For ten years, the city of Troy had been under siege from the armies of Greece, after the Trojan prince Paris eloped with – the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. Or at least, that’s the myth.
Thousands had died in the decade-long war but the stone walls of Troy remained impenetrable. With the two sides at stalemate, the Greek warrior king Odysseus hatched a cunning plan.
A giant wooden horse was built and left at the gates of Troy and the Greek ships sailed out of sight. The Trojans, believing the war was over, saw the horse as an offering to the gods and as a gift of peace so wheeled it into the city and celebrated their victory. This is exactly what Odysseus wanted – once the Trojans had all gone to sleep – many of them blind drunk – a host of armed soldiers crept out from the belly of the horse and opened the city gates. Troy was overrun and destroyed and the ‘Trojan Horse’ became revered as one of the most successful military tactics ever.
In Virgil’s epochal version of events, Aeneid, there was one voice of reason among the Trojans who distrusted the Greeks. A priest named Laocoon pleaded against accepting the gift and bringing the horse into the city, declaring, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” – roughly translated, as “I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts.” It was adapted over the years to the expression we have today.
But, as the story goes, Laocoon and his sons were strangled by two large serpents, sent by the gods. The Trojans saw this as a sign that the priest was wrong, and the horse was a sincere gesture of peace.