On the Giant Height of Achilles, Ajax, and Orestes: Philostratus

Travis Jacobs, Steve Douglas, and Matthew Raymer at [Ad Hoc] Christianity have posted another round-up of biblical studies and theological blogging. In their podcast, “Episode #18: Blogosphere roundup, May 4, 2011“, they discuss a large number of blog posts over the last few weeks, including one from Remnant of Giants which was titled, “The Height of the Giants who survived the Flood“.

They also (and I speak in the plural, because I’m not sure if it was Travis, Steve, or Matthew) ask a question about the height given for Achilles, Ajax, and Orestes. Their height was depicted in this graphic art by homoerotic artist, He Thong:

In answer to your question, these statures appear in Heroikos, by Philostratus of Lemnos:

In his work Heroikos (“On Heroes”, ca. AD 230), the sophist Philostratus the Lemnian  addresses the general belief that ancient heroes averaged more than 10 cubits – equivalent to more than 4 meters or 12 feet – in height. Philostratus mentions, as an empirical evidence for giant heroes, the findings of  enormous bones in the places where the heroes’ tombs were traditionally assumed to lie.
 
On the basis of the sizes of those bones, Philostratus states that, for instance, Orestes – one of Agamemnon ‘s children – reached 3 meters or 10 feet; Ajax – king of Salamis and a principal character in Homer’s Iliad – was not less that 4.5 meters or 15 feet tall; and Achilles – the greatest warrior of the Trojan war, according to Homer – was a colossus 10 meter or 33 feet in height.
 
– He Thong
 
 So, this particular tradition concerning the height of Achilles, Ajax, and Orestes is quite late, from the end of classical antiquity – although Philostratus is reporting a belief about the height of these heroes which was already in existence in the early third century AD.
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5 thoughts on “On the Giant Height of Achilles, Ajax, and Orestes: Philostratus

    • You’re right, Johnny. They reach these exaggerated heights in legend reports which are much later than Homer. And the writings of Philostratus and Pausanias, while most probably reflecting earlier traditions, are quite a lot later.

      As for Homer, his Trojan-era heroes of the Iliad have a stature which sets them apart from later Greek rulers as members of the earlier heroic age, but not as superhuman as in Philostratus or Pausanias. In Il. 5.302–304, for example, Homer describes the son of Tydeus grasping a stone “that not two men could carry, such as mortals now are”. Also, Priam and Helen of Troy are able to pick out the heroic leaders Agamemnon, Odysseus and Ajax simply by surveying the Greek army and picking out “that awe-inspiring man [Agamemnon] over there, that fine, tall Greek” and Odysseus who is “shorter than Agamemnon but broader in the shoulders and chest” and “that other fine, tall Greek, head and shoulders above the rest … awe-inspiring Ajax, a tower of strength to the Greeks” (Il. 3.167–68, 193–94, 226–30).

      I hope that helps.

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    • Yes – Herodotus already gives the same height, about 3 metres, for Orestes, in Hdt 1.68.

      What I was meaning to explain is that the particular combination of heights given above (Achilles, 10m; Ajax, 4.5m, Orestes, 3m) is from Philostratus.

      Whereas, Ajax is only “head and shoulders” taller than the other Greeks in Homer (Il. 3.167–68). Philostratus and Pausanias evidence a further, but much later, exaggeration of the heights of heroes, one already begun in Herodotus, but not involving heights beyond 3m.

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