“Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts.”
—Laocoön of Troy; The Aeneid, Virgil
While special operations forces are a relatively recent administrative creation, special operations, weapons, and missions are as old as the history of war itself. The most brilliant known special operations weapons maker of the ancient world was Archimedes of Syracuse. His military inventions used against Roman legions are said to have included rapid-fire catapults, Archimedes’ Claw – a crane capable of either capsizing or lifting warships out of the water and swinging them against the rocky shore, and “burning mirrors” – highly polished, curved metal plates reflecting concentrated sunbeams capable of igniting wooden ships. So great was his reputation that he is said to have turned back a Roman army attack with a bluff – having the citizens of Syracuse dangle ropes from the city walls. Thinking that Archimedes was unleashing the latest of his infernal war weapons, the legionnaires fled in terror.
As for missions, the Greek king of Ithaca, Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, proved an adept special operations commander. His contribution was a mission, employing a statue known as the Trojan Horse, that ended the greatest war of antiquity.
The mission utilizing the Trojan Horse was the final act in a ten-year martial drama known as the Trojan War. If we are to believe the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the battle between the Greek city-states and the Asia Minor city-state of Troy for hegemony in the Aegean Sea, the cause of the war was Trojan prince Paris’s absconding, with goddess Aphrodite’s help, with Spartan king Menelaus’s wife, Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.
When it comes to acts of lèse majesté, well, nothing tops that, and Menelaus was rightfully ticked off. Since Troy was larger and more powerful than Sparta, if Menelaus could only count on his Spartan army for support, he’d have been forced to impotently sulk on his throne. But, thanks to Odysseus, Menelaus was in a position to avenge this insult and get his wife back. As might be expected of the most beautiful woman in the world, when she was single Helen attracted quite a number of beaus. Because her father, Tyndareus, was the king of Sparta, her marriage would be a political decision made by him, and he was worried that the kings who lost out would soothe their bruised egos by sacking Sparta. Odysseus came up with a clever solution: have all the kings pledge allegiance in advance to whomever Tyndareus chose. Everyone did, and soon after that Tyndareus announced that his choice was Menelaus, who inherited the throne of Sparta upon Tyndareus’s abdication.
When a diplomatic mission to get Helen back failed, Menelaus wasted no time calling in this royal chit and eventually the assembled Greek army, under the overall command of Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, set sail for Troy. The siege of Troy lasted ten years, with neither side gaining an advantage over the other. Then, one morning, as the sun arced over the horizon, Trojan sentries beheld an astonishing sight on the plain where the Greek army had been encamped: the Greek army was gone! In its place was a gigantic wooden horse with a lone Greek soldier standing beside it.
A group of Trojan soldiers, accompanied by the priest Laocoön, reached the horse and questioned the Greek soldier, Sinon. Sinon stated that the Greek army, accepting defeat, had given up and in honor of its stout defense left to Troy the gift of a wooden horse – the horse being the city’s symbol. The army had departed so quickly that Sinon had been accidentally left behind. Laocoön became suspicious and tried to warn the Trojans that it was a trick. But Laocoön and his two sons were quickly killed by sea serpents sent by the Greek god Poseidon.
The Trojans, ignoring the warning, brought the horse into the city and celebrated their victory.
The Trojans would have been better served in heeding Laocoön’s warning. The body of the horse contained about 40 Greek soldiers led by Odysseus, and the Greek fleet had only sailed far enough away so as to be out of sight.
That night when the Trojan revelers were asleep, the Greek soldiers quietly emerged from inside the horse and opened the city’s gates. Outside was the Greek army, and it promptly stormed in. The Trojan War ended with the city sacked and its people scattered, with some survivors led by Aeneas sailing to Italy and founding Rome. The Trojan Horse became a metaphor for deception with dangerous or deadly consequences.