A Summary and Analysis of the Trojan Horse Myth

What was the Trojan Horse? The Trojan Horse the hollow wooden horse in which Greek soldiers concealed themselves so they could enter Troy without arousing suspicion. The Trojan Horse was offered to the city of Troy as a gift, but when the Trojans took the wooden horse inside the city gates, the Greeks who had secreted themselves within the wooden structure came out and were thus able to attack Troy from within.

As is so often the case with stories from ancient myth, the term Trojan horse has entered the language, and is now sometimes used to describe someone who similarly sneaks their way into an enemy organisation or group in order to bring about their downfall or something that undermines from within. Since 1971, the term Trojan horse has also been used in computing to refer to a kind of malware which worms its way onto a device by disguising its true nature.

But what is the story of the Trojan Horse – and why was the Trojan ‘Horse’ probably not a wooden horse at all, if it ever existed? Let’s take a closer look at the origins of the myth, summarising the story and then analysing its significance.

Myth of the Trojan Horse: plot summary

The fullest account of the Trojan Horse found in an ancient text is in a Greek epic poem. No, not Homer’s 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 in order to deceive the Trojans into allowing Greek troops into the city by stealth. Following the death of their great general, the heroic Achilles, the Greeks found themselves on the back foot in the war against Troy, unable to make any progress. So they decide to draw back from the city’s outer walls, feigning a retreat; the plan works, and the Trojans see the Greek fleet sailing away, believing they have given up the fight.

Odysseus hatched the idea of constructing a wooden horse and then having it presented to the enemy as a gift; Epēius, the craftsman, promptly built the wooden horse.

This idea isn’t as far-fetched as it may at first sound: the horse was an important animal to the Trojans and there is even some suggestion that it was their city’s symbol. It was the Central Asians who first domesticated the horse so the animal could be ridden across vast distances, and the ancient Greek myth of the centaur is thought to have originated as a response to the Greeks’ first sighting of these nomadic riders charging over the hill.

It must have been a terrifying sight, as if man and horse had indeed merged to create one super-creature. In short, horses were important to many peoples living in this part of the world during the Bronze Age.

One Greek soldier, Sinon, would turn up at the gates of Troy and pretend to be a deserter from the demoralised Greek army. He would offer the wooden horse as a gift, claiming to be travelling alone and with horse as an offering to the goddess Athena, by way of apology for the Greeks’ desecration of Trojan temples. The Trojans were a superstitious lot and were won over by the idea, since they believed the wooden horse would offer protection against future attacks and render their city impregnable.

Famously, the Trojan priest Laocoön smells a giant rat (or horse), and warns his fellow Trojans that this suspicious gift is part of a plot (the origin, in Virgil’s Aeneid, of the famous phrase ‘I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts’) and should not be allowed into the city. He is promptly strangled by two sea serpents sent by the god Poseidon, who, being a Greek god, wants the Greeks to win the war.

The Trojans interpret this sudden snaky end to their priest as a sign that his word is not to be trusted (rather than thinking, ‘Wow, someone really wanted to shut him up – I wonder why’): presumably they thought he had offended the gods by daring to question the notion that the horse was filled with divine protection.

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, complete with the Greek soldiers who have concealed themselves within the wooden beast. That night, while the Trojans were asleep, the Greeks let themselves out of the horse, set fire to the city, and began slaughtering every Trojan they met.

The Greek fleet which the Trojans had seen retreating only the day before then returned, and the Trojan army was quickly defeated and the city of Troy taken.

Myth of the Trojan Horse: analysis

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, because the action of Homer’s poem ends before this episode involving the Trojan Horse takes place. Readers will look in vain within Homer’s poem for mention of the Trojan Horse (although the episode is mentioned briefly in the Odyssey, Homer’s sequel to the Iliad).

Instead, it’s a later epic poem from the days of the Roman Empire, namely 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.

But was the Trojan Horse really a wooden horse? How likely is it that the Trojans (Laocoön and Cassandra aside) were really so gullible as to believe the horse was a genuine offering? Religious superstition perhaps explains it, and we might say that such an analysis of the event decides the matter.

But other explanations have been put forward which arguably 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. (This mode of inquiry or analysis is known as euhemerism, after Euhemerus, a Greek mythographer who proposed rational explanations for the origins of fanciful myths.)


The leading alternative interpretation, or theory, 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. Although it was believed for centuries that the Trojan War was purely the stuff of myth, that changed in the late nineteenth century when the ruins of the ancient city were uncovered, and it was clear that the city, and the war, were the stuff of history, not legend. So was the Trojan Horse also the stuff of fact?

If so, then a siege engine perhaps makes more sense than a giant wooden horse offered as a sincere gift. 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 poetry and myth.

So the Trojan Horse may not have been a wooden 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 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 retelling of the myth of the Trojan War, this is certainly what ‘Trojan Horse’ refers to. 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 it doesn’t matter that we don’t know whether the myth of the Trojan Horse was grounded in some historical fact. We have the myth, and, in the last analysis, it’s become a useful symbol of enemy infiltration and a poetic representation of how deceit, and inventive battle tactics, can turn a losing army into a victorious one.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments are closed.