In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of the story of the Trojan Horse
If you had to name the famous work from classical antiquity which told the story of the Trojan Horse, which work would you name? The work of literature which offers the most in-depth account of the Trojan War, and the defeat of the Trojans by the Greek forces, is Homer’s Iliad, the epic poem about the last stages of the war. And yet the Iliad makes no mention of this crucial part of the Greeks’ victory over their enemies. Readers will look in vain within Homer’s poem for mention of the Trojan Horse.
Instead, it’s a later, Roman poem, Virgil’s Aeneid, which gives us the most sustained and dramatic account of wily Odysseus’ plan to deceive the Trojans by turning up at the sturdy gates of the city of Troy with a gift of a large wooden horse, in which – unbeknownst to the Trojans who welcome the equine gift into their city – an elite force of Greek warriors has been secreted, ready to burst out once the horse is within the walls of Troy. It’s actually in the ‘sequel’ to the Iliad, Homer’s Odyssey, that we get the one Homeric reference to the Trojan Horse – which is fitting given the whole thing was Odysseus’ idea in the first place.
But was the Trojan Horse really a wooden horse? Let’s go back to an ancient Greek epic poem which mentions the story of the wooden horse. No, not the Iliad, nor yet the Odyssey, but instead the Posthomerica (i.e. ‘after Homer’), an epic poem by Quintus of Smyrna. In the Posthomerica, Odysseus comes up with the idea of building a wooden horse as a sort of trophy – the horse being the symbol of the city of Troy – as a way of tricking the Trojans into allowing Greek troops into the city by stealth. The idea is that one Greek soldier, Sinon, would turn up at the gates of Troy with the horse as a gift, claiming to be travelling alone and with the giant wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Athena, by way of apology for the Greeks’ desecration of Trojan temples.
Famously, the Trojan priest Laocoön smells a giant rat (or horse), and warns his fellow Trojans that this is a plot (the origin, in Virgil’s Aeneid, of the famous phrase ‘I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts’). He is promptly strangled by two sea serpents sent by the god Poseidon. Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess whom everyone ignores, also warns that the horse is Bad News. The Trojans, of course, let the horse roll right in.
But how likely is it that the Trojans (Laocoön and Cassandra aside) were really so gullible as to believe the horse was a genuine offering? Other explanations that have been put forward make more sense, at least if we choose, with Tim Severin, to believe that many myths, from King Arthur’s sword in the stone to the Golden Fleece, have their ultimate origins in real practices. The leading one is that the ‘Trojan Horse’ was really a giant battering ram or siege engine, used to breach the city walls of Troy in a more forceful, and less sneaky, manner than wily Odysseus’ plot. The device may well have looked a bit like a horse, inspiring the later story. According to Michael Wood (in his In Search of the Trojan War), the Assyrians at this time liked to give their siege engines animal names, strengthening the idea that the ‘Trojan Horse’ may well have been a poetic name, of sorts, even before it first appeared in an actual poem.
So the Trojan Horse may not have been a horse at all (even if it had really existed), but may instead have been a battering ram or a siege engine – or even, perhaps, a ship. After all, ships are often given poetical names and even animal ones. Like the Trojan Horse of Virgil and Quintus of Smyrna, a ship is a giant structure made of wood, and the ship, with Greek soldiers concealed inside, could have been used to enter the city of Troy by stealth (with the soldiers on board perhaps being offered up as a tribute to the Trojans). At one point in his Odyssey, Homer – in a term prefiguring the later Anglo-Saxon kennings found in poems like Beowulf – even refers to ships as ‘sea-horses’.
Or perhaps the Trojan Horse was neither horse nor ship, but an elite platoon or regiment. In David Gemmell’s masterly retelling of the myth of the Trojan War, this is certainly what ‘Trojan Horse’ refers to, and as I was reading Gemmell’s compelling trilogy, I began to wonder how he was going to incorporate the story of the Trojan Horse without it coming across as silly. A giant wooden horse, really? But in the final volume of the trilogy, Troy: Fall of Kings (Trojan War Trilogy): 3 (begun by Gemmell before his untimely death in 2006, and completed by his wife Stella), it’s revealed that the Trojan Horse is in fact an elite troop of Greek soldiers disguised in Trojan armour and banners, so the Trojans duly open their gates to their returning platoon, only to find it isn’t their platoon at all.
Ultimately, we’ll never know for sure – and perhaps none of these explanations is correct and there was no ‘Trojan Horse’ of any kind involved in the war between the Greeks and Trojans. But the link between history and myth remains a fascinating one, even though our explanations may end up being as deceptive as the Trojan Horse itself.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.