Ulysses: Dishonest Greek and Sacker of Troy

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.

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Ulysses in the Aeneid: Dishonest Greek and Sacker of Troy

The Aeneid of Virgil takes a very direct view of Ulysses: he is, in the eyes of Aeneas, a tricky Greek bastard whose cunning trap of the Trojan Horse leads to the fall of Troy. 

When the Greek ships vanish and the horse appears, the priest Laocoon is suspicious: “Do you / believe the enemy have sailed away? / Or think that any Grecian gifts are free / of craft? Is this the way Ulysses acts?”[1] Virgil’s Roman view, therefore, is that Ulysses represents the sneaky, cunning nature of the Greeks.

Sinon, the Greek left behind with the horse, gains the trust of the Trojans by telling them how dishonest and untrustworthy Ulysses is. In Sinon’s tale, Ulysses condemns Palamedes to death with falsified evidence, spreads false rumors about Sinon, and manipulates the prophet Calchas into ordering Sinon’s death[2].

Ulysses’ reputation as a sneaky and untrustworthy Greek precedes him, so much so that recounting his manipulative and dishonest tendencies ironically improves the credibility of Sinon’s story. Sinon himself is a manipulative and dishonest: with his false story, he earns the sympathy of the Trojans and convinces them to bring the horse—filled with hidden Greek soldiers—into the city, leading to the destruction of Troy.

The ease with which the Trojans, Vergil’s predecessors to the Romans, accept this story shows how closely this false image of Ulysses–as a dishonest liar–matches the “reality” of the man himself, at least in the Trojan perception. The constant mentions of Ulysses’ deceptive practices, hidden in a deceptive speech designed to bring about Troy’s downfall, emphasize the cunning and evil nature of this type of dishonesty.

Virgil has Sinon call Ulysses the “inventor of impieties”[3] and this view is readily accepted: this is a basic and simplistic condemnation of Ulysses that lies in contrast to the honest, honorable piety of Aeneas and the Trojans/Romans.


[1] Aeneid, II.60-3, A. Mandelbaum, tr.
[2] Aeneid, II.106-184.
[3] Aeneid, II.232-3.

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