Classics Sophocles’ Ajax
P. J. Finglass
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0262


Sophocles’ Ajax is one of seven dramas by that playwright which have survived complete. Probably performed around the 440s BCE, it depicts the crisis experienced by Ajax when he suffers a perceived slight by being denied the arms of Achilles after that warrior’s death. Sophocles’ play begins during the aftermath of Ajax’s failed attempt to destroy the Greek army in revenge for this injury. It depicts Ajax’s realization of what he has done, his decision to kill himself, and his concubine’s failed attempt to dissuade him; his suicide and the discovery of his body; the debates between his half-brother Teucer and the leaders of the army over what should be done with his body; and the eventual decision to bury him thanks to the intervention of his former foe Odysseus. The text, language, and imagery of the drama have long been the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny, as have characterization in the play, connections with contemporary politics, and issues of heroism and ethics.

Editions and Commentaries

The text of Sophocles is anything but settled, and different critical editions usually differ from each other in dozens of places. Some editions below are accompanied by a commentary that explains the text preferred by the editor, and also elucidates points of language and interpretation. Jebb 1896 has deserved classic status; Stanford 1963 is less important; Garvie 1998 and Finglass 2011 are more up to date. Other editions do not have an accompanying commentary. Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1992 is the most often used edition, but many of its textual choices are wayward and caution must be exercised in using it. The text of Lloyd-Jones 1997 is not exactly the same, and has a translation. Dawe 1996 should always be consulted, even if on the whole his choices are less reliable; Dain 1958 is now rather out of date. Kamerbeek 1963 contains a commentary without a printed text of the play, although that can be reconstructed from the textual preferences expressed in the commentary; but in general scholars and students alike can dispense with what is not a very impressive work.

  • Dain, A. 1958. Sofocle. Tome II. Ajax – Oedipe Roi – Électre. Texte établi par Alphonse Dain et traduit par Paul Mazon. Paris: Société d’édition “Les Belles Lettres.”

    A poor text with brief and unsatisfactory apparatus, out of date anyway thanks to subsequent manuscript collation; wildly conservative.

  • Dawe, R. D. 1996. Sophoclis Aiax. Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner.

    Text with detailed apparatus. Apparatus more reliable than that of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1992; textual decisions too often adventurous, however.

  • Finglass, P. J. 2011. Sophocles: Ajax. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Edition with introduction and detailed commentary incorporating a translation. The most up-to-date critical edition and commentary; analysis throughout of text, language, stagecraft, and meaning.

  • Garvie, A. F. 1998. Sophocles: Ajax. Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips.

    Edition with introduction, facing translation, and commentary keyed to the translation. Intended primarily for students, but very helpful for scholars too. Adopts a positive, “hero-worshipping” view of Ajax.

  • Jebb, R. C. 1896. Sophocles: Ajax. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Edition with introduction, facing translation, and commentary. A classic work, still valuable; simultaneously timeless and out of date. Reprinted in 2004 (Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press). Introduction by P. Wilson.

  • Kamerbeek, J. C. 1963. The plays of Sophocles: Commentaries. Vol. 1, The Ajax. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Commentary only. Rarely illuminating.

  • Lloyd-Jones, H. 1997. Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus. Loeb Classical Library 20, 21, 483. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Text slightly changed from Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1992 with brief apparatus and facing (not always reliable) translation. Corrected revision of 1994 impression.

  • Lloyd-Jones, H., and N. G. Wilson. 1992. Sophoclis Fabulae. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Text with apparatus. A deservedly standard edition, however sometimes vitiated by errors in the apparatus and excessive fondness for Lloyd-Jones’s own textual interventions. Corrected revision of 1990 impression.

  • Stanford, W. B. 1963. Sophocles: Ajax. London: Macmillan.

    A solid commentary, now showing its age.

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