The Aeneid, Book II

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The Sack of Troy

Aeneas agreed to tell Dido his story despite the lateness of the hour and the sadness it would recall: The Greeks, helped by Athena, built a wooden horse, filled it with Greek soldiers, pretending it was an offering to the gods for their safe return home, and sailed along the coast to an island called Tenedos where they hid. The Trojans, thinking the Greeks had gone home, opened their city gates and went down to look at the deserted Greek camp and the horse. Some Trojans wanted to take the wooden horse into Troy, others thought it was a trick and suggested they destroy it or look inside it.

The Mykonos vase, 750-650 BC, with one of the earliest known renditions of the Trojan Horse, (note the depiction of the faces of hidden warriors shown on the horse’s side).

The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, angrily shouted they were fools for trusting the horse or believing the Greeks had gone away. He correctly identified there were either Greeks hiding inside or it was designed to destroy them. He threw his spear which stuck in the horse’s side. In retrospect Aeneas said that if they had listened to Laocoön Troy would still be standing.

Two things happened to persuade the Trojans to take the horse into Troy: firstly the Greeks had left behind a man called Sinon to be purposely caught, pretend he had been mistreated by the Greeks and give a plausible explanation for the horse. He said the Greeks had decided to sacrifice him to the gods to enable them to return home but he had escaped. The Trojans believed him and, when they asked the reason behind the horse, Sinon said it had been built in atonement for removing the Palladium, sacred to Athena, who had helped them during the war. The Greeks had been told in an oracle they could not capture Troy unless they returned to Argos, took the omens to get the goddess back on their side and then brought back the Palladium. The horse was too large to be able to be taken through the gates and if they damaged it in any way, then Troy would be destroyed. However, if they took it into Troy, and they would have to partially destroy their walls to do this, the Greeks would be destroyed.

Laocoon and His Sons.jpg
Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.

Secondly, Laocoön and his two young sons were killed by two sea serpents which then took shelter in the temple of Athena. The Trojans took this as a sign that Laocoön had been punished by the gods for damaging the horse when he threw his spear at it. The Trojans made a hole in their city walls and took the horse inside, thereby making themselves defenceless, and took no notice of two warnings: the fact that the horse stopped at the gate four times, a bad omen, and the armour of the Greek soldiers inside rattled; Cassandra had also prophesied what would happen but she was fated never to be believed.

The Trojan horse that appeared in the 2004 film, now on display in Çanakkale, Turkey.

The Trojans celebrated that night but when they were asleep Sinon let the Greeks out of the horse and the Greeks returned from Tenedos. They began to kill the sleeping Trojans. Hector, son of king Priam, who had been killed by Achilles earlier in the war, appeared to Aeneas in a dream, told him what was happening and said he must flee Troy, taking Troy’s sacred household gods and found another city across the sea.

Aeneas awoke, went onto the roof and saw that the Greeks were in the city destroying it. Aeneas, disregarding Hector’s instructions, put on his armour and went to join the fighting. Other warriors joined him and there were casualties on both sides. Aeneas described examples of the bravery and exploits of warriors on both sides. Aeneas made his way to Priam’s palace and there saw Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, kill King Priam who was in full armour but taking refuge at an altar. His headless body was later found on the shore. He saw Helen, the cause of the war and so many deaths, hiding in the temple of Vesta. Aeneas’ instinct was to kill her but his mother, Venus, appeared to him and told him to go to defend his father, wife and son whom she had been defending thus far. The destruction of Troy was not Helen’s fault but due to the cruelty of the gods; he could not fight the gods so he should return home, collect his family and flee Troy.

Aeneas fleeing from Troy by Pompeo Batoni, c. 1750.

Aeneas returned to his home to collect his family and leave Troy. His father at first refused to leave but, having witnessed the omen of Ascanius’ hair catching fire but not burning and Jupiter sending thunder and a comet, he acknowledged it was the will of the gods and agreed. A meeting place outside the city was agreed with the servants in case they became separated and Aeneas set out carrying his old father on his shoulders, leading his son by the hand and his wife, Creusa, following behind. On the way Creusa became separated from them. Aeneas did not realise this until they reached the agreed place. He retraced his steps trying to find her and searched the whole city. Her ghost then appeared to Aeneas and told him she was not fated to leave Troy with him; a kingdom and new wife awaited him across the sea. Unhappily Aeneas returned to his father and son and, with the other Trojans who had also gathered there, he left Troy forever.

Denarius of Julius Caesar, 47-6 BC. Obv: Head of Venus. Rev: CAESAR: Aeneas carrying his father and the household gods.

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