The Greek chiefs take their seats and a crowd gathers to listen to Ajax and Ulysses defend their cases. Ajax gives his speech, angrily explaining that Ulysses retreated when Hector attacked but that he stood his ground. Ulysses’s strength is in speaking, but Ajax’s is in battle. Ajax is descended from Jupiter through Telamon, who once captured Troy, and Aeacus, a judge in Hades. He is also Achilles’s cousin. Ajax accuses Ulysses of entering the war late and feigning madness to try and get out of fighting at all.
Ajax’s main points in favor of himself against Ulysses are that he is descended from gods, is related to Achilles the war-hero, and that he is strong, whereas Ulysses is crafty and deceptive. Ajax portrays Ulysses’s qualities as weaknesses, but it is easy to see that from another perspective, these same qualities could appear as strengths.
Ajax continues, blaming Ulysses for marooning Philoctetes—a former Greek soldier—on an island to live in madness and starvation. Ulysses also framed another Greek soldier for treason, and abandoned Nestor when Nestor called to him for help. Later, when Ulysses needed help, Ajax saved his life. After Ajax saved him, Ulysses ran in fright from Hector while Ajax dueled with Hector and wasn’t defeated.
Ajax’s speech recounts the major moments in the Trojan War. Ovid relays these events in speech rather than through direct action, and from two diverging perspectives—Ulysses’s and Ajax’s. In this way, he shows how historical events are always unclear by virtue of being relayed orally, and suggests that a completely objective perspective on a historical event is impossible to attain.
Ajax asks where Ulysses was when the Trojans attacked the Greeks’ ships when Ajax protected them with his manly strength. Ajax lists the few heroic deeds that Ulysses did, but says that they were all done under cover of night; Ulysses only accomplishes feats through ruses and tricks. Therefore, Achilles’s golden helmet will hinder Ulysses by shining in the dark. Ajax says that Ulysses is a coward and isn’t strong enough to carry the shield. Finally, Ajax’s armor is damaged, so he deserves a replacement.
Ajax suggests that strength as a virtue is superior to strategy. In this way, he places physical qualities above intellectual qualities and suggests that humanity’s virtue is in its physicality. Ajax believes that he has earned Achilles’s shield through his display of strength. However, he ends his speech by saying he simply needs the armor, a mundane point whose practicality weakens his case.
Ajax ends his speech, and Ulysses rises to give his. Making eye contact with the chiefs, Ulysses conveys his wish that Achilles were still alive to bear his own arms. Ulysses says that he is more intelligent than Ajax. Like Ajax, Ulysses is descended from Jupiter, but ancestry does not make him deserves Achilles’s arms; also, the fact that Ajax is Achilles’s cousin means nothing: if the arms are to be given to the next of kin, they should be given to Achilles’s father. Ulysses says that the contest for arms depends on actions.
Ulysses delivers his speech while making eye contact with the judges and claims that he is superior to Ajax because he is more intelligent. He also claims that legacy means nothing. His points indicate a potential turning point in humanity’s beliefs. Until this point, legacy—particularly descent from the gods—has been highly valued. Moreover, since godly descent is valued, power has also been valued above human intelligence.
Ulysses relays his actions in the Trojan War: when Achilles’s mother Thetis disguised her son as a girl to keep him from the fighting, Ulysses tempted him with manly weapons and persuaded him to join the fight. For this reason, Ulysses is responsible for providing the hero who killed Hector. When the Greeks were delayed at Aulis, Ulysses persuaded Agamemnon to sacrifice their daughter to appease Diana and calm the storm. Ulysses was then sent to Troy to negotiate for Helen’s return; he would have succeeded if it weren’t for Paris’s obstinance and greed.
Ulysses’s speech reveals how the people behind the scenes in wars are extremely significant. Like Myrrha’s nurse, minor characters and people in the background of events are responsible for encouraging or dissuading main characters towards particular courses of action. In this way, no one person is ever responsible for an action. Instead, many forces combine to bring about events.
Ulysses asks where Ajax was before open war began; Ulysses was busy laying traps and raising the soldiers’ morale, but Ajax ignorantly thinks only fighting is important. Then, when King Agamemnon wanted to surrender, Ajax cowardly supported his decision. On the other hand, Ulysses inspired the troops to keep fighting after holding out for ten years.
Ulysses suggests that courage has more to do with encouraging others than simply fighting. He lists the times when he inspired the troops and boosted the morale of his fellow soldiers in contrast to Ajax’s cowardly support of surrender.
Ulysses points out that no one trusts Ajax, whereas many heroes trust Ulysses. Ulysses once risked his life sneaking out at night, forcing an enemy to reveal the Trojans’ plans, then ambushing a king’s encampment and killing his entire army. Ulysses lists the Trojans he has killed and displays his wounds to prove his valor. On the other hand, Ajax spilled no blood for Greece. Ajax forgets that many others dared to duel with Hector, and that when Ajax dueled with Hector, he didn’t even wound him.
Ulysses explains that he conquers with strategy rather than simply with brute force. For example, Ulysses’s strategies uncovered the enemy’s secrets and then allowed for a greater number of Trojans to be ambushed and killed. In speaking of war this way, Ulysses suggests that war is not simply an activity but an art that humanity cultivated and perfected over time.
Ulysses is devastated when he thinks of Achilles’s death. When Achilles died, Ulysses carried his body and his armor home. The beautiful shield that depicts the whole world shouldn’t be worn by a stupid person. As Ajax said, Ulysses joined the war late, but it was because he was with his devoted wife, just as Achilles joined late because he was with his devoted mother.
Ulysses suggests that his personal relationships make him more heroic. Ulysses’s devotion to Achilles made him behave bravely and honorably, and his devotion to his wife—which made him choose her over war for a while—actually makes him more admirable than a bloodthirsty soldier.
Ulysses says that if Ajax blames him for marooning Philoctetes, he blames the Greek government. Ulysses suggested that Philoctetes withdraw to ease the pain of his wound, and Philoctetes had agreed; the removal saved Philoctetes’s life. Ulysses swears his eternal devotion to Greece, offering to go and retrieve Philoctetes’s arrows if that’s what the Greeks want. Ulysses reminds the judges that he kidnapped the oracle and stole the statue of Pallas Athena, both of which helped the Greeks finally beat the Trojans.
Again, Ovid recounts some of the main events of the Trojan War, this time from Ulysses’s perspective. It is unclear whether Ulysses’s conduct with Philoctetes was just or not (whether Ulysses or Ajax has the right view of the situation). However, the fact that Ulysses gives his speech last gives him an upper hand: his perspective makes the last impression on the judges’ minds.
Ulysses says that Ajax belongs to the category of manly warriors, but that he knows nothing of war tactics. Ajax’s strength is mindless, whereas Ulysses is intelligent and strategic. Ulysses asserts that intelligence counts for more than strength and asks to be rewarded for his thoughtful devotion to Greece. He deserves the armor for his intelligent actions that led to the Greeks’ victory. Finally, Ulysses points to the statue of Pallas and says that she’s the only one who deserves the armor more than him.
To finish his speech, Ulysses shows his total devotion to the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. In this way, the icing on the cake of Ulysses’s speech is his humility. The gods have shown themselves to value humility in human beings, and, in ending his speech on a note of humility, Ulysses assumes that the judges will also view it as an admirable quality.