Ajax the Lesser's Role in The Iliad

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Ajax the Lesser is a skilled fighter, but it is his temper that often gets him into trouble. Especially in the funeral games for Patroclus, Ajax lets his skills be overshadowed by his anger.

Quick to Anger and Action

Have you ever known someone who acts first and thinks second? This is a pretty apt depiction of Ajax the Lesser, an Achaean hero of the Trojan War. He is quick to anger and to jump into a fight, but he doesn't always think things through. This lesson will focus on Ajax the Lesser's role in Homer's The Iliad.

Ajax was the son of Oileus, the ruling king of Locris. His mother's name was Eriopis. Ajax was one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, so he was bound by the oath all of the suitors swore to uphold whomever Helen chose. Thus, when Helen ran away with Paris to Troy, Ajax was honor bound to join Menelaus's effort to get her back.

Ajax the Lesser
Ajax the Lesser

Ajax in the War

Ajax the Lesser, also called Ajax of Locris, is a major contributor to the Achaean effort in the Trojan War. Homer tells how he brought 40 ships with him to the effort, and mentions that the Locrians are some of the fiercest fighters at Troy.

Ajax is called 'the Lesser' to separate him from Ajax from Salamis, also known as Ajax the Greater, who is the son of Telamon. Homer tells us that Ajax the Lesser is 'not nearly so great' as the other Ajax, meaning that he was much smaller. But he is a great warrior, and better with a spear than anyone on either side.

When the Trojan prince Hector is wounded by the other Ajax and has to leave the battlefield, Ajax the Lesser plays a great role in the ensuing fight. Much is made of Ajax's speed during this battle and later in the epic.

Called 'fleet' by Homer, Ajax is a whirlwind in the battle. He kills Satnius, an important Trojan ally, and then stops the Trojans from recovering the body. Homer tells us that during that battle, 'Ajax son of Oileus killed more than any other, for there was no man so fleet as he to pursue flying foes when Jove had spread panic among them.'

Athena answered the prayer of Odysseus
Athena answered the prayer of Odysseus

Ajax at the Funeral Games

During the funeral games for Patroclus, the slain friend of the hero Achilles, Ajax gets into an argument with Idomeneus when the latter calls out that he sees an Achaean winning the chariot race. Ajax snaps back that Idomeneus is an old man, who doesn't have the best eyesight. Idomeneus answers that although Ajax is an 'excellent railer,' he has terrible judgement and a 'vile temper.'

Ajax is about to shout back at the other warrior when Achilles intervenes, telling them both to settle down, which they do.

Later in the same games, there is a contest to see who the fastest runner is. Here, Ajax should excel. Homer even calls him 'the fastest runner among all the youth of his time.' The race is between Ajax, the Achaean captain Odysseus, and a man named Antilochus. Immediately, Ajax is off to a fast start and is winning the race.

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