Little Atoms, 7 July 2015

It’s time for Greek enthusiasts across the world to gird our loins (perhaps with the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons) and prepare ourselves for a run of classical references in the media. The single rule of reporting on the Greek crisis appears to be the use of some kind of ancient-world reference: the Greeks have opened a Pandora’s box, for example, implying that they are malevolent or foolish. Either way, they are embarking on a course of action which will rain horrors down on the rest of us, innocent bystanders with perfect self-control, who have never knowingly opened a box without first considering all the consequences.

Except that Pandora didn’t have a box, she had a jar (the Greek word is pithos), which was mistranslated in the sixteenth century as ‘box’. Somehow, there is something stupider about opening a box than a jar. The very sturdiness of a box suggests it may be designed to contain something dangerous. A jar, though, is intrinsically more fragile, and would usually have contained nothing more perilous than wine or oil. And, as her detractors often forget, Pandora is not responsible for the contents of her jar: that’s on Zeus. Still – thanks to Pandora – the final item in the jar is not set loose, so even when plagues and pestilence run riot among us, we retain hope.

As for the referendum result, I doubt the phrase ‘Greek Tragedy’ has been used so much since Vicky Pryce was convicted of having once liked Chris Huhne more than any reasonable person could. And of the now undeniably complex business of thrashing out some sort of deal, I doubt that Heracles has had his labours mentioned so often since he became a star (or rather, a constellation). People do tend to forget, however, that he is forced to embark on the labours as a penance for having killed his own children.

But the phrase I’ve heard and read more than any other over the past few weeks of news coverage doesn’t come from the Greeks at all but from a Trojan, as told to us by a Roman. You could barely make it through five seconds of a BBC report on Alexis Tsipras’ offers to his northern-European counterparts (before negotiations broke down and the referendum was called) without some mention of recommended caution towards Greeks bearing gifts.

I would never blame reporters for quoting Virgil in any news story, but I did find myself wondering how many of them knew the full context. Laocoon, priest of Troy, is responsible for the famous phrase, in Book 2 of the Aeneid: quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts. Quidquid (whatever) is a reference to the wooden horse which has been left outside the walls of Troy by the Greeks after ten years of war.

It is a source of grave sorrow to classicists that the Trojans have a terrible reputation for gullibility. What kind of idiots let a giant, band-of-Greek-soldiers-filled horse into their city? And especially after ten years of war with an enemy who have apparently just sailed off for no reason whatsoever. Does it not occur to them to even look behind the large island nearby, where the Greek fleet is hiding? To at least consider that the horse might be a trap?

In the Aeneid, Virgil gives us a far more nuanced picture. Aeneas admits that the Trojans were naïve. But when they find the horse, they are sceptical, deeply so. They debate its meaning and their best course of action: should they destroy it to destroy the Greeks, because it is an object sacred to their gods and designed to safeguard their voyage home? Or should they keep it, and in doing so acquire its blessings for themselves?

Then they find a man named Sinon, tear-stained and terrified and dressed like a sacrificial animal. He plays them like a cheap violin: pretending that he was chosen by the Greeks to be a human sacrifice at the whim of the vile Odysseus. The Greek fleet had required a human sacrifice ten years before, when they set sail for Troy. So it makes perfect sense that they would need a second one to carry them home. Sinon is the unlucky man, but he managed to escape at the last minute and hide. The Trojans should definitely kill him, he tells them through his tears, if they want to do the very thing the Greeks would most like them to do.

It’s a performance that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Le Carre novel. If Hellenophobes are looking for a more ungenerous quotation, they could do a lot worse than read Aeneas’ description of Sinon: Now learn, he tells his audience, of the treachery of all Greeks, from the criminality of one. Even Angela Merkel probably likes the Greeks slightly better than that. But the Trojans still don’t fall for Sinon’s trickery until divine intervention plays its part.

Laocoon, who delivers his indictment of Greek present-giving, hurls a spear into the side of the horse to convey his suspicion of it. It’s a startling, shocking moment in the story. A few moments later, sea-snakes appear and carry off Laocoon’s sons to a watery grave: he dies too, trying to save them. Only then, with the gods seemingly offering a clear message about the sanctity of the horse, do the Trojans take it into their city. And the rest is history. Or at least myth.