseus, Athena's new protégé - "sends him a delusion so that he mistakes for his foes the sheep and cattle of the Greeks. Athena, when the play opens, is discovered conversing with Odysseus outside the tent of Ajax; she will show him his mad foe mauling the beasts within. The mad fit passes and Ajax bewails his insensate folly and declares that death alone can wipe out the shame. His wife Tecmessa and the Chorus try to dissuade him, but he will not be comforted and calls for his son Eurysaces. The child is brought, and after leaving his last injunctions for his brother Teucer, Ajax takes a tender farewell. He then fetches his sword from the tent and goes forth declaring that he will purge himself of his stains and bury his sword. Presently a Messenger from the camp announces that Teucer has returned from his foray and has learnt from Calchas, the seer, that if only Ajax can be kept within the camp for that day all may yet be well. The Chorus and Tecmessa set forth in quest of Ajax, and Tecmessa discovers him lying transfixed by his sword. Teucer finds the mourners gathered round the corpse and is preparing to bury him, when Menelaus hurries up to forbid the burial. After an angry wrangle with Teucer, Menelaus departs, but is succeeded by Agamemnon, who enforces his brother's veto and is hardly persuaded by Odysseus to relent." Odysseus says (Ajax 1357): "with me his worth outweighs his enmity.""Ajax is carried by his Salaminians to his grave, a grave (so they prophesy) that shall be famous for
all time."

3 As suggested by the comparisons and indicated by the uneven surface under his buttocks and the traces of soldering. The position also bears comparison with that of the Herakles in Tarentum, as described by Strabo (64 B.C.-A.D. 21).

4 The author was lucky enough to be offered from New York a small bronze statuette of Ajax (H: 6.75 cm), allegedly also from Asia Minor, seated on a draped rock, cast in one on a piece of landscape, its base, on which lie three dead animals, an ox, a ram and what appears to be a doe. His right hand in a similar position to that of the present statuette also holds the pommel of a sword, the blade missing, and in his left resting on the forearm is the scabbard, whereas on the present statuette it would have been held inside his arm.

5 Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine à Lyon Br. 144: Armand-Caillat, L.: Patères en bronze trouvées près de Lyon à l'Ile-Barbe, RA, 1959, p. 65 ff. - Boucher, S., Tassinari, S.: Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine à Lyon. Bronzes Antiques I (Paris, 1976), no. 138, pp. 122-123.

6 Kunsthistorisches Museum V 3601: Armand-Caillat, L.: op. cit., fig. 4. - LIMC I,1, no. 101, p. 328 ill. I,2, p. 245 (O. Touchefeu).

7 Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek A 458: LIMC I,1, no. 99, p. 328 ill. I,2, p. 245 (O. Touchefeu).

8Agamemnon or Ajax? RA, 1973, pp. 217-218.

9 The other was of Medea reflecting on the assassination of
her children.