Book Essay - Autumn 2018

Bringing In the Horse

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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)

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.

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