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In Book XVII of The Iliad, when Patroclus is killed and Zeus has turned the tide to the favor of the Trojans, we have this statement by Aias:

Aias and Menelaos also saw that the victory was passing from them, and Aias said:
"Damn in, any fool can see that Father Zeus is helping the other side. [...]
"I wish someone would go at once and tell Achillês. I don't believe he has even heard the bad news that his dear friend is dead. But I cannot see such a man anywhere; men and horses are all swallowed up in this mist. O Father Zeus, save the Achaians out of this mist! Make the sky clear, grant us to see with our eyes! Kill us in the light, since it is thy pleasure to kill us!"2

2"I did not go right in. It was indeed a Head-House, and I came to the sudden conviction that if I were to die I would much rather it were in the clear and open air."—Jack McClaren, My Odyssey, page 29. This natural wish has been expressed by other men in like case.

(translation by W.H.D. Rouse, 1938)

What's the significance of preferring to die in the light? Why is this so important, and why does Rouse include this other example as a footnote (it's not like footnotes are extremely common in this translation)? He says that it's a "natural wish", but doesn't elaborate on this any more.

Why is it so important to Aias that he "die in the light" as opposed to the mist?

2 Answers 2

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Here are a couple of examples of ancient writers who commented on this passage, showing two different ways in which it might have been understood in antiquity. First, pseudo-Longinus, in his discussion of sublimity in epic poetry:

I trust you will not think me tedious if I quote yet one more passage from our great poet (referring this time to human characters) in illustration of the manner in which he leads us with him to heroic heights. A sudden and baffling darkness as of night has overspread the ranks of his warring Greeks. Then Ajax in sore perplexity cries aloud—

                                Almighty Sire,
Only from darkness save Achaia’s sons;
No more I ask, but give us back the day;
Grant but our sight, and slay us, if thou wilt.

The feelings are just what we should look for in Ajax. He does not, you observe, ask for his life—such a request would have been unworthy of his heroic soul—but finding himself paralysed by darkness, and prohibited from employing his valour in any noble action, he chafes because his arms are idle, and prays for a speedy return of light. “At least,” he thinks, “I shall find a warrior’s grave, even though Zeus himself should fight against me.”

Pseudo-Longinus (1st century). On the Sublime, IX.10. Translated by H. L. Havell (1890). Project Gutenberg.

Second, Ammianus Marcellinus, in his history of how Doryphorianus set about the execution of the senator Aginatius:

Doryphorianus, as he was commanded, hastened to Rome by rapid journeys; and while beginning to discharge the duties of his new office, he exerted great industry to discover how he could put a senator of eminent family to death without any assistance. And when he learnt that he had been some time before found in his own house where he was still kept in custody, he determined to have him brought before him as the chief of all the criminals, with Anepsia, in the middle of the night; an hour at which men's minds are especially apt to be bewildered by terror; as, among many other instances, the Ajax of Homer shows us, when he expresses a wish rather to die by daylight, than to suffer the additional terrors of the night.

Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 380). Res Gestae, XVIII.54 Translated by C. D. Yonge (1911). Project Gutenberg.

I’m inclined to prefer the explanation in pseudo-Longinus, that Ajax is frustrated by being unable to find his enemies in the mist, as being more in keeping with the warrior’s character as presented elsewhere in the Iliad, but Ammianus’s explanation corresponds more closely with Rouse’s footnote.

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This is not an expression of a wish to die in the light, it is an expression of how much he wishes it were clear. He prays that Zeus will deliver them from the confusing mist, and concludes with a possibly hyperbolic statement that it would be better to die than suffer this gloom.

Aiax does not, after all, die on the battlefield, but commits suicide later.

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  • What about Rouse's footnote?
    – Mithical
    Mar 25, 2022 at 6:35

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