death of Ajax in the Roman de Troie

In writing his twelfth-century Romance of Troy {Roman de Troie}, Benoît de Sainte-Maure used as primary sources the Trojan War histories of Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis. Yet Benoît went considerably beyond these sources in narrating the death of Ajax, son of Telamon. Benoît’s account of Ajax’s death seems to have drawn upon an independent source rooted in the archaic Greek epic cycle. Narrative motifs from the Greek epic cycle in addition to those in the works of Dares and Dictys apparently reached twelfth-century France .

According to Dares, late in the Trojan War the great Greek warrior Ajax Telamon went into battle without armor. Dares said nothing more than that after Paris wounded Ajax with an arrow shot, Ajax pursued him and killed him. Then Ajax died from wounds to his unarmored body. Dares provided no explanation or authorial evaluation of Ajax having gone into battle without armor. That circumstance occurs merely as an explanatory fact in the narrative.[1]

Dictys placed Ajax’s death in the context of bitter argument over which Greek warrior would receive the Palladium, a prize taken from Troy. Agamemnon and Menelaus favored giving the Palladium to Ulysses since he had convinced the Greeks not to kill Helen. Ajax in turn became furious at not receiving the Palladium. That night the Greeks angrily separated. The next day they made a troubling discovery:

At the first light we found out in the open Ajax dead. Looking around, we noticed that the type of his death was being killed by a sword.

{ at lucis principio Aiacem in medio exanimem offendunt perquirentesque mortis genus animadvertere ferro interfectum. }[2]

Who killed Ajax isn’t specified in Dictys’s sparse, dry narrative. Dictys also provides no indication that Ajax went mad. Madness is a much different mental state from the normative Greek emotion of anger at being dishonored.

Expanding significantly Dares’s account of Ajax’s death, Benoît narrated Ajax behaving strangely in battle. Benoît called this experienced warrior a fool:

King Ajax went to battle in the forefront.
He was so full of recklessness
that he didn’t wear armor, or take any with him.
He wanted to be wholly naked in battle.
If he didn’t watch out for himself, that would be crazy
because his enemies would hit him with many heavy blows.

Ajax went about the battle
fighting without a hauberk or visor,
without helmet laced on or shield hanging from his neck.
He should have well realized that he was a fool
to have plunged into a such a place
naked of armor for his sides and chest.
It’s a wonder that he survived so long.

{ Reis Aiaus vait premerains:
Tant par est d’estoutie pleins
Qu’armes ne prent ne qu’il nes baille;
Toz nuz vueut estre a la bataille.
S’il ne s’i guarde, il fait que fous,
Quar mout li dorra l’om granz cous

Aïaus vait par la bataille,
Qui n’a hauberc ne n’a ventaille,
Heaume lacié n’escu al col:
Bien se devreit tenir por fol,
Qu’il en tel lieu s’est embatuz.
Le piz e les costez a nuz:
C’est merveille que il tant dure. }[3] 22609-14,22759-65

The “madman {forsené}” Ajax died horrifically:

And on that side, Ajax was very mangled
such that he wasn’t whole in neither his hands nor feet,
head nor chest, ribs nor arms.
Spilled blood made him more crimson than vermilion silk.
God never made any man who if he saw Ajax,
his heart wouldn’t become wholly frozen.

With great effort and great pain
his soul left his body as he
almost chewed it with his clenching teeth.

{ E cil par est si detrenchié
Qu’il n’a entier ne main ne pié,
Teste ne piz, costé ne bras.
Plus fu vermeiz que nus cendaz:
Deus ne fist home, s’il le veit,
Que toz li cuers ne l’en esfreit.

A grant travail e a grant peine
Li est l’ame del cors eissue:
Por poi qu’as denz ne la manjue. } 22825-36

Beyond his sources Dares and Dictys, Benoît seemed to have a sense of the mad Ajax described in the cyclical Little Iliad and Sophocles’s tragedy Ajax. In those Greek works, Ajax becomes furious at not receiving Achilles’s armor after the death of that great Greek warrior. Ajax madly slaughters cattle in the belief that he is attacking Agamemnon and Menelaus. Ashamed at his action, he then kills himself with his sword. Benoît re-presented the madness of Ajax as him foolishly going into battle without armor and then chewing his soul with his teeth as he expired in death.

Benoît plausibly elaborated on the madness of Ajax based on an additional source. The Rawlinson Destruction of Troy {Excidium Troie} attests to medieval survival of a Latin chronicle independent of Dares and Dictys.[4] That Latin chronicle probably preserved an account of Ajax madly killing cattle like that found in the Greek Little Iliad and Sophocles’s Ajax. Benoît was sensitive to the sensational, such as astonishing realities of gender, and apparently sought to retain the attention of a diverse audience. Elaborating on the madness of Ajax is consistent with Benoît’s general approach to narrating the matter of Troy.[5]

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[1] Dares of Phygia {Dares Phrygius}, The History of Troy’s Fall {De excidio Troiae historia} 35. For Latin text and English translation, Cornil (2011).

[2] Dictys of Crete {Dictys Cretensis}, Chronicle of the Trojan War {Ephemeris belli Troiani} 5.15, Latin text from Meister (1872), my English translation. For a full English translation, Frazer (1966).

[3] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie, vv. 22609-14, 22759-65, Old French text from Constans (1904), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017). Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced. They are vv. 22779 (madman) and 22825-36 (And on that side, Ajax was very mangled…).

[4] Atwood (1934) p. 396. For an English translation of the Rawlinson Excidium Troie, Fadhlurrahman (ND). The text of Homer’s Iliad is thought to have first entered medieval Europe when Petrarch acquired a copy in 1354. Petrarch, however, was unable to read the ancient Greek. On the reception of Trojan myth through history, Solomon (2007). Highlights of Greek tragedies may have existed in medieval Europe in variant theatrical forms. Symes (2011).

[5] On Benoît’s method of narration, Kelly (1995) and Kelly (1999) Ch. 4.

[image] Ajax kills himself with his sword. Painting on a red-figured calyx-krater. Made c. 400–350 BGC. Preserved as accession # GR 1867.5-8.1328 (Cat. Vases F 480) in the British Museum. Credit: Blacas Collection. Image thanks to Jastrow (2006) and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s a vase painting, made c. 490 BGC, of Ajax’s suicide.


Atwood, E. Bagby. 1934. “The Rawlinson Excidium Troie — A Study of Source Problems in Mediaeval Troy Literature.” Speculum. 9 (4): 379-404.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Mauré: a translation. Gallica, 41. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. Reviews by Sylvia Federico and by Cristian Bratu.

Constans, Léopold, ed. 1904-12. Le roman de Troie, par Benoît de Sainte-Maure, publié d’après tous les manuscrits connus. Société des Aanciens Textes Français. Paris: F. Didot. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Cornil, Jonathan Cornil. 2011. Dares Phrygius’ de excidio Trojae historia: philological commentary and translation. Thesis for Masters Degree in Linguistics and Literature. Ghent University, The Netherlands.

Fadhlurrahman, Muhammad Syarif, trans. ND. Excidium Troiae or Destruction of Troy. Internet Archive.

Frazer, R. M., trans.. 1966. The Trojan war: the Chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kelly, Douglas. 1995. “The invention of Briseida’s story in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Troie.” Romance Philology. 48 (3): 221-241.

Kelly, Douglas. 1999. The Conspiracy of Allusion: description, rewriting, and authorship from Macrobius to medieval romance. Leiden: Brill.

Meister, Ferdinand Otto, ed. 1872. Dictys cretensis ephemeridos belli troiani. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Solomon, Jon. 2007. “The Vacillations of the Trojan Myth: Popularization & Classicization, Variation & Codification.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition. 14 (3-4): 3-4.

Symes, Carol. 2011. “The Tragedy of the Middle Ages.” Pp. 335-369 in Gildenhard, Ingo, and Martin Revermann, eds. Beyond the Fifth Century: interactions with Greek tragedy from the fourth century BCE to the Middle Ages. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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