Odysseus: The Politician

In this series of posts, I examine the various versions of Odysseus/Ulysses that appear in the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans in an attempt to create a clear picture of who Odysseus really is. Most of the content in this series was written in February of 2013, as part of an assignment for a advanced literature course at Santa Clara University called Classical Mythology in the Western Tradition. In this class, we traced two major mythological figures, Odysseus and Helen, through the western literary tradition, from the ancient days to their modern incarnations.


Odysseus in the Hecabe of Euripides: The Politician

Euripides’ Hecabe takes a much more negative and bleak view of the morally adaptable Odysseus than Sophocles does. Here, Odysseus attempts to justify a particularly cruel act: the sacrifice of the Trojan girl Polyxena to the ghost of Achilles. After Troy is destroyed, the Greeks try to sail away and return home, but they become stranded in Thrace, a region north of Troy. The spirit of Achilles seemingly stops the winds from blowing so that the Greeks cannot set sail until they kill Polyxena and grant him the honor that he deserves[1].

Odysseus claims that it would be “shameful if the man we treated as a friend while he lives should forfeit that friendship now that he is dead.” Further, he claims that honoring Achilles would give incentive for other men, including Odysseus himself, to fight in future wars because they would see that those who die in battle will be properly honored[2]. This is a perversion of the heroic conclusion made by Odysseus in the Ajax: that this dead man should be honored because that is what any man would want.

The difference here is that Odysseus is motivated not by a philosophical understanding of the common fate of men, but rather the practical concern of making sure the men will be willing to fight again someday. The problem is that the action he wants to justify is the death of an innocent young girl, who like Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia (sacrificed so that the winds would bring the fleet to Troy, at the beginning of the war), has done nothing wrong.

To make matters worse, one of the practical goals named above—making the winds blow again—may not have mattered in the end. Despite Polyxena’s death in the first arc of the Hecabe, the wind does not pick up until the very end of the play[3], after the entire second arc of the play in which Hecabe takes her revenge on Polymestor for betraying her son.

Would the winds have picked up even if Polyxena were not killed? We do not know the answer to that question. Euripides in this way demonstrates his skeptical view of the divine: do the gods or the spirits of the dead really have an impact on the world of the living? Significantly, if the sacrifice has no impact on the winds—or at least if the audience questions it—Euripides diminishes one of the justifications for Odysseus’ actions.

Compare this to the Philoctetes, where Odysseus’ goal is obviously helpful for all parties, including Philoctetes himself, the “victim” of Odysseus’ mistreatment. Here, his goals possess reduced practical gain.

Furthermore, Polyxena is in no way helped by Odysseus: as heroically or nobly as she might face death[4], the fact remains that she is dead and did not need to be killed. Daniel Turkeltaub (who happens to be a professor in the Classics department at my university) writes that Odysseus, with the use of his persuasive rhetoric, romanticizes the “heroic ethos into a quest for posthumous honor” and “glamorizes death so as to appeal to Polyxena’s naïve vision of nobility”[5]. His persuasive language is not impressive or admirable, but rather despicable, for he talks a young woman into believing that her death would be a good thing.

Odysseus, though, is not the only one who advocates for Polyxena’s death: the sons of Theseus, from Athens, do too[6]. Theseus is the legendary founder of democratic Athens, and so Euripides ties the citizenry of Athens to the death of Polyxena: an indictment of the bloodthirsty nature of a democratic mob.

The Greek army agrees on her death through a democratic vote[7] and Odysseus’ use of rhetoric to advance this course of action makes him a “glib flatterer of the mob”[8]. Euripides, in his portrayal of Odysseus as a politician who wields persuasive rhetoric, warns us about the danger of morally adaptable leaders who can justify any despicable action for dubiously positive gains.

He also indicts the democratic masses, who are easily swayed by persuasive rhetoric, as complicit in the politician’s crimes. The tragic injustice of the Hecabe is that Hecabe, who tries to stand up against Odysseus and the bloodthirsty democratic masses, is powerless to prevent her daughter’s death and must turn to cruel acts of vengeance to gain some semblance of justice.


The version of the Hecabe play that I read was translated by John Davie and appears in a Penguin Classics edition called Euripides: Electra and Other Plays. If you’d like to read this play and follow along with what I have written above, I would easily recommend this version. It seems to be quite readable and does a good job of elucidating the rhetoric and use of language that Euripides is known for. Davie translates everything into prose, which makes the play easier to understand, but if you’d like to see more use of verse, I’d suggest trying other translations, which are abundantly available on Amazon.com.

[1] Hecabe, 100-120, 220-2, Euripides: Electra and Other Plays, J. Davie, tr. (Penguin).
[2] Hecabe, 300-320.
[3] Hecabe, 1290-5.
[4] Hecabe, 341-68, 517-580.
[5] D. Turkelbaub, “Hecuba”, p. 9.
[6] Hecabe, 122-4.
[7] Hecabe, 106-7, 218-20.
[8] Hecabe, 130-2.


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