The Trojan horse is a war machine that, according to legend, was used by the Greeks to conquer the city of Troy. This term has entered literary usage, as well as common parlance, to refer to a stratagem with which to penetrate the defenses.
Although the episode of the horse constitutes to all intents and purposes the concluding act of the Trojan War, the narrative of the myth does not belong to Homer”s Iliad, which concludes, while the conflict is still in progress, with the funeral games in honor of Patroclus and the funeral of Hector, nor does it belong to the other Homeric poem, the Odyssey, in which the story is merely mentioned. Instead, it is extensively developed in the second book of Virgil”s Aeneid: Aeneas, a Trojan exile, during his stay in the city of Carthage, in fact relates the story of the horse to Queen Dido.
After ten long years of an inconclusive siege, the Greeks, implementing a plan devised by Odysseus, abandon the beach in front of Troy, leaving behind a huge wooden horse built by Epeus with the help of Athena, and hide at the nearby island of Tenedos, pretending to return to their homeland; inside the horse, however, are hidden some of Agamemnon”s most valiant warriors, led by Odysseus himself.
The Trojans, having witnessed the apparent retreat of the Greeks, become convinced that the war is really over: they are divided only as to the fate to be reserved for the horse. Laocoon, a Trojan warrior who has become a priest of Apollo, intervenes in the matter, advising his fellow citizens to be wary of the enemy and to destroy the horse; he therefore throws a javelin toward the latter, frightening the Achaeans hiding inside, but failing to reveal its presence:
While the Trojans are arguing about the fate of the horse, Sinon, a young Greek man who voluntarily surrenders himself to the enemy, arrives on the beach. He, swearing falsely, recounts that Odysseus, to whom he had been openly hostile, had urged the soothsayer Chalcedes to sacrifice him as a wish for a peaceful return to his homeland: he would then escape the ceremony by fleeing into the marshes.
To Priam”s question, who, while feeling compassion for the young man”s misfortunes, wants to know the causes of the Greeks” retreat, Sinon replies that Athena, the deity who first of all protected Agamemnon”s army, had ceased to support the Mycenaeans since Odysseus had desecrated the temple dedicated to her in the city of Ilium, forcing the entire army to surrender. The horse would thus be an offering to the goddess, so that she would atone for the sacrilege committed. Sinon also justifies the size of the said effigy by saying that it was built in such a way as to prevent the Trojans from transporting it within the walls of the fortress, for if this had happened Minerva”s wrath would have been poured out on the Greeks. Should the Teucri destroy or damage the horse, the goddess would instead persecute the latter. The inhabitants of Troy therefore decided to open a breach in their own walls in order to allow the huge wooden horse access, even though Laocoon and the prophetess Cassandra had advised against it.
In order to carry out Odysseus” deception, therefore, the presence of Sinon, who because of his lies is judged disloyal and deceitful by Aeneas when he tells the queen of Carthage Dido about the end of Troy, is crucial: the young Greek had in fact called as testimony to the validity of his oath the altars and bandages that would be necessary for his sacrifice, which, however, was never to take place.
While Laocoon is intent on performing the rite of immolation of a bull in an attempt to persuade the gods to prevent the imminent destruction of the city, two terrifying serpents, with fiery eyes and high crests, emerge from the foaming waters and seize his young sons; the priest rushes to their aid, brandishing his weapons, but he too is crushed by the sea monsters: his sacred bandages are thus tragically sprinkled with his own blood. Having completed their task, the two serpents finally vanish into the waves, taking refuge at the feet of the deity who had sent them to aid the Achaeans, Pallas Athena, and finding shelter under the rim of her shield.
That same night the soldiers who had remained inside the horse all that time cautiously emerged from their hiding place and, catching by surprise the Teucrians who were celebrating their sudden and unexpected victory, managed to kill the sentries and open the gates of the fortified fortress to their comrades, who had been warned in the meantime by Sinon and had landed back on the coast, thus decisively facilitating the conquest of the city.
In this way, the Achaeans finally succeeded in entering Troy, setting it on fire and exterminating its inhabitants: the slaughter continued throughout the following day as well, as the Trojans, though desperate and confused by the effects of alcohol, tried to defend their city with all the means at their disposal. Neoctolemus, son of Achilles and the princess Deidamia, killed Polite and Priam despite the fact that they were defenseless and under the protection of the gods, standing at the altar of Zeus inside the king”s own palace. Having concluded the slaughter, the Greeks divide the spoils: Agamemnon gets Cassandra while Andromache is given to Neoptolemus and Hecuba to Odysseus. Aeneas, one of the few surviving heroes, takes his father on his shoulders and his son by the hand and flees the burning city.
In more recent versions (including the film Troy or Valerio Massimo Manfredi”s novels), the wooden horse is seen as the last victim of the flames that had burned the city.
Over time, multiple hypotheses have been formulated, questioning from time to time its nature as a “gift,” its outward appearance, or the material essence itself (sometimes transferring the symbolism of the horse to a metaphorical plane).
Already in antiquity, Pausanias, a famous Greek historian who lived in the second century CE, questioned the verisimilitude of the episode in his Periegesis of Greece, since the choice to let a horse donated by enemies enter the walls would qualify the behavior of the Trojan people as dabbling.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, in the Naturalis historia, argued that the Trojan horse was actually a siege ram. According to the author in fact equus, “horse,” was precisely the name of a siege machine, introduced by Epeius to besiege Troy and corresponding to the Roman aries (“ram”). Some modern historians have also speculated that the Trojan horse was actually a siege ram in the shape of a horse, the description of which would later be transformed into myth through the processes of oral tradition that have passed down its memory.
Another theory, originally proposed by Fritz Schachermeyr, transfers the idea of the Trojan horse to a metaphorical plane, arguing that, in fact, it was a metaphor referring to a devastating earthquake that would damage the walls of Troy, allowing the Greeks to penetrate the city. According to this theory, the horse would represent Poseidon, god of the sea, but also god of horses and earthquakes. As support for this hypothesis there would also be the fact that archaeological excavations conducted at the site have shown that the destruction of the walls of Troy VI show clear signs of the effects of an earthquake, but such a theory is difficult to reconcile with the mythological claim that Poseidon was the architect of the city walls.
A study by a naval archaeologist at the University of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, Francesco Tiboni, supports an interpretive hypothesis that the Trojan Horse was actually a ship, to be precise a Phoenician honorary ship popular at the time, called ”Hippos” (plural Hippoi) because of its figurehead adorned with a horse”s head. According to Tiboni, over time the juxtaposition to the naval meaning would have been lost, and the speakers and copiers of the Homeric work would have stumbled into the easy error of interpreting ἵππος as “horse.” This would account for the size of the wooden structure and the ability of the Greek soldiers to hide in it comfortably, making the story more plausible.
Numerous variations have come down to us from classical sources about the number of men who took part in the deception of the Trojan horse by hiding inside it. According to the Little Iliad, an ancient poem that has been lost, there were 13 of them, according to Apollodorus 50, for Tzetze 23, while Quintus Smyrnaeus, in the Posthomerica (verses 641-650), gives the name of 30 leaders, stating, however, that there were also many others. In the late tradition the following list of 35 men was established:
- Cavallo di Troia
- Trojan Horse
- ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Epitome 5.14
- ^ Tzetzes, Posthomerica 641–650
- ^ Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy xii.314–335
- ^ Bibliotheca, Epitome, e.5.15
- ^ Pausania, Descrizione della Grecia, libro I, capitolo XXIII, sezione 8.
- ^ Plinio il Vecchio, Naturalis historia, libro VII, sezione 202.
- Homer, Odyssee 8,493. 512.
- Dr. Francesco Tiboni in zdfinfo. ZDF 2021. Das trojanische Pferd. Auf den Spuren des Mythos. Eine Produktion der Gruppe 5 im Auftrag des ZDF. In Zusammenarbeit mit arte und zdf enterprises.
- Homer, Odyssee 8,493. 512.
- Vergil, Aeneis 2,185.