A Lot of Patience, a Little Detective Work, and a Blessing on Google Translate – Update 1

Time certainly flies when you’re researching! Four weeks into my summer project, and I’m beginning to realize that this project is a much more extensive than I had ever imagined. Starting out, I intended to use depictions of the suicide of Ajax the Greater to compare the cultural climates on suicide in the Ancient World. This particular research has pushed me farther outside of my comfort zone than I have ever been. Beyond a familiarity with the tragic mythology of Ajax (long story short: he goes crazy, kills a bunch of sheep instead of the people he thought he was killing, and then kills himself out of shame), and a small foray into the informational treasure trove that is the LIMC, I knew almost nothing about the state of suicide in the Greco-Roman world. Instead of making an argument based on history I was familiar with or creating a survey report on a Classical topic, I felt more like a scientist testing a hypothesis with no idea where the research will take her. So I took the plunge into the murky waters of scholarship.

Step 1: There’s nothing more tragic than a play by Sophocles

For anyone who hasn’t sat through a class on Greek tragedy, Sophocles is one of the three major Athenian playwrights (along with Aeschylus and Euripides) whose works still exist today. Unfortunately for the modern world, the majority of the works written by Sophocles and his contemporaries do not survive (Example: Sophocles wrote approximately 130 plays, 17 exist today). However, fortunately for me, Sophocles’ Ajax is one of the few extant plays. As the suicide of Ajax is not recorded in Homer’s Iliad, I decided to begin my research by reading the first written record of Ajax’s death. While the end of Ajax’s life was a popular story in the oral mythology of the ancient world, I believed that the concrete dialogue and physical details that Sophocles included in his production.

Step 2: All of the articles…and new roads to explore

After finishing a close reading of Sophocle’s Ajax, I began to search for articles analyzing the subtleties of the text, especially those focusing on Ajax’s suicide, motivation, and shame. This venture into the realm of scholarly articles continued on to any papers which dealt with suicide in the Classical world as a whole, hoping to discover more information on the cultural climates and perspectives. It was at this point that I realized my project was about to divide into many other pathways to explore. Suicide is without a doubt an incredibly complex issue. After the first few articles, I understood that to do this project justice I would have to look at this tragic action from multiple angles: religion, philosophy, motivation, urban dynamics, and many more. To compare why one society might depict Ajax’s death a different way than another, I needed to understand how each society viewed not only the myth of Ajax but also suicide itself. Thus began the list of sources to look into…which is continuing to expand every day, full of more articles and books.

The Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae in all its glory

Step 3: The LIMC and detective work

Ahh, the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) was a magical and simultaneously frustrating tool. Composed of a multiple volumes, this lexicon records all of the ancient artistic depictions of every mythological character. Yeah, it’s a real thing. The first time I beheld the article on Ajax, I almost shed a tear of happiness…which quickly turned into a tear of frustration since the article is entirely in French. Since the LIMC was such a huge undertaking, scholars from all over the world contributed meaning articles can be in English, French, Italian, or German. Unfortunately for me, AIAS I, or Ajax the Greater, was in French, but that’s where Google Translate comes in. With eight pages alone on depictions of the suicide which were organized by method, I got to work translating and then organizing the twenty eight representations by culture which allowed me to see that while Corinthian art had eight artworks of Ajax’s death and the Etruscans had thirteen, Greece and Rome only had three each. Bolstered by this disparity, I then decided to organize by date which is where I truly hit a road block. While the LIMC has everything from detailed descriptions to provenance to current museum location, it does not have the dates of any of the objects. This meant that for the next section of my research, I was visiting museum websites and searching for obscure books on ancient artifacts and art collections. While some dates were easy to find, like those of artifacts housed in the Louvre or the Met, others were impossible as some museum lack websites or don’t allow online access to their entire collection. So while I have approximately time periods for two-thirds of the objects from the LIMC, the other third is sadly unknown, but I intend to try to find a way to date them as this will help me to assess whether a depiction was influenced by Sophocles’ play or a significant event in history.

A Page from the LIMC's AIAS I

A Page from the LIMC’s AIAS I

 

Comments

  1. Hi! I just wanted to take some time and let you know that your project seems super interesting. I really enjoy Greek plays and especially tragedies, so this plays right into my interests. I think it’s interesting how you are taking suicide, which seems to be a rather narrow topic, and delving into it and exploring its context not only in literature but in the Ancient World as a whole.
    I suppose it also stuck out to me when looking through the other Monroe Project updates because I had been reading about suicide rates related to the stress that the educational systems place on students. Just as I was shocked that a study found that 92.7 percent of primary and middle school student suicides in 2013 in China were due to arguments with teachers or due to the heavy pressure to study, I’m sure you have/will uncover some causes for suicide in the Ancient World to be rather foreign as compared to what drives suicide in modern America.
    Best of luck with the rest of your project!