Editor’s Note: This is the fourth chapter of Romulus, by Jacob Abbott (published 1902)
IV. The Destruction of Troy
After the final conquest and destruction of Troy, Æneas, in the course of his wanderings, stopped, it was said, at Carthage, on his way to Italy, and there, according to ancient story, he gave the following account of the circumstances attending the capture and the sacking of the city, and his own escape from the scene.
One day, after the war had been continued with various success for a long period of time, the sentinels on the walls and towers of the city began to observe extraordinary movements in the camp of the besiegers, which seemed to indicate preparations for breaking up the camp and going away. Tents were struck. Men were busy passing to and fro, arranging arms and military stores, as if for transportation. A fleet of ships was drawn up along the shore, which was not far distant, and a great scene of activity manifested itself upon the bank, indicating an approaching embarkation. In a word, the tidings soon spread throughout the city, that the Greeks had at length become weary of the protracted contest, and were making preparations to withdraw from the field. These proceedings were watched, of course, with great interest from the walls of the city, and at length the inhabitants, to their inexpressible joy, found their anticipations and hopes, as they thought, fully realized. The camp of the Greeks was gradually broken up, and at last entirely abandoned. The various bodies of troops were drawn off one by one to the shore, where they were embarked on board the ships, and then sailed away. As soon as this result was made sure, the Trojans threw open the gates of the city, and came out in throngs,—soldiers and citizens, men, women and children together,—to explore the abandoned encampment, and to rejoice over the departure of their terrible enemies.
The first thing which attracted their attention was an immense wooden horse, which stood upon the ground that the Greek encampment had occupied. The Trojans immediately gathered, one and all, around the monster, full of wonder and curiosity. Æneas, in narrating the story, says that the image was as large as a mountain; but, as he afterward relates that the people drew it on wheels within the walls of the city, and especially as he represents them as attaching the ropes for this purpose to the neck of the image, instead of to its fore-legs, which would have furnished the only proper points of attachment if the effigy had been of any very extraordinary size, he must have had a very small mountain in mind in making the comparison. Or, which is perhaps more probable, he used the term only in a vague metaphorical sense, as we do now when we speak of the waves of the ocean as running mountain high, when it is well ascertained that the crests of the billows, even in the most violent and most protracted storms, never rise more than twenty feet above the general level.
At all events, the image was large enough to excite the wonder of all the beholders. The Trojan people gathered around it, wholly unable to understand for what purpose the Greeks could have constructed such a monster, to leave behind them on their departure from Troy. After the first emotions of astonishment and wonder which the spectacle awakened, had somewhat subsided, there followed a consultation in respect to the disposal which was to be made of the prodigy. The opinions on this point were very various. One commander was disposed to consider the image a sacred prize, and recommended that they should convey it into the city, and deposit it in the citadel, as a trophy of victory. Another, dissenting decidedly from this counsel, said that he strongly suspected some latent treachery, and he proposed to build a fire under the body of the monster, and burn the image itself and all contrivances for mischief which might be contained in it, together. A third recommended that they should hew it open, and see for themselves what there might be within. One of the Trojan leaders named Laocoon, who, just at this juncture, came to the spot, remonstrated loudly and earnestly against having anything to do with so mysterious and suspicious a prize, and, by way of expressing the strong animosity which he felt toward it, he hurled his spear with all his force against the monster’s side. The spear stood trembling in the wood, producing a deep hollow sound by the concussion.
What the decision would have been in respect to the disposal of the horse, if this consultation and debate had gone on, it is impossible to say, as the farther consideration of the subject was all at once interrupted, by new occurrences which here suddenly intervened, and which, after engrossing for a time the whole attention of the company assembled, finally controlled the decision of the question. A crowd of peasants and shepherds were seen coming from the mountains, with much excitement, and loud shouts and outcries, bringing with them a captive Greek whom they had secured and bound. As the peasants came up with their prisoner, the Trojans gathered eagerly round them, full of excitement and threats of violence, all thirsting, apparently, for their victim’s blood. He, on his part, filled the air with the most piteous lamentations and cries for mercy.
His distress and wretchedness, and the earnest entreaties which he uttered, seemed at length to soften the hearts of his enemies and finally, the violence of the crowd around the captive became somewhat appeased, and was succeeded by a disposition to question him, and hear what he had to say. The Greek told them, in answer to their interrogations, that his name was Sinon, and that he was a fugitive from his own countrymen the Greeks, who had been intending to kill him. He said that the Greek leaders had long been desirous of abandoning the siege of Troy, and that they had made many attempts to embark their troops and sail away, but that the winds and seas had risen against them on every such attempt, and defeated their design. They then sent to consult the oracle of Apollo, to learn what was the cause of the displeasure and hostility thus manifested against them by the god of the sea. The oracle replied, that they could not depart from Troy, till they had first made an atoning and propitiatory offering by the sacrifice of a man, such an one as Apollo himself might designate. When this answer was returned, the whole army, as Sinon said, was thrown into a state of consternation. No one knew but that the fatal designation might fall on him. The leaders were, however, earnestly determined on carrying the measure into effect. Ulysses called upon Calchas, the priest of Apollo, to point out the man who was to die. Calchas waited day after day, for ten days, before the divine intimation was made to him in respect to the individual who was to suffer. At length he said that Sinon was the destined victim. His comrades, Sinon said, rejoicing in their own escape from so terrible a doom, eagerly assented to the priest’s decision, and immediately made preparations for the ceremony. The altar was reared. The victim was adorned for the sacrifice, and the garlands, according to the accustomed usage, were bound upon his temples. He contrived, however, he said, at the last moment, to make his escape. He broke the bands with which he had been bound, and fled into a morass near the shore, where he remained concealed in inaccessible thickets until the Greeks had sailed away. He then came forth and was at length seized and bound by the shepherds of the mountains, who found him wandering about, in extreme destitution and misery. Sinon concluded his tale by the most piteous lamentations, on his wretched lot. The Trojans, he supposed, would kill him, and the Greeks, on their return to his native land, in their anger against him for having made his escape from them, would destroy his wife and children.
The air and manner with which Sinon told this story seemed so sincere, and so natural and unaffected were the expressions of wretchedness and despair with which he ended his narrative, that the Trojan leaders had no suspicion that it was not true. Their compassion was moved for the wretched fugitive, and they determined to spare his life. Priam, the aged king, who was present at the scene, in the midst of the Trojan generals, ordered the cords with which the peasants had bound the captive to be sundered, that he might stand before them free. The king spoke to him, too, in a kind and encouraging manner. “Forget your countrymen,” said he. “They are gone. Henceforth you shall be one of us. We will take care of you.” “And now,” he continued, “tell us what this monstrous image means. Why did the Greeks make it, and why have they left it here?”
Sinon, as if grateful for the generosity with which his life had been spared, professed himself ready to give his benefactors the fullest information. He told them that the wooden horse had been built by the Greeks to replace a certain image of Pallas which they had previously taken and borne away from Troy. It was to replace this image, Sinon said, that the Greeks had built the wooden horse; and their purpose in making the image of this monstrous size was to prevent the possibility of the Trojans taking it into the city, and thus appropriating to themselves the benefit of its protecting efficacy and virtue.
The Trojans listened with breathless interest to all that Sinon said, and readily believed his story; so admirably well did he counterfeit, by his words and his demeanor, all the marks and tokens of honest sincerity in what he said of others, as well of grief and despair in respect to his own unhappy lot. The current of opinion which had begun before to set strongly in favor of destroying the horse, was wholly turned, and all began at once to look upon the colossal image as an object of sacred veneration, and to begin to form plans for transporting it within the limits of the city. Whatever remaining doubts any of them might have felt on the subject were dispelled by the occurrence of a most extraordinary phenomenon just at this stage of the affair, which was understood by all to be a divine judgment upon Laocoon for his sacrilegious temerity in striking his spear into the horse’s side. It had been determined to offer a sacrifice to Neptune. Lots were drawn to determine who should perform the rite. The lot fell upon Laocoon. He began to make preparations to perform the duty, assisted by his two young sons, when suddenly two immense serpents appeared, coming up from the sea. They came swimming over the surface of the water, with their heads elevated above the waves, until they reached the shore, and then gliding swiftly along, they advanced across the plain, their bodies brilliantly spotted and glittering in the sun, their eyes flashing, and their forked and venomous tongues darting threats and defiance as they came. The people fled in dismay. The serpents, disregarding all others, made their way directly toward the affrighted children of Laocoon, and twining around them they soon held the writhing and struggling limbs of their shrieking victims hopelessly entangled in their deadly convolutions.
Laocoon, who was himself at a little distance from the spot, when the serpents came, as soon as he saw the danger and heard the agonizing cries of his boys, seized a weapon and ran to rescue them. Instead, however, of being able to save his children, he only involved himself in their dreadful fate. The serpents seized him as soon as he came within their reach, and taking two turns around his neck and two around his body, and binding in a remorseless gripe the forms of the fainting and dying boys with other convolutions, they raised their heads high above the group of victims which they thus enfolded, and hissed and darted out their forked tongues in token of defiance and victory. When at length their work was done, they glided away and took refuge in a temple that was near, and coiled themselves up for repose beneath the feet of the statue of a goddess that stood in the shrine.
The story of Laocoon has become celebrated among all mankind in modern times by means of a statue representing the catastrophe, which was found two or three centuries ago among the ruins of an ancient edifice at Rome. This statue was mentioned by an old Roman writer, Pliny, who gave an account of it while it yet stood in its place in the ancient city. He said that it was the work of three artists, a father and two sons, who combined their industry and skill to carve in one group, and with immense labor and care, the representation of Laocoon himself, the two boys, and the two serpents, making five living beings intertwined intricately together, and all carved from one single block of marble. On the decline and fall of Rome this statue was lost among the ruins of the city, and for many centuries it was known to mankind only through the description of Pliny. At length it was brought to light again, having been discovered about three centuries ago, under the ruins of the very edifice in which Pliny had described it as standing. It immediately became the object of great interest and attention to the whole world. It was deposited in the Vatican; a great reward was paid to the owner of the ground on which it was discovered; drawings and casts of it, without number, have been made; and the original stands in the Vatican now, an object of universal interest, as one of the most celebrated sculptures of ancient or modern times.
Laocoon himself forms the center of the group, with the serpents twined around him, while he struggles, with a fearful expression of terror and anguish in his countenance, in the vain attempt to release himself from their hold. One of the serpents has bitten one of the boys in the side, and the wounded child sinks under the effects of the poison. The other boy, in an agony of terror, is struggling, hopelessly, to release his foot from the convolutions with which one of the serpents has encircled it. The expression of the whole group is exciting and painful, and yet notwithstanding this, there is combined with it a certain mysterious grace and beauty which charms every eye, and makes the composition the wonder of mankind.
But to return to the story. The people understood this awful visitation to be the judgment of heaven against Laocoon for his sacrilegious presumption in daring to thrust his spear into the side of the image before them, and which they were now very sure they were to consider as something supernatural and divine. They determined with one accord to take it into the city.
They immediately began to make preparations for the transportation of it. They raised it from the ground, and fitted to the feet some sort of machinery of wheels or rollers, suitable to the nature of the ground, and strong enough to bear the weight of the colossal mass. They attached long ropes to the neck of the image, and extended them forward upon the ground and then brought up large companies of citizens and soldiers to man them. They arranged a procession, consisting of the generals of the army, and of the great civil dignitaries of the state; and in addition to these were groups of singing boys and girls, adorned with wreaths and garlands, who were appointed to chant sacred hymns to solemnize the occasion. They widened the access to the city, too, by tearing down a portion of the wall so as to open a sufficient space to enable the monster to get in. When all was ready the ropes were manned, the signal was given, the ponderous mass began to move, and though it encountered in its progress many difficulties, obstructions, and delays, in due time it was safely deposited in the court of a great public edifice within the city. The wall was then repaired, the day passed away, the night came on, the gates were shut, and the curiosity and wonder of the people within being gradually satisfied, they at length dispersed to their several homes and retired to rest. At midnight the unconscious effigy stood silent and alone where its worshipers had left it, while the whole population of the city were sunk in slumber, except the sentinels who had been stationed as usual to keep guard at the gates, or to watch upon the towers and battlements above them.
In the meantime the Greek fleet, which had sailed away under pretense of finally abandoning the country, had proceeded only to the island of Tenedos, which was about a league from the shore, and there they had concealed themselves during the day. As soon as night came on they returned to the main land, and disembarking with the utmost silence and secrecy, they made their way back again under cover of the darkness, as near as they dared to come to the gates of the city. In the meantime Sinon had arisen stealthily from the sleep which he had feigned to deceive those to whose charge he had been committed, and creeping cautiously through the streets he repaired to the place where the wooden horse had been deposited, and there opened a secret door in the side of the image, and liberated a band of armed and desperate men who had been concealed within. These men, as soon as they had descended to the ground and had adjusted their armor, rushed to the city walls, surprised and killed the sentinels and watchmen, threw open the gates, and gave the whole body of their comrades that were lurking outside the walls, in the silence and darkness of the night, an unobstructed admission.
Æneas was asleep in his house while these things were transpiring. The house where he lived was in a retired and quiet situation, but he was awakened from his sleep by distant outcries and din, and springing from his couch, and hastily resuming his dress, he ascended to the roof of the house to ascertain the cause of the alarm. He saw flames ascending from various edifices in the quarter of the city where the Greeks had come in. He listened. He could distinctly hear the shouts of men, and the notes of trumpets sounding the alarm. He immediately seized his armor and rushed forth into the streets, arousing the inhabitants around him from their slumbers by his shouts, and calling upon them to arm themselves and follow him.
In the midst of this excitement, there suddenly appeared before him, coming from the scene of the conflict, a Trojan friend, named Pantheus, who was hastening away from the danger, perfectly bewildered with excitement and agitation. He was leading with him his little son, who was likewise pale with terror. Æneas asked Pantheus what had happened. Pantheus in reply explained to him in hurried and broken words, that armed men, treacherously concealed within the wooden horse, had issued forth from their concealment, and had opened the gates of the city, and let the whole horde of their ferocious and desperate enemies in; that the sentinels and guards who had been stationed at the gates had been killed; and that the Greek troops had full possession of the city, and were barricading the streets and setting fire to the buildings on every side. “All is lost,” said he, “our cause is ruined, and Troy is no more.”
The announcing of these tidings filled Æneas and those who had joined him with a species of frenzy. They resolved to press forward into the combat, and there, if they must perish themselves, to carry down as many as possible of their enemies with them to destruction. They pressed on, therefore, through the gloomy streets, guiding their way toward the scene of action by the glare of the fires upon the sky, and by the sounds of the distant tumult and din.
They soon found themselves in the midst of scenes of dreadful terror and confusion,—the scenes, in fact, which are usually exhibited in the midnight sacking of a city. They met with various adventures during the time that they continued their desperate but hopeless resistance. They encountered a party of Greeks, and overpowered and slew them, and then, seizing the armor which their fallen enemies had worn, they disguised themselves in it, in hopes to deceive the main body of the Greeks by this means, so as to mingle among them unobserved, and thus attack and destroy such small parties as they might meet without being themselves attacked by the rest. They saw the princess Cassandra, the young daughter of king Priam, dragged away by Greek soldiers from a temple where she had sought refuge. They immediately undertook to rescue her, and were at once attacked both by the Greek party who had the princess in charge, and also by the Trojan soldiers, who shot arrows and darts down upon them from the roofs above, supposing, from the armor and the plumes which they wore, that they were enemies. They saw the royal palace besieged, and the tortoise formed for scaling the walls of it. The tumult and din, and the frightful glare of lurid flames by which the city was illuminated, formed a scene of inconceivable confusion and terror.
Æneas watched the progress of the assault upon the palace from the top of certain lofty roofs, to which he ascended for the purpose. Here there was a slender tower, which had been built for a watch-tower, and had been carried up to such a height that, from the summit of it, the watchmen stationed there could survey all the environs of the city, and on one side look off to some distance over the sea. This tower Æneas and the Trojans who were with him contrived to cut off at its base, and throw over upon the throngs of Grecians that were thundering at the palace gates below. Great numbers were killed by the falling ruins, and the tortoise was broken down. The Greeks, however, soon formed another tortoise, by means of which some of the soldiers scaled the walls, while others broke down the gates with battering rams and engines; and thus the palace, the sacred and last remaining stronghold of the city, was thrown open to the ferocious and frantic horde of its assailants.
The sacking of the palace presented an awful spectacle to the view of Æneas and his companions, as they looked down upon it from the roofs and battlements around. As the walls, one after another, fell in under the resistless blows dealt by the engines that were brought against them, the interior halls, and the most retired and private apartments, were thrown open to view—all illuminated by the glare of the surrounding conflagrations.
Shrieks and wailing, and every other species of outcry that comes from grief, terror, and despair, arose from within; and such spectators as had the heart to look continuously upon the spectacle, could see wretched men running to and fro, and virgins clinging to altars for protection, and frantic mothers vainly endeavoring to find hiding-places for themselves and their helpless children.
Priam the king, who was at this time old and infirm, was aroused from his slumbers by the dreadful din, and immediately began to seize his armor, and to prepare himself for rushing into the fight. His wife, however, Hecuba, begged and entreated him to desist. She saw that all was lost, and that any further attempts at resistance would only exasperate their enemies, and render their own destruction the more inevitable. She persuaded the king, therefore, to give up his weapons and go with her to an altar, in one of the courts of the palace,—a place which it would be sacrilege for their enemies to violate—and there patiently and submissively to await the end. Priam yielded to the queen’s solicitations, and went with her to the place of refuge which she had chosen;—and the plan which they thus adopted, might very probably have been successful in saving their lives, had it not been for an unexpected occurrence which suddenly intervened, and which led to a fatal result. While they were seated by the altar, in attitudes of submission and suppliance, they were suddenly aroused by the rushing toward them of one of their sons, who came in, wounded and bleeding from some scene of combat, and pursued by angry and ferocious foes. The spent and fainting warrior sank down at the feet of his father and mother, and lay there dying and weltering in the blood which flowed from his wounds. The aged king was aroused to madness at this spectacle. He leaped to his feet, seized a javelin, and thundering out at the same time the most loud and bitter imprecations against the murderers of his son, he hurled the weapon toward them as they advanced. The javelin struck the shield of the leader of the assailants, and rebounded from it without producing any other effect than to enrage still more the furious spirit which it was meant to destroy. The assailant rushed forward, seized the aged father by the hair, dragged him slipping, as he went, in the blood of his son, up to the altar, and there plunged a sword into his body, burying it to the hilt,—and then threw him down, convulsed and dying, upon the body of his dying child.
Thus Priam fell, and with him the last hope of the people of Troy. The city in full possession of their enemies, the palace and citadel sacked and destroyed, and the king slain, they saw that there was nothing now left for which they had any wish to contend.