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The Trojans got tricked, but did the Greeks need a wooden horse?

He is the last Greek at Troy. Pale in the morning light, he looks like a weak, ragged runaway. But looks can deceive. Sinon, as he is called, claims to be a deserter— the only Greek remaining when the entire enemy and its cursed fleet had suddenly departed. But can he be trusted? His name, Sinon, means “pest,” “bane” or “misfortune” in Greek, leading some historians to consider it a nickname, like “the Desert Fox” for German General Erwin Rommel, or a generic name, like “Bones” for a military doctor. Sinon played a key role in the plot to take Troy, although he is often forgotten, overshadowed by the most famous trick in Western civilization.

The famous horse may be imagined as a tall and well-crafted wooden structure, towering over the wildflowers of the Scamander River plain. Its body is made of the pine of Mount Ida, a tree known today as Pinus equi troiani, “Trojan Horse Pine,” and renowned since antiquity as a material for shipbuilding. The horse’s eyes are obsidian and amber, its teeth ivory. Its crest, made of real horsehair, streams in the breeze. Its hooves shine like polished marble. And hidden inside are nine Greek warriors.

Everyone knows the story. The Greeks are said to have packed up their men, horses, weapons and booty, set fire to their huts, and departed at night for the nearby island of Tenedos, where they hid their ships. All that they left behind was the Trojan Horse and a spy, Sinon, pretending to be a deserter.

The Trojans were amazed to discover that after all those years, the enemy had slunk home. But what were they to do with the Horse? After a fierce debate, they brought it into the city as an offering to Athena. There were wild celebrations. The Trojans underestimated the cunning of their adversaries. That night, the men inside the horse sneaked out and opened the city’s gates to the men of the Greek fleet, who had taken advantage of Troy’s drunken distraction to sail back from Tenedos. They proceeded to sack the city and win the war.

Everyone knows the story, but nobody loves the Trojan Horse. Although scholars disagree about much of the Trojan War, they nearly all share the conviction that the Trojan Horse is a fiction. From Roman times on, there have been theories that the Trojan Horse was really a siege tower, or an image of a horse on a city gate left unlocked by pro-Greek Antenor, or a metaphor for a new Greek fleet because Homer calls ships “horses of the sea,” or a symbol of the god Poseidon, who destroyed Troy in an earthquake, or a folk tale similar to those found in Egyptian literature and the Hebrew Bible. There has been every sort of theory about the Trojan Horse except that it really existed.

Many of these theories sound convincing, particularly the horse-as-siege engine, since Bronze Age Assyrians named their siege towers after horses, among other animals. But sometimes a horse is just a horse. Although epic tradition might exaggerate the details of the Trojan Horse and misunderstand its purpose, that the object existed and that it played a role in tricking the Trojans into leaving their city without defenses might just be true.

More about the Horse presently: In the meantime, back to the spy whom the Greeks had left behind. Although Sinon is less dramatic than the famous Horse, he was no less effective as an agent of subversion, and he inspires far more confidence as a genuine historical figure. The Trojan Horse is unique and improbable, although not impossible. But Sinon plays a well-attested role in unconventional warfare as it was waged in the Bronze Age.

In Virgil’s retelling in the Aeneid, Sinon pretends to be a deserter in order to work his way into Troy. He testifies that the Greeks have left for good and argues that the Trojan Horse is a genuine gift and not some trick. Eventually, after a stormy debate, the Trojans decide to bring the Horse into the city.

Deceit is not unique to the Trojan saga; it was a fundamental ingredient in Hittite military doc- trine. Consider some examples: A king broke off the siege of a fortress at the approach of winter, only to send his general back to storm the unsuspecting city after it had gone off alert. A general sent agents into the opposing camp before battle, where they pretended to be deserters and tricked the enemy into letting down his guard. Another king attacked a neighbor via a roundabout route to avoid enemy scouts. Nor were the Hittites alone in their use of trickery. For example, the siege of one Mesopotamian city by another involved sneak attacks at night and the impersonation of an allied unit of soldiers in an attempt to lull the besieged into opening their gates. (It failed.)

Think of the fall of Troy not as a myth about a Horse but as an example of unconventional warfare, Bronze Age style. The Trojan Horse might be better known as the Trojan Red Herring. Everyone focuses on the Horse, but the real story lies elsewhere. In fact, it would be possible to leave out the Trojan Horse and yet tell a credible and coherent narrative of the capture of Troy much as the ancients told it.

Without the Trojan Horse, the story might go like this: The Greeks decided to trick the Trojans into thinking they had gone home when, in fact, they had merely retreated to Tenedos. Once they had lulled the enemy into dropping his guard, they planned to return in a surprise attack—at night. To know when to move, the Greeks would look for a lighted-torch signal, to be given by a Greek in Troy who had pretended to turn traitor and desert. Signals were used often in ancient battles, most famously at Marathon (490 BC), when a Greek traitor in the hills flashed a shield in the sunlight to communicate with the Persians. In the clear skies of the Mediterranean, fire signals could be seen from far off. They were visible as smoke signals during the day and as beacons at night. Tests show that the signals were visible between mountaintops up to a distance of 200 miles.

At the sign, the Greeks would row back rapidly to Troy. The final part of the plan required a few men inside Troy to open the city gate. These men might either have been Trojan traitors or Greeks who had sneaked into the city. With the emergency supposedly over, Troy’s gatekeepers would not have proved difficult to overcome.

Compare the set of tricks by which the south Italian port city of Tarentum was betrayed in turn to Hannibal and then to the Romans. In 213 pro-Carthaginian citizen of Tarentum arranged BC a for Carthaginian soldiers to come back with him from a nighttime hunting expedition. The soldiers wore breastplates and held swords under their buckskins; they even carried a wild boar in front, to appear authentic. Once the city gate was opened to them, they slaughtered the guards, and Hannibal’s army rushed in. Four years later, the Romans under Fabius Maximus recaptured the city by having a local girl seduce the commander of Hannibal’s garrison. He agreed to guide Roman troops over the walls at night while Fabius’ ships created a distraction at the harbor wall on the other side of town. Although these events took place 1,000 years after the Trojan War, they could easily have been carried out with Bronze Age technology.

The Greek plan at Troy was to trick the enemy into dropping his guard. It worked: the Trojans relaxed. At that point, one Greek inside the city lit a signal fire to bring the Greek fleet back and then others opened a gate.

The island of Tenedos (now Bozcaada) lies about seven miles (six nautical miles) from the Trojan harbor. The Greeks might have moored their ships in one of the sheltered coves on the island’s east coast, near Troy but out of sight. At a rate of about five knots (about that of a 32-oared Scandinavian longship traveling 100 miles), they could have covered the distance in little more than an hour. That is, in daylight; the trip would no doubt have taken longer at night. But the Sack of Ilium claims it was a moonlit night, and, anyhow Bronze Age armies knew how to march by night. So the trip from Tenedos took perhaps no more than two hours. From the Trojan harbor it was another five miles by land to Troy. It was nighttime, and the road was primitive, but the Greeks knew it well. They could have covered the distance in three hours. Athenian sources claim the month was Thargelion, roughly modern May. At that time of year, sunrise at Troy is 5:30-6 a.m., sunset 8-8:30 p.m. If the Greeks left Tenedos at, say, 9 p.m., and if everything went without a hitch, they would have arrived at Troy between 2 and 3 a.m., that is, about three hours before sunrise. A forced march may have gotten the Greeks to Troy an hour or so earlier.

To carry out their plan, the Greeks had had to infiltrate a small group of soldiers into the city. But they did not need the Trojan Horse to do so. Odysseus had already sneaked in and out of the city on two separate occasions shortly before. People came and went through the gates of Troy throughout the period of the war, making it all the easier now to trick the gatekeepers into letting in a handful of disguised Greek warriors.

Once inside the city, all the Greeks needed was arms, which a determined man would not have found difficult to get. Hardened commandos could easily have overpowered a few Trojan soldiers and seized their shields and spears. Ancient cities under attack were also often betrayed from within. Not even weapons could stand up to “dissatisfaction and treachery,” says an Akkadian poem. Troy no doubt had its share of Trojans who preferred dealing with the Greeks to prolonging the misery of war.

But if the Trojan Horse was not strictly necessary to the Greeks’ plan, it might well nonetheless have been part of it. The Trojan Horse would certainly be more believable if ancient history recorded another occasion on which a similar ruse was employed. But how could it? The Trojan Horse was such a famous trick that it could have been used only once.

According to Homer, it was Odysseus who conceived of the idea and Epeius, known otherwise as the champion boxer at the funeral games of Patroclus, who built the Horse. Certainly the Greeks had the technology to build it. Ancient fleets usually sailed with shipwrights because wooden ships constantly need repairs, and Linear B texts (ancient inscribed clay tablets) refer both to shipwrights and carpenters as professions. There would have been no shortage of men in the Greek camp to do the job.

And there would have been no question about whether or not a statue of an animal would catch the Trojan king’s fancy. Bronze Age monarchs liked animal imagery. A Babylonian king of the 1300s BC, for example, had specifically asked the pharaoh for a gift of realistic figures of wild animals, with lifelike hides, made by Egyptian carpenters. But which animal should the Greeks build at Troy? A Trojan Dog would have been insulting; a Trojan Lion frightening; a Trojan Bull or Cow would have thrown Greek cattle raids in the enemy’s teeth. But a horse symbolized war, privilege, piety, popularity and Troy itself.

Horses are expensive, and in the Bronze Age they were usually used in military context, rarely as farm animals. Rulers of the era often sent horses as a gift between kings, while ordinary Trojans might cherish a figure of a horse. In the Late Bronze Age, horse figurines, made of baked clay, were collected throughout the Near East. Excavators recently found a clay model of a horse in Troy of the 1200s BC. Finally, there was the religious connotation: As a votive offering, the horse was all but an admission of Greek war guilt, a symbolic submission to the gods of the horse-taming Trojans.

The Horse could have been used to smuggle a small number of Greek soldiers into the city, but the chances of detection were very high. Although the traditional story of the Trojan Horse cannot be ruled out, it seems more probable that, if the Horse did exist, it was empty. There were simpler and less dangerous ways of smuggling soldiers into the city. The Horse’s main value to the Greeks was not as a transport but as a decoy, a low-tech ancestor of the phantom army under General George Patton that the Allies used in 1944 to trick the Germans into expecting the D-Day invasion in the area of Pas de Calais instead of Normandy.

Epic tradition has some Trojans accepting the Horse as a genuine sign that the Greeks had given up while others remain skeptical. The debate lasted all day, according to Virgil, or three days, according to Homer. The Sack of Ilium identifies three camps: those who wanted to burn the Horse, those who wanted to throw it down from the walls and those who wanted to consecrate it to Athena. The length of the debate was in direct proportion to the stakes. The safety of the city as well as individual careers were hanging on the decision.

Virgil makes much of Priam’s daughter Cassandra, an opponent of the Horse who enjoyed the gift of prophecy but suffered the curse of being ignored. This story does not appear in Homer, or what we have of the Epic Cycle. One person who does feature in the tradition is the Trojan priest Laocöon, a staunch opponent of the Greeks, who wanted to destroy the Horse. In Virgil, the debate over the Horse comes to an end when Laocöon and his sons are strangled by two snakes from the sea. The Sack of Ilium apparently places this event after the Horse had already been brought into town. Surely the snakes are symbolic; surely Laocöon and his boys were killed not by a sea snake but by a member of the pro-Greek faction, and so, therefore, by someone perceived as a tool of a signifier of evil like a snake.

Laocöon’s snakes may well be rooted in Anatolian Bronze Age religion, local lore of the Troad, or both. Hittite literature made the snake a symbol of chaos and the archenemy of the Storm God. It makes sense for a snake to foil the Storm God’s servant, the Trojan priest who was trying to save his city. The Troad, meanwhile, is rich in fossil remains of Miocene animals such as mastodons and pygmy giraffes, and these objects might have made their way into myth. For example, an Iron Age Greek painter probably used a fossilized animal skull as a model for a monster that Heracles is supposed to have defeated on the shore of Troy. So the story of Laocöon’s murder by monsters from the sea may well have Trojan roots.

Laocöon’s fate convinced Aeneas and his followers to leave town; they withdrew to Mount Ida in time to escape the Greek onslaught. Virgil famously tells a different story, in which Aeneas stays in Troy, fights the Greeks and then at last escapes the burning city while carrying his elderly father, Anchises, on his back. But the account in the Sack of Ilium, which records Aeneas’ departure, strikes a more credible note. Aeneas would not have been eager to die for Priam, a king who had never given Aeneas the honor that he felt he was due. His homeland was south of the city, in the valley of Dardania beside the northern slopes of Mount Ida. What better place to regroup if Aeneas believed that Troy was doomed?

Helen played a double game. She had helped Odysseus on his mission to Troy and learned of his plan of the Horse. Now she tried to coax the Greeks out of the Horse, but Odysseus kept them silent—or perhaps the Horse was empty. Helen is supposed to have gone back home that night and prepared herself for the inevitable. She had her maids arrange her clothes and cosmetics for her reunion with Menelaus.

Whether or not there was a Trojan Horse, and whether or not the Trojans brought it into town and dedicated it to Athena, it is easy to imagine them celebrating the end of the war. They treated themselves to a night of partying, according to the Sack of Ilium. It was now, when the Trojans were occupied, that Sinon supposedly gave the prearranged torch signal. Once watchers on Tenedos saw it, the expedition to take Troy rowed rapidly back to the mainland.

Surprise, night and Trojan drunkenness would have given the Greeks substantial advantages, but taking Troy would require hard fighting nonetheless. Experienced warriors, the Trojans would have recovered quickly after their initial shock. If the battle began in darkness it no doubt would have continued into the daylight hours. The epic tradition offers a few details of Trojan resistance. The Greek Meges, leader of the Epeans of Elis, was wounded in the arm by Admetus, son of Augeias. Another Greek, Lycomedes, took a wound in the wrist from the Trojan Agenor, son of Antenor.

But what the tradition highlights, of course, is Greek victory. Admetus and Agenor, for instance, did not savor their successes, because that same night one was killed by Philoctetes and the other by Neoptolemus. A Greek named Eurypylus, son of Euaemon, killed Priam’s son Axion. Menelaus began his revenge by killing Helen’s new husband, Deïphobus, brother of Paris and son of Priam. But the Greek with the reputation for scoring the most kills during the sack of Troy is Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. Among his victims, besides Agenor, were Astynous, Eion and Priam himself, either at the altar of Zeus—no doubt the Storm God, where the Trojan king had sought shelter—or, as some say, at the doors of the palace because, not wanting to violate a god’s altar, Neoptolemus was careful to drag his victim away first.

As for the Trojan women, tradition assigns Andromache to Neoptolemus and Cassandra to Agamemnon. Locrian Ajax had attempted to seize Cassandra but violated the altar of Athena or a Trojan goddess, which made the Greeks loath to reward him and thereby earn divine enmity.

Prudent Bronze Age warriors knew better than to insult an enemy’s god. For example, when Hittite King Shuppiluliuma I conquered the city of Carchemish around 1325 BC, he sacked the town but kept all his troops away from the temples of Kubaba and Lamma. He bowed to the goddesses instead.

Priam’s daughter Polyxena was, according to the Sack of Ilium, slaughtered at the tomb of Achilles as an offering to the hero’s ghost. Little Astyanax, Hector’s son, was murdered by Odysseus— thrown from the walls, in one version—lest he grow up and seek vengeance.

And then there was Helen. The Little Iliad states that Menelaus found her at home, in the house of Deïphobus. Menelaus’ sword was drawn to seek vengeance on the agent of his humiliation and suffering, but Helen had merely to undrape her breasts to change his mind. It is the sort of story that we can only wish is true.

So much for the epic tradition. What do other Bronze Age texts and the archaeological excavations tell us about the sack of Troy?

Bronze Age documents show that however brutal the sack of Troy may have been, it would have conformed to the laws of war. Cities that did not surrender would, if they were captured, be destroyed. This rule goes as far back as the first well-documented interstate conflict, the border wars between the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma between 2500 and 2350 BC.

When the Greeks sacked the city, they put Troy to the torch. Archaeology discloses that a savage fire destroyed the settlement level known as Troy VIi (formerly referred to as Troy VIIa). Blackened wood, white calcined stone and heaps of fallen building material were found in a thick destruction layer of ash and dirt that varied from about 20 inches to 6 feet deep. That inferno can be dated, according to the best estimate, sometime between 1230 and 1180 BC, more likely between 1210 and 1180.

The flames must have spread fast. One house in the lower city tells the story: A bronze figurine, as well as some gold and silver jewelry, was left abandoned on the floor of a room. The inhabitants had clearly fled in panic.

Imagine Troy’s narrow streets clogged, and imagine the cries of disoriented refugees, the wailing of children; the growls and snorts, bleating, high-pitched squeals and relentless howls and barks of terrified barnyard animals (in the Bronze Age, typically kept within the town walls at night). Imagine too the clatter of arms, the clang and whistle of cold bronze, the cheers of the avengers, the whiz of javelins in flight, the reverberation of a spear that has found its mark, the holler and thud of street fighting, the surge of wails and curses, the gush and choking of pain, and much of it muffled by a fire burning fast and furious enough to sound like a downpour.

Archaeology draws a picture that is consistent with a sack of Troy. Outside the doorway of a house on the citadel, for example, a partial human male skeleton was discovered. Was he a householder, killed while he was defending his property? Other human bones have been found in the citadel, scattered and unburied. There is also a 15-year-old girl buried in the lower town; the ancients rarely buried people within the city limits unless an attack prevented them going to a cemetery outside town. It was even rarer to leave human skeletons unburied—another sign of the disaster that had struck Troy.

Two bronze spear points, three bronze arrowheads, and two partially preserved bronze knives have been found in the citadel and lower town. One of the arrowheads is of a type known only in the Greek mainland in the Late Bronze Age. The lower town has also yielded a cache of 157 sling stones in three piles. Another supply of a dozen smooth stones, possibly sling stones, was found on the citadel, in a building beside the south gate that looked to the excavators like a possible arsenal or guardhouse.

None of this evidence proves beyond doubt that Troy was destroyed in a sack. The fire that ravaged the city could have been caused by accident and then been stoked by high winds. If Troy was destroyed by armed violence, were the Greeks responsible? The archaeological evidence is consistent with that explanation but does not prove it.


This article is excerpted from Barry Strauss’ book The Trojan War, published by Simon & Schuster in 2006.

Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here