In Book 13 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Ajax and Ulysses are met in front of a group of Greek leaders to debate over which of the two heroes deserves to inherit the arms of Achilles. The points they discuss in their arguments include merit, lineage, cowardice vs. bravery, who has done the most noble deeds, and what traits in a warrior are important to this contest. Ulysses wins the debate, but I believe this to be only because of his superior linguistic skills. It is clear and will be shown here that Ajax was a more suitable candidate for the inheritance of the armor. I will introduce some of the themes that are brought up in the debate and discuss why Ajax is the better in each.
Ajax is allowed to speak first, and right away brings up the idea of merit on the battlefield. He claims that “I am his [Ulysses’] master on the battlefield / as he is mine – when it comes to talking” (Ovid13.15-16). Ajax, though accused of being arrogant throughout most of his speech, commends Ulysses for his superior speaking abilities. This is in order to support his claim that eloquence does one no good on the battlefield. This is also his final point, when he suggests that the decision should not be made by a debate, but rather by action, “And finally, what need is there for words? / Let us be seen in action: send the armor / back to our foe, then order its recapture / and give it to the one who rescues it” (Ovid 13.173-6). Ajax is perhaps aware that he is about to be beaten by Ulysses because he knows that Ulysses is a master of speech, so he suggest that the debate be settled over action rather than words so that he can secure his claim to Achilles’ armor.
Ulysses reminds Ajax of the fact that this altercation is about words, “Plain speech is what is called for in this contest” (Ovid 13.231). While Ajax insists that this is a contest of valor, Odysseus reminds the Greek leaders that this is a contest of words. He seems to be trying to skirt around the fact that Ajax is clearly the rightful heir to the armor by making the contest about what he is good at.
Ajax had said before that their decision should not be based solely on eloquence, but rather on who actually deserves the arms. One of his main points is the fact that his lineage is great, making him deserving of such a prize. “I am the son of Telemon… [and] the great-great-grandson of great Jove!” (Ovid 13.33-41). Ajax also points out that he is a direct cousin of Achilles, the previous owner of the very arms over which are being fought. Ulysses’ answer to this is that he is also of divine lineage, being also a great-great-grandson of Jupiter and an ancestor of Mercury (Ovid 13.201-13). He goes further to ask why Ajax deserves the arms when Achilles has other relations, such as Phthia, Scyros, and Teucer, who was also a cousin of Achilles.
Ajax does not have a chance to argue this point, but I believe it is inherent in the absence of these other heroes. Ajax deserves the armor more than the others because of the fact that he’s the one there, fighting for it. The others which Ulysses mentioned weren’t there to debate. Perhaps if they had arrived as well and proclaimed themselves heirs of the arms, they would be considered, but obviously they do not think themselves worthy. Their absence is silent support for Ajax.
Another reason Ajax deserved to win was because of his experience on the battlefield. He points out that Ulysses usually wins his battles with guile and circumvention. While these things are sometimes important on the battlefield, armor is not really required for such acts. Achilles asks the leaders, “What use does someone like Ulysses – who / conducts maneuvers secretly, unarmed, / relying on his cunning to deceive / a careless foe – what use has he for armor?” (Ovid 13.148-51). It is true that most of what Ulysses does on the “battlefield” does not require armor. It is not common for Ulysses to suffer blows that would have killed him, had it not been for his armor. Ajax continues, suggesting that the armor might even impede the struggles of Ulysses, “The rays from the golden helmet / would spoil his ambush and reveal him hiding” (Ovid 13.152-3). If Ulysses were to wear this armor, it might give him away because of how shiny it is. All he needs is a simple suit of armor. To drive this point even further, Ajax notes that Ulysses’ armor is almost brand new, while Ajax’s own has suffered in battle, “Your shield, so rarely used, is still brand new, / while mine, which bears a multitude of scars, / is urgently in need of replacement”. I believe this to be one of Ajax’s most valuable points. Ulysses does not need the armor because he doesn’t fight in actual combat very often, might even be burdened by the armor itself, and already has a perfectly good set of armor.
Much of what Ulysses attempts to do in this debate is rob Ajax, and even Achilles, of their honor. He attempts to take the armor by claiming that he was the one who inspired Achilles to fight, giving him manly arms when he was growing up disguised as a girl. Ulysses then makes the claim that, “…everything that he did was my doing” (Ovid 13.248). It is true that anything anyone does can have a future impact on something else. Just because Ulysses was responsible for things that lead to great deeds does not make him necessarily responsible for them. If it did, then Ulysses’ mother should claim responsibility for all of Ulysses’ action because of the fact that she gave birth to him. Additionally, it has already been stated that such things are not traits that make a man deserving of armor. While it is commendable that Ulysses has done these things, inspiring Achilles to go into battle does not make him deserving of his arms.
Some of Ulysses’ points are actually counterproductive to his argument. One of the deeds for which Ulysses claims honor is, “I took out Dolon / who was scouting us, as we were scouting him; / but not before I’d gotten him to tell me / the battle plans of the dishonest Trojans” (Ovid 13.359-63). It is true that this information was important, but why was it necessary to kill Dolon after obtaining said information? When Ulysses comes upon Dolon in Homer’s Iliad, he says, after the man pleads for his life, “…Courage / Death is your last worry. Put your mind at rest. / Come, tell me the truth now, point by point. / Why prowling among the ships, cut off from camp, / alone in the dead of night when other men are sleeping?” (10.447-51). Ulysses promised to spare Dolon’s life if Dolon told Ulysses what he wanted to hear, but killed him anyway after obtaining the information. There is no honor in this, and it doesn’t support Ulysses’ argument over the arms very well.
Ulysses opens his clothes to show his chest, flanked with battle-scars. He says that, “My breast… has always been engaged / in this great cause of yours. But Ajax here / has paid out nothing for so many years / in blood shed for his comrades than he’s earned a body free of scars!” (Ovid 13.393-97). This argument could also prove counterproductive, based on how one analyzes it. Ulysses is trying to say that he has been in more battles, but does his having more scares also suggest that he is not as good in battle as Ajax? If Ajax has no scars and has been in many battles, and Ulysses has many scars but has actually fought in few battles, it could be assumed that Ulysses is more careless in battle than Ajax is, and therefore suffers more wounds.
One compelling argument made by Ulysses is that Ulysses was the one to steal the Palladium and secure the death of Rhesus’s horses, two of the three things required for the Greeks to win the Trojan War, according to the prophet Helenus. (Ovid 13.361-6) However, as pointed out often by Ajax, these deeds were accomplished with trickery and at night, and with the help of Diomedes. Perhaps guile is a good trait for a warrior to have, but it doesn’t seem to be of severe importance when deciding who should wear the armor.
The reason Ulysses won the arms was because the contest at hand was one of oration and eloquence, not one of might and valor. I believe that a verbal contest was not a proper means of deciding who was to inherit Achilles’ ordnance. Ajax’s suggestion of sending the armor to a place that is difficult to reach, perhaps guarded by some sort of beast, would have been a contest more fitting for such a prize.
Ulysses and Ajax are two great Greek heroes, both deserving fame and honor in different aspects. Ajax deserves fame for the countless battles he’s fought in, his bravery, and his undefeated record in battle, while Ulysses deserves his for being cunning, tricky, and eloquent. Though both of these spectrums of traits are equally admired in a warrior, the side of physical prowess, bravery, and might is more important when deciding who should bear the arms of the great Achilles. Ajax would easily best Ulysses in man-to-man combat, is a direct cousin of Achilles, would put the armor to better use, and is more experienced in the center of the battlefield than Ulysses is. He deserved to take up the arms that day, but the superior eloquence of Ulysses swayed the minds of the Greek leaders.