Ulysses: Eloquent Master of Language

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 Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Eloquent Master of Language

Let us end this series with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work that carries a strikingly positive view of Ulysses, despite the negative take of other Roman authors.

At times, it seems that Ovid follows the Roman tradition of Ulysses as “that great Greek liar”[1]. He shows us the story of Achaemenides, who was rescued by Aeneas after being abandoned by Ulysses on the island of the Cyclopes[2]: this pays homage to the traditional view of Aeneas being a honest, honorable Roman in contrast to Ulysses, who is willing to set aside friendship to escape with own life. However, this is the extent of Ovid’s negative view toward Ulysses.

The main bulk of Ulysses’ presence in the Metamorphoses is devoted to his debate against Ajax over the arms of Achilles. Ajax begins his speech by saying the following about Ulysses: “In thick of battle I’m superior / But he can always find words that outrun me”[3]. Why, then, are they having a debate, when such a format obviously and unfairly favors Ulysses over Ajax? Ovid sets up the situation in such a way that Ulysses’ victory is inevitable: he wants the master of language to succeed over the warrior.

Ovid’s playful and humorous tone seeks to highlight Ulysses’ brilliance as a wielder of rhetoric and persuasive techniques. For instance, Ulysses strokes away his tears as he “mourns” for Achilles—this action is humorously hidden away in a set of parentheses[4], as if we are not supposed to notice it (though this is a decision that would have been made by the translator, not Ovid himself).

Ulysses turns the worst of possible criticisms—his abandonment of Philoctetes on Lemnos—to his own advantage in the most absurd of ways: Ulysses claims that he saved Philoctetes’ life by “recommend[ing] that he take his leave / From scenes of war… / …to ease his terrors, / His feverish agonies, and take a rest”[5]. This so-called “rest” is such a far cry from the almost ten-year abandonment of Philoctetes that one cannot help but laugh as Ulysses turns one thing into another—one of the many metamorphoses within Ovid’s epic.

Ulysses makes sure to mention that the rest of the army also voted to abandon Philoctetes, just as they voted to declare Palamedes guilty[6]. This once again demonstrates Ulysses’ skill with persuasive rhetoric; by drawing his listeners into complicity with his actions, he ensures that they will agree with his argument.

Ajax accuses Ulysses of using dishonest and dishonorable tactics—attacking only under the cover of darkness[7], for instance—but Ulysses successfully defends the practical gains of his methods: he captured the Palladium on such a night raid, an action which would eventually lead to the fall of Troy[8].

In addition, he convinced Agamemnon that it was necessary to sacrifice Iphigenia[9]; this might be seen as a criticism of Ulyssean practicality, but Ovid’s tone is so light that we do not feel the full, tragic impact of Iphigenia’s death. In fact, in a later scene, Ovid leaves out Ulysses’ role in the death of Polyxena[10], which indicates that he does not want to involve his story in a discussion of the negative aspects of Ulysses’ pragmatism.

In the end, after his speech, “Ulysses’ peers were moved, and as they yielded / They showed the force behind his gift of speech: / The man of words received the soldier’s arms”[11]. Ulysses is victorious through effective use of language and his listeners, in awarding the arms to him, apparently agree that practical gains outweigh the potentially dishonest or dishonorable actions he took to achieve those gains.

As in the Iliad or the Odyssey, Ulysses uses eloquent, persuasive language and cunning tactics to receive glory and honor. Though Ovid dips into the traditional Roman view of Ulysses’ dishonest conduct, he thoroughly praises Ulysses’ use of language, for Ovid himself is a master of clever language and sees that glory and success can and should be given to those who use language well.


To write the above post, I consulted the version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by Horace Gregory. If you’d like to follow along and find exactly where each quotation came from, you’d have to use this edition, since no line numbers are provided. It’s a perfectly decent translation, but I myself found that I did not entirely enjoy reading this version. I’d recommend a different, more modern edition, perhaps the one by Stanley Lombardo.

[1] Metamorphoses, p. 362, H. Gregory, tr. (Mentor). An electronic edition was used, so the page numbers may not align precisely with a physical book.
[2] Metamorphoses, p. 380-1.
[3] Metamorphoses, p. 337.
[4] Metamorphoses, p. 341.
[5] Metamorphoses, p. 349.
[6] Metamorphoses, p. 348.
[7] Metamorphoses, p. 340.
[8] Metamorphoses, p. 351.
[9] Metamorphoses, p. 343-4.
[10] Metamorphoses, p. 353-4.
[11] Metamorphoses, p. 352.


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