Ulysses: Cruel and Logical Pragmatist

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.


Ulysses in Seneca’s Trojan Women: Cruel and Logical Pragmatist

As we shift into the Roman era, in which Odysseus became known as Ulysses, let us start with Seneca’s Trojan Women, as it provides a contrast to the Greek tragedies of Athens. The situation here is similar to the Hecabe–to allow the Greek fleet to depart from Troy, Ulysses attempts to justify the death of an innocent: Astyanax, Hector’s son[1].

There is no indication that Calchas, the prophet who demands his death, is incorrect, for there is no significant delay between Astyanax’s death and the moment when the winds start to blow, allowing for the departure of the fleet[2]. This is unlike the Hecabe.

Furthermore, the death of Astyanax does not support some abstract goal about honoring dead men in case a future war needs to be fought; it is clear that Andromache intends for her son to become a warrior who will avenge both the death of Hector and the fall of Troy[3].

Indeed, Ulysses argues for two practical goals: one, to allow the fleet to leave, and two, to prevent a future war that his own son would need to fight[4]. This is quite logical, yet to follow through with this thought process is to condemn a young child to death.

Once he makes the conclusion that Astyanax must be killed, which reveals his pragmatic and morally flexible nature, Ulysses uses any and all means to find Astyanax, including threatening his mother with torture[5] and desecrating Hector’s tomb. He cleverly realizes that Andromache is hiding Astyanax inside Hector’s tomb and, using his cunning[6], begins to destroy the tomb, as part of a cruel trick to force Andromache to produce her son[7].

To cap off Ulysses’ negative portrayal, he is so emotionally detached from the suffering of Andromache that he cruelly dismisses her tears—saying her “pain does not have any sense / of when it ought to stop”[8], as if it is annoying to cry so much when it is her child who is about to be killed—and calls Asytanax a mere “obstacle” to the fleet’s departure[9].

He views everything in non-emotional, pragmatic terms. He uses his moral flexibility to defer responsibility for the child’s death to those who ordered the killing: his superiors and the prophet Calchas[10].

Seneca himself lived through the reigns of several Roman emperors who abused their power and justified cruel actions for political gain. Astyanax could be considered a potential political rival to the Greeks, so his elimination makes logical sense to the pragmatic Ulysses. His moral adaptability allows him to accept this conclusion and deny responsibility for his actions. Seneca, eventually killed by the emperor Nero, portrays Ulysses as a cruel, cold, and morally flexible pragmatist to criticize those in leadership positions who misuse their power for political gain.

Seneca’s view is perhaps bleaker even than that of Euripides in the Hecabe. While Euripides criticizes Odysseus’ moral adaptability, his manipulative rhetoric, and the senseless demands of the mob by diminishing the practical gains that would be achieved, Seneca increases the practical gains that are achieved.

The tragedy here, then, is that Ulysses is partially correct in his views: it is actually logical and practical to eliminate possible threats before they can harm you, but to think purely in these terms is to diminish one’s moral conduct and distance oneself from human emotional connections.


The version of Seneca’s Trojan Women that I read for class was translated by Frederick Ahl. If you’d like to read the play and follow along with what I’ve written above, then this version is absolutely fine: the translation is readable, and the introductory material thorough.

There is, however, a caveat: the volume is about $10, and yet only contains one of Seneca’s plays. If you wish to earn more value out of your purchase and have access to more plays by Seneca, I might suggest a different edition that contains several of his works instead, such as this one, this one, or this one, but I cannot comment on the quality of these translations.

[1] Seneca’s Trojan Women¸ III.524-815, F. Ahl, tr. (Cornell U.P.).
[2] Seneca’s Trojan Women, II.360-70, V.1087-1180.
[3] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.460-75.
[4] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.527-540, 589-95.
[5] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.576-82.
[6] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.610-20.
[7] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.630-40, 663-70.
[8] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.785-90.
[9] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.812-5.
[10] Seneca’s Trojan Women, III.524-30, 749.


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