Ulysses was a legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. Odysseus also plays a key role in Homer's Iliad and other works in the Epic Cycle.
King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope, father of Telemachus, and son of Laërtes and Anticlea, Odysseus is renowned for his guile and resourcefulness, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning. He is most famous for the ten eventful years he took to return home after the ten-year Trojan War and his famous Trojan Horse trick.
Relatively little is known of Odysseus's background other than that his paternal grandfather is Arcesius, son of Cephalus and grandson of Aeolus, whilst his maternal grandfather is the thief Autolycus, son of Hermes and Chione. According to The Odyssey, his father is Laertes and his mother Anticleia, although there was a non-Homeric tradition that Sisyphus was his true father. Odysseus is said to have a younger sister, Ktimene, who went to Same to be married and is mentioned by the swineherd Eumaios, who she grew up alongside, in Book XV of the Odyssey. Ithaca, an island along the Ionian northwestern coastline of Greece, is one of several islands that would have comprised the realm of Odysseus's family, but the true extent of the Cephallenian realm and the actual identities of the islands named in Homer's works are unknown.
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey portrayed Odysseus as a culture hero, but the Romans, who believed themselves the scions of Prince Aeneas of Troy, considered him a villainous falsifier. In Virgil's Aeneid, he is constantly referred to as "cruel Odysseus" or "deceitful Odysseus". Turnus, in Aeneid ix, reproaches the Trojan Ascanius with images of rugged, forthright Latin virtues, declaring , "You shall not find the sons of Atreus here, nor need the frauds of sly Ulysses fear." While the Greeks admired his cunning and deceit, these qualities did not recommend themselves to the Romans who possessed a rigid sense of honour. In Euripides's tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, having convinced Agamemnon to consent to the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis, Odysseus facilitates the immolation by telling her mother, Clytemnestra, that the girl is to be wed to Achilles. His attempts to avoid his sacred oath to defend Menelaus and Helen offended Roman notions of duty; the many stratagems and tricks that he employed to get his way offended Roman notions of honour.
The majority of sources for Odysseus' antebellum exploits—principally the mythographers Apollodorus and Hyginus—postdate Homer by many centuries. Two stories in particular are well known:
When Helen was abducted, Menelaus called upon the other suitors to honour their oaths and help him to retrieve her, an attempt that would lead to the Trojan War. Odysseus tried to avoid it by feigning lunacy, as an oracle had prophesied a long-delayed return home for him if he went. He hooked a donkey and an ox to his plough and started sowing his fields with salt. Palamedes, at the behest of Menelaus's brother Agamemnon, sought to disprove Odysseus's madness, and placed Telemachus, Odysseus's infant son, in front of the plough. Odysseus veered the plough away from his son, thus destroying his ruse. Odysseus held a grudge against Palamedes during the war for dragging him away from his home.
Odysseus and other envoys of Agamemnon then traveled to Scyros to recruit Achilles because of a prophecy that Troy could not be taken without him. By most accounts, Thetis, Achilles's mother, disguised the youth as a woman to hide him from the recruiters because an oracle had predicted that Achilles would either live a long, uneventful life or achieve everlasting glory while dying young. Odysseus cleverly discovered which of the women before him was Achilles when the youth stepped forward to examine an array of weapons. Odysseus arranged for the sounding of a battle horn, which prompted Achilles to clutch a weapon; with his disguise foiled, he joined Agamemnon's army.
Odysseus was one of the most influential Greek champions during the Trojan War. Along with Nestor and Idomeneus he was one of the most trusted counsellors and advisers. He always championed the Achaean cause, especially when the king was in question, as in one instance when Thersites spoke against him. When Agamemnon, to test the morale of the Achaeans, announced his intentions to depart Troy, Odysseus restored order to the Greek camp. Later on, after many of the heroes had left the battlefield due to injuries , Odysseus once again persuaded Agamemnon not to withdraw. Along with two other envoys, he was chosen in the failed embassy to try to persuade Achilles to return to combat.
When Hector proposed a single combat duel, Odysseus was one of the Danaans who reluctantly volunteered to battle him. Telamonian Ajax, however, was the volunteer who eventually did fight Hector. Odysseus aided Diomedes during the successful night operations in order to kill Rhesus, because it had been foretold that if his horses drank from the Scamander river Troy could not be taken.
After Patroclus had been slain, it was Odysseus who counselled Achilles to let the Achaean men eat and rest rather than follow his rage-driven desire to go back on the offensive—and kill Trojans—immediately. Eventually, he consented.
During the funeral games for Patroclus, Odysseus became involved in a wrestling match with Telamonian Ajax, as well as a foot race. With the help of the goddess Athena, who favoured him, and despite Apollo's helping another of the competitors, he won the race and managed to draw the wrestling match, to the surprise of all.
Odysseus has traditionally been viewed in the Iliad as Achilles's antithesis: while Achilles's anger is all-consuming and of a self-destructive nature, Odysseus is frequently viewed as a man of the mean, world-renowned for his self-restraint and diplomatic skills. Professor Adele Haft, in her essay Odysseus' Wrath and Grief in the "Iliad", observes that there might be more to Odysseus's nature than initially appears on the surface. Haft makes several observations that raise questions about the traditional approach to his character. Haft notes that Odysseus is the only other character besides Achilles to receive a verbal reprimand from Agamemnon. There are repeated suggestions that Agamemnon and Odysseus's relationship is strained: it is not Agamemnon but Nestor who selects Odysseus for his every mission in the Iliad. Haft explains Odysseus's displays of wrath, as well as his strained relationship with Agamemnon, as indicators that Odysseus will ultimately be responsible for the sacking of Troy. Haft points to the death of Democoon in Book 4 as a prime example of the consequences of Odysseus's anger, for it results in a massive reduction of Trojan morale as well as a retreat. Haft goes on to suggest that Democoon's death, in conjunction with the death of Simoeisius, previses the destruction of Troy.