Reflections on the Trojan Horse

The story about the Trojan horse, as it comes to us from various sources, is basically this.  After ten years of failing to conquer Troy, Odysseus came up with a plan to get inside the walls of that city.  He had the Greeks build a giant wooden horse, in which thirty or so Greeks hid themselves.  The rest of the Greeks then pretended to sail away, leaving only Sinon behind, who pretended to have been abandoned.  He then told the Trojans that the horse had been built as an offering to Athena, so that she would provide the Greeks with safe passage home.  Sinon then went on to explain that the horse was purposely built too big for the Trojans to take into their city, lest Athena would favor the Trojans instead of the Greeks.  After dismissing a few doubters, the Trojans tore down part of their wall so that they could get the horse inside.  That night, Sinon signaled the Greeks with a beacon that the horse was within the walls, and the Greeks returned.  Meanwhile, the Greeks within the horse slipped out, killed the guards, opened the gate, and let in the rest of the Greeks, who then sacked Troy.

This story is completely messed up.  I am not worried about what really happened at Troy, whether the so-called wooden horse was really a battering ram as some have speculated.  Rather, it is the story as such that confounds me.  Now, I do not claim to have done exhaustive research on this subject, but I have yet to find anyone who addresses the absurdity that has bothered me since I read The Odyssey and The Aeneid when I was in college.  I have finally decided to spell out what troubles me and then to give my version of how the story came to be in its present form for the perusal and consideration of those who might read this.

In a nutshell, the problem is this.  If the Greeks wanted the Trojans to drag the horse within the walls, would it not have made more sense to make sure it was small enough to pass through the gates without difficulty?  Alternatively, once the Trojans tore down part of the wall, the men inside the horse became superfluous.  Once a portion of the wall was torn down, the Greek army could have entered through the breach without waiting to be let in by the men hidden inside the horse.

In casual conversations with some of my friends, a couple of solutions have been offered.  One is that the wall was repaired right after it was torn down.  However, it is unlikely that there would have been enough time for the Trojans to do that.  The other is that it was only the arch over the gate that had to be torn down to let the horse’s head through.  But if it was only the arch, why wasn’t it stated that way in the story, instead of misleading us by referring to the wall?  In any event, that brings us back to the original question: Why make the horse too big to get through the gate in the first place?

It is my hypothesis that there were two stories.  In the original story, the Greeks simply built a big wooden horse.  There was no one hidden inside.  Their idea was that by building the horse too big to get through the gate, the Trojans would have to tear down part of the wall to get it into the city, especially when Sinon explained the reason for the horse’s size.  “We’ll show those Greeks,” we can almost hear the Trojans saying as they proceeded to demolish enough of the wall to get the horse through.  That night, the Greeks returned and marched right in through the opening.  What I like about that plan is that there is no risk, except perhaps to Sinon.  If the Trojans did not fall for it, the Greeks could simply return and continue the war.

Later, another poet came up with the idea of having men hidden inside the horse, who then slip out and open the gate.  In this version, the horse is not too big to get through the gate.  Although the first version made for a good story on its own, once the idea of having men inside the horse was introduced, with the risk that the Trojans might set fire to the horse instead, which they almost did, there was no going back to the original tale.  Unfortunately, the part about tearing down a section of the wall was already part of the tradition and could not be purged from the story as it should have been, the result being that it remained as an accretion to the second story, notwithstanding the inherent inconsistency.

If this theory about there being two versions is not original with me, I would be interested in knowing who first came up with it.  If it is original with me, I can live with that.

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