It is, unsurprisingly, easier to get away with a deus ex machina plot device when you have literal gods at your disposal, but book two of Virgil’s Aeneid might appear to stretch even those more permissive limits. Two moments especially stand out: the sob story Sinon tells to get the horse into Troy, and the disappearance of Creüsa. I will focus on the former, but the latter will prove relevant.
At the start of book two, the Greeks appear to have retreated and the Trojans, overjoyed, leave their city and admire the massive horse the Greeks have left behind. They debate what to do about it, whether to bring it into their city or somehow to destroy it. Counseled wisely by Laocoön, they appear to be settling on the prudent course of destroying it when Sinon, a Greek prisoner, is left before them. They do not realize that he has deliberately let himself be captured in order to convince them to take the horse into Troy, even though Laocoön has just warned them to “fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts” (2.61). And even though Laocoön has thrown his spear into the horse, causing it to emit a “cavernous moan” (2.65). To be duped by Sinon after this – well, it makes it hard to feel much sympathy for the fate of Troy.
And, to be fair, it is not simply Sinon who convinces them: there is also some literal divine intervention to reckon with. Nonetheless, they are taken in by Sinon’s tale. Why? I see two primary reasons. First, the story he tells is one that is readily believable to them, for he makes himself the victim of wily Ulysses:
‘But when through the malice of cunning Ulysses
(Everyone knows this) he passed from this world,
I was a ruined man and dragged on my life
In darkness and grief, eating my heart out
Over the fate of my innocent friend.’ (2.106-10)
It is a clever move, but not enough, I think. What fully converts them to his side is this:
‘And so I pray, by whatever powers above
Still witness Truth, and by any Faith we men
Still have uncorrupted, show mercy
To a suffering soul, guiltless and wronged.’
We spared him for his tears and pitied him
Of our own accord. (2.167-72)
It is those last three words of his speech that save him: he is guiltless, and yet wronged. But why should this sway them? In all honesty, it shouldn’t. Again, Laocoön has already revealed, more or less definitively, that the horse is a clever scheme and ought to be destroyed. What does this change, that they should suddenly desire to know Sinon’s account of the purpose of the horse and, further, should trust his story over the evidence of their own ears?
To understand it, we have to look outside the logic of the particular scene and consider instead the more general logic of the Aeneid as a whole. Most of the major characters in the story fall either into the category of exiles or of the “guiltless and wronged” (and, in many cases, both). Indeed, this combination is presented as central to the book right at the start:
Muse, tell me why the Queen of Heaven
Was so aggrieved, her godhead so offended,
That she forced a man of faultless devotion
To endure so much hardship. Can there be
Anger so great in the hearts of gods on high. (1.12-16)
Aeneas himself is the prototypical guiltless exile. And he is not alone. Dido, Aeneas’ second wife, is building a new city because she was exiled from her home by her treacherous brother. Creüsa, later in book two, disappears undeservedly, simply because the gods need her to be out of the way so that Aeneas can take a new wife in Italy. Palinurus, through no fault of his own (Virgil is quite explicit about this), is tossed from his ship because the gods (for no apparent reason) decided that someone had to die to ensure Aeneas’ smooth sailing. Even Turnus, Aeneas’ great opponent in the second half of the book, is hardly in the wrong for opposing the intruder who enters his land and steals his promised wife (this must be a thing with the Trojans), taking with her his future status as king. To be in exile, to be guiltless and yet inscrutably wronged, is the basic state of human beings in the Aeneid. Sinon, who pretends to be a guiltless exile, taps into a reservoir of sympathy appropriate in such a world.
So, yes, it is true that, considered purely locally, it is more than a little unbelievable that Sinon’s ploy should have worked. Nonetheless, it illustrates the larger logic of the work, the overflowing sympathy that it evinces for the exile and the guiltless. And it is fitting that the great quest of the guiltless exile should begin because a cunning Greek pretended to be… a guiltless exile.