Creer on Dugan, 'The Many Lives of Ajax: The Trojan War Hero from Antiquity to Modern Times'

Timothy V. Dugan
Tyler Creer

Timothy V. Dugan. The Many Lives of Ajax: The Trojan War Hero from Antiquity to Modern Times. Jefferson: McFarland, 2018. 430 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6396-8

Reviewed by Tyler Creer (Brigham Young University) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Telamonian Ajax, bulwark of the Achaeans and prince of Salamis, is one of the more colorful supporting characters of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and Odyssey. Memorable for his imposing size, enormous shield, and ferocity in battle, Ajax has often been—and still is—thought of as nearly synonymous with great size and strength in a variety of sources from antiquity to the present. Timothy V. Dugan’s The Many Lives of Ajax examines a wide variety of these evocations of Ajax throughout time, with the intent of showing that Ajax’s name and image have endured for millennia as culturally significant symbols of size, strength, and ferocity, the study of which, Dugan claims, has long been underemphasized. Dugan marshals a broad sampling of sources in service to this ambitious undertaking, ranging from the Greco-Roman Classics, Renaissance paintings, and modern artwork to heavy construction equipment, European football teams, and laundry detergent. While Dugan is successful in establishing that Ajax’s name and image have been used consistently in a variety of ways, the book at times stumbles over the details: Dugan struggles to explain clearly why the Ajax symbol and its continual use are important, and the book is riddled with oversights and other errors that rather dramatically dampen its impact.

Dugan divides his tour through the “Ajax continuum” into twelve chapters, with each focusing on depictions of Ajax or uses of his name or image in a particular time period or genre of art or culture. The first half of the book confines itself primarily to more conventional sources, such as poetry, literature, and art; the second ranges much more broadly as it looks at modern military equipment like tanks and gas masks, giant cranes, modern films, and cleaning products. This variety of sources is a particular strength of the book, and Dugan should be commended for the range of examples on display, as it is entertaining to see the often wide-ranging and creative uses to which Ajax’s name and likeness have been put. The quality and depth of analysis of each of these sources varies wildly, however, and, as the book continues, Dugan seems to make increasingly less effort to explain how they are connected or why those connections (if they exist) are significant. Compounding this issue, the author is also prone to go on tangents and provide largely unnecessary background information, as exemplified by a several-pages-long lesson on Jacques-Louis David and the French Revolution in the midst of a discussion of a work of David’s student, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as an odd aside on a possible conjunction between Ajax and Freemasonry in the illustrations of John Flaxman. Overall, the book would have benefited from more aggressive editing—as it stands, much of the books feels like it could be tighter and more focused, which might have helped make the links between these disparate Ajax-centric sources and their significance clearer.

Yet perhaps the most significant and distracting issues with this book are its errors. Considering the amount and variety of material covered, the book is quite sparing with its references, and I found multiple instances where a work or author named in the text was neither cited in the endnotes nor listed in the bibliography. I am not an expert on all the areas Dugan examines (indeed, it seems unlikely that anyone could be), but it appears that Dugan, whose training is primarily in drama rather than literature, art history, or Classics, occasionally misunderstands or confuses aspects of the vast corpus of ancient Greek myth and the Trojan War, even with respect to Ajax’s exploits in the Iliad. For example, absent from Dugan’s discussion of the Iliad in antiquity is Ajax’s heroic stand in Book 15, where from atop the Achaeans’ beached ships he fends off the Trojan host with a massive ship pike; instead, Dugan attributes this scene to Flaxman’s illustrations for Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad, interpreting it as an iconoclastic recasting of the typically slow, lumbering, dimwitted Ajax into a swift and dynamic leader of men. Given Dugan’s stated aim of revitalizing Ajax’s image, his ignoring (either willfully or accidentally) scenes from the Iliad that do much to prove his point weakens his argument. Finally, the author’s overuse of informal language and adjectives, surprisingly frequent malapropisms, and consistent misspelling of foreign words (hara kiri is rendered in different instances as hara kari, hari kiri, and haru karu) not only presents frequent distractions and obstacles to understanding but also leads the reader to question the credibility and care of the book’s writing and editing.

Ultimately, The Many Lives of Ajax is something of a bold misfire. The book’s ambitious scope offers the reader an interesting glimpse at the many uses and reimaginings of Ajax over time, but, perhaps because of this very ambition and the difficulty of properly covering the many different time periods and artistic genres the book takes on, the work struggles to convince that Ajax’s image needs rehabilitation or that the many uses of his name and image are all connected in significant ways.

Citation: Tyler Creer. Review of Dugan, Timothy V., The Many Lives of Ajax: The Trojan War Hero from Antiquity to Modern Times. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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