Greek camp. Encampment of the Greek army outside the walled city of Troy where the play opens in front of the Greek hero Ajax’s hut. His position is dangerously exposed; the location reflects both his reputation for reliability as a warrior and his political marginality. To appreciate this setting, one must understand the disposition of troops in ancient Greek war camps. Inferior in strength only to the dead Greek hero Achilles, Ajax guarded the second most vulnerable area, providing protection for the Greek ships. Since Achilles is dead when the play opens, the location of Ajax’s hut suggests that Ajax now is the preeminent warrior.
However, there are more ways than geography to judge merit. Athena, goddess of wisdom, as well as the Greek commanders Agamemnon and Menelaus, believe that clever Odysseus is more deserving than Ajax of being awarded the fallen Achilles’ armor. Feeling affronted, Ajax sets out to kill those who have slighted him, and his hut becomes both the location of his mad acts and a visual reminder of his disastrous intent. Colored by what can be learned through dialogue about Ajax’s actions there, the site becomes an encapsulation of the plot: Ajax’s physical preeminence, the affront to him, and his madness in mistaking cattle for humans and dragging them into the hut to torture and kill them.
Wooded area. The second setting is the area to which Ajax, sane again and shamed by his mad assault upon animals instead of enemies, withdraws to commit suicide. The remoteness of the site reflects Ajax’s isolation from his former comrades and his desolation. Other characters enter the area only after he dies, and his corpse then functions as part of the setting, silently testifying to the issue that confronts survivors: Should the former hero be honored with burial, or should he be abandoned in this desolate terrain to become carrion for wild dogs and vultures? In the end, the traditional belief in honoring the dead triumphs, promoted by the noble Odysseus. Under the direction of Teucer, the dead man’s brother, Ajax receives a hero’s burial at the site.
In the fifth century B.C., life in Greece was characterized by warfare and epic battles. For many years Greece struggled to expand its empire, and it was inevitable that conflict would result. Athens enjoyed her first great military triumph at the Battle of Marathon in 491 B.C., when legend has it, some 20,000 Greeks defeated the 100,000 man Persian army. The numbers were probably much lower, but the odds were definitely against the Greeks, who proved that superior discipline and courage were stronger than sheer numbers.
This was the first major defeat for the Persian army, whose strength and reputation actually scared and intimidated many Greek soldiers. This victory would inspire the story of a courier who ran to Athens with news of the victory but then fell dead of exhaustion upon his arrival, thus inspiring the idea of 26-mile marathon races, which endures to modern times.
Within ten years, the tables would turn. The Persian army—then more than two million men— would score a huge victory, pushing the Greek army into retreat. The Persians sacked Athens, but within a month, the Greeks once again got the upper hand, and in a decisive naval victory, more than 1000 Persian ships were sunk. Within a year, the Persian invasions stopped completely, and Greece once again entered a peaceful period known as the Golden Age of Greece.
These are the battles that form a backdrop to Sophocles’s childhood. These historical events are filled with heroic men and great leaders, tremendous odds and great victories, and function as the source material for much of Greek theater.
Greek drama needed these larger-than-life heroes, since real life did not seem to provide material for heroic drama. Historically, there are many complaints about Greek tradesmen, who were well known for short-changing their customers and lying about their goods. Many...
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