Ajax and Ulysses verbally contend for the arms of Achilles in front of the chiefs of the Greek army. Ajax emphasizes his exploits on the battlefield and the fact that he has been part of the fight since its inception, unlike Ulysses. He cites his divine ancestry and points out that Ulysses left behind his comrade Nestor during a battle. He jeers that the arms would be too heavy for Ulysses and says Ulysses’ own armor is in perfect condition. Ulysses says personal merit, not ancestry, should determine the victor. He says if ancestry is a factor, it’s worth noting that his lineage is more illustrious than Ajax’s. He says if joining a battle late is a vice, it’s a vice he shares with the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, whom he brought. He has scars to prove his battlefield heroics, which Ajax does not. Finally, he emphasizes his intellectualism. Ajax may know how to fight, but Ulysses knows when to fight. If Ajax is like a rower or soldier, he is like a captain or general. The chieftains award Ulysses the arms. Ajax takes his own life.
The focus moves to the misfortunes of the Trojans. Cassandra, the priestess of Apollo, is made a slave. Other Trojan women are either killed or taken as booty. Even the royal Hecuba, Priam’s wife, is made a servant of Ulysses. Her daughter, Polyxena, is sacrificed as an offering to the shade of Achilles. Hecuba’s last son, Polydorus, who was sent to the king of Trace, Polymestor, is treacherously slaughtered after Troy falls. Hecuba arranges a meeting with Polymestor and at the first opportunity gouges out his eyes with her hand. She is turned into a dog. Aurora, the goddess of dawn, witnesses the death of her son Memnon. Hope for Troy is not entirely lost, for Aeneas, the son of Venus, along with his father and son, sets off to establish a new land.
Aeneas stops to see Anius, king and priest of Apollo. Anius says his daughters were stolen by Agamemnon because they can turn everything to grain, wine, and oil. When his daughters could no longer endure the servitude, they fled and became doves. The narrator tells of Galatea’s love for Acis, the son of Faunus and a nymph. Polyphemus, who is also in love with Galatea, tries unsuccessfully to woo her. When Polyphemus sees Galatea and Acis together, he rages and throws a side of a mountain at them. Acis is killed, and Galatea is heartbroken.
The contest between Ajax and Ulysses is not merely a battle of words but also a battle between a doer of deeds and a speaker of words. Ajax is not an inarticulate meathead. Rather, he is a polished speaker who knows the rules of rhetoric. His speech contains an introduction, a body of proofs, and a conclusion. Despite his eloquence, however, Ajax is utterly overshadowed by Ulysses. Not only does Ulysses rebut each of Ajax’s charge, but he also turns each one to his advantage. At several points, he speaks generously about Ajax, perhaps from genuine magnanimity, or perhaps because he knows that generosity will make him seem calm and his points reasonable.
Ulysses’ victory is not merely the triumph of rhetorical tricks over a less sophisticated speech. Ovid suggests that Ulysses genuinely deserves the arms. Achilles’ arms are not merely a soldier’s tools. They are a work of art. Paradoxically, the man who would use the arms for their most obvious purpose is not capable of appreciating them, while the man who would not use them at all is capable of appreciating them. Were Ajax to win the arms and use them in battle, an important artwork would be destroyed. In contrast, Ulysses is capable of truly admiring and appreciating the extraordinary arms of Achilles.
By interrupting this contest with stories of suffering women, Ovid reminds us that war is not all about male glory and fame of men. The women at home suffer just as much as, if not more than, the men who are fighting. Polyxena’s death provides a kind of bookend to the war. The conflict began with the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, and it ends with the sacrifice of Polyxena to the shade of Achilles. The murders of two young women point to the high cost of war. Hecuba’s story provides an even more vivid illustration of war’s horrors. Robbed of her entire family, Hecuba is reduced to something less than human. Her act of using her hands to gouge out eyes points to the brutalizing effect war has had on her. Her transformation into a dog reflects the dehumanization she has already experienced.
As Ovid wraps up his take on the Iliad, he begins his version of the Aeneid. As we might expect, Ovid tweaks Virgil just as he tweaked Homer. He hardly mentions Aeneas. Rather, he leaves Aeneas to his travels and tells stories of mythology. By turning away from Virgil’s famed warrior and toward a pair of love triangles, Ovid telegraphs his continued refusal to be earnest or reverent about the epic form.