Ulysses, the Roman Name for Odysseus

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Ulysses is the Roman version of the Greek epic hero Odysseus. This lesson will explore whether and how Ulysses changed with the shift in cultures. How much Odysseus is there in Ulysses?

Odysseus By Another Name

My introduction to the name 'Ulysses' came through a film version of the epic story shown to my class in grade school, starring Michael Douglas's father, Kirk Douglas. Later in my education, when I encountered The Odyssey in written form, I was confused as to the name change. I didn't realize that Odysseus was the original Greek name of the crafty hero, and that Ulysses was a Latinized version, stemming from the Romans' embrace of Greek mythology.

Ulysses is Odysseus, and in many ways Odysseus is Ulysses, thanks to later translations that readily blend them. The one clear difference between the two comes in the form of a creative extrapolation, which we can find in the Roman answer to Homer's epics: Virgil's own epic, The Aeneid. Interestingly, it makes Ulysses less specifically responsible for the deception that ended the Trojan War and diffuses the traits of guile and treachery across the entire Greek character.

Odysseus Comes to Rome

Roman Mosaic of Ulysses
Odysseus Mosaic

It's clear that the Romans held Greek mythology in extremely high regard: after all, they adopted most of its major stories, characters, and even gods and goddesses as their own. It's not that the Romans had no religion or figures of worship before contact with the Greeks; instead, it was largely a system of merging the two traditions. For example, the goddess Venus, previously more of a fertility deity, blended with the characteristics of the Greek's Aphrodite to become a goddess of love, desire, and beauty. Roman attitudes toward aggression and warrior culture elevated the status of Mars over his Greek counterpart, Ares, while the Greek god Poseidon was diminished in his Roman version, Neptune, reflecting the Roman fear and suspicion of the sea.

This process of syncretism extended through an enormous body of the Greek mythological tradition as the Romans variously adapted, coopted, assimilated, or absorbed its primary narratives and figures. In the case of Virgil's Aeneid, we find an original epic tale that piggybacks on Homer's works and bridges them with a newly conceived mythic history of Rome, forging a connection between the two cultures. The character Ulysses, like Venus, Mars, and Neptune, was subtly altered to reflect Roman values and identity.

A Trojan Horse of a Different Color

A Modern Version of the Trojan Horse
modern trojan horse

Virgil's distinctively Roman epic picks up where The Iliad concludes, just as Homer's The Odyssey does. In both cases, the most famous trick in literary history has a decisive part to play: the Trojan Horse. In The Aeneid, however, Odysseus/Ulysses does not appear as an active character; instead, Virgil inserts Sinon as a sort of double agent to make the trick work. Sinon allows himself to be captured and sells the Trojans on the idea that he is no longer loyal to the Greeks, laying out a story of intrigue and treachery that casts Ulysses in a villainous role.

The Trojan Horse in this version is not described as a gift from the Greeks, but rather a tribute left behind to honor and appease Minerva (Athena to the Greeks). Sinon tells the Trojans that if they are able to bring the horse inside their walls the destruction of the Greeks will be assured, but that if they harm it they will stir up the wrath of the goddess.

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