Book Essay - Autumn 2018

Bringing In the Horse

Virgil’s account of the sacking of Troy has similarities to the political situation of our day

By Mary Lefkowitz | September 4, 2018
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Procession of the Trojan Horse Into Troy, c. 1760 (Wikimedia Commons)
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Procession of the Trojan Horse Into Troy, c. 1760 (Wikimedia Commons)

Greek mythology can provide a rather frightening parallel to the situation in which the citizens of the United States find themselves. That situation is the decision made by the male citizens of ancient Troy to break down their city walls and bring in the wooden horse left to them as a “gift” by their enemies, the Greeks. As we all know, that was a disastrous decision. Why did the Trojans make the choices that brought their own destruction, when they could have so easily saved themselves? All they had to do was leave the horse where they found it, outside the city walls—or better still, set it on fire. But as Homer tells us, they decided to bring the horse in, drag it up to their city’s acropolis, and then sit down around it. There were three proposals: break through the wood with their swords, throw the horse down from the acropolis, or let the horse stand as an offering to the gods. Homer doesn’t say why the Trojans made the one choice that would bring about their destruction.

Other ancient Greek epics told the story in more detail, but only fragments of these narratives survive. The Roman poet Virgil, who knew Greek literature well, drew on some of those sources when he wrote about the fall of Troy in the Aeneid. The narrator is Aeneas himself, the Trojan prince who escaped the burning city and eventually went to Italy. Virgil has Aeneas tell Dido and other guests at a banquet in Carthage that the Trojans went out to explore the encampment that the Greeks had deserted, and stood wondering what to do about the immense horse that the Greeks had left behind. Thymoetes, the brother-in-law of King Priam of Troy, urged the Trojans to bring the horse inside the walls and place it on the acropolis. Aeneas wonders if Thymoetes, whose wife and son Priam had put to death many years before, meant to deceive the Trojans, or if his actions were governed by fate. Aeneas’s friend Capys and other sensible men suggested that instead the Trojans should push the horse into the sea, or burn it, or at least pierce its hollow womb to probe its inner chambers. But as a group, the Trojans were still uncertain, divided into opposing factions.

At this point in Aeneas’s version of the story, the Trojan priest Laocoön rushed down from the acropolis and, with fiery intensity, asked the Trojans why they presumed that the Greeks had abandoned their camp. Didn’t they know what Ulysses (Odysseus) was capable of? Laocoön warned his countrymen that armed men might be concealed inside the horse, or that some other trick was involved. “I am afraid of the Greeks,” he said, “even when they offer us gifts.” He threw a spear at the side of the horse to show that it was hollow and thus able to conceal something.

Just after Laocoön uttered his warning, shepherds dragged in a prisoner, a young man with his hands chained behind his back. He told the Trojans that he was a Greek, that his name was Sinon, and that he had escaped from the Greek army because they planned to offer him to the gods as a human sacrifice. The Greeks, he said, had been advised by their prophet Calchas to offer such a sacrifice so that the gods would send the favorable winds needed to return home. Sinon claimed that he had been chosen as the victim because he was a personal enemy of Ulysses.

Priam, the king of Troy, told the shepherds to take off the young man’s chains. He then welcomed Sinon and asked him to tell truthfully why the Greeks had created this massive horse. The young man explained that the gods were angry because Ulysses, along with another Greek, Diomedes, had broken into the temple in Troy that housed the Palladium, a sacred statue of Minerva (Athena). The two Greeks had killed the men who guarded the statue, and with bloody hands had brought the statue to the Greek camp. To appease the goddess, the prophet Calchas had instructed the Greeks to leave an offering of a large wooden horse. The Greeks had made the horse so large to prevent the Trojans from dragging it into their city—and to thus keep the goddess from supporting  the Trojans if, in the future, they sought to invade and conquer Greece.

This last section of the young man’s story persuaded the Trojans that he was telling the truth. Aeneas tells his audience that Sinon’s story “seemed believable because of these lies and Sinon’s skillful narrative—we were taken in by trickery and false tears—we whom neither Diomedes nor Achilles nor ten years could conquer, nor a thousand ships.” “Then,” says Aeneas, “another and more frightening event was hurled at my poor countrymen and threw their hearts into confusion.” Laocoön had been near the seashore, sacrificing a bull to the god Neptune, when suddenly two huge serpents came out of the water, ate both his sons, and crushed him to death. The serpents then went to the temple of Minerva and took shelter around the feet and behind the shield of her statue. Hearing this, the Trojans immediately assumed that Minerva had punished Laocoön. They opened the gates of their city and tore down part of their walls so they could bring the horse to the goddess’s temple, hoping to win her favor.

As the horse was dragged across the threshold of the city gate, it stopped four times—stopping or tripping when crossing a threshold was a bad omen. Further, when the armor worn by the soldiers inside the horse clanged, the Trojans paid no attention. The priestess Cassandra prophesied doom, but they did not listen to her.

That night, there were celebrations. After they had died down and the Trojans had gone to sleep, the Greeks (who had been just out of sight in their ships behind the nearby island of Tenedos) sailed back to Troy. Sinon then opened the door of the horse and let out the Greek soldiers hiding inside, as the Greek army rushed in through the city’s open gates.

Virgil makes it clear that the disaster might have been prevented by asking questions and finding the answers, all of which were readily available. Why accept Sinon’s explanation for the size of the wooden horse? Why didn’t the Trojans bore a hole into the side of the horse to see if anything was inside—Laocoön had already shown them that it was hollow. Why didn’t the Trojans also make sure that the Greeks really had gone away and were not lying in wait? The Trojans also might have asked themselves if there was another reason why the serpents attacked Laocoön and his sons. Could Minerva and the other gods have wanted to get Laocoön out of the way so that he couldn’t stop the Trojans from bringing the horse into the city? Instead of asking any of these questions, the Trojans were eager to believe that the Greeks had given up the war and gone home.

Perhaps the Trojans might have been more willing to take Laocoön’s advice if he had tried to persuade them, instead of simply telling them what he thought they ought to do. He could have reminded the Trojans of an incident when they had gotten the better of the Greeks, thus praising their courage and wisdom, a strategy the orator Demosthenes often used to persuade the Athenians. But instead, Laocoön criticized his countrymen, telling them they were gullible, and reminding them of how in the past they had been similarly deceived by the Greeks. Virgil has Aeneas describe the Trojans’ reluctance to listen to Laocoön with a phrase that the Romans seem to have used to describe other cases of self-deception and flawed thinking: si mens non laeva fuisset, “if our minds hadn’t been turned in the wrong direction.” Laeva (left) is the proverbial unlucky or unfavorable side.

By contrast, Sinon’s story was carefully constructed to win the Trojans’ sympathy. He began by keeping them in suspense, at first hesitating to speak, using a rhetorical technique that the Romans called insinuatio (ingratiation). Sinon then claimed that he was an enemy of the hated Ulysses, who had treated him cruelly and unfairly, and that he had offended the Greeks by refusing to keep silent about Ulysses’s crimes. But then Sinon stopped abruptly in the middle of his narrative, employing another rhetorical trope, permissio (surrender), by which he appealed to his audience for support before continuing with his story.

Only after gaining his listeners’ sympathy did Sinon explain why the Greeks had prepared to offer him up as a human sacrifice and had constructed the large horse. Sinon mentioned the family that he had left behind and would never see again—a personal appeal, designed to elicit the audience’s sympathy, often employed by defendants in trials. This appeal, combined with Sinon’s pitiful condition and his tears, affected the Trojans so deeply that they did not even try to interrogate or torture him. If they had, and if Sinon had been forced to answer them truthfully, the Trojans might have discovered that Sinon in fact was Ulysses’s first cousin, not his enemy. Like Ulysses, Sinon was a grandson of Autolycus, a notorious trickster and thief. Like Ulysses also, Sinon was a gifted narrator, eminently able to make his lies sound like the truth. Laocoön —as Virgil characterizes him—did not possess the same rhetorical skills.

The Trojans were so sympathetic to Sinon that they did not stop to question his explanation as to why the Greeks had made the horse so disproportionately large. The Trojans were eager to have the support of powerful Minerva, but they might have asked themselves why the goddess would be willing to help them now, after she had been actively helping their enemies during the whole previous part of the war. In the recent past, Minerva had refused to accept a beautiful robe that Hecuba, Priam’s wife, had offered to her; why suppose that the goddess would now be interested in protecting Troy? Yet the Trojans were so encouraged by what Sinon told them that they imagined Minerva would be on their side if, at some later point, they decided to undertake an invasion of Greece.

As Virgil relates it, the tale of the Trojan horse is par excellence about the state of mind that leads to self-delusion. It isn’t just that the Trojans ignored Laocoön’s sensible advice to check to see what was inside the horse before they dragged it into the city. Or that they didn’t interrogate Sinon to make sure that his story was true. Why were they prepared to trust Priam’s judgment, when they all had every reason not to? They knew that Priam had been warned that a male child born on a certain day would cause Troy to be destroyed, and his wife, Hecuba, had herself dreamed that she was about to give birth to a firebrand. Yet when Hecuba and Cilla, the wife of Priam’s brother-in-law Thymoetes, gave birth to sons on the same day, Priam had Thymoetes’s wife and son killed. Priam put his own son, Paris, out to die in the wilderness, on Mount Ida, but the baby was rescued and raised by a shepherd. The Trojans would never have become involved in a war with the Greeks if Paris had not been allowed to live.

Paris’s judgment was no better than his parents’: his selfish decision was the direct cause of the Trojan War. When as a young man Paris was shepherding his flocks on Mount Ida, the god Mercury (Hermes) asked him to pick which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. Each of the goddesses—Minerva, Juno, and Venus—offered Paris a gift. Minerva offered him wisdom and victory in battle, and Juno (Hera) offered him rule over all of Asia. But Venus (Aphrodite) offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus). Paris was bound to get into trouble whichever of the three goddesses he chose because he would anger the two goddesses whose gifts he had declined. In such circumstances, the most sensible course would have been for Paris to refuse to make the decision—or at least to pick the most powerful goddess, the one who could best protect him against the other two. That goddess was Minerva. Instead Paris chose Venus, the weakest of the three goddesses, who gave him Helen as his reward. Unfortunately, when Paris took Helen away to Troy, she was already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, who then came to Troy with his brother Agamemnon and an army to bring her back.

So it was not coincidental that after all those years of fighting, the Greeks won the Trojan War by deception rather than by sheer force. Ulysses and Minerva had reason to believe that the Trojan royal family, if given a choice, would be eager to pick whatever they most wanted for themselves, be it saving their own son’s life, or winning the most beautiful woman in the world as a bedmate. Because Priam would want the war to be over, he could be counted on to assume that Sinon was telling the truth about the horse.

There is a lesson for us here, one that is not particularly encouraging. Virgil’s narrative shows us that people will believe what they want to believe, even when warned by wise advisers to be mistrustful. It also seems that people will ignore well-informed and well-intentioned advice if it goes against their own desires. This tendency is well known to psychologists. As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has suggested, human beings make two kinds of judgments: fast and slow. The fast system is immediate and intuitive; the slow system is more deliberative. But even time does not always guarantee that people will make an informed choice. Presidential campaigns in the United States go on for many months, but often—too often—we stick to our initial fast judgments about the candidates. We believe each other and are quick to believe what we are told by people who appear to speak with authority. As Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue in their recent book, The Knowledge Illusion, “We live with the belief that we understand more than we do.” When groups of people depend on others for information and advice, they seem to be as vulnerable to error as individuals.

Another factor appears to have affected the Trojan royal family’s decisions, at least as Virgil describes the course of events: the mental process that modern psychologists call cognitive dissonance, which is the state of mental tension that arises when a person holds two conflicting beliefs or ideas. When that tension occurs, people tend to pick the belief or idea that pleases them more, even when it does not comport with reality. Or, to put it another way, cognitive dissonance becomes what psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call the “engine of self-justification,” a process that persuades you to believe that the decision you have made was the right or even inevitable decision. Priam and the Trojans wanted to believe that the Greeks had given up their siege and gone home. They sympathized with Sinon because he too had been treated cruelly by the Greeks, he said, and was an enemy of their enemy. And they liked the idea of bringing the horse into the city because that was precisely what the Greeks supposedly did not want them to do.

So the gates were opened, the city wall was breached, and the horse was brought into Troy. But even then disaster was not inevitable. Suppose that some of the Trojans, like Capys or Aeneas himself, had they had reservations about bringing in the horse, had spoken up and suggested that Sinon be kept under guard, and that the horse itself be surrounded by soldiers until they could be sure that no one was hidden inside? Sinon would not have been able to release the men hidden inside the horse, and they would have eventually surrendered or died of thirst. Had the more judicious Trojans suggested that the breach in the city wall be promptly repaired to prevent invasion, Troy might yet have been saved, or its destruction postponed.

The historian Barbara Tuchman chose to use the story of the Trojan horse as the first chapter of The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam (1984). In that book she explores the failures of leadership over the centuries. But leaders cannot succeed without cooperation from their citizens. On the cover of the paperback edition is a reproduction of Tiepolo’s painting The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy, depicting the Trojans struggling to push and drag the horse into their city. The people of Troy shared the blame for the disaster because in their ignorance they wanted to believe that what their leaders had told them was true. History would have looked more favorably on them if they had tried to circumvent their leaders’ commands, and if  by causing delays they had managed to save themselves and their country.

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