Sinon Proves the Tongue is Mightier Than the Sword
In the Aeneid, Virgil tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan warrior who fled Troy while the Greeks “burnt the topless towers of Illium.” After fleeing the city, Aeneas sets sail and lands in Carthage, a city located in Northern Africa. There, Dido, the Queen of Carthage, hosts a banquet in honor of the Trojans. At the banquet, Aeneas recounts the sad story related to Troy’s destruction. Through Aeneas’ reminiscence, Virgil describes how the power of words ultimately precipitated Troy’s downfall.
After ten years of war with Troy, the Greeks pretend to sail away from the city and leave behind an offering to the gods for a safe passage home. The gift is a large wooden horse. Initially, many Trojans doubt that the Greeks have actually left Troy, and suspect that the Horse is a scheme to gain entry into Troy’s city walls. Laocoon, a disbelieving Trojan, even throws a spear into the horse, and the wounded Greeks cry out in pain. However, their shouts are muffled by the commotion accompanying the discovery of Sinon. In Dryden’s verse translation of the Aeneid, he describes Sinon as a “captive Greek… who made himself their prey, t’ impose on their belief, and Troy betray.” The paradoxical description of Sinon willingly becoming prey in order to prey on the Trojans is ingenious. Indeed, deception often involves feigning weakness to remove the victim’s suspicions. For those who have seen Gladiator, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, Sinon’s depiction evokes the dialogue between Falco and Commodus:
Falco: I have been told of a certain sea snake which has a very unusual method of attracting its prey. It will lie at the bottom of the ocean as if wounded. Then its enemies will approach, and yet it will lie quite still. And then its enemies will take little bites of it, and yet it remains still.
Commodus: So, we will lie still, and let our enemies come to us and nibble.
After the Greeks bring him to King Priam, Sinon immediately employs his stratagem, stating that he escaped from the Greeks on the morning of his planned execution. He claims that the Greeks wanted to sacrifice him to the gods to ensure a safe voyage home. This cunning assertion persuades the Trojans that they can curse the Greeks by protecting Sinon. Furthermore, Sinon deviously laments that the Greeks, upon returning home, will sacrifice Sinon’s children and father to atone for Sinon’s escape. Thus, “false tears true pity move; the king commands to loose his fetters, and unbind his hands.” Once again, Virgil uses contrarieties – “false tears” and “true pity” – to cleverly illustrate the unnatural events that can arise from deceit. Words and deception can influence a tremendous amount of people, and can achieve goals unattainable with sheer physical power. A sword can only act within the natural, physical realm. It can only influence those whom it threatens.
After attaining the Trojans’ whole-hearted trust, Sinon assures them that the horse is not a Greek ploy to gain entry into the city. Sinon additionally proclaims that the gods decreed that if the Trojans profane the horse, then the Greeks will burn Troy; but if they bring it within Troy’s city walls, then Troy will eventually burn Argos and Mycenae. Thus, “what Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son, a thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done – false tears and fawning words the city won.” The gullible Trojans wheel the fatal horse within the city’s walls, and seal their fate.