Sophocles’ Ajax contrasts the archaic man to the classical man, and shows us the shame culture that so characterizes traditional social orders.
Thought to be Sophocles’ earliest surviving play, Ajax is a study in archaic values. After the death of Achilles, Telamonian Ajax stands above the other Greeks as the greatest warrior, but the Greek chiefs award Achilles’ armour to the wily Odysseus. Stung by this dishonour, Ajax, “our dread lord of rugged might, now lies stricken with a storm that darkens the soul,” and the play moves to its gut-wrenching climax with all the fatalism of the best Greek tragedy.
In prizing honour above all and repaying insult with bloody vengeance, the character of Ajax becomes the pattern of archaic man, just as Odysseus becomes the pattern of the new man of Greece—cunning, clever, silver-tongued—with the choice of the Greeks revealing something of the new values that were to prevail in the classical age. Sophocles’ work is second to none, not even to Homer, in holding up the shame culture that so characterizes traditional social orders.